The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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The sorry spectacle of Mamata Banerjee hanging around as a member of the Union cabinet bereft of a portfolio is a comment on how the Bharatiya Janata Party treats its allies. After the failure of the alliance with Mayavati in Uttar Pradesh, the BJP needed to demonstrate its ability to take its allies with it. It chose to do so by including Mamata Banerjee in the Union cabinet.

But it failed to give her a decent portfolio. The result: Mamata Banerjee is made to look foolish. If Mamata Banerjee is seen to be respected by the BJP then that can only increase her clout in her home state. A weakened Mamata Banerjee, on the other hand, becomes the laughing stock of not only Bengal but the entire nation. Clearly, while the BJP is high on talking about “coalition dharma”, it scores low on respecting its allies.

It is true that the Trinamool Congress had deserted the BJP on the eve of the West Bengal state assembly elections. At that time, the BJP had wooed Ajit Panja away from the Trinamool but even he was not rewarded for his betrayal. Then the BJP made an attempt to woo Sudip Bandopadhyay — he too got nothing for hobnobbing with it.

Even when Mamata Banerjee came back to the National Democratic Alliance, every attempt was made to break her party — or else what sense does it make to suggest to her that she would be taken back in the cabinet but along with Sudip Bandopadhyay' Why would the prime minister himself make an offer to Bandopadhyay without consulting Mamata Banerjee' Why did the BJP want to do so, if not to erode the strength of Mamata Banerjee'

The BJP likes to give the impression of running a successful coalition at the Centre. However, its success does not lie in forging long term social alliances. On the contrary, its approach is opportunistic and aimed at eroding the strength of its allies.

Take the case of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. To keep M. Karunanidhi happy, the BJP initially isolated J. Jayalalithaa. Then it swung to the other extreme and started playing footsie with the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam even when the DMK was a part of the NDA. When Vaiko, another ally who heads the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, was jailed under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, not a single BJP leader visited him in Vellore jail for the first six months. This is the BJP’s “coalition dharma”.

There are plenty of examples of the sheer opportunism of the BJP in alliance formation. In 1996, the party tied up with the Haryana Vikas Party of Bansi Lal. However, in 1999, when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was faced with a confidence vote at the Centre, to get Om Prakash Chautala’s support, the BJP gave a post-dated letter to the governor of Haryana. When Chautala’s members of Parliament had supported the government and Vajpayee had won the confidence vote by a margin of one, Bansi Lal’s government was pulled down.

Consider the fate of the National Conference. Farooq Abdullah was considered such a good ally that he could do no wrong. One day he was the ideal vice-presidential candidate and the next day a potential cabinet minister. Then Mufti Mohammad Sayeed was propped up and his People’s Democratic Party launched with a nod and wink from the BJP. Once Mufti won, Farooq Abdullah could do nothing right.

The break-up of the Biju Janata Dal at the Centre, although not engineered directly by the BJP, was virtually condoned by it. The marginalization of the remnants of the original Janata Dal (United) was the direct result of the break up of the party — first into Samata Party and the JD (U) and then further into the Lok Janshakti Party of Ramvilas Paswan. Paswan and Sharad Yadav were both marginalized — the former left the government, the latter ducked to survive.

Only the Samata groups — one led by George Fernandes and the other by Nitish Kumar — continued to get prime portfolios because of their sheer nuisance value. The point, however, is that no attempt was made by the BJP to keep its allies strong. The strategy instead was to incapacitate them.

Only the Telugu Desam Party has been successful in extracting its pound of flesh from the BJP. After the Gujarat riots, the BJP was not certain whether the TDP would stay with the NDA. This fear contributed to the push for an alliance with Mayavati to reduce the BJP’s dependence on the TDP.

In Uttar Pradesh, the BJP has tried with forging a coalition with the emerging social forces consisting of the other backward classes and the Dalits. But it has been singularly unsuccessful in this attempt.

Threatened by the alliance of the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party in 1993, the party actively sought an understanding with Mayavati. Three times she became the chief minister with the BJP’s help, but in her the BJP met its match. She made use of the BJP and then discarded it. She failed only in her last attempt when out of sheer cussedness, the BJP ended up catapulting its bête noir, Mulayam Singh Yadav, into power. This break-up of the BJP-BSP alliance also demonstrates the inability of the BJP to deal with a strong ally. By putting Mulayam Singh Yadav into power, the BJP does not stand to gain electorally or politically.

There are, however, allies who are treated differently by the BJP. They either broadly share its ideology — like the Shiv Sena, or compliment it in terms of communalism — like the Akali Dal. With them, it has relatively fewer problems.

The Shiv Sena is the BJP’s oldest alliance partner. The arrangement between the two has been going on smoothly and as a result, the Shiv Sena has been rewarded with the speakership of the Lok Sabha. In Maharashtra, the seat sharing arrangement is already in place. The only glitch in the relationship came when Suresh Prabhu was removed as the minister for power at Bal Thackeray’s insistence and later made chairman of the commission on inter-linking of rivers without his say so.

The Akali Dal also has proved to be a stable ally of the BJP. The two parties have been together since 1967 — both are communal but appeal to different constituencies. As long as Prakash Singh Badal was the chief minister, the Centre’s assistance to the state was never lacking. When the Congress assumed power in Punjab and began the persecution of the Badal family, surprisingly the BJP failed to stand by its ally. It limited itself to some token statements. But the alliance continues.

Except the Shiv Sena and the Akalis, sheer opportunism determines the BJP’s behaviour with its allies. It has used alliances to gain respectability and a presence for itself in constituencies where it was absent earlier. Mayavati after all went to Gujarat to campaign for Narendra Modi. Even the mother-organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh has gained legitimacy — with the likes of George Fernandes, Sharad Yadav and Mamata Banerjee gracing the events organized by it.

But in return, the allies have got nothing. Instead, most of them have been discredited and have lost their bargaining power in the alliance. They have been weakened, split or have managed to survive through sheer blackmail.

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