The factional battle within the Samata Party has nothing to do with principles or policy. Rival camps owing allegiance to the defence minister, Mr George Fernandes, and the railway minister, Mr Nitish Kumar, have been fighting it out to take control of the party. It had come close to a split on several occasions before. The only factor that seemed to have saved the party such a fate so far is its place in the National Democratic Alliance government. Of the Bharatiya Janata Partyís partners in the Union government, the Samata Party has had a profile rather disproportionate to its strength in the Lok Sabha. Both Mr Fernandes and Mr Kumar hold important portfolios in the cabinet. Despite their endless bickerings, the factions have not gone far enough to upset the cabinet apple-cart. While this enables the leaders to enjoy the fruits of power, it erodes the partyís credibility to the people. The partyís unsavoury power-game is also increasingly proving an embarrassment for the NDA, of which Mr Fernandes is the convener. The BJP cannot afford to take sides in this tussle within a party which is a partner because both factions want the Samata Party to continue its relationship with the sangh parivar. From the BJPís point of view, a split will damage not only the party but also the alliance, especially at a time when crucial state assembly elections are round the corner and the next parliamentary elections less than a year away.
Waiting in the wings to reap the political benefit of a split in the Samata Party is Mr Laloo Prasad Yadav. Its claim of a national identity notwithstanding, the partyís only substantive presence is in Bihar where it emerged as a strong challenger to Mr Yadavís Rashtriya Janata Dal among some sections of the people. Ironically, the partyís growing popularity among the Kurmis and some other people in Biharís caste-ridden politics has eventually become the main reason behind its internecine battles. The battle for the party is thus also a battle for the loyalty of some castes in Bihar. This precisely is the reason why Mr Kumar seems to have a greater control over the Bihar unit of the party than Mr Fernandes who never had much of a mass base in the state. It is unlikely, however, that the defence ministerís camp will accept the Bihar unitís decision to expel two members of Parliament and three members of the state assembly who are loyal to him. It is a matter of time before the partyís battle-front shifts from Patna to New Delhi, where Mr Fernandesís supporters can take on the rivals at the partyís national executive committee.