After splitting for the sixth time, the dominant group within the fractious party is keen to join the BJP-led NDA. But the ruling party is sceptical about its motives.
By Javed M Ansari and Stephen David
It was billed as the reunification of the Janata Parivar (read JD), a revival of the spirit of 1989. But it wasn't just the much-awaited monsoon in the capital that proved to be a damper at last week's merger of the Samata Party and the Lok Shakti with the JD (Janata Dal). The Biju Janata Dal (BJD) stayed away and the parent party split yet again, with those opposed to an alliance with the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) expelling national president Sharad Yadav and electing former prime minister H.D. Deve Gowda as his successor. For a party that ruled India just two years ago and still has a government in Karnataka, the July 21 split -- the sixth in a decade -- added a farcical twist to the JD tragi-comedy. Party leader Jaipal Reddy, never at a loss for words, said caustically: "We are competing with ourselves to break our own record of splits."
More drama unfolded in Bangalore. A day after Sharad Yadav was expelled, Chief Minister J.H. Patel hit back at the Deve Gowda camp, sacking eight state ministers loyal to the former prime minister, including deputy chief minister Siddharamiah and housing minister H.D. Revanna, Deve Gowda's son, before calling on Governor Khursheed Alam Khan to recommend dissolution of the state Assembly. Stung by the rapid turn of events, Deve Gowda supporters lay siege to the JD office on Race Course Road in Bangalore. The rival group has threatened to storm the building. As police reinforcements were called into thwart trouble, Patel promised to "throw out the intruders just as our jawans did in Kargil".
Last Wednesday's developments were the culmination of week-long back-room parleys involving Patel, Samata chief George Fernandes and Lok Shakti President Ramakrishna Hegde. Though it was Deve Gowda who had anointed Patel his successor when he moved to Delhi, Patel has maintained close ties with Hegde, with whom he shares several interests. Hegde had been wooing Patel for long in an effort to cut Deve Gowda to size. The chief minister finally agreed to switch sides when 10 JD legislators walked over to the Congress.
Hemmed in by Deve Gowda and his acolytes and facing the prospect of defeat in the next elections, Patel really had no choice. When Hegde and Fernandes threw a lifeline to him earlier this month, he grabbed it. At the Centre he found a ready taker in Ram Vilas Paswan who made it known he would even sup with the devil to defeat Laloo Prasad Yadav in Bihar. Paswan in turn worked on Sharad Yadav who needed little persuasion as he has long been in the political doghouse. There was also unexpected support from I.K. Gujral who owed his last electoral win to support from the Akali Dal, a BJP ally.
However at the party's high-powered Political Affairs Committee (PAC) meeting on July 18, the proposal ran into rough weather as 11 of the 16 members vehemently opposed the idea. "The idea of joining a BJP-led alliance hits at the very soul of the party," said Madhu Dandavate, opposing the move. But the pro-NDA group decided to force the issue. Riding roughshod over the majority opinion, Sharad Yadav, Paswan and Patel held a hastily arranged merger with the Lok Shakti and the Samata, promising to contest the next election under the NDA banner. The Deve Gowda group retaliated by expelling Sharad.
The dramatic turn of events caught the BJP by surprise. The party, which used to flaunt each new ally as an example of the end of its political isolation, seemed to view the new entity as an unwelcome guest. There were fears that the unilateral move was aimed at propping up a "front within a front" to bargain with the BJP for a bigger share of seats in elections. BJP leaders were quick to emphasise that plans to induct new members into the NDA were not discussed with them.
The developments also came as a shock to the party's Karnataka unit which says it will not accept the new elements. "We should not be associated with a discredited person like Patel," says B. S. Yediyurappa, BJP Karnataka unit chief. Even at the national level a section of the ruling alliance views the merger with a degree of suspicion. Some leaders see it as an attempt by the Fernandes-led socialists to increase their leverage within the alliance. In the 12th Lok Sabha, the Lok Shakti had three and the Samata 13 MPs. The Lok Shakti is said to be seeking 13 seats for the Lok Sabha and 75 assembly seats in Karnataka. "We would be better off alone," says Suresh Kumar, deputy leader of the BJP in the now dissolved Karnataka Assembly. The merger has bolstered the group to the extent that it is planning to demand 100 seats to contest in the next elections. "Together we represent the Lok Dal-Lohia chunk of opposition votes, so this time our share of seats has to be substantially larger," says Digvijay Singh, Samata spokesman.
The BJP views the unilateral merger as a private arrangement between the Samata, Lok Shakti and the JD. The question of their formal admission into the NDA was dealt with at a meeting of the alliance on July 24. But there was considerable wrangling over whether the newcomers should be allowed at the meeting. After the withdrawal of the AIADMK, the BJP leadership was hoping to instil a modicum of discipline within the NDA. Given the JD's record, that hope may now be belied. A BJP leader summed up the party's predicament, saying, "They're the nuclear wastes of Indian politics. Dumping them on our shores could be hazardous for us." Instead of strengthening the nda, Hegde and Fernandes may have actually created fresh problems for it.
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