Mujhe door ka dikhayi deta hai,
Mein deewar par likha padh sakta hoon,
Magar haath ki rekhayen nahin padh sakta.
(I can see far ahead,
I can read the writing on the wall,
But I cannot read the lines on my own palm.)
-A poem written by Atal Bihari Vajpayee on his birthday in 1993.
If politics is the art of the possible, what the BJP tried to achieve was virtually the impossible. The party’s failure to win over even one additional MP-its strength on May 28 stood at 194, the same as when its government was sworn in on May 16-demonstrated its inability to read the signals: that the new liberal mask had convinced no one.
Given the arithmetic of the 11th Lok Sabha –BJP and its allies with 194 members, pitted against the United Front (UF) with 180 MPs and the Congress(I) and its allies with 139 – the option the party took looked like a gamble whose consequences could be serious.
Knowing fully well that it did not command anything near a majority in the House, why did the BJP accept the President’s offer to form the government?
The official explanation offered was the tremendous pressure from the cadres to take the chance. As the BJP chief L.K. Advani said: “It was felt that as the single largest party, we had to honour the people’s mandate.”
But party insiders say that when Vajpayee went to Rashtrapati Bhavan on May 15, he was aware that P.V. Narsimha Rao had not yet offered his support to the UF, despite the Congress Working Committee’s authorisation for the same.
If the BJP had declined the offer to form the government, the President would have been bound to call the leader of the second largest party –Rao himself. And with the UF leaders unable to reach a compromise on the leadership issue, the BJP felt there was nothing to stop Rao from another term in office.
Second, the party believed that a BJP government would result in an inevitable polarisation that would help expose its rivals as opportunists – a belief that has now been vindicated since more than a dozen parties besides the Congress, which fought bitter poll battles less than a month ago, collaborated with each other to throw the BJP government out.
“We wanted to show that we were different from the rest. Our 13 days in office have helped us do just that,” said Kushabhau Thakre, party general secretary.
And then, of course, there were those benefits that being in power, however briefly, accrues: access to important files and sensitive information.
Sources in the bureaucracy say photocopying machines in different departments were used virtually round the clock, as the new ministers, many of them first-timers in government, gained access to information which they claim will be used at a later that to embarrass political opponents.
Party leaders were certain that like voters, the newly elected MPs would also avoid another election. It was their belief that once in power, the BJP would be able to win the support of regional parties and smaller groups and that it would push it past the half-way mark in Parliament.
Says Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, the BJP’s Rajasthan chief Minister: “We had assurances from some of the regional parties that once the President invites us to form the government, they will support us. But they backed out later.”
This, despite the sops offered to put contentious issues like the Ram temple in Ayodhya, abolition of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir and a uniform civil code on the back burner.
Still, a group of senior leaders including Shekhawat, Jaswant Singh, Pramod Mahajan, K.N. Govindacharya and former Delhi chief minister Madan Lal Khurana worked overtime to broker a deal with regional parties.
They were helped in their efforts by mediators like film actor Rajnikant, journalist Cho Ramaswamy, Samata Party leader George Fernandes, Akali leader Parkash Singh Badal and amedia baron from Andhra Pradesh.
Chief Ministers Prafulla Mohanta of Assam, Chandrababu Naidu of Andhra Pradesh and M. Karunanidhi of Tamil Nadu were approached by Jaswant Singh, while the amiable Govindacharya, who has an excellent rapport with many non-Congress MPs, tapped his old sources for support.
Even as late as May 24, Vajpayee told reporters that “all political parties are in a state of turmoil”. Mahajan urged his party MPs to persuade their friends in other parties to support the government.
Conceded Vajpayee: “I thought that after forming the government, I would use the time given to me by the President to persuade other parties to support me on the basis of a minimum common programme. I talked to a number of leaders… Things looked rosy initially.”
Not everyone, however, shared the same perception. A section of the party workers had their reservations about the BJP relegating its Hindutva mascot to the background in an effort to woo coalition partners.
Some MPs, refusing to buy the line that it was a tactical diversion, voiced their reservations when they found that the President’s speech was devoid of many of the party’s pet themes. The BJP had to hurriedly arrange an informal meeting two days before the confidence motion to placate them.
There were other problems. A section of backward caste MPs like Uma Bharati was sore over the “Brahminical” dominance in the Vajpayee government; she spoke to Kalyan Singh in an effort to make common cause, but was advised restraint. Sikandar Bakht, on the other hand, sulked on being allotted the urban development portfolio and attended office only after being given the high-profile External Affairs Ministry.
IN the end, all the BJP’s calculation went awry. On the eve of the confidence vote, the leadership discovered to its dismay that far from getting the 70-odd MPs needed to enable it to gain a simply majority, the party could not even take its tally past the 200 mark.
The opposition parties some of whom comprise the new government-have alleged that by forming the government without a clear majority, the BJP has only revealed its hunger for power at any cost.
And by approaching some of the smaller parties that were committed to supporting H.D. Deve Gowda, the party also exposed itself to charges of indulging in horse trading –something its leaders said the BJP would never resort to. Alleged P.Chidambaram, leader if the Tamil Maanila Congress: “They took us for purchasable commodities.”
By the morning of March 27, when the Lok Sabha met to take up the vote of confidence and it had become clear that the government would have to go, the party changed tack.
Says Shekhawat: “We wanted people to know how others ganged up against us on the issue of Hindutva.” Adds Thakre: We will emphasise that we did not use immoral means and corruption to stay in power.”
Faced as the nation is with a ragtag coalition dependent on the mercy of the Congress, the BJP is already preparing for a mid-term poll. It hopes to extract mileage by comparing the homogeneous BJP, led by a sober statesman like Vajpayee, with the fractious, contradiction-ridden UF headed by Deve Gowda on whom the choice fell only because there was no consensus on any other leader.
As Vajpayee pointed out during the parliamentary debate: “The United Front’s fourth choice is going to become the nation’s first choice.”
Recent history provides enough examples of such fractious coalitions coming apart. Says H.V. Sheshadri, deputy chief of the RSS: “The manner in which all such groups have conducted themselves during the past few days have made them a laughing stock in the public eye.” With its support base spread over nearly 35 Lok Sabha seats in about eight states in the country, the BJP feels that its fortunes can only soar.
In Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Haryana, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, it hopes to improve considerably whenever elections are held. Many in the party feel this will be very soon. Says Uttar Pradesh BJP President Kalraj Mishra: “Our supporters will come out in full strength next time.”
Vajpayee’s sterling performance in the Lok Sabha-the party proposes to distribute video and audio cassettes of the debate all over the country coupled with the popular upsurge in the BJP’s favour makes its top-ranking leaders believe that they will be able to convert the parliamentary defeat into victory.
The message they seek to convey is that even when faced with certain humiliation, the party went through the motions of seeking the vote of confidence.
With the television cameras carrying the turbulent, often acrimonious, scenes enacted in Parliament to millions of homes, Vajpayee went down, but with the image of a martyr statesman his reputation considerably enhanced.
BJP leaders believe that this will prove a positive step towards ensuring that victory is in the bag the next time round.
India Today 15 June 1996