April 05, 2020
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Wanted: Helping Hands

A fractious UF anoints I.K. Gujral as India's 12th PM. But how long will he last?

Wanted: Helping Hands

WHOEVER said Sundays are meant for relaxation? Ask president Shankar Dayal Sharma and he will tell you that Indian politicians make the most important moves on Sundays. It was on Easter Sunday, March 30, the Congress president Sitaram Kesri delivered his letter bomb, pulling the rug from under the United Front (UF) government led by H.D. Deve Gowda. The Congress' withdrawal of support sent the entire nation through a harrowing three-week period of uncertainty. And it was again on a Sunday, April 20, that the UF leaders regrouped and rallied behind Inder Kumar Gujaral to prop up a successor government.

But unlike Easter Sunday when he was taken totally by surprise, the President was well prepared this time. The previous night, he had received a request from the UF for an appointment. He called them at 11 am on Sunday. Leaders of 16 UF parties flocked to Rashtrapati Bhawan on the dot and submitted the letter, informing Sharma that Gujral would be the chosen one--the UF's Parliamentary Party leader--and formally staked their claim to form the government. They handed over individual letters from various UF constituent-parties, pledging support to Gujral. Sheepishly, they also brought in that sticky factor--conveying that the Congress had agreed to support the government from outside.

The President, however, was in no mood to accept these claims at face value. He told them he was "reserving" his decision, and set out to reassure himself that the government to be installed would be a viable one. He first summoned the arch-protagonist, Kesri, for a meeting. The Congress chief met him at 12.20 pm and straightaway referred to an epistle he had sent on April 19, where he clearly stated that he would withdraw the claim to form a government if the UF elects a new leader. Consequent to that, he assured Sharma, the 142-member Congress would support Gujral and help him attain a majority in the Lok Sabha.

SHARMA was still not sure. An earlier convention came to mind--that a party once defeated in the Lok Sabha could not be invited to form another government. And yet old conventions could not hold because, in this case, there was no other claimant to power. Rut what was the guarantee that fresh problems would not crop up between the UF and the Congress, and that the Congress would not repeat its withdrawal act? He asked Kesri pointed questions about whether the Congress would join the coalition, and, if that was not possible, whether an "institutional mechanism" could be set up to ensure better coordination with the UF Kesri admitted that a coalition was out of the question for the moment, but assured him that the modalities for a coordination mechanism were being worked out.

When he came away from the meeting, Kesri communicated the President's unease to UF convener Chandrababu Naidu, who had played a stellar role in not only getting the squabbling coalition to choose its new leader through consensus, but also to mend its relationship with the Congress. Yet another meeting of the UF steering committee was called and they agreed to form a 10-member joint coordination committee with the Congress which would meet regularly to ensure a minimum semblance of consensual policy-making. Naidu then called up Rashtrapati Bhawan to convey to the President that the mechanism he had sought was being set up. Sharma, finical to the last minute, insisted that Naidu and Kesri jointly assure him that both sides are committed to a stable arrangement. Another meeting was scheduled for 7.30 pm, where Kesri and Naidu did Sharma's bidding.

That meeting clinched the issue. But for just one small formality--of asking the Bharatiya Janata Party, the single largest group in the Lok Sabha, whether it was in a position to form the government-a grey area of possibility which the right-wing party itself had not followed up with any vigour, due to numerical disadvantages. The party president, L.K. Advani, and its parliamentary wing leader, A.B. Vajpayee, were summoned. In the longest meeting of the day--they were huddled with the President for over half-an-hour--the two leaders confessed that their party could not stake a credible claim, but warned him of the dangers of swearing in yet another minority government. They pointed out that the new government would be even more dependent on "outside support" than Gowda as even the Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC) had opted out of the coalition. The President told them that under the circumstances he had little option but to invite Gujral, in the light of prima facie evidence that he had the majority support in the Lower House.

GUJRAL met Sharma at 8.40 pm and was given the formal presidential invitation to form the government; the swearing-in ceremony was fixed for 10 am on Monday. The official communique was issued at 9 pm and Sharma, tired after day-long confabulations, retired for the day. Aides say that even as he bid them good night, the President looked worried. He had done his best. Gone by the rule-book. But would the arrangement hold?

Outside Rashtrapati Bhawan, all over the Capital and indeed in the towns and villages of the country, it was this very question that played on people's minds. Would the arrangement hold? Even as the populace by and large heaved a sigh of relief at the end of the crisis, brought about by Kesri's misadventure--beginning with his unilateral decision to withdraw Congress support three weeks ago--doubts lingered about the longevity of the government. Few people had anything against the mild-mannered Gujral. He had served in the Union Cabinet before and had done a good job of it. But for all his consensual style of functioning, the minority nature of his government would leave him hamstrung and, indeed, at least as vulnerable as Gowda himself, if not more. He declared on Sunday that anti-Congressism would no longer be the guiding principle of the UF, but that may not be an adequate security net, given the fact that every Front constituent has been steeped in that political attitude. The bitterness generated when TMC chief G.K. Moopanar's efforts to get the coveted post was snuffed out in a week of drawing-room and sick-room lobbying--resulting in the party's decision to opt out of the government--only added to the sense of foreboding. For many, particularly the urban middle class and industry, the fact that the TMC'S withdrawal meant their darling, P. Chidambaram, who had presented a dream budget, would no longer be at North Block came as a major dampener.

The new prime minister, I.K. Gujral, was only too aware of this. He had tried on Saturday night to win back the TMC to the fold. He tried again on Sunday. And, in all his trademark humility, he said he would keep trying to get them back. But the TMC dashed all hopes of returning to the fold when its parliamentary wing, upset over insinuations that their leader was untrustworthy because of his perceived proximity to the Congress and Sonia Gandhi, resolved on Sunday to keep out of the government. Sixties style regional politics too didn't take long to crop up: TMC leaders saw red at the Janata Dal argument that a Hindi0speaking prime minister was necessary to counter the BJP in north India.

Moreover, it was with the TMC'S exit that the fissures in the 16 party coalition showed up. Now, the TMC has become suspicious of the Left Front, which led the oust-Moopanar move, and the DMK, which it feels did not back its leader's claim strongly enough. The TMC also views Naidu's role with suspicion. And Mulayam Singh Yadav, the Left's candidate for the top job, knows well that he was pipped by the dogged efforts of Janata Dal leaders Laloo Yadav and Sharad Yadav to ensure that he did not make it.

Add to this the unhappiness of the average Congress MP, denied the dream of having a share in the sweepstakes of power--something their party president had led them to anticipate. Now they find they have got nothing except the head of Deve Gowda, a fact which satisfies none else but the Congress president. Will they now gun for their party president and parliamentary party leader? And if they do, will it lead to further instability?

The feeling is that even if Kesri survives the simmering discontent in his party, the new coalition will not last long. The apprehension is that the Congress, not used to remaining outside power for long, will sooner or later start hankering for a share in the government. Kesri has admitted that the time is "not yet" ripe for a coalition with the UF. Inherent in the admission is the dream to have another knock at governance shortly. And given the resistance the Left Front and some other constituents have shown to such an idea, such an effort is bound to set loose a fresh spell of uncertainty the polity and the economy can ill afford.

As for Gujral, he knows too well that he has made it not because he has a great support-base, but because there was least resistance to his candidature. Ironically, his name was first thrown up not by his party bosses, but by former prime minister V.P. Singh, who perhaps realised that the outgoing foreign minister's vast experience in diplomacy was best suited not only to keep the new government going but also to keep the UF together. What added to his acceptability was his past moorings both in the Communist party as well as in the Congress. And given the demands of coalition politics, Gujral is well aware of the task ahead. His diplomatic skills may not suffice. To pull it off, he needs help--from all quarters.

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