Bharatiya Janata Party, thirteenth time lucky?
By Praful Bidwai
If the minimal test of leadership in the parliamentary form of government is the ability of a prime minister to have his way in reshuffling his or her Cabinet, then Atal Bihari Vajpayee has all but failed the test.
What was meant to be a routine, minor exercise — for the 13th time for the National Democratic Alliance government — quickly mutated into a first-rate crisis. Vajpayee came back from his Manali retreat promising an ‘NDA-centric’ reshuffle with the certain induction of Mamata Banerjee, the likely inclusion of Dr Farooq Abdullah, replacement of the critically ill Murasoli Maran with another Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam nominee, and the shedding of multiple portfolios held by ‘overburdened’ ministers.
Less than a week later, Vajpayee ended up with a heavily BJP-dominated reshuffle, which saw Ajit Singh quit, the southern parties reduced to irrelevance, the ‘overburdened’ ministers largely continuing with their portfolios, and relations between the BJP and its allies — especially Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress — badly souring.
Although the reshuffle has produced India’s largest-ever council of ministers, with 81 members, Vajpayee himself admits that there is no finality to it. Immediately after the swearing-in, he said: ‘There will be another minor reshuffle soon.’ This is a sad comment on the NDA’s indecisive leadership.
Why did this happen? Vajpayee allowed himself to be outmanoeuvred by his own deputy L K Advani, backed by party president M Venkaiah Naidu. He made big concessions to Hindutva hardliners by inducting extremists like Swami Chinmayananda and Prahlad Singh Patel, and by catering to the BJP’s parochial agenda in Uttar Pradesh, while further alienating the DMK and [Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam] MDMK and placating that other Hindutva firebrand, Shiv Senapati Bal Thackeray. The loss is not Vajpayee’s alone. The BJP’s credibility has further eroded. The NDA has been weakened to such a point that many observers now doubt it will fight the next Lok Sabha elections unitedly.
Vajpayee’s original reshuffle scheme received a decisive blow two days before the swearing-in when the Advani-Naidu duo vetoed the Cabinet induction of Dr Abdullah (probably for narrow reasons), and started luring dissident Trinamool MP Sudip Bandopadhyay while sidelining Banerjee, the party’s acknowledged top leader. Furious, Banerjee cancelled her flight to Delhi and accused Vajpayee of breaking the dharma or basic norm of coalition politics. Efforts to persuade her to return to the Cabinet failed although she agreed to stay on in the NDA. Banerjee isn’t a great friend to have, but a bad enemy to face. She now has a strong handle to attack the BJP: it tried to split Bandopadhyay from Trinamool, but meekly capitulated to Thackeray when he suddenly replaced Balasaheb Vikhe-Patil with a total political novice, Subodh Mohite.
The BJP’s double standards partly derive from its fear of the Sena’s capacity for obstruction, blackmail and sabotage. Last year, it bowed to Thackeray’s diktat to drop Surersh Prabhu, whom Vajpayee rated highly as a minister. Apparently, Prabhu wasn’t filling the Sena’s coffers enough. This time around, Thackeray decided to drop Vikhe-Patil, a veteran Congressman-turned-Sena member. These decisions come from the senapati’s new paranoid distrust of all those who have non-Sena backgrounds who, he fears, could stab him in the back. Thackeray is also under pressure from the Sena’s super-chauvinist Maharashtra-only lobby to replace the party’s non-Marathi national representatives (eg Sanjay Nirupam and Pritish Nandy) with ‘proper’ Maharashtrians. It matters little that Mohite, a Sainik from Vidarbha, hasn’t won even an assembly election, and totally lacks administrative experience.
The reshuffle has delivered another message too: allies like the Trinamool — recently routed in West Bengal’s local elections — or the DMK and MDMK, no long matter much to the BJP. In Tamil Nadu, it’s playing footsie with Jayalalithaa, whose anti-conversion bill and temple-based free meals campaign strongly resonate with Hindutva. So it hasn’t bothered to replace the non-functioning Maran with a DMK commerce minister. It has kept that portfolio with Arun Jaitley although he also holds law. As for the MDMK, the CBI raid on Gingee Ramachandran’s personal assistant couldn’t have taken place without Advani’s approval. This, and the fact that no MDMK nominee has replaced him — despite calls by G Vaiko, detained under POTA, to George Fernandes — speak for themselves.
The BJP has a proven record of deserting and humiliating its allies: recall the ease with which it ditched the Socialists in the Janata Party in 1978 and toppled V P Singh in 1990. More recently, it first cosied up to Bansi Lal and then dumped him. It casually dismissed Ajit Singh and has parted company with people like Messrs Ram Vilas Paswan and Ramakrishna Hegde, while mauling the JD(U) with repeated raids. What happened to Haren Pandya, who mobilised 40 MLAs against Narendra Modi, remains a gory mystery. The BJP’s ‘secular allies’ are partly to blame for this. They have generally been mute spectators to the BJP’s brazen takeover agenda — in education, culture and on cow slaughter — and to the Gujarat pogrom. The NDA’s future is looking increasingly bleak.
With the reshuffle, the BJP has reinforced its Hindutva agenda. The biggest pointer is the induction of Chinmayananda, who has been made minister of state under Advani. He is a senior VHP leader, member of the Parishad’s Margadarshak Mandal, and founder-member of the Ramjanmabhoomi Mukti Yagya Samiti, set up in 1984 to spearhead the temple ‘movement.’ Chinmayananda was vital to Advani’s rath yatra in UP. A Rajput, like Rajnath Singh, he is a rabble-rouser, known for his venomous attacks on secularism, Muslims and Article 370. He continues to be a member of the VHP’s Yagya Samiti. He attended the latest Dharma Sansad and shared an anti-Vajpayee Sangh platform.
Only slightly less malign is Prahlad Patel from Madhya Pradesh. He too is, like Uma Bharati, a Lodh Rajput, and a Hindutva hardliner, with charges against him reportedly under 77 sections of the Indian Penal Code. He recently sponsored a private member’s resolution in Parliament urging a national law to ban cow slaughter.
Of the entry of these Hindutva hardliners, Vajpayee himself admitted: ‘I have taken a step. You may draw your own conclusions.’ An even stronger indication is the party’s support to trishul deeksha and to Vinay Katiyar’s fiery jagranyatra in UP. Katiyar remains unembarrassed by his close association with the Babri demolition. He makes brazenly inflammatory speeches threatening to ‘raise’ the number of monuments about which ‘the Hindus’ (read, the VHP) have ‘grievances,’ from 3,000 to 5,000 — unless the ‘Ramjanmabhoomi’ land is handed over to the VHP. The yatra is the BJP’s desperate attempt to garner votes while maintaining the alliance with Mayawati despite its problems — including a virtual ‘Rajput revolt’ and a generalised upper-caste backlash, besides alienation of OBC groups.
While strongly endorsing these Hindutva-based strategies, Vajpayee hasn’t even tried to ‘balance’ his Cabinet. The induction of Nagmani, a Koli from Bihar, shows little more than a desire to reward those who split Laloo Yadav’s RJD. And Kailash Meghwal’s appointment only accommodates Bhairon Singh Shekhawat’s demands. Although he is India’s vice-president, Shekhawat continues to play day-to-day politics in Rajasthan. Meghwal is known as his hatchet-man and as a Hindutva hardliner — not a Dalit leader. Vajpayee, then, has yielded substantial ground to Advani and his loyalists, and also bent to pressures from other BJP power sub-centres and external industrial lobbies.
Further indications of this lie in the power wielded by Sushma Swaraj, who continues to hold two portfolios (health and parliamentary affairs), and of course, the two Aruns, who are among the handful of ministers whom the BJP can showcase as its ‘modern,’ ‘contemporary,’ ‘competent’ face attuned to industry lobbies, especially in telecom, information technology, patents, and external trade. The BJP has now appropriated all the majorministries barring defence and all the plum portfolios too — including rural development (with a budget of Rs. 14,000 crores), civil aviation and commerce. Now, agriculture has also come in its grip. Ajit Singh was sacked for raising concerns about farmers’ problems and unpaid sugarcane dues, which are indeed agitating the people of UP.
Singh wasn’t the first NDA minister to speak at cross-purposes with his colleagues. But he was removed so that the BJP can consolidate its upper-caste base in UP, which is under enormous stress, with the Brahmins partly turning to the Congress, and the Thakurs siding with Raghuraj Pratap Singh, arrested under POTA. The savarnas are so important to the BJP that it has ardently endorsed Ashok Gehlot’s upper-caste ‘Economic Quota’ agenda after first dismissing it as a mere ‘political gimmick on the eve of elections.’
The BJP has consolidated its grip on the NDA — year after year, issue by issue, reshuffle after Cabinet reshuffle. But in the process, it has demonstrated its own weaknesses and its boundless opportunism, and the limits of Vajpayee’s leadership and authority. All this could cost it heavily in the coming four assembly elections. —Rediff