A Government on tenterhooks

Print edition : May 09, 1998

WHEN President K.R. Narayanan granted sanction to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to prosecute Sukh Ram in yet another case related to the telecom scandal, the former Union Communications Minister had few escape routes. And the BJP was under pressure to act, for it was yet another instance where it could not be seen as being inconsistent in its treatment of persons facing corruption charges.

Sukh Ram was still new in his job as the de facto Deputy Chief Minister of Himachal Pradesh, where a coalition government of the BJP and the Haryana Vikas Congress (HVC), which he floated after he left the Congress(I) in the wake of the telecom scandal, is in power. The BJP had inducted Sukh Ram into the Prem Kumar Dhumal Cabinet even though criminal proceedings against him in two other cases, one relating to accumulation of assets disproportionate to his income, were in progress.

After blowing hot and cold for four days, Sukh Ram, who handled the Public Works and Power portfolios in the State Cabinet, stepped down from office on April 30 under pressure from the central leadership of the BJP. BJP president Kushabhau Thakre and the party's national secretary Narendra Modi were largely instrumental in persuading him to resign. However, until May 4 the party had not formally accepted his resignation .

In an interview to Frontline on May 2, Sukh Ram said: "I hold Prime Minister Vajpayee in high esteem. So I submitted my resignation at his request." Stressing that his resignation was "irrevocable", he said: "I will not withdraw it even if I am asked to do so." He denied that there was a quid pro quo in the matter.

However, there have been reports that Sukh Ram struck some hard bargains for his son, Anil Sharma, who was elected to the Rajya Sabha as a BJP candidate. Asked whether he envisaged a role for his son, Sukh Ram said: "He should play a role... It is the prerogative of the Prime Minister."

Accompanied by HVC legislators, Sukh Ram camped in New Delhi after he put in his papers. To his supporters, the resignation has been a major let-down; they feel that Sukh Ram must have a game plan to avenge the humiliation. A note in his defence was reported to be ready but it had not yet been made public. Sukh Ram blamed his detractors in the Congress(I) and the press, which he has often tried to please, for carrying out a politically motivated campaign against him. He named former Congress(I) colleagues Virbhadra Singh and Rajesh Pilot as his detractors.

A debate has raged within the BJP central leadership on the issue of accommodating someone like Sukh Ram, who is scam-tainted but without whom the party cannot remain in power in Himachal Pradesh. Before the elections the BJP had attacked Sukh Ram for his role in the telecom scandal. Even Anil Sharma was once a target of the BJP; the party had demanded his resignation when he was a Minister in Himachal Pradesh.

The BJP-led coalition in Himachal Pradesh has a wafer-thin majority and that too courtesy Sukh Ram and the HVC. Even out of power, Sukh Ram holds the reins. He was the second in command in the State Cabinet. His men hold the portfolios of Rural Development, Panchayati Raj, Excise and Taxation, Food and Civil Supplies, Social Welfare and Animal Husbandry. As long as Sukh Ram and the HVC hold the balance of power, the BJP in Himachal Pradesh will be on tenterhooks. Chief Minister Prem Kumar Dhumal and Sukh Ram have not always seen eye to eye and this could complicate matters further for the BJP.

In view of the elections on June 3 including to one Lok Sabha seat from Sukh Ram's Mandi fortress, the BJP's political stakes are high. Although the BJP-led coalition has an edge, it could suffer shock reverses if the electorate is angry about Sukh Ram's humiliation. The State is likely to face yet another phase of political uncertainty and, maybe, another round of political poaching. In the previous round, two HVC legislators had sought formal merger with the BJP to checkmate moves by the Congress(I) to add to its numbers. The Speaker is a former Congressman, though he is now backed by the BJP.

Since Sukh Ram has submitted his resignation letter, the Congress(I) may well get another opportunity to form a Government in Himachal Pradesh. Sukh Ram is not without friends in the Congress(I). He has conceded that he was in touch with some Congressmen. Congress observer R.K. Dhawan visited Himachal Pradesh recently.

However, for the time being, Sukh Ram has professed loyalty to the BJP-led coalition. It appears that other HVC Ministers will remain in the Government. Hard, behind-the-scenes negotiations by BJP leaders in Delhi, especially Narendra Modi, have ensured the status quo in the BJP's favour.

The Sukh Ram factor will determine who will win in the June elections. For Sukh Ram, just one Assembly seat is at stake, but for former Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh the June elections are crucial for his future as a Congress leader. The BJP, too, must win the seats to ensure greater stability to its Government. Sukh Ram could still be in a position to call the shots.

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