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March 4, 1998


Amberish K Diwanji

Let the BJP form the next government

Across the length and breadth of India, people are waiting to see whom the President will invite to form the next government. Parties and formations are busy buttressing their respective claims and seeking bargains as Indians once again grapple with a hung Parliament and more parties than they care to count, all jostling for a piece of the action.

What, however, is tragic is the way the United Front and the Congress are now holding parleys to form a government with the sole purpose of keeping out the Bharatiya Janata Party. I hold no torch for the BJP, but few, I am sure, will disagree when I say that the BJP deserves to be given the first shot at the treasury benches.

Certain Communist Party of India-Marxist and Congress leaders have been repeating ad nauseum that Indians have not given the BJP a mandate to rule. Reason: the BJP and allies with just 250 seats are 23 short of a simple majority. But logically, which party then has been given the mandate: the Congress and allies with 165 odd members, or the UF with less than 100 MPs now?

The CPI-M, now the key UF player with the largest number of MPs, is keen to back the Congress. Its leaders cockily spoke of how the TDP too will back such a move. (Latest news reveals that the TDP will not support the Congress, with which it just fought a bitter battle.) The irony is that the CPI-M playing such an active role while it had refused to lead the previous UF government on grounds of ideology. Now, it has damned its ideology, wants to support the Congress, and is keen to prevent the people's first choice from staking a claim to form the government.

The Congress too is divided. While many younger leaders are not too eager to stake a claim, others want power soon, at any cost. But on what basis will the Congress claim support from the UF, the very party that it refused to support on bizarre grounds? Will it seek the backing of the now-humbled DMK whom it sought to oust?

But for how long will a Congress-UF alliance last? What guarantee is there that various UF components will not do to the Congress what it did to them? Revenge is, after all, a dish best eaten cold. Even the ardent CPI-M cannot promise support for long because in the next state election in Kerala, the Congress and Left are opposed to each other. And will CPI-M continue to support the Congress if the fiery Mamata Banerjee rejoins the Congress and then blasts Jyoti Basu in Parliament?

Given this scenario, India is likely to have another election in another year or two. Of course, the next government might, like the minority P V Narasimha Rao's Congress government, last its full five years. But while the Congress in 1991 had 220 members, in 1998, the BJP has only around 175 and the Congress even less, making both of them extremely dependent on their supporters. There is no doubt the fear that at some point or the other, their allies demands might just become too difficult to meet, and this is likely sooner than later.

In the election, one very clear pattern that has emerged is the anti-incumbency factor. The voters have, across the country, punished the candidates from the ruling party in the state. In Maharashtra and Rajasthan, the BJP was trounced; in Orissa and Himachal Pradesh, the Congress; in Tamil Nadu, the non-existent AIADMK has resurfaced with a bang; in Karnataka, even the presence of H D Deve Gowda was of little help; and in Gujarat, the RJP has disappeared. In Andhra Pradesh, the TDP held on grimly while suffering grave losses, and even Laloo's RJD faced reverses in Bihar.

The above trends are important for two reasons. First, it shows that more often than not, voters elect the member of Parliament on the basis of local/regional issues. The BJP-Sena was defeated in Maharashtra for its commissions and omission in the state, and all the exhortations of Vajpayee as the next prime minister was of little avail. Thus for the CPI-M or Congress to say that the people have not given anyone a mandate to rule in Delhi is only half true; the people have actually rejected their rulers for local grievance rather than specifically choose someone for the Delhi throne.

Second, performance is paramount. Candidates have been elected or rejected for perceived performances of the state governments, not because of an ideology, or (sadly) because of issues of corruption. The UF's incredibly dismal performance in throughout India can be partly attributed to its failures as perceived by the voters. This will clearly put incredible pressure on whoever forms the next government at the Centre to perform, and live up to its promises.

One would have thought that under such difficult circumstances, to form a lame-duck government is to risk its very survival in the next elections. Does the Congress really want to lead a government that will be held responsible but simply lack the authority and ability to put forward its agenda?

In fact, this fact must be worrying for the BJP also, which will certainly have to eschew major portions of its manifesto. There can be no Ram temple, no undoing of Article 370 of the Constitution, no civil code, etc, unless it achieves a consensus. How long will its own hardline cadres tolerate this? And will its partners tolerate the BJP going ahead on these counts?

The Congress and United Front have probably more to gain by sitting out, which may be the reason why many are insisting on that line. As Congress leader Kamal Nath said, 'Let the electorate taste the BJP pudding'. BJP governments have proven as vulnerable as other parties to the vice of dissent, corruption, and factional feuds. The drama in Uttar Pradesh is only the most recent example.

By sitting on the Opposition benches, the Congress and the UF can then witness the BJP pulled apart by its inherent internal contradictions. This will also give the former parties a chance to reorganise themselves, especially now that the Congress is showing amazing resilience. The UF (or what is left of it [no pun intended]) too should use the chance to forge a viable and proper identity, prune its weeds, and emerge more cohesive and coherent. This way, it will be better prepared for the next round, which may be sooner than most think.

But in March 1998, let the BJP and its allies form the government. For the sake of India, and for the sake of democracy.

Amberish K Diwanji

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