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March 20, 1998

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Wary BJP may agree to Sangma as consensus Speaker

Rajesh Ramachandran in New Delhi

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's meeting today with Purno A Sangma is seen as an indication that the former speaker may retain the post in the 12th Lok Sabha as well.

Parliamentary Affairs Minister Madanlal Khurana also visited Sangma today, ostensibly to pay his respects to a senior parliamentarian. But Khurana did mention that the just-concluded election has thrown up a verdict for consensus.

And, consensus is the buzzword not only for the outgoing speaker, but also to a shaky BJP which realises that it is still short of a simple majority and which is working overtime to prevent a repeat of 1996 when it moves the trust motion next week.

The House will convene on Monday, March 23, for the oath of affirmation of all the newly elected members. Senior-most member Indrajit Gupta would be the pro-tem speaker, and would administered the oath as such by the President in the morning.

Realising that the numbers do not favour the BJP as yet, with the Telugu Desam Party still wavering, Congress and United Front leaders decided in favour of a joint candidate against the ruling party -- which could be Sangma. What further tilts the scales in Sangma's favour is that the MPs from the North-East, although comfortable with the BJP, would not vote against Sangma.

Realising that the tide was against a BJP Speaker, the ruling party has already started talking about the rapport Sangma has with the BJP leadership, and point out that even the party's camp for its MPs in Jhinjhouli in Haryana was inaugurated by him.

Even the argument that the BJP cannot afford to have a neutral Speaker, particularly when the party is running a minority government, is being scoffed at by its leaders.

"This is not Uttar Pradesh. We cannot try and engineer defections. Who will we break? To break the Congress we need around 50 willing MPs, which is out of the question. So apart from a few favourable rulings, even our own Speaker may not able to help us much in such a situation," says a senior BJP leader.

The delicate balance of numbers in the Lok Sabha does not, at this moment favour the BJP. In a House with an effective strength of 541, the BJP and allies have 266 members on their side. Assuming that the Telugu Desam Party abstains from the election, it means the BJP front will have a majority of just two votes over the Congress-UF combined strength.

What is worrying the BJP is that this includes stormy petrel Subramanian Swamy -- who has indicated that he will vote according to his conscience -- and an ailing Rajmata Vijayaraje Scindia who is in no condition to come to Parliament, let alone vote.

Technically, if the BJP lost this battle slated for Tuesday, March 24, it need not wait for the trust vote to prove its majority, which is exactly why the party has been trying to woo the TDP on one hand as well open negotiations with the Congress on the other.

In 1996, to jog one's memory, the BJP had conceded the speakership to the Congress while settling for the deputy speaker's post, and this time round, it is working towards a quid pro quo, in reverse. Top BJP and Samata Party leaders have met with their Congress counterparts. Reports suggest that BJP president L K Advani has met his Congress counterpart Sonia Gandhi in this connection.

Obviously, Sonia holds the key to what happens in the Lok Sabha next week. "It all depends on what the Congress decides. Frankly I don't know what she thinks. And as long as we don't know who speaks on behalf of Sonia, nothing can be done," a senior UF leader told Rediff On The NeT.

As part of its woo-the-TDP campaign, reports suggest that the BJP has offered the speakership to former information and broadcasting minister S Jaipal Reddy who, strictly speaking, is not a TDP member.

The Congress, too, meanwhile, has been assessing its options. In the absence of any clear directive from Sonia Gandhi on the stand to be taken at the Speaker's election, second-rung leaders have been meeting with UF leaders to look for a viamedia. UF leaders like Harkishan Singh Surjeet and SP president Mulayam Singh Yadav, who rate defeating the BJP higher in their scheme of things than siding with the Congress, are willing to go along with a Congress Speaker in the new Lok Sabha, if only to embarrass the ruling front yet again.

But the Congress-UF camps are not confident of the outcome of these meetings, including the one held on Thursday. The UF feels the BJP has come to some sort of an understanding with Sonia, whereby while it would bag the Speaker's post, the Congress would be given the deputy speaker's post.

What flies against this contention is the BJP's decision to induct all three leaders tipped for the speaker's post from its side -- Sushma Swaraj, Surjeet Singh Barnala and Ram Naik -- in its council of ministers. This has led to a general feeling that it has reconciled itself to making serious compromises on this account.

The BJP, thus, is not entirely ruling out the Sangma option, thus adding more confusion. The Speaker of the 11th Lok Sabha has let it be known that he would agree to taking up the post only if he is the unanimous choice of the House.

In the meantime, the BJP is keeping its cards close to its chest, and is talking about a consensus approach in its favour. Vajpayee himself is reportedly planning to talk to Sonia Gandhi about the Speaker's post, despite his televised coldshoulder to her at Thursday's swearing-in ceremony.

"I don't rule out Vajpayee meeting Sonia. How can I rule it out? No decision has been taken yet. We are trying to have a consensus in this matter," BJP general secretary Venkaiah Naidu told Rediff On The NeT.

Sushma Swaraj, the new information and broadcasting minister, says she has always abided by the party's directives and never had ambitions of her own. Asked if she had decided to give up her claim to the Speaker's post, Swaraj said she never had any ambitions to become Speaker. "Any decision in this regard would be taken by the party leadership," she said.

Elections '98

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