The Taj impact

Published : Sep 26, 2003 00:00 IST

For the troubled BJP-BSP coalition, Mayawati's confrontation with Union Minister Jagmohan over the Taj Corridor project proved to be the last straw.

POLITICAL events in Uttar Pradesh in the past month have proved beyond doubt that it was the controversy over the multi-crore Taj Heritage Corridor project that soured the alliance between the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Although unexpected turn of events forced Mayawati to backtrack from her demand for the dismissal of Union Culture Minister Jagmohan for "his complicity in the project", the State BJP leaders lost no opportunity to demand a review of the alliance.

On June 23, Mayawati told a press conference in New Delhi: "I have no differences with honourable Jagmohanji on the issue of preserving the beauty and dignity of the Taj. The Taj Mahal is our national heritage and I'll not allow any activity which would detract from the beauty of this monument." This was after the Culture Minister ordered on June 20 the stoppage of all construction activity in the Yamuna riverbed behind the Taj.

But barely a month after her declaration, Mayawati was spewing venom at Jagmohan, demanding his dismissal for his alleged complicity in the Taj scandal. "It is obvious that Jagmohan knew everything that was happening in the Taj Corridor project, and once it got highlighted in the media, he is trying to shift the blame on to Uttar Pradesh officials... Mr Jagmohan should be immediately asked for a clarification on his complicity in the Taj corridor scandal and dismissed from the Council of Ministers without further delay, otherwise our party (the BSP) will raise the issue in Parliament and expose Mr. Jagmohan," she declared at a press conference on July 28, disclosing the contents of a letter she had written to the Prime Minister.

As the Prime Minister summarily rejected her demand saying there was no question of removing Jagmohan as "he enjoys my confidence", the following day, BSP Members of Parliament stalled the proceedings in both Houses of Parliament and forced an adjournment of the Lok Sabha. Soon afterwards, the BJP president M. Venkaiah Naidu convened a press conference at the party headquarters and disclosed that 20 BJP MPs had met the Prime Minister and demanded the withdrawal of support to the Mayawati government. Venkaiah Naidu made no secret of his displeasure and served a stern warning to Mayawati.

He said: "Such behaviour (stalling proceedings in Parliament) by an ally is not a happy thing." He declared that the BJP was not ready to put up with such arm-twisting tactics and if Mayawati did not mend her ways, then "withdrawal of support (in Uttar Pradesh) was also an option".

The tough stand of the BJP forced Mayawati on July 29 to retract from her belligerence; she withdrew the demand for Jagmohan's dismissal and declared that the differences between the alliance partners would be sorted out. But on that day the ground for Mayawati's final assault on the BJP was prepared. The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) inquiry, on a Supreme Court order on July 16, into the Taj Corridor project strengthened Mayawati's suspicion that the BJP was out to nail her, in order to gain political mileage.

This suspicion found expression in her 30-page letter to the Prime Minister on August 25, in which she elaborated why the BSP-BJP alliance was not beneficial for the BSP and why she was ending it. The Taj controversy, she wrote, was being deliberately whipped up and the CBI was being misused to pressure her into conceding the BJP's demand for more seats in the Lok Sabha elections. "I have come to know through reliable sources that the BJP is planning to pressure me in the Taj corridor controversy in order to make me surrender the maximum number of seats in the Lok Sabha elections. This behaviour is immoral," she told the Prime Minister.

She stated that she had withdrawn her demand for Jagmohan's dismissal, only to allow time for the completion of the Dr. Ambedkar Sahitya Sansthan and Museum, where statues of Dalit leaders were to be installed. "Had my government fallen at that time, these manuwadis would have installed statues of manuwadi leaders in that museum. Swallowing this insult (withdrawing the demand for Jagmohan's dismissal) for the sake of our leaders is a small price. I can even sacrifice my life for them," her letter to the Prime Minister reads.

But political observers are unanimous in their opinion that when she recommended the dissolution of the Assembly and demanded imposition of President's Rule on August 25, she had not bargained for the situation in which the BJP would become a facilitator for installing a Mulayam Singh Yadav-led government. She had apparently believed that the BJP, in its desperation to contest the Lok Sabha elections in alliance with the BSP, would agree to the imposition of President's Rule and simultaneous Lok Sabha and Assembly elections. Besides, she had sensed that the CBI was closing in on her and hoped that the ensuing political turmoil would somehow push the Taj controversy to the background.

As it appears now, she miscalculated the political winds. BJP leaders such as Rajnath Singh, who were always opposed to the alliance, managed to convince the party's central leadership that a Mulayam Singh-led government would actually be to the party's advantage. Besides, they argued that Mulayam Singh was the only man who could "teach Mayawati a lesson". They reasoned that this would serve two aims: the BJP would not incur the wrath of Dalits even as Mayawati is put in her place and the party would be able to work aggressively on its Ram temple agenda.

The end result is that the CBI is on hot pursuit of Mayawati. It interrogated her once for over three hours on September 1. The CBI is apparently trying to find out how much she knew because the file releasing Rs.17 crores has a noting by her Principal Secretary, P.L. Punia, that the project has the sanction of the Chief Minister. Besides, since Mayawati held the finance portfolio as well, the CBI is trying to ascertain how the Rs.175-crore project could be taken up without her approval. The CBI is also looking into the corruption angle.

In the course of the CBI's interrogation of officials, including the State's Chief Secretary D.S. Bagga, Punia, the suspended Environment Secretary R.K Sharma, the Environment Minister in Mayawati's government Naseemuddin Siddiqui and Union Environment Secretary K.C Mishra, some startling disclosures have come to light. For example, the CBI has gathered that K.C. Mishra and Siddiqui tampered with the files so that an innocuous project for the construction of "greenways and pathways" for the beautification of the Taj Mahal was converted into a commercial one comprising shopping malls and entertainment complexes.

Informed sources said that during the CBI interrogation the officials revealed that the diamond necklace Mayawati wore on her birthday was a gift to her from R.K. Sharma and was bought with money from the Rs.17 crores released for the project. The money was also used to organise her lavish birthday celebrations. Many more such revelations, causing much embarrassment to Mayawati, could be expected once the CBI submits its report to the Supreme Court by September 11.

If the corruption angle is established, she could be put behind bars. It was perhaps to pre-empt this eventuality that Mayawati warned the Mulayam government against witch-hunting. "If he acts with the intention of taking revenge, it will only make me stronger. If he puts me in jail, all the better. I will win the next Assembly elections with an absolute majority from behind bars," she declared.

With Mulayam Singh maintaining that "the law will take its own course" it remains to be seen what is in store for Mayawati. But this modern Begum certainly has her reasons to remember the Taj for the rest of her life.

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