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February 15, 1999


E-Mail this column to a friend Vir Sanghvi

Blessed are those who wait

Last fortnight, the government faced some anxious moments as its allies made disgruntled noises. Mamata Banerjee, having first demanded the railway ministry, now suggested that she would rather detach the Trinamul Congress's bogey from the Bharatiya Janata Party train. The Telugu Desam Party said it might withdraw support and ask G M C Balayogi, its nominee, to resign as speaker of the Lok Sabha. Others complained bitterly about the perfectly sensible decision to cut back on subsidies.

It is easy to look back at a crisis and feel secure in retrospect but there were days when it seemed that the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government was on the brink. The subsidy cut was the ostensible provocation for the anger of the allies. But of course, it was more than that. Like most Indians, they sensed that the Sangh Parivar had finally gone too far.

The burning of Graham Stewart Stains and his two small children nauseated the nation and suggested that as far as this government was concerned, it was downhill from now on unless Vajpayee managed the difficult feat of controlling the Hindutva loonies. Hence the threats of withdrawal of support and hence, the palpable nervousness within the government.

But no matter how anxious the mood was at Race Course Road, there was one address in New Delhi where the nervousness was even greater. At 10 Janpath, they worried that the government might fall at any moment and force the Congress to take a stand. If the ministry fell as a consequence of its own internal conflicts, then the Congress had to come to a decision. Would it do what the Left and assorted Yadavs have been urging for some months now and lead the so-called secular forces into office? Or would it spurn the "Third Force" and decide to go for an election?

This was not a decision that anybody in the Congress was keen to make.

That the Congress should fear taking office tells us something about how far the party has travelled from the 1996 electoral defeat when P V Narasimha Rao was hoist with his own hawala petard.

In the aftermath of that election, Rao tried to cobble together a coalition with himself as prime minister. He abandoned this effort when the Left and the Third Force made it clear that they would not share office with the Congress. Rao's successor, Sitaram Kesri, refused to accept that the Congress should support a government from the outside. He withdrew the support that Rao had extended to H D Deve Gowda on the grounds that the United Front coalition was certain to fall apart once it faced the prospect of losing office.

Kesri was wrong. Nobody would touch the Congress. With very bad grace, he agreed to continue extending support if the United Front changed its prime minister. But even this arrangement collapsed on the altar of Arjun Singh's ambition -- Kesri was relatively blameless on this occasion -- when a crisis was created over the interim report of the Jain Commission and the I K Gujral government brought down. Then too, the Congress made a stab at leading the so-called secular forces. Then too, it was turned down. Everybody preferred an election -- and in the case of the United Front, oblivion -- to any truck with the Congress.

After last year's election, any reasonable person would have been justified in concluding that as far as the Congress was concerned, the party was now over. It considered forming a coalition with the Third Front and the Left, but abandoned this effort once it became clear that such mainstays of the "secular forces" as Farooq Abdullah and N Chandrababu Naidu were quite happy to do business with the BJP. In any case, the Congress had problems of its own.

In two key states -- West Bengal and Tamil Nadu -- rival Congresses (Trinamul and Maanila) had replaced the parent party. And throughout 1996-8, the defections had continued unabated: Rangarajan Kumaramangalam, Aslam Sher Khan, Krishna Sahi, Jagannath Mishra and so on.

Small wonder then that commentators began to argue that the BJP had replaced the Congress as the natural party of government. The future, we were told, would consist of battles between the BJP and various small time forces including, perhaps, the Congress.

Well, think again.

To go from that all time low to a situation where everybody recognises that you could take office any time you want in the space of less than a year is, by any standards, a political miracle.

Within months of the BJP's accession to office, most of those who had shunned the Congress over the last two years came rushing back. Jyoti Basu made a public statement that the Congress should form the government. Mulayam Singh Yadav and Laloo Prasad Yadav made similar appeals to Sonia Gandhi. More significant, so did at least one important constituent of this government: the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam.

When Sonia Gandhi first rebuffed these overtures, many within her own party felt that she was being arrogant. Watch out for the BJP, they warned, it will stabilise its position once it gets the hang of office. Far better to bring down its coalition within four months so it can be typed in the public mind as a Janata Dal style rickety operation. And once the Congress gets into office, its performance will keep it going for five years. Hadn't Narasimha Rao managed a similar feat by converting his minority government into a majority by the simple expedient of purchasing the necessary members of parliament?

In retrospect, it seems clear that Sonia was right to reject these suggestions. Her strategy was predicated on two assumptions. One: there is no point taking office if you are at the mercy of Mulayam Singh Yadav or J Jayalalitha. And two: give the BJP enough rope and it will hang itself once the nastier elements in the Sangh Parivar come to the fore.

Both assumptions have been vindicated. What Sonia had not counted on was that the Congress's electoral fortunes would revive so dramatically in such states as Delhi and Madhya Pradesh. (Rajasthan was predictable.) Now, the Congress is poised to win further victories in half a dozen assembly elections over the next 14 months or so. If all goes according to plan, the party could be in a position to win an overall majority, or something close to it, in an election held in 2000.

But nothing ever goes according to plan in politics. And last week, the Congress feared that its timing was about to be disrupted. Had the government fallen, the Congress would have had to decide what to do. Given Sonia's infrequent public pronouncements on the subject, it seems unlikely that she would have agreed to take office at the head of a coalition. In that case, the Congress would have had to opt for an election. In a sense, this would have been playing into the BJP's hands.

The BJP knows that things will probably get worse a year from now when the anti-incumbency syndrome sets in. Moreover, the Parivar's lunatic fringe is certain to run riot. And the rift between the prime minister and the Hindutva loonies can only work to the party's detriment. On the other hand, it is better off going into an election today when the Congress has still to get its act together in such key states as Gujarat and Karnataka (which it could win a few months from now) and make any impact in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

So, though both sides were nervous about the fall of the government, it was the Congress that had the most to lose. It saw the clear mandate it expects in 2000 vanishing and a mixed verdict in 1999 taking its place. Ironically enough, at the moment, all that Sonia wants is that Vajpayee should remain in office.

Not bad going for a party that every body wrote off less than a year ago.

Vir Sanghvi

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