Saturday, November 26, 2005

Have Allies, Will Rule

In a nation that has been Independent barely for sixty years, ten years is a long time, especially when it comes to the existence of a political party or a political movement or a political system. Cross the ten-year milestone and you find will a permanent place under the Indian sun. Anything that is at first dismissed as an aberration, once it completes ten years in existence, eventually gains public acceptance. Perhaps that can explain why certain communal, casteist and, even, 'linguistic' groups, initially dismissed as the lunatic fringe, have become political forces to reckon with.

The foundations of Independent India may have been soaked in the blood of the nearly half a million killed in the Partition riots, but people who were old enough at the time to understand politics could have never visualised that a party which beat up fellow Indians hailing from down South and openly abused Muslims would one day rule Maharashtra. Neither would they have imagined that an electrical linesman's daughter who earned political fame overnight by heaping abuses on the upper castes would one day run Uttar Pradesh, the state that made Jawaharlal Nehru — the hero of 1947, a sophisticated, broad-minded man — a full-time politician.

Nehru was the Prime Minister when trouble began in Madras over the language issue. The refusal to accept Hindi as the national language led to a full-scale anti-Hindi agitation in the 60's. But no one, even at the height of that agitation, is likely to have imagined that some day, a Tamil director wanting to make a Tamil film called Love Story could risk himself being straddled on a donkey and beaten with brooms unless he changed the title to Kaadhal Kadai (the Tamil translation for Love Story).

Coming back to the point: ten years matter a great deal. If they stick around that long, the lunatic fringes become vote catchers, and a temporary political arrangement becomes part of the political system. And in about six months from now, India would be celebrating the tenth anniversary of an event which, politically, is no less significant than the achievement of Independence.

In August 1947, the British handed over political power to Indians. But in May 1996, the Indian electorate, breaking away from the tradition of being ruled by a single party, handed over to its leaders the concept of coalition politics. Actually what they had given was a fractured mandate: for the first time in the Independent history of the country they could not collectively decide which party should rule. The BJP and its allies — the Shiv Sena, George Fernandes' Samata Party, Akali Dal and former Sanjay Gandhi loyalist Bansi Lal's Haryana Vikaas Party — won more seats than any other party or combine. They staked claim and were asked to form government, even though they were far short of majority.

They hoped that some of the regional parties traditionally opposed to the Congress would support them for the sake of political stability. Sushma Swaraj, then the BJP spokeswoman, kept saying during the run-up to the vote of confidence that politics was not about arithmetic where one plus one made two, but about chemistry where one plus one could make eleven. She also kept saying that a large party, supported by various smaller parties, would provide a more stable government than a small set of parties propped up by a large party. Her chemistry didn't work, because the BJP, thanks to the 1992 demolition of the Babri mosque, was considered a political untouchable. India's first coalition government came down in 13 days. Before the motion of confidence could be put to vote, Vajpayee made an emotional speech in the Lok Sabha and announced: “I am going to submit my resignation to the President.”

But Swaraj's theory that a large party when supported by various smaller parties provided a more stable government turned out to be correct in the coming months. In fact, it turned out to be the guiding principle for coalition politics in India. Even as Vajpayee was driving to Rashtrapati Bhawan to submit his resignation, a man who spoke no Hindi and whose command over English was no better than Vajpayee's, sat in Delhi's Karnataka Bhavan fielding questions from journalists who kept asking him how he was going to provide a stable government.

The man answered the questions rather absent-mindedly, because his mind was on the call from Rashtrapati Bhawan that was expected any moment. The call came soon enough, and H D Deve Gowda of the Janata Dal was bound for the President's House to collect the invitation letter to form the new government. But where did Gowda read out the contents of the invitation letter? At the courtyard of Delhi's Andhra Bhawan. He did so standing out of his white Ambassador car, so that he could be elevated enough to be seen (and heard) by all reporters and cameramen.

So that was that: Deve Gowda was to be the new Prime Minister from June 1, heading a 13-party coalition called the United Front which would be supported by the Congress. It is a different matter that not many outside Karnataka know who Deve Gowda was. Gowda, a former Chief Minister of Karnataka, was chosen for the job after the CPM politburo voted against Jyoti Basu becoming the Prime Minister — a decision that Basu himself later described as a “historical blunder.”

But why did he read out his letter at Andhra Bhawan? That was because the architect of that coalition, Chandrababu Naidu, operated from there. Naidu even got the CPI to join the government. Indrajit Gupta, the CPI giant who spent his lifetime opposing the Congress, was now the home minister in a government propped up by the Congress.

But the track record of the Congress as a supporting party had been bad. Indira Gandhi had pulled down Charan Singh in 1979 and Rajiv Gandhi had pulled down Chandra Shekhar in 1991. And in April 1997, in keeping with this party's tradition, Sitaram Kesri, for long the Congress treasurer and now its president, withdrew support to Gowda. His charge: Gowda had become a “communalist” and was being friendly with the BJP. Kesri made this allegation in a passionate speech at the Congress headquarters in Delhi, where the old man energetically lifted himself up on his toes every time he uttered the word “communalist.”

In came I K Gujral under “Operation Ganesh”, which was the BJP's description the episode : “the head is severed and another head, of an elephant, has been installed. The torso remains the same.” Within eight months, the ageing Sitaram Kesari swung into action again, this time demanding the removal from government of the ministers of DMK, which had been indirectly implicated by the Jain Commission probing the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. Gujral had to go.

The BJP returned to power, and this time their alliance was 24-party strong. The coalition system had finally secured its place. It had become the norm, rather than a matter of convenience or compulsion. But teething problems were there. Allies who thought they were not getting their share threatened to withdraw support time and again. Mamata Banerjee of Trinamul Congress made the threat several times. The possibility of a key ally pulling out kept politicians as well as journalists on their toes for most of the late 1990's. It finally happened in April 1998 when AIADMK's Jayalalithaa decided to break away from the alliance.

Vajpayee lost the confidence motion by just one vote and fresh elections were called. The Kargil war intervened and Vajpayee, riding the sympathy wave, returned with a stronger and bigger coalition, which now included many parties from the erstwhile United Front. After that, it was a rather smooth ride for Vajpayee. He managed to complete five years in office — the first time by any non-Congress Prime Minister.

During these five years, the Congress seemed to be silently taking lessons in the coalition dharma. For when the National Democratic Alliance was defeated in the May 2004 elections, another coalition called the United People's Alliance smoothly replaced it. But there's one thing you might have noticed of late: no party of the ruling alliance is any longer threatening to “withdraw support”. And the Opposition is no longer expecting “mid-term polls.” These were terms that made headlines frequently in the late 1990's.

Withdrawal of support, the allies know, would only mean forcing fresh elections on public, which only wants a stable political system. So the politicians seem to have matured, and so have the electorate. Perhaps that is why in Bihar they decisively voted for the alliance led by Nitish Kumar. They had obviously failed to understand the strange equation between Lalu Yadav and Ram Vilas Paswan and the Congress and had decided not to waste their votes on them.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

ur blog has just hit the right, on the right note, leave apart the time and space. i liked it and intend to invest more time reading the stuff, havent heard from you, u got married??

3:29 AM  

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