National

The Numbers Add Up, But Doubts Remain

The National Front-Left Front combine makes frantic efforts to stall the BJP

The Numbers Add Up, But Doubts Remain
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HECTIC rounds of talks followed a splintered mandate. Telephones buzzed from left toright, crossing party lines, in an effort to muster the majority mark which could be usedto convince President Shankar Dayal Sharma that he should invite a non-Bharatiya JanataParty formulation to form the government. The saffron brigade had marched far too ahead ofboth the Congress and the National Front-Left Front combine and unless they got their acttogether fast, the President would have no option but to invite Atal Behari Vajpayee ofthe BJP, the largest single party, to head the new government at the Centre.

The initiative, to begin with, seemed to be with the Left parties. Theyhad played the major role in striking the alliances for the National Front before theelections, and were convinced that they would be able to cobble a majority with the aid ofregional parties and elements in the Congress. Their own performance in the polls—thevictories in West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura, and the splendid showing by their allieslike the Telugu Desam (Naidu) and the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), added to the euphoria. Butas the final results were being totted, their euphoria was visibly dampened. Thearithmetic of the new Lok Sabha made it obvious that the Congress, with around 135 seats,would still hold the balance in the efforts to keep the BJP out of power.

The worry was there for all to see at the new Bihar Bhavan, which had emerged as thecentre of confabulations between the Janata Dal and Left leaders, as well as at the CPI(M)headquarters where the party sat over the weekend to deliberate its course of action. TheCongress camp was equally concerned and leaders like K. Karunakaran, Rajesh Pilot andAhmed Patel wondered whether the party would be able to do business with the Leftparties-led ‘secular front’ with Rao at the helm of the Congress. Both theCPI(M) and the Janata Dal had made no bones about their aversion for Rao, and the fear wasthat his continuation as leader could come in the way of the goal of stalling the BJP.Began the little war games in the 111-year party. The effort to oust party president Narasimha Rao ran like a parallel side-show in the greater government-forming drama.

Union Industries Minister K. Karunakaran returned from the defeat at Thrissoor and took up his recently acquired mantle at the helm of the ‘oust Rao’ effort. "If the verdict of Thrissoor had been different, things would have been different," said Rao’s onetime friend, Karunakaran. He tried his best to bridge the difference. Like in 1991 when he spared no effort to help Rao become the Prime Minister, the Kerala leader maintained a busy schedule and met a number of disgruntled Congress leaders who called at his residence on Krishna Menon Marg, and stepped up the endeavour to push Rao out and select a new leader.

He was among the eight leaders—Rajesh Pilot, Ahmed Patel, Sharad Pawar, VijayaBhaskara Reddy, Meira Kumar, Balram Jakhar and Ghulam Nabi Azad—who came together anddecided to force Rao to hold a Congress Working Committee (CWC) meeting before theCongress Parliamentary Party (CPP) met. Karunakaran and Reddy later called on the PrimeMinister and conveyed the decision. Rajesh Pilot, who was also pushing for a change inleadership, had already thrown his hat in the ring. "If Pawar doesn’t contest, Iwill," said Pilot. It turned out to be the usual Congress damp squib, with party menreaffirming faith in Rao’s leadership. "It is like December ’92. Three orfour prominent leaders challenged Narasimha Rao. They wanted him to step down. Theresolution that was passed certainly had nothing to do with their original demand. Thistime was no different," said a Congress MP.

Meanwhile the CPI(M), the Janata Dal and the CPI leaders kept up withtheir efforts to rope in the regional satraps. The aim was not only to get their supportfor the ‘secular alternative’ but also to ensure that they did not fall prey tothe overtures being made by the BJP. Naidu was not really a problem. He had fought theelections as an ally of the CPI and the CPI(M) and could be counted on. So could PrafullaKumar Mahanta of the AGP in Assam. But what about the DMK-Tamil Maanila Congress combinein Tamil Nadu? The fears increased when on the second day of counting, Vajpayee rang upKarunanidhi to congratulate him on the DMK sweeping Tamil Nadu. Former Prime Minister V.P.Singh quickly rang up the DMK chief to solicit his support for the combine. He was theonly man—apart from CPI leaders like Indrajit Gupta—who could have done that inany case. For the officials of the Janata Dal had rubbed him the wrong way when theyflirted with Jayalalitha over a year ago, driving him out of the National Front. And theCPI(M) had allied with his second arch enemy V. Gopalsamy of the MDMK in the elections.Karunanidhi told V.P. Singh that he would support the secular effort provided he took overthe mantle of the Prime Minister. V.P. Singh, according to sources, patiently explainedhis reasons for not being in the race, and reiterated that Karunanidhi was vital to thesecular front. Karunanidhi made reassuring noises but appeared to be awaiting the resultsof the efforts before totally committing himself to the cause.

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MOOPANAR of the TMC was easier to tackle. Claiming to be true inheritors of the secularlegacy of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, his colleague, P. Chidambaram, said therewas no question of joining hands with the BJP. When Moopanar arrived in Delhi, he wasbeseeched by callers from both the Congress and the JD-Left combine. He also told themthat they had nothing to fear. His block of 20 MPs would not vote with the BJP.

But all this time the leaders of the combine kept a close watch on theCongress affairs. There was a guarded sigh of relief when Karunakaran said after a CWCmeeting on Sunday afternoon that the party had decided to support the NF-LF efforts toform a secular government. But creases had begun to appear on the foreheads of the NF-Leftleaders again by the evening when news of the re-election of Rao as CPP leader came in andwhen the party released the text of the resolution which had been adopted at the CWCmeeting. The resolution did not mention the NF or the LF as it said that it had"decided to take positive steps in support of the process of the formation of agovernment by political parties which are totally committed to secular democracy".And the fears were compounded when party spokesperson V.N. Gadgil, despite persistentquestioning, would not answer whether the Congress planned to form the Government andrefused to commit the party’s position. "All options are open," he saidrepeatedly.

A senior Janata Dal leader sounded worried. "We have no idea what Machiavelli isup to. If he suddenly announces on Monday or Tuesday that he would stake a claim for thetop job himself, the entire efforts could flounder badly. For that could cause a deepdivide in the combine. For one, the DMK-TMC would never agree to support Rao as PrimeMinister. And the JD could split vertically." So at the end of it all, in sheernumerical terms, the secular effort appeared to have a very good chance of mustering amajority with the 135 seats of the Congress, the 100-odd members of the NF-LF combine andtheir pre-election allies, and the 37 MPs of the DMK-TMC alliance. But Rao could undo itall. The only hope is that Congress leaders like Pilot, Karunakaran and Pawar will notallow the move for a non-BJP, non-Rao alternative to be scuttled. 

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