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The Great Lucknow Circus

Print edition : Nov 15, 1997

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The size and composition of Kalyan Singh's farcical jumbo Ministry show up the sordidness of the BJP's power politics.

THEY sprang up all over Lucknow, like billboards advertising the latest show in town. Barely days after Kalyan Singh took over as Chief Minister on September 21, colourful hoardings, put up by the Uttar Pradesh Information Department, towered over every traffic intersection, proclaiming to all who cared to gaze upon them: "Kaanoon ka raj hoga, bhayamukt samaj hoga" (The rule of law will prevail; society will be free from fear). Portrayed alongside this reassuring message was Kalyan Singh himself, one arm raised in salute, and with crowds of people behind him. Intended to project Kalyan Singh as a leader who had not lost his common touch, the hoardings drew much appreciation from activists of the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Barely a month later, however, these hoardings drew mirthful, even derisive, comments, even from long-time BJP activists. What seemed earlier to be a depiction of Kalyan Singh as a towering "leader of the people" appeared, in the wake of the October 27 expansion of his Ministry to mammoth proportions, to be a picture of a ringmaster and his 92 Ministerial colleagues, many of whom had swung from party to party with the ease of professional trapeze artists.

The Great Lucknow Circus had rolled into town. And it was a show with a difference, featuring quick-change political artists, not all of whom had particular concern about which side of the criminal law they were on.

In taking all of them on board the jumbo Ministry as the reward for ensuring its survival, the Kalyan Singh Government and the BJP invited ridicule for their headlong descent from the high moral ground that they claimed to occupy; with that one act, the BJP ended up snatching defeat from the jaws of political victory in Uttar Pradesh.

ALTHOUGH the Kalyan Singh Government won the vote of confidence in the U.P. Assembly on October 21 in decidedly dubious circumstances (Frontline , November 14), the BJP gave the appearance of having made substantial political gains in the next few days. The United Front Government made a near-fatal blunder in recommending the imposition of President's rule in U.P. under Article 356 of the Constitution, but was forced to back down after President K.R. Narayanan returned the recommendation for reconsideration. The U.F.'s mishandling of the situation not only ensured the survival of the Kalyan Singh Government but also helped the BJP sidestep allegations of horse-trading to engineer a majority in the Assembly. BJP leaders brushed aside allegations that the party had offered blandishments to encourage some MLAs from other parties to vote in favour of the Kalyan Singh Government. Kalyan Singh said that "all those who have come to the BJP have come with affection" (Frontline , November 14).

In one fell stroke, the October 27 expansion of the Ministry to accommodate the entire group of MLAs from other parties who had broken away to help the BJP Government win the vote of confidence undermined these gains, and the BJP's claim to being a party that abides by moral values in the political arena took a quite unprecedented battering.

KALYAN SINGH'S action in conferring ministership on virtually all the non-BJP MLAs who supported his Government during the vote of confidence has confirmed the nature of the deal that helped him secure a majority. In the process, the Uttar Pradesh Loktantrik Congress (UPLC) with 22 MLAs, the breakaway Janata Dal (three MLAs) and the Janatantrik Bahujan Samaj Party (12 MLAs), which broke away from the BSP, have acquired a fairly unique political status: there are no ordinary members in their legislature groups; all of them are Ministers.

On that count, the Samata Party, the BJP's long-standing political ally, is a loser: only one of its two MLAs is in the Ministry. Raghuraj Pratap Singh alias Raja Bhaiyya, an independent MLA from Kunda in Pratapgarh district, who displayed impressive martial skills during the violence in the Assembly on October 21 (the November 14 issue of Frontline has a photograph of him aiming a microphone stand at Opposition MLAs), was also rewarded with ministership. He is reported to have helped enlist the support of five independent MLAs for the Kalyan Singh Government.

By any verifiable yardstick, Kalyan Singh has created a record for rewarding defectors. And after having perforce gratified non-BJP MLAs with ministership, Kalyan Singh found himself compelled to satisfy several ministerial aspirants of his own party. Thirty more BJP MLAs were inducted into the Ministry. Even this, however, has not checked expressions of dissent within the party.

A group of 10 BJP MLAs led by Ashok Yadav met in Lucknow immediately after the swearing-in ceremony and criticised the Chief Minister for "furthering his personal political interests at the cost of the principles of the party." The MLAs later went to Delhi and voiced their displeasure to the central leadership. So acute was the embarrassment over the Ministry expansion that BJP president L.K. Advani felt constrained to express unhappiness about the size of the Ministry.

EVEN more embarrassing - and less defensible - than the size and the circumstances of the expansion was the composition of the Ministry. Thirty-three of the Ministers who were sworn in on October 27 face criminal charges. The cases against UPLC leaders Harishankar Tiwari, Amarmani Tripathi and Shyam Sunder Sharma, BSP rebels Prem Prakash Singh and Markandeya Chand as well as independent MLA Raghuraj Pratap Singh are particularly serious in nature. Tiwari faces charges in 27 cases, including nine of alleged murder, 10 of alleged attempt to murder and three each of alleged dacoity and kidnapping; Tripathi faces charges in 20 cases, including three of alleged murder and seven of alleged attempt to murder. Prem Prakash Singh faces charges in three cases of alleged murder and Markandeya Chand in one case of alleged murder. Raghuraj Pratap Singh faces charges in two cases of murder and three cases of attempted murder. Three BJP Ministers - Hukum Singh, Rakesh Dhar Tripathi and Sri Ram Sonkar - also face criminal cases, but the charges against them are not as serious as those against Tiwari or Tripathi.

Considering the fact that they appear to have had more than a little trouble with keeping on the right side of the criminal law, it is not immediately clear how these Ministers will cope with the rigours of office. Harishankar Tiwari has been given charge of the Department of Science and Technology; Tripathi is the Minister of State for Youth Welfare; Raghuraj Pratap Singh has been put in charge of the Department of Programme Implementation. Minister of State for Culture Pappu Jaiswal, who won as an independent, was charged by the police during the last election campaign for allegedly moving around with a truckload of stolen electricity poles which he was distributing free to potential voters.

Shivpratap Shukla, Cabinet Minister in charge of the Prisons Department, can well hope to draw from his personal experience while handling his portfolio: he has spent time in detention under the National Security Act.

A four-time BJP MLA from eastern U.P. told Frontline : "How can anybody expect a Ministry that has as many as 33 people facing criminal charges to enforce the rule of law?" His is not an isolated voice of dissent within the BJP. When the 10-member team of MLAs raised this issue with Advani, the BJP president reportedly maintained a discreet silence.

THE jumbo Ministry is certain to be a drain on the State exchequer. According to informal estimates prepared by a section of the bureaucracy, the Government will have to spend a minimum of Rs.120 crores a year on the 93 Ministers in pay and perks. On an average, allowances paid to each Minister and his personal staff of six (plus peons, vehicle drivers and security staff) work out to Rs.10 lakhs a month. Ministers draw an allowance of Rs.2 lakhs a month for telephones, housing, travel and entertainment. Another Rs.1 lakh is budgeted for constituency expenses. Given the shortage of office space for Ministers, some 50 bureaucrats were shunted out of their offices.

EVIDENTLY concerned about the cumulative impact of the Ministry-making exercise, the Central leadership of the BJP sent a team of senior media personalities known to be sympathetic to the BJP to Lucknow early in November to assess the extent of the damage and to identify ways to limit it. The media team's assessment was that on a scale of 100, the BJP's image had soared from 40 points to 90 after the U.F. Government's decision to revoke its recommendation to dismiss the Kalyan Singh Government, but had slumped to 45 after the Ministry expansion. Apparently, Kalyan Singh has been advised not to add to the controversy over the size and composition of the Ministry.

On his part, Kalyan Singh is reportedly confident that the controversy will not last long and that the situation can be retrieved in 45 days by concentrating on "demonstrable developmental work", such as building new roads, improving civic amenities and addressing law and order problems. In fact, he argues that the sheer size of the Ministry will help complete development work speedily (see interview).

Kalyan Singh's supporters in the State BJP too claim that the Ministry-making exercise has not been without political gains and that a majority of the UPLC MLAs now owe personal allegiance to Kalyan Singh rather than to UPLC leaders. A BJP Minister close to Kalyan Singh told Frontline : "When the UPLC was formed, Naresh Agarwal and Jagadambika Pal were the two key leaders, but by making all the UPLC MLAs Ministers, Kalyan Singh has elevated the status of the 20 other MLAs. The two leaders now have the support of only 10 UPLC MLAs. The rest are closer to Kalyan Singh and the BJP than to the UPLC leaders."

THESE, however, are but minor perceived gains. There is little likelihood of the Kalyan Singh Government or the BJP ever living down their odious contribution to integrating politics and crime. And what is worse for the party of Hindutva, things look set to get progressively worse. The Janatantrik BSP, which now has 12 MLAs, has been unable to deliver on its claim that it has enough members to effect a "split" as defined under the Anti-Defection Act. (The parent party had 66 MLAs; to avoid disqualification and effect a split, the breakaway group should have the support of at least 23 MLAs.) According to Speaker Kesri Nath Tripathi, Janatantrik BSP leader Markandeya Chand had announced in the Assembly on October 21 that his group consisted of 23 members and that 11 of them had been forcibly prevented from voting by the BSP MLAs. However, even 15 days later, Markandeya Chand was unable to present the 11 MLAs or even give their names. Clearly, the numbers are not adding up for the Janatantrik BSP.

The BSP led by former Chief Minister Mayawati has sought the disqualification of the 12 MLAs who voted against the party whip on October 21 and supported the BJP, but, curiously, the Speaker has not yet acted on it, claiming that the appeal had been framed on technically faulty grounds.

The Speaker's stance is bound to create a new controversy, one that the BJP, its image battered by recent developments, could well do without. Should the 12 MLAs be disqualified, Kalyan Singh will become rather more dependent on other allies such as the UPLC. Knowing that they drive a hard bargain, that is an eventuality the BJP would rather not face. Kalyan Singh and his associates in the State unit of the BJP are walking a political tightrope, desperately trying to balance the party's exalted projections about the development of the State and providing a just government on the one side and the immediate need to retain a comfortable majority in the Assembly on the other.

THE show goes on, but for the people of the most populous State in the country all this is far from entertaining. Long after today's performers fold up their big tents and vanish into the night, it is the people who will pay the price for political "stability", BJP style.

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