Season of political intrigues

Published : Mar 04, 2000 00:00 IST


ON February 28, as the curtain came down on the electoral exercise in Bihar, spread over a month or so, another political theatre opened in Patna. The new show in town promises lots of political intrigues and wranglings over constitutional provisions rel ating to matters of governance.

The elections have thrown up a hung Assembly, leaving the two main political formations, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and the Rashtriya Janata Dal-led alliance, to try and cobble together an arrangement that will give either of them a majority. The first act of the drama unfolded with leaders in the two principal formations citing various rules to push their respective cases and assert their "right to form a government". Parties and MLAs who were not committed to eit her formation were being assiduously wooed using every trick in the game. Principles and long-held positions became the first casualty in the exercise.

The NDA, particularly the BJP, has abandoned the stand adopted during the crisis in Uttar Pradesh in 1996 and at the Centre in 1998 that in the event of a hung legislature, the single largest party had the first claim to forming the government. It now wa nts Governor Vinod Chandra Pande to invite the NDA to form the government. When asked about it by mediapersons, BJP leaders sidestepped the point that in 1998 Atal Behari Vajpayee, as leader of the largest single party, was invited to form the government at the Centre and that President Shankar Dayal Sharma went by the constitutional provisions. In 1996, the BJP had launched a programme of agitation against Uttar Pradesh Governor Romesh Bhandari to protest against his not inviting the BJP, the single la rgest party, to form the government.

Even as recently as February 25, when it seemed that the NDA might emerge as the numerically stronger entity in the Bihar Assembly, BJP leaders, including Sushil Kumar Modi, had stated forcefully that if the elections resulted in a hung Assembly, the si ngle largest combination would have the right to form the government.

Going by the yardstick advocated by the BJP until recently, the RJD should be invited to form the government: in addition to being the single largest party (with 124 seats), it heads the single largest combination, together with the Communist Party of In dia (Marxist), which has two members in the Assembly.

The BJP and its partners in the NDA now argue that the Governor should invite only that formation which can demonstrate, to his conviction and confidence, that it can provide a stable government. The NDA leadership says it has this capacity, but does not say how it will accomplish this. Horse-trading appears to be the unstated, but most obvious, strategy.

The stakes involved and the scale of the manoeuvres were made evident on February 28 when a group of NDA leaders from the Centre arrived in Patna. Leading them was the Samata Party's candidate for the chief ministership, Nitish Kumar. He was followed by Defence Minister George Fernandes and Communications Minister Ram Vilas Paswan, who came in a chartered plane.

In defence of its claim that it should be invited to form the government, the NDA argues that the verdict must be seen as a mandate against the RJD. According to Modi, candidates who opposed the RJD had won a majority of the seats. But the BJP has no ans wer to the question whether all these MLAs would back the NDA's bid to form a Ministry.

ON the other side, the RJD interprets the results as a mandate against communal forces. RJD president Laloo Prasad Yadav said that a majority of the seats had been won by parties and independents who oppose the BJP's communal politics. He further pointed out that parties such as the Congress(I), the CPI, the CPI(M) and the CPI(M-L) had cooperated in the past to keep the BJP and its associates out of power. In fact, Laloo Prasad himself headed such a grouping in 1990 when the Janata Dal (of which he was a leader) had only 123 seats in the Assembly. That alliance government lasted its full term, and the RJD leader is apparently looking forward to a repeat of that exercise with his wife Rabri Devi at the helm.

However, the spirit of 1990 will be hard to revive. The parties whose support he needs have moved far away from him in recent years. The CPI and the CPI(ML) have said they will maintain equidistance from the NDA and the RJD. However, the CPI has said tha t it would vote against an NDA government but would abstain if an RJD-led government sought a vote of confidence.

The central leadership of the Congress(I) and a section of the State unit are at loggerheads over the question of supporting the RJD. Although State party president Sadanand Singh is open to a coming together of secular forces, former CLP leader Ram Ashr ey Singh and a few others have threatened to walk out if the State unit is forced to support an RJD government. By some estimates, 13 Congress(I) MLAs oppose an association with the RJD.

The Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) is unlikely to support an RJD government since in its perception Laloo Prasad Yadav was the main opponent of its demand for a separate state.

However, the five-member BSP has offered conditional support to the RJD and a few other parties, such as the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) and the Marxist Coordination Committee (MCC), are ready to do business with the RJD.

The RJD combine may be able to form the government if it secures the support of all the MLAs belonging to the Congress(I), the CPI, the CPI(M-L) and the BSP. The cumulative strength of these parties would be 165. However, given the problems in the Congre ss(I), this calculation is unrealistic.

The NDA will be looking to capitalise on a split in the Congress(I) and also win over a number of independents. According to BJP insiders, the party may seek to repeat the Uttar Pradesh experiment of 1997, when a group within the Congress(I) was enticed to break away and each MLA in the breakaway group was made a Minister. "We can try something similar here too," a BJP activist told Frontline.

The NDA seems to have ensured the support of 13 of the 20 independent MLAs. In fact, six of them owe their victory in some measure to the withdrawal of NDA candidates from the fray. These include candidates with criminal records such as Surajbhan Singh a nd Munna Shukla. The NDA is also sure of the support of the 12-member JMM group.

There are indications that the non-BJP constituents of the NDA have approached a few central leaders of the Congress(I) with a proposal to form a government that would not include the BJP. According to Congress(I) sources, the argument advanced was that if the RJD was allowed to continue in power, it would lead to a further weakening of the Congress(I). The sources said that the Congress(I) leaders were non-committal on this.

At the political level, the NDA is driven by the determination that it should not allow Laloo Prasad and the RJD to have another innings in power. According to a senior BJP leader, there was real concern that if the RJD got one more term in power, Laloo Prasad would decimate all other parties. "We have waited for 10 long years and we have tried all ruses," the leader added. "It is time to get him out."

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