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February 19, 1998


Saisuresh Sivaswamy

The BJP would do well to sit it out in the Opposition

As the 12th general election shifts into top gear, one can safely conclude that barring a miracle, the composition of the new Lok Sabha will not be drastically different from its immediate predecessor's. There are bound to be a few changes -- like the BJP improving its tally to cross the psychological barrier of 200, or the Congress forging well ahead of the United Front -- but otherwise, we are in for a collective deja vu.

The 'oh god, not again!' feeling will not stop with simply the poll results; even the ensuing drama, as the various combatants surge ahead to stake a claim to form the next government, is going to make for a sickening spectacle, heightened by the audiovisual blitz.

Actually, given the sorry state of the nation, given the grim prognosis on the economic front, given the fact that India is destined, rather cursed by the quality of its political leadership, to lug along in the ranks of the laggards, this race to preside over its course is beyond comprehension. Obviously, more premium is attached to going down in history as a prime minister of India -- for howsoever brief a moment -- than is recognised by the laity.

The shape of things to come is slowly emerging, albeit nebulously. Once again, it is evident, the proponents of the politics of untouchability -- all of whom, incidentally, are inimically opposed to the same principle in society -- will join hands to keep a political formulation which, in their opinion, does not deserve to assume power.

In the process, the events of the past few months will have been forgotten. The fact that the Congress party, using the Jain Commission report, pulled down a government which, a little more than a year earlier, it had committed to the President to support for five years. The fact that the two partners separated in rather acrimonious a manner, and are burying the hatchet only because they feel that another grouping is unfit to rule.

Makes one wonder, then. What was the fuss of December 1997 all about? If the two partners fall out only to join hands once again after the election, why was the country forced through a round of election, and a costly election at that?

Obviously, the politicians believe that public memory is shorter than theirs, and perhaps this election will disabuse them of this fallacy.

What the aftermath of the 1998 election will prove to the nation -- if proof was ever needed, that is -- is that the Congress's hunger for power has not diminished in anyway. Having ruled the Republic for more than 40 of its 48 years, it has deluded itself into believing that power belongs to it alone, never mind if it stems from the people.

The structure of the new government that it will strive for will be led, and not followed, by the Congress. In this, it is being aided and abetted by that messiah of the backward classes, V P Singh, who does not see anything wrong in turning back to the same party which he reviled not 10 years ago.

But the more important question is, does such an arrangement, even assuming it comes through without hiccups, have the public cachet? If the BJP can be kept out of power on the basis that it does not have a clear majority, it beats comprehension how a joint effort between political formations that fought the election separately and against each other, can be presumed to have public sanction.

I don't think there has been a time when the occupant of Rashtrapati Bhavan has earned his salary more than he has been doing these last couple of elections, and 1998 is going to be no different. The onus will be on the head of the State, and perhaps he should ask some tough questions of those who darken his doors in early March.

When the Congress makes a UF-backed bid to assume power -- and I am willing to bet that such a government will not be an unmitigated disaster for the simple reason that any party making the transition from the Opposition to the treasury benches will strive just that much harder to make an impression -- the President should ask the two why they broke off holy matrimony earlier if they did plan on getting together once again. And, considering that their earlier alliance was short-lived despite the 'till death do us part' kind of business, where is the guarantee before the priest that they will not go out of god's chosen path once again?

But unfortunately, in our system, the President is not expected to ask such questions, despite the Constitution enjoining him to protect it. He is only meant to verify numbers.

More interesting to watch will be the BJP's own response to combined efforts to keep it out of South Block. It is obvious that the Sonia factor will deny it the required numbers, as it is equally obvious that the V P Singh factor will take power out of its hands. The master of ideological compromises cannot fail in his chosen mission, and my own suggestion is that the BJP should not fight such an effort.

If the BJP falls decisively short of a majority, not just 10 or 20 seats, then it will be in its own interest to sit out in the Opposition yet again. The masters of its destiny in Nagpur may demur, and even believe that this is its last chance to form the government, since the next election, whenever it is held, will have a Gandhi formally at the helm of Congress affairs which will put paid to its dream of unfurling the tricolour from the Red Fort ramparts.

But the view from the street-level is that a combined government of the Congress and the UF is a readymade recipe for disaster, and it is again a question of time before it collapses under the weight of its own internal contradictions. And when that happens, possibly in two years or maybe even before that, not even a Gandhi can keep the nation from turning to the BJP.

Although I am sure the BJP will take the other view. Even if the magical number eludes it by 50, the party that believes in morality and such high-falutin' stuff, will end up doing a UP in March. And thereby end up losing not just a lot of its supporters but even its moral sheen.

Saisuresh Sivaswamy

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