The Mulayam Singh government's record is poor and increasingly communally compromised. But Article 356 is not the remedy.
AS these lines were being written, the Centre was toying with the idea of dismissing the government of Uttar Pradesh led by Mulayam Singh Yadav, under Article 356 of the Constitution. The Congress has already prepared the ground for this ill-advised move. This, despite the opposition of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which rightly said that there were no Constitutional grounds for the planned move.
Mulayam Singh's dismissal would flout all norms of propriety and give him a handle against his opponents, in particular by allowing him to claim that the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ganged up against his Samajwadi Party (S.P.) for partisan, parochial reasons.
It is futile to cite the recent Supreme Court judgment disqualifying 13 Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) MLAs, who defected in 2003 to join the ruling coalition, to argue that Mulayam Singh has lost his majority or that his government is unconstitutional, illegitimate, `illegally conceived' and `illegally born' in the first place. At work here is the extrapolation of the disqualification ruling to another 24 BSP MLAs, who had also defected (albeit 10 days later) and backed Mulayam Singh. Such extrapolation is specious because the Court specifically separated the case of the 24 from that of the 13 and refused to disqualify them without a petition.
The Congress' contention that Mulayam Singh's government was based on defections and was illegitimate is mired in contradictions. The party itself acted as the midwife to its birth and lent it full support until two months ago. Right since 2003, it has been aware that the 13 MLAs did not represent one-third of the BSP's strength in the Assembly (109 seats) and that the other 24 defected later and did not form a single bloc with the 13.
To argue that Mulayam Singh's government was illegitimate in some special, singular way because it was formed with defections ignores the Congress' own record of stitching together any number of governments through defections, inducements and bribery, most prominently P.V. Narasimha Rao's minority government at the Centre in 1991, which paid bribes to the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha to cobble together a majority.
Dissolving Mulayam Singh's government under Article 356 would violate the Supreme Court's judgment in the Bommai case, which says that the issue of majority support must be established on the floor of the Assembly alone. Besides, Mulayam Singh proved his majority in the Assembly not just in 2003 but this past January too.
The Congress' move is driven by a devious calculation pertaining to the forthcoming election of the President of India. If U.P., with its 83,824 votes, is excluded from the electoral college of 5,49,474 votes, there would be no need for the Congress to seek the S.P.'s support for its own candidate. But excluding India's largest State from the presidential contest would be profoundly undemocratic.
Dismissing the U.P. government when the State Assembly elections are round the corner would fly in the face of the well-established convention that even a minority government that loses a vote of confidence should continue as caretaker if elections are due soon. As senior lawyer Rajeev Dhavan argues, it would be wrong not to apply this convention to the States while accepting the legitimacy of Central governments functioning as caretakers pending elections after they lost their majority in 1979, 1991 and 1998.
If the Congress and other Opposition parties apprehend that Mulayam Singh might use his office to rig the Assembly elections or influence their conduct, they must seek other remedies, including close and rigorous scrutiny of the election process through the Election Commission. Dismissal is not the answer.
The Congress is being disastrously short sighted as well as Machiavellian to think that Mulayam Singh's dismissal will turn the scales against the S.P. and help it greatly improve its own performance in the Assembly elections. Just the contrary: Mulayam Singh, whose support base has significantly eroded over the past four years, will probably be able to consolidate his Muslim vote by pointing to `collusion' between the Congress and the BJP.
In reality, the S.P. is politically far more vulnerable than it appears. The recent municipal elections, in which the BSP did not participate, demonstrate this. Their results also artificially inflate the BJP's gains in the big cities: many BSP voters backed the BJP because they wanted to give a drubbing to the S.P., their principal adversary.
Several factors explain why the S.P. might be on a weak wicket in U.P. For one, the Mulayam Singh government has actively supported and promoted bahubalis (politicians with a criminal record, or specialists in strong-arm tactics). U.P.'s crime rates are embarrassingly high and rising, especially those of abduction and extortion. The Nithari case exposes police-politician links at high levels and phenomenal levels of corruption in the police.
For another, the Mulayam Singh government has gained notoriety for the patronage it has lavished at state expense on all manner of shady businessmen, industrialists, property-sharks and film personalities. The Dadri Special Economic Zone is only one instance of the "sweetheart deals" it has cut. The government has not hesitated to extend favours even to the higher judiciary through land allotments at ludicrously low prices. Cronyism is central to the Mulayam Singh government's strategy of cultivating, and winning support from, elite groups and unsavoury upper-caste (especially Rajput) leaders such as Raja Bhaiyya.
All this, like the mindless privatisation of sugar mills and other public assets, with dire consequences for their workers and other dependants such as cane-growers, as well as huge real estate projects designed to favour industrial groups, is sure to cause a massive erosion of support for the S.P. and provoke public anger against its brazen `winner-takes-all' methods.
No less important is the Mulayam Singh government's record in undermining and grabbing institutions, including academic bodies such as the Gandhian Institute of Studies (GIS) at Varanasi. Established in 1960, the GIS is part of the Indian Council of Social Science Research network. It was victimised during the National Democratic Alliance regime by Human Resources Development Minister Murli Manohar Joshi, who imposed on it Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) worker Kusum Lata Kedia as director. Kedia's services were terminated in 2003 but she continues to occupy the director's bungalow. The S.P. and the BJP have since collusively tried to destroy the GIS in various ways.
The Mulayam Singh government has wrongly cut the institute's grant, refused to re-register it, and shut down its main building and its prestigious library. It has filed absurd criminal charges against its progressive director Dipak Malik. Worse, a land mafia has now descended upon the institute's premises, backed by the State police. It is now muscling its way to grabbing the 15 acres the institute occupies. It has already occupied seven residential quarters.
For a third, the Mulayam Singh government has catered to Hindu communalists in numerous ways. The Chief Minister has failed to issue a long-overdue notification in the Babri demolition case, which would correct an anomaly and name Lal Krishna Advani as an accused in the charge-sheet. He has also developed close contacts with Sangh Parivar leaders.
Last September, he showered fulsome praise on RSS ideologue Bhanu Pratap Shukla at a memorial meeting and called him "a great intellectual". He provided lavish hospitality at five star hotels to several BJP leaders during the party's recent national council meeting in Lucknow. This was done as part of `State protocol'. Why former BJP Ministers should be subsidised through public money is beyond comprehension.
Worse, the government provided the infrastructure with Rs.2.52 crores to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) for the third Vishwa Hindu Sammelan organised at Allahabad on February 11-13. The convention pushed the VHP's communal agenda, including the Ram temple issue, amidst the chanting of militant Hindutva slogans and declarations of a determination to counter jehad with a Hindu dharmayuddha. Contrary to the VHP's promise that no political figures would grace the event, Murli Manohar Joshi and State BJP president Kesri Nath Tripathi were on the dais on February 12.
This is certain to cause severe disappointment among the S.P.'s Muslim supporters, one of the main planks in the Muslim-Yadav social coalition that lies at the party's foundation. As large numbers of Muslims told me during two recent visits to U.P., Mulayam Singh is mistaken if he imagines that he can take the community for granted because it has no choice but to vote for the S.P. The Muslims' lot has worsened under his rule. Opening more Urdu-medium schools is no remedy for this.
All in all, Mulayam Singh seems to be tarnishing, even undermining, his image as U.P.'s secular bulwark against Hindu communalism. This, coupled with his record of misgovernance, cronyism and bahubali raj, could prove lethal in the next election. The best bet of Mulayam Singh's professedly centrist opponents, including the Congress, lies in offering a strongly secular, Left-leaning, plebeian-oriented alternative with progressive policies and programmes. Alas, the Congress is looking for shortcuts involving the abuse of power.