May 30, 2020
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Tough Act

The BJP is poised for its second brush with power. But its sense of destiny may soon drown in the cacophony of coalition politics.

Tough Act

"The nation needs stability and the BJP is the only party that can provide it". —Atal Behari Vajpayee, during the campaign for the 12th Lok Sabha.

AS the BJP, prepared itself for high office the second time in less than two years, these words have come back to haunt the party.This is not how they would have liked it; their way being cleared by the "neutral stand" Chandrababu Naidu with his 12 TDP MPs is likely to take. Party leaders insist it's too early to pass judgement, that the fractured mandate has to be taken into account, and argue there is a "qualitative difference" in the proposed BJP-led coalition. That it is a turn in the epoch.

But there remains a niggling suspicion. For a party that has spent the past two years ridiculing the "13-party dalliance" a.k.a. the United Front, dealing with close to 20 political formations—"allies in government formation"—is proving arduous. The deluge of euphemisms may not stop it from becoming even more so. Especially, as BJP general secretary and key negotiator Pramod Mahajan puts it graphically, "two MPs leaving the House to attend the call of nature can result in the government being reduced to a minority." But the fact that the verdict of the people has left Parliament poised on a knife-edge (see infographic) also means the BJP you saw won't be the BJP you'll get. At least on the surface.

The party's burning ambition to rule India has resulted in the 'taming of the shrew' at the hands of the complex electoral and political reality, at least for now. But power comes at a price. The demands and compulsions of its allies, if at the moment muted, means that far from stepping on the footstool of morality and principle to provide for itself an elevation from which to view the hurly-burly of contemporary Indian politics, it is completely immersed in it. Not that it wasn't earlier—Uttar Pradesh comes readily to mind—but now the BJP can't even claim otherwise.

The problems begin with J. Jayalalitha. First, even as the euphoria over the election results was settling down, she administered the kind of shock the BJP leadership must now get used to by declaring that her party, the AIADMK, "would not participate in the government" . Frantic calls and desperate pleas by the BJP leadership elicited a none-too-comforting clarification. She would "not object to AIADMK MPs being seated on the Treasury benches". The BJP is expecting to "work things out" when Jayalalitha finally makes it to Delhi, says party general secretary Sushma Swaraj, but the real reasons for this blow-hot blow-cold approach lie elsewhere.

BJP leaders in Chennai like Ela Ganeshan, K. Maitrayen and K.N. Laxmanan, who are in touch with her "over the intercom at her Poes Garden residence"—she stays put in her first floor living quarters when they come calling—realise she is driving a hard bargain. For starters, she wants the DMK government dismissed. In newspaper interviews she has pegged this to the logic that the DMK has failed on the law and order front and is a 'threat' to national security. BJP leaders in Delhi, though hopeful of a compromise, confirm the message from Chennai: if you are nationalist, especially in the wake of Coimbatore, prove it by dismissing the Tamil Nadu government. State BJP sources say Jayalalitha won't even speak to them unless this demand is first conceded.

The central leadership is putting forth the argument that the President may not put his signature on any such move, the Governor is unlikely to over-reach the rule-book and the courts will almost certainly overturn any such decision unless backed up by irrefutable evidence. Moreover, any such move would undermine the very basis of the BJP's alliances with regional parties, based as it was on a strong opposition to the misuse of Article 356 and a professed belief in decentralisation of power. "This is all baseless conjecture. Jayalalitha will meet Advaniji and Atalji in Delhi, who hope to convince her to join the government," says BJP general secretary Venkaiah Naidu.

But even if there is a truce, it's likely to be temporary. Having brought 27 seats to the table (minus the three seats won by the BJP, Jayalalitha's bargaining power is immense. And with all the leaders of the smaller parties in the alliance having declared in Chennai that they "would abide by whatever decision is taken by Jayalalitha", it adds to her clout. The demand that "politically motivated" cases against Jayalalitha be withdrawn is only the beginning.

Already, there is talk of an "imminent reshuffle of governors", the "right" of every new government. This may be sold to Jayalalitha as a move in the direction she wants. Because, not only does she want the DMK regime packed off but also clearance for cases against its top leaders. But the BJP leadership is clear it won't do "anything unconstitutional".

Given the scenario of a climbdown by Jayalalitha, where she is even persuaded to lead the AIADMK front into Vajpayee's prospective government, there is the vexed question of ministerial berths—the AIADMK, PMK, MDMK, the Tamil Nadu Rajiv Congress and, of course, Subramanian Swamy of the Janata Party expect the "big ones". The BJP is now hoping such demands "can be adjusted" by accommodative old allies.

Clearly, an idea that doesn't enthuse Shiv Sena chief Bal Thack-eray. "I am not greedy, but I am sure the BJP will honour its commitments," he told Outlook. He expects an "automatic" elevation of Sena MP Suresh Prabhu—industries minister in the 13-day Vajpayee government—to the same portfolio this time. Thackeray is sure the Sena's poor showing won't be held against an old ally. His warnings are forthright—elections shouldn't be thrust upon the nation, "do you think people like to stand in the sun to cast their vote?".

The tone is unmistakable. The more new allies rattle sabres, and the BJP bends backwards to please them, the more old ones will militate against being taken for granted. "If the BJP makes a mistake or develops a false notion that only they have changed the situation in Bihar and that it is only because of them that the saffron flag is flying high in Bihar, in that situation we might as well think of parting ways with them". This warning had come from Nitish Kumar of the Samata Party in August 1997.

Six months down the line—and a mid-term poll fought together—the contradictions between the two are far from resolved. The battle of supremacy over Bihar is by no means over. Even assuming Laloo Yadav's decline, the BJP and Samata are natural claimants to the same property—and division of territory is always messy.

So much for party politics. Policy issues will provide a whole new battlefront. Samata's George Fernandes created a flutter saying the government will "create a situation" for the MNCs to leave the country. At that stage, even Thackeray could foresee problems in cohesive governance. "I am not saying we don't have problems—my friend George says Coke and Kelloggs must go. This is not the time to throw out people, there are more important things... but no George can't wait."

 However, sensing his statement might create trouble even before the formation of the government, he changed his tone. "I am still not in a position to say which MNCs are creating problems. I took up the issue of Cargill because I thought it to be a national issue and no other party bothered to get involved," he told Outlook. However,he reiterated: "if I have to deal with the situation like Cargill, I won't allow that situation to emerge at all in this country".

Clearly, the same schisms prevail in the BJP coalition on questions involving development. Fernandes is ready to confront the BJP on issues like big dams. There's more: "As far as the Jayalalitha-BJP alliance is concerned, I expressed my views the day it came about—it was very unfortunate," he says, and concedes the BJP-led government will "be a fragile one".

Ramakrishna Hegde's Lok Shakti too wants to win over MLAs from the J.H. Patel regime and instal his CM in Karnataka, while the BJP is against it. And Naveen Patnaik and the Orissa BJP want J.B. Patnaik sacked. As for the rest, there are problems with Ayo-dhya, Article 370, the uniform civil code et al. Naveen Patnaik declared himself pleased that "nothing contentious" was on the coalition's draft national agenda (common programme). For now. Hegde and Akali leader S.S. Barnala, who have been working on the economic draft with BJP's Govindacharya and Fernandes, are not too keen on a hard swadeshi line. In fact, chief minister Prakash Singh Badal is scheduled to make a trip abroad to explore foreign investment as soon as the new government is sworn in.

Then there are the independents and smaller parties which will demand their pound of flesh. Already, Om Prakash Chautala of the Haryana Lok Dal—who has pledged "unconditional" support—is speaking of the need for the BJP to ditch their pre-poll ally Bansi Lal and tie up with him for the forthcoming assembly polls. Sheesh Ram Ola, Buta Singh, and the two MPs from the Arunachal Congress see themselves as frontrunners for ministerships. Which may be the easy part.

Of course, there is the fiery and unpredictable rebel Congress leader, Mamata Banerjee who has declared—almost simultaneously with Jayalalitha (both of whom, incidentally, are also being wooed by Congress leader Sharad Pawar)—that she "wouldn't participate in a BJP government" but lend outside support. Hegde, who says outside support "is immoral and unfair", has been "requested" by friends in the BJP to avoid making such statements till the dust settles.

Mamata's primary interest is in carving out a role for herself in the state—her supporters refer to her as the future chief minister of West Bengal—and the target of her line of attack is the Jyoti Basu government. Theoretically, the BJP has no problem with that. But she is upping the pressure for action "against the corrupt, anti-people, Marxist government". That, as in Tamil Nadu, is no easy task. Again, both the BJP and Trinamul Congress want to expand into rural areas, and a clash of interests is imminent. The BJP top brass is clear their state unit will be reined in for now, but both are only too aware of the need to look over their shoulder constantly. In fact, quite informally and completely unnoticed by the media, a mini front of BJP allies has become politically functional. The initiative came from Fernandes, with Hegde and Mamata falling in line. Last week, Ms S. Khan, a representative of the Lok Shakti, came to Calcutta and hammered out a broad agreement that the smaller parties didn't share the BJP's perceptions on certain issues and this would be made clear to the BJP leadership. The antiseptic 'national agenda' is the result.

The seeds of future discord may lie here. The Sangh backlash, despite its new-found pliability at the scent of power (see interview), can't take too long. An interesting aspect of this potential conflict is that the contradictions within the Sangh—between hardliners and liberals, if you like—has been reduced to a sideshow. The RSS has been agitating for opting out of the WTO—a near-impossible task. "The decision of previous governments can't be changed overnight," says K. Sudershan, a senior functionary. Clearly, on the threshold of power, the Sangh is beginning to mellow.

Already, it's clear the grandiosely-titled national agenda is unlikely to differ in substance from the much-maligned Common Minimum Programme of the UF, despite "the difference in articulation and choice of emphasis". The Sangh's pet concerns such as "Muslim infiltration" have to be inferred in the passage on safeguarding national security. The reality of precarious coalition politics has also led the BJP to start talking about forming their version of the UF steering committee—"but we won't call it that"—to manage the contradictions between various partners.

Vajpayee and Advani are saying nothing except making optimistic noises, others like Jaswant Singh promise "100% stability". It is left perhaps to M.M. Joshi to say it like it is. "Well, it will be a government," was his laconic response to a query from Outlook.

In fact, former Union ministers Sukh Ram and P.K. Thungon, charged with corruption and expelled from the Congress, are now people "the BJP has to deal with in the current scenario," admits Govindacharya. "We can't be isolated from what's going on around us, but we will continue to practise pure politics. Do you think the Marxists, our main ideological adversaries, are doing any less to prevent us from coming to power?" he asks. The atmosphere in the BJP is one of expectation. But one qualified by apprehension. One of the primary reasons, ironically, is that the fruits of the brilliant tactical pre-poll alliances forged by the party in its weak areas have surpassed even its calculations. Over 70 Lok Sabha seats have been added to its kitty from this quarter. The party on its own has not fared as well as expected, with a net gain of just over 15 seats, and a tally just short of 180 seats. Now, the task of government formation demands more alliances. Add this to the cacophony of coalition politics, already finding expression, and the results might be there for all to see before too long.

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