IT was a fractured mandate. And the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is desperately looking for crutches. Far short of the required 269-mark for a simple majority in the 537-member Lok Sabha (effective strength)—despite emerging the single largest party—BJP leaders are knocking on every door to reach the magic number. And as 'secular forces' team up to try and keep the saffron brigade out of power, the BJP appears to be in a hurry to form the government—it's another matter that party chief L.K. Advani said something quite to the contrary a few days ago.
For the BJP, a stint at the Centre would be a dream come true. And President Shankar Dayal Sharma's refusal, if at all, on the grounds that the National Front, Left Front and the Congress have come to an understanding, would give the party a halo of martyrdom. While the BJP waits with bated breath for Sharma's response—the NF-LF has also staked its claim to form the government—it's the President himself who seems to be facing a tricky situation.
Says Pramod Mahajan, the BJP's high-profile general secretary: "It is for the President to decide whether he calls the single largest party or the ones with less than one-fifth of our strength." Advani was more forthcoming: "The NF-LF's bid for power is an attempt to subvert the people's mandate." Legal opinion is that the President will respond positively to the BJP claim—as has been the practice in 1989 and 1991.
On May 9, as results of the 11th Lok Sabha trickled in and all trends pointed to the fact that the BJP would emerge as the single largest party, leaders felt it was their constitutional right and obligation to try and form the government. At a two-day marathon session of the party's central office-bearers and the new MPs, Atal Behari Vajpayee was elected as their leader. The next day, a six-member delegation led by Advani met the President, requesting him to invite Vajpayee to form the government. "We are willing to prove our majority within whatever time-frame the President wants us to," said Advani.
The BJP has been a house divided on whether it should try its hand at governing the country. Advani himself did not want the BJP to show any haste—he felt that the party would be in an embarrassing situation if it failed to churn out the required number. But with the developments in the rival camps—NF-LF, Congress—and the fear that 'horse trading' or even 'unprincipled alliances' would spoil the BJP's chances, Advani changed tack. Says a senior national executive member: "We feel compelled. We know Gulf money is coming to stall the BJP from forming the government."
But even as the President solicited legal opinion on who he should invite to form the government, the Intelligence Bureau (IB) began monitoring security arrangements for Vajpayee and his family. At his No. 6, Raisina Road bungalow, an emergency security post has been set up—in June 1991, when P.V. Narasimha Rao was emerging as a forerunner for the prime minister ship, the IB had expedited security arrangements at his residence, 9, Motilal Road, too. An incident which only adds to the fact that in the official assessment, Vajpayee is Rao's natural successor as Prime Minister.
However, it is the post-government formation scenario that worries the BJP the most. Together with its allies—Shiv Sena, Samata Party (Bihar) and the Haryana Vikas Party (HVP)—they do not have more than 200 members. The BJP is projecting the Telugu Desam (Naidu), Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), the DMK in Tamil Nadu, besides the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP)—a Left ally—as potential supporters if the party forms the government. Vajpayee has held parleys with DMK chief M. Karunanidhi to solicit his party's 17-member support in Parliament.
Journalist Cho Ramaswami, who keeps shifting his political loyalties, was a surprise participant at the BJP parliamentary party meeeting on May 11, giving rise to speculation that he may broker an alliance between the BJP and the DMK. A difficult proposition for the DMK as Moopanar's Tamil Maanila Congress, which had helped it sweep Jayalalitha out of power, has refused to associate with the BJP.
Says TMC leader P. Chidambaram: "We will support a secular government at the Centre. We won't support the BJP under any circumstances." The Chandrababu Naidu faction of the Telugu Desam and the AGP's Prafulla Kumar Mahanta also went on record that they would not support the BJP.
As the BJP explores avenues to win support in Parliament, Rashtrapati Bhavan has been flooded with suggestions—from legal and political quarters. A majority feels that the single largest party should be given the first chance, and that the President must consider other options only if the BJP declines to form the government. According to a Rashtrapati Bhavan source, Sharma is seriously thinking of inviting the leader of the largest party: "The President is not inclined to accept his predecessor R. Venkataraman's suggestion to go in for a direct election of the Prime Minister by the House in want of such a constitutional provision or a precedence."
The President is also taking into consideration the prospect of a law-and-order problem in different parts of the country if the BJP is not invited to form the government. As the President's action is bound to generate a hostile reaction from the saffron party, he should be able to defend his decision—either based on constitutional norms or parliamentary practices. And the BJP is quite categorical that the pre-election alliance should get weightage over the post-election tie-ups of different parties.
According to the Rashtrapati Bhavan source: "The President is still not sure about whether to ask the BJP to furnish evidence of its majority just now or give the party a month to prove its strength in Parliament." The NF-LF's depleted strength and its failure to ally with other parties under some common minimum programme to take the tally beyond the BJP, leaves the President with little option. In fact, apart from setting up the 'anti-communal' platform, the non-BJP parties are finding it equally difficult to arrive at some consensus on the common minimum programme—the corruption plank and the crime-politics nexus issue divides them.
In 1989, when V.P. Singh furnished details of the promised support from the BJP and the Left parties, R. Venkataraman first invited the leader of the single largest party, Rajiv Gandhi—Congress president and its leader in Parliament—to form the government. V.P. Singh was approached only after Rajiv Gandhi declined, saying it would be "unethical" to form the government because the mandate—that saw his party's strength dwindling to 192 from 411 in the Lok Sabha—was clear that he should sit in the Opposition. If Rao has not staked his claim to form the government, it is certainly not due to 'ethics' but because determined Congress Working Committee members had their way. "We were clear right from the beginning that we would support the NF-LF," says Environment Minister Rajesh Pilot, also a CWC member.
For all its hype and bluster that it is a party with a difference, the BJP, sans the support of other parties, will find it increasingly difficult to keep up its claim if it comes to power. The party's 'minority' character will hardly allow it to bring about any radical changes as promised in its manifesto—scrapping Article 370, which gives special status to Jammu and Kashmir, instituting a Uniform Civil Code, besides expediting construction of the Ram temple. As both Advani and Vajpayee told party leaders when they enquired about these pledges: "So long as we do not have a two-third majority, the present provisions will hold good...there will be a status quo."
The BJP also runs the risk of being grilled by the electorate as a party which has made too many compromises on its basic issues just to hold on to the power while it had the much more dignified option of sticking it out in the Opposition. Says a party general secretary: "Even if we attract MPs by honest means, we will be charged of having bribed them like in the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha case."
Apart from domestic issues, the BJP is also a votary of drastic changes in the economic policy—restricting foreign investment on infra structural sector—and in favour of exercising the nuclear option. But the absence of a clear mandate only makes the government a lame duck. And that will be a test case for the BJP—head a government that does not govern or wait till a positive mandate. If circumstances prevent the BJP from forming the government, Vajpayee would be the real beneficiary—after all, his image and the respect he commands outside his party as a capable leader, might suffer if he makes compromises as Prime Minister.