While the CPM’s decision to vote against the Union budget is not likely to bring down the Narasimha Rao government, it unsettles the much trumpeted plan to forge a common anti-BJP front. For it shows that the CPM, which has to be a key player in such a front, has chosen to give priority to its own parochial interests.
This is, however, not an unexpected development. It can surprise only some old-fashioned ideologues who, in their obsession with the BJP, have ignored power realities on the ground. A couple of points may be made in this regard.
Since the challenge the BJP and its allies have come to pose cover more or less the whole country, a rival platform has to be headed by the Congress since, despite its weaknesses, it alone is an all-India party. Surely, this is too much for other parties and factions to swallow. For implicit in it is acceptance of the continued dominance of the Congress.
The argument would hold even if the BJP is to be regarded as an organisation of the Hindi belt, which it, of course, is not any longer in view of its considerable influence in Gujarat, Maharashtra and Karnataka. For, in that role too, it can be contained and rolled back by a combination of parties only under Congress leadership.
This central implication of the rise of the BJP has not been recognised by most activists and commentators. On both sides of the fence, they have been concerned almost exclusively with the propriety, or otherwise, of the means the BJP has used to spread its appeal. This concern with means, however legitimate in itself, has to be matched by an appreciation of the realities of power.
Regardless of whether we accept the wider framework in which the BJP has sought to place the Ram-janambhoomi movement first under the slogan of Hindutva and now more specifically in its ‘white paper’ on Ayodhya, the point is indisputable that it is challenging the order the Congress has presided over since independence. The brief periods in which it was not in power in New Delhi in 1977-79 and 1990-91 cannot be said to have represented a radical departure from that order.
It follows that if that order has to be preserved and the challenger beaten back, it can be done best under the auspices of the organisation which has built that order. It would have been a different matter if an alternative defender had taken its place. But that has not happened. On the contrary, the Janata Dal, which under Mr VP Singh’s leadership was seen to be such an alternative, has broken up into factions.
Much more than clash of personalities and ambitions account for this break-up. It is the inevitable result of caste-based politics which is just not feasible on an all-India basis. Obviously the fragments can at best be brought together in a patchwork, and that too under a neutral auspices such as the CPM. They cannot reunite under the leadership of Mr Singh and they cannot throw up another leader.
The Congress itself is not in good shape. Its ability, especially since the late sixties, to hold on to power has rested largely on the charismatic leader and irresponsible populism best illustrated by loan melas whereby banks distributed hundreds of crores of rupees with little hope of ever recovering them.
Today it does not have a charismatic leader. And, faced with the threat of national bankruptcy and economic stagnation, it has had to accept policies and disciplines recommended by the World Bank and the IMF. Indeed, it cannot even hoodwink the intelligentsia with the old talk of non-alignment and a world role in a north-south and a south-south dialogue. The collapse of the Soviet Union has put an end to that charade.
Yet despite these handicaps, Mr PV Narasimha Rao had, to his credit, managed to create the impression of ‘business as usual’ and would in all probability have ‘tamed’ the BJP and dispersed its challenge if Mr Arjun Singh had not queered the pitch for him. That may now be an old story which cannot be repeated. But a new version might have been possible if other parties were willing to concede it pre-eminence.
The CPM has, of course, its own reasons, both practical and ideological, for adopting the line it has. In its only strongholds in West Bengal and Kerala, its main challenger remains the Congress. The BJP is still not an important factor in either state, though its appeal has widened as a result of the Ramjanambhoomi movement. Indeed, in Kerala the Congress and the CPM are more or less evenly matched, as is evident from the switch in office from one to the other since 1959.
In West Bengal, Ms Mamta Banerjee was making life difficult for Mr Jyoti Basu when the central leadership of the Congress decided to restrain her. In the logic of things, it could not have been a long-term arrangement. If it is not ended despite the hardening of the CPM’s attitude towards the Congress government in New Delhi, the BJP will certainly try to occupy the political space the Congress would vacate as a result of a non-confrontationist approach towards the CPM.
In ideological terms, the Congress has moved too far to the right for the CPM’s comfort. The CPM’s own Marxist guise has worn pretty thin; Mr Jyoti Basu has been as keen to attract foreign investment in West Bengal as Mr Chimanbhai Patel in Gujarat; only he has not been successful for a variety of reasons. But the CPM cannot afford to throw away the guise, however tattered, for fear of losing its identity and with it the coherence it doubtless still possesses.
There is, however, a big catch in this otherwise understandable approach. That catch is that a third force headed by the CPM and constituted by regional leaders such as Mr Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mr Laloo Prasad Yadav will cut more into the Congress vote base than into the BJP’s and thus help improve the latter’s prospects. And if the impression spreads that the Congress is on the way out and that regional factions and leaders cannot possibly provide a stable government in Delhi, segments of the electorate still outside of the field of the BJP’s pull may well move over to it.
It is difficult to assess the strength of the appeal of stability and order in view of the results of the polls in 1989 and 1991. Both were indecisive. Even so, it is a reasonable view that the BJP has come to be seen as a possible alternative to the Congress. It cannot but benefit from such a perception.
As it is, Muslim leaders have been making an impossible demand on the government – construction of a mosque at the old site in Ayodhya – and thereby reinforcing the community’s alienation from the Congress in disregard of the fact that in the process they are facilitating the BJP’s task. With its decision to oppose the budget, the CPM has joined them. With such opponents, the BJP hardly needs friends except perhaps to rescue its leaders from their own fears and complexes.
The Times of India, 22 April 1993