Warheads: How Vajpayee, Sonia sought to win the 1999 polls

Vajpayee and Sonia (File) Atal Bihari Vajpayee with Sonia Gandhi (left) | AFP

This article originally appeared in the issue of THE WEEK dated May 9, 1999

How they have matured in a year! Last year, it was Atal Bihari Vajpayee's political charisma against Sonia Gandhi's family charisma. One was unspoiled by power politics, save for a 13-day stint as prime minister; the other appeared the least interested in power and was only there to save her late husband's party from sinking. Now both have declared their ambitions unabashedly. In post-Pokhran India, abstinence is no longer a virtue, be it in nuclear doctrine or political conduct.

The BJP and the Congress fronts are planning a direct strike at each other, kicking up a mushroom cloud that will blind others. But there are many who still bet on a dark horse. Within a week of foul mouthing the CPI(M) for playing the Congress's power game, Mulayam Singh Yadav's Samajwadi Party openly declared that the third front should fight the polls projecting Jyoti Basu as its prime ministerial candidate.

For the first time since 1991, Congress has been able to project an undisputed prime ministerial candidate. "Who is their leader?" used to be the BJP's one-line barb at the Congress and the United Front in 1998. The Congress has overcome the handicap.

Ironically, the Congress's gain—of a leadership—has also been the BJP's gain. The moment its allies realised that the enemy is no longer leaderless, they rallied behind Vajpayee hoping to strengthen him. In fact, the BJP front's biggest success after its one-vote defeat in the Lok Sabha has been the front's consolidation.

This time, not only the BJP but its allies also will ask for votes for prime minister Vajpayee. As BJP spokesman K.L. Sharma puts it, "The last elections proved our prime minister's ability. In this election, the focus will be on the Lok Sabha's stability." He claims that there is a consensus among the allies to fight the election projecting Vajpayee.

Old allies like the Samata Party and the Akali Dal would not mind it, but what about the new friends like the DMK, which had been opposing the government's policies for the last 13 months? Says a senior BJP leader: "As far as the new allies are concerned, it may be difficult for them to ask for votes in Vajpayee's name. But their strategies won't clash with ours."

BJP leaders believe that Jayalalithaa's walkout and the toppling operation have not only cemented the alliance, but also silenced Vajpayee's critics within the BJP. So much so that the BJP is pretty warm to George Fernandes's idea of a common manifesto.

Party insiders say that it is the BJP's hardliners who are now more interested in a common manifesto—an updated version of the unfinished National Agenda for Governance—than the moderates. Party spokesman Venkaiah Naidu, considered a moderate, was cautious while reacting to Fernandes's suggestion. "It is a suggestion from a well-meaning person," he said. "The national executive of the party will discuss this."

But insiders say that the hardliner party chief Kushabhau Thakre started selling the Fernandes idea to party elders days before the executive was to meet.

The BJP strategy is to leave the ideological baggage behind and fight as a party of governance. Instead of Ram temple, common civil code and scrapping of Article 370, the alliance leaders will be

talking of atom, Agni and Lahore.

The three issues, the BJP believes, would keep the enemy cautious. For unlike the ideological peaceniks in the Left combine, the Congress cannot question the bomb and missile for fear of attracting a charge of pandering to videshi interests. The Congress campaign rather would be against the BJP government's conduct after the bomb, especially on the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) talks.

On its part, the Congress is expected to sell itself from its two traditional planks—stability and secularism. The party believes that the BJP front's ability-stability plank is not going to sell since the facts militate against it. After all, a ragtag government, which fell four years before its term has no right to talk of stability. On the contrary, the Congress could point out that no Congress prime minister, even when in minority, had to quit before the end of his or her term. In other words, the Congress would put it across that it alone has the skill to govern.

If the Congress brings the issue round to governance, the BJP alliance would have much to be defensive about. Even BJP admirers agree that it was sheer political ineptitude that allowed every issue in the last 13 months—from Bhagwat to budgetary rollbacks—to snowball.

The Congress believes that its plank of being the largest—and thus strongest—secular party should sell, given the insecurity felt by the minorities. The BJP's answer to this is that the communal versus secular fight is no longer relevant, with many of the so-called secular fighters having no qualms about flirting with the BJP. On the contrary, the BJP might raise a new conflict theme— swadeshi versus videshi. But the battle line on this is yet to clear up with the third fronters giving their own definitions to this.

Mulayam Singh Yadav seems to agree with the BJP and Samata that "Videshi forces are trying to destabilise India", but his CPI(M) friend Prakash Karat says "It is not the foreign individual, but foreign-dictated policies that should be fought against". As far as foreign origin of economic policies is concerned, the third fronters like him blame both the Congress and the BJP.

Head start versus caution

The BJP believes that it does have an initial advantage over the Congress to the extent that the Congress is yet to recover from the shock of having been denied power after being so close to it. But then a head start in an election campaign has not always been to any advantage.

"In every election since 1991,"points out a Congress leader, "the BJP had a head start, but that has not always worked to their advantage. As the election approaches, you will see that the fight is over a host of other issues, mostly local." The 1998 elections were caused by the Jain Commission report, but as the battle started, it was pushed into oblivion.

That is why the BJP and allies are pushing for an early election in which the voters would be going to the booth when the events of the cruel April are still fresh in their minds. Within hours of the president ordering the dissolution of the 12th Lok Sabha and calling for general elections, the alliance leaders were knocking at Chief Election Commissioner M.S. Gill's door giving every reason—from the constitutional aberration called caretaker government to cyclones on the Bay of Bengal coast—for an early poll.

The Congress, on the other hand, is believed to be silently praying for a post-cyclonic poll by which time a hundred local issues would crop up. And by then, a few stable alliances could also be formed. As Congress spokesman Arjun Singh puts it: "An unequal alliance takes place either in haste or under compulsion."

It is this caution that is keeping the Congress from tying up with Jayalalithaa. In fact, Jayalalithaa's
parting words before she left Delhi after operation goof-up were: "Once again, we hope to be part of a new government, which will have the supreme national interests at heart." But the Congress idea is to keep talking to G.K. Moopanar of the Tamil Maanila Congress who cannot join the BJP camp.

Another prospective ally is the Bahujan Samaj Party. Now that a tie-up with Mulayam is out of the question, the Congress feels that the BSP should become its natural ally. But then the Congress also realises that its bargaining strength with Mayawati has been reduced, now that it can look forward only to her as an ally in Uttar Pradesh.

The spoilers

Incidentally, there is one common desire on both sides—to reduce the now-nebulous third front to irrelevance. Both believe that India has reached a stage of two-front, if not two-party, political system. The Congress front on the one side and the BJP front on the other.

But it is on the alliance strategies that the third front can spoil the dreams of both. In its cautious way, the Congress so far has responded warmly only to Lalu Prasad Yadav. The party also seems to have learnt its lesson from the Mulayam episode and has begun to treat its ally with respect. A few days after the Operation Topple failed, Sonia Gandhi sent a sweet thank-you letter to Lalu Yadav.

But the third front— the communists and Mulayam—believe that Lalu can still be sweet-talked into breaking off with Sonia. Thus Mulayam still swears by his Rashtriya Loktantrik Morcha partnership with Lalu. "There is only one point of difference between us," says Mulayam. "The RLM remains and it is strong."

The CPI(M) does not want Lalu to break off with the Congress if that would prevent the BJP-Samata alliance from sweeping Bihar. Yet it is still in touch with Lalu. "We are talking to the Janata Dal and the Rashtriya Janata Dal," admits Karat. The CPI(M) line is to break off with those who have flirted with the BJP, especially Chandrababu Naidu, while it is softer towards the DMK.

But Uttar Pradesh is where one expects the bitterest fight between all three—and perhaps even four if the BSP fights alone. George Fernandes's recent overtures towards Mulayam have put him in deep trouble. Already Uttar Pradesh Congress Committee (UPCC) president Salman Khurshid is going round the Gangetic plain saying that Mulayam had always been helping the BJP.

Now Mulayam is expected to be more strident towards the BJP and, at least to reassert his secular credentials, work harder towards a third front. In a house where every vote counts, the Left and the SP hope to be able to tilt the balance even as the Congress and the BJP fronts attempt to reduce the third front's ability to get into mischief after the polls.