NOT A GENTLEMAN'S GAME - It is difficult to imagine a more insecure party than the BJP

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By Writing on the wall / Ashok V. Desai
  • Published 28.01.04

Indira Gandhi was a raging paranoiac. When the Congress high command made her prime minister after Shastri, they should have known better. But hope overcame reason. They thought they could co-opt her into the coterie, and run a government together. She not only refused to give them space, but she threw them out.

That posed a problem for her: she had created an opposition party out of nothing. To destroy it, she brought in corrupt fellows like Lalit Narain Mis- ra. She brought in communists like Mohan Kumaramangalam, who wanted to nationalize wholesale trade. She nationalized banks. She made war, and called an election to cash in on the victory in Bangladesh. She went ballistically populist.

But her popularity did not last. The government had always lived on the edge of a precarious balance of payments; the oil crisis knocked it off sideways, and opposition again raised its head. So Mrs Gandhi declared emergency and put opposition leaders in jail.

She thought she was teaching them a lesson: she wanted them to forget ever to oppose her. Unfortunately for her, they learnt the wrong lesson. They all reflected in captivity on the folly of letting her come to power. They had thought opposition was all about living in spacious bungalows in Delhi and making fine speeches in Parliament. She taught them that being in opposition could be most inconvenient, and they resolved to get out of that state if they ever got a chance. They got together, and when she called a general election, threw the Congress out of power for the first time since independence.

But their newly acquired wisdom did not endure. Soon Mrs Gandhi split the Janata Party and made Charan Singh a puppet prime minister. And before long she pulled the rug from under him and came back to power. The lesson of her Machiavellian manoeuvres was learnt by her son; when Rajiv came to power, he got Parliament to pass a law whereby a member would lose his seat if he did not take at least a third of this party with him when defecting. Rajiv had no need for that law; he had a huge majority. Maybe he had a premonition of the transient nature of power, which he lost within five years. The Bharatiya Janata Party, on the other hand, has felt terribly insecure ever since it came to power. Its rise was meteoric; its memories of decades spent in the wilderness refuse to fade away, and the last five years spent in luxury have cast their spell. Whatever it is, it is difficult to imagine a more insecure party than the BJP. Even the decisive win in middle India, even the prospect before it of trouncing the Congress in the coming general election, is not alleviating its insecurity.

Lal Krishna Advani came to the government with an idée fixe: he wanted that once his party cobbled together a government, it should be allowed to rule for five years. No matter if its allies abandoned it, no matter if a Gujarat experiment or two raised doubts about its fitness to rule; he wanted five years, come what may. To this end he wanted to pass a constitutional amendment that would bring in the German practice, that a government could not be voted out until an alternative government was voted in. No matter that the efficacy of that rule in Germany is questionable. Germany has seen the weirdest coalitions because of it; and some of them have achieved little in office. The most obvious characteristic of Germany’s coalition governments has been their indecisive handling of Germany’s fundamental economic problems — in particular, stalled growth and an army of 4 million unemployed. It is not a record worth emulating.

Admittedly, the arguments for the German rule are not all self-serving. For some, the prospect of a lack of government at the Centre may be daunting. If there was no government, who would rule? How can we have a power vacuum in Delhi?

The fears are, however, misplaced. The Constitution has foreseen and provided for that eventuality. In the event that the government loses majority in Parliament and no alternative government can be formed, the president is authorized to take the reins of power, and to call general elections within six months. This has been done innumerable times in the states; it can also be done at the Centre. Advani’s solution was designed to solve the BJP’s problem, not the nation’s.

Anyway, the BJP, at some point, gave up Advani’s idea, and caught on to the idea of banning defections. It is not difficult to see where the BJP is coming from. In Uttar Pradesh, it could have faced an exodus to Mulayam. But he suddenly turned into a gentleman and split the Bahujan Samaj Party instead. The BJP has thrived on defections. From Rangarajan Kumaramangalam to K.C. Pant, it has lured away Congressmen by the dozen. Somewhere between a quarter and a third of its legislators are defectors from some party or another. Just recently, it got virtually the entire Congress legislature party in Arunchal Pradesh to defect.

After the general election, the BJP expects to become the largest party at the Centre. The larger a party, the greater the threat posed by defections. So this is just the point at which the BJP expects to derive the maximum advantage from an anti-defection law. It hopes to win 200 seats in the next election and lock them up for five years. So can its major allies like the Telugu Desam Party; Fernandes will be relieved of the almost daily revolts in Samata. But the BJP has not done its calculations. A law banning defections cannot prevent defections; it only raises the cost of defecting. For there will have to be fresh by-elections to the seats vacated by defectors; they can contest those seats again and win. What would matter then is whether the defectors had earlier won on their own merit or on the BJP’s brand name. If they have a strong local base, they will come back; if they are party puppets, they will not. So it would be in the BJP’s interest to put up puppets — except that puppets will not win against local leaders.

There is another way in which the anti-defection law will hurt the BJP. It makes it advantageous to contest as an independent, or as a member of a small party. For an independent cannot, by definition, defect or be disqualified; a small, opportunistic party may change its allegiance without anyone defecting. The new law will work against all large parties. The scourge of defections haunts all large parties, not just the BJP. It is Advani’s wont to seek self-serving solutions and push them through, regardless of cost. The BJP’s interests would have been better served if it had worked towards a gentleman’s agreement with Sonia Gandhi, in which both the Congress and the BJP undertook not to poach on each other. Sonia Gandhi was honouring such an implicit agreement when she disowned Ajit Jogi for his attempt to split the Chhattisgarh BJP. She has suffered far more defections to the BJP than vice versa, and would have been more than willing to come to an understanding.

The Advani style — confrontationist, adversarial, Machiavellian — is bad for the BJP. If it wants to last long as an effective party, it should be working to strengthen the roots of democracy. And they can only be strengthened by commonly accepted rules of the game.

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