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March 30, 1998

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Cabinet berth for Kumaramangalam upsets TN BJP

N Sathiya Moorthy in Madras

Even as the Bharatiya Janata Party's A B Vajpayee won Parliament's cachet for his government on Saturday, undercurrents of disgruntlement are rocking the Bharatiya Janata Party in Tamil Nadu. This time, the ire is over Rangarajan Kumaramangalam, a recent entry to the BJP, walking away not only with a party nomination in the Lok Sabha election but that he was made a Cabinet minister in the new government, whie veterans who built up the party in the state have been sidelined.

Tied to this issue is the question uppermost in the minds of the BJP rank and file: what is the party doing about its future course of action?

"It's an irony that a last-minute entrant like Rangarajan should have been inducted into the ministry, that too as Cabinet minister," said a party leader of long standing. "Leave alone the fact that even Rajiv Gandhi and P V Narasimha Rao considered him worthy only of an MoS berth, there is always be the nagging doubt about his going back to the Congress and Sonia Gandhi."

The BJP's TN unit was rattled when the national leadership admitted the ex-Congressman, disregarding the raised eyebrows in Tamil Nadu, and even nominated him from Tiruchirappalli after the All India anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam's J Jayalalitha refused to concede the Kumaramangalam stronghold of Salem. "Even his electoral victory was owing to the party tag, and our 'stability' card as he is an outsider to Tiruchi," says the above-mentioned leader. But he concedes that Rangarajan did put all his efforts into the campaign once he gave up his initial hesitation, and accepted Tiruchi.

But the reservations run deep. Traditional partymen feel that the BJP was following the 'Congress's ways of honouring rank outsiders' ignoring the legitimate claims of veterans. Says a former state party office-bearer: "All of us joined the party when it was not expected to be anywhere near the power-centre, leave alone win a Lok Sabha seat from Tamil Nadu. Now we have three MPs, but the only ministerial post from the state BJP has gone to a former Congressman from a Communist family! I do not know whether the national leadership wants to put him on display as an instance of the BJP's greater acceptability, but we are not impressed."

There is also a groundswell of sympathy in the party for national vice-president Jana Krishnamurthy and state general secretary Pon Radhakrishnan, both of whom lost the recent election, Pon Radhakrishnan in particular lost from the communally sensitive Nagercoil constituency for the third time in a row, albeit improving the party's electoral standing and political image with every outing.

"Either of them, or any other traditional party leader from the state should have been considered for a ministerial berth," says the former officer-bearer. "If the leadership could get national general secretary M Venkaiah Naidu, a native of Andhra Pradesh, elected to the Rajya Sabha from neighbouring Karnataka, they could have extended the same facility to a BJP leader from Tamil Nadu, and made him minister at the Centre. After all, the Tamil Nadu voters cast their lot only with the professed public image of the BJP, and nothing else."

In this context, he also differentiates between the poll defeats of senior leaders like Jaswant Singh and Pramod Mahajan, and those of Jana Krishnamurthy and Pon Radhakrishnan, "Jaswant Singh and Pramod Mahajan lost in states where the BJP is in power, but here Jana and Radhakrishnan fought against heavy odds."

If not, he adds, "at least Master Madan who has been elected from Nilgiris, where he had lost miserably in 1991 and 1996, should have been accommodated. His turn-around efforts, that too against sitting Tamil Maanila Congress Minister S R Balasubramaniam, should be applauded."

These internal bickerings apart, the BJP is also faced with pressure from the cadre to decide on its future course in the state. While conceding the need for keeping alliance partner AIADMK and its chief Jayalalitha in good humour, state leaders say the BJP should not lose out on the initiative gained with the electoral upswing. "There is a vacuum in Opposition politics in the state, and even after the poll debacle the TMC is reluctant to take on the ruling DMK 0bviously, we should pitch in quick and fast," says the office-bearer.

There is, however, the other section, which is more pragmatic. "We require the AIADMK's backing for our government's survival," says a party leader. "We should not be foolish enough to think that all the votes we got and all the seats that the alliance won in the state was caused by the 'Vajpayee magic'. We need to do a lot more of spade-work, and can take only one step at a time. To imagine that the BJP can overnight become the ruling party in the state is over-simplifying the issue."

According to him, the BJP can afford to go slow on its 'expansion plans' for Tamil Nadu. Even the AIADMK is only in the Opposition in the state, and the two parties will only be sharing the same plank and platform. "Either the TMC has to cut itself off completely from the DMK, or the AIADMK has to go against the people's mandate and help topple the Vajpayee government. Neither of them seems close to happening."

To delve into the past, even without power and positions the state BJP has been riven with factionalism. Some of the early members of the party like M R Gandhi, who sowed the seeds for the BJP's growth in the Nagercoil area, are out of it. Even during the crucial pre-poll talks with the AIADMK, state vice-president Dr V Maithreyan, who had been maintaining constant contacts with Jayalalitha and who had been praising her even when it was not due, found himself completely sidelined.

"Now with Rangarajan Kumaramangalam inside the party, and is also being given great importance by the leadership, I would not be surprised if he starts off with his 'Congress-like' politicking and setting off faction feuds in the BJP, which had thankfully been without it in recent years," says a senior office-bearer.

Elections '98

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