Bracing for battle in Bihar

Print edition : July 04, 1998

The Samata Party and the State unit of the BJP have stepped up their demand for the Rabri Devi Government's dismissal following the killings of two MLAs, but the ruling RJD is far from daunted.

OF the three States - Tamil Nadu, Bihar and West Bengal - in respect of which the Bharatiya Janata Party's different regional allies are pressing for the use of Article 356 to dismiss the respective State governments, it is in the case of Bihar that the most serious threat of the application of the knife exists. The Opposition parties in the State - principally the BJP and the Samata Party - have for some time now raised the demand for the dismissal of the Rashtriya Janata Dal Government headed by Chief Minister Rabri Devi on the ground that law and order has collapsed. Citing instances of violence - the most recent of them being the killing of two members of the Legislative Assembly on June 12 and 14 - State leaders of the two parties have painted a grim picture of the situation to build up a case for dismissal.

The RJD - and in particular its president and former Chief Minister Laloo Prasad Yadav - has not been daunted by the Damocles' sword of Article 356 that hangs over the State Government. The RJD has gone on the offensive, criticising the BJP-led coalition Government at the Centre, which it says is seeking to pull down a democratically elected State Government on "flimsy grounds" in order to appease its coalition partners, on whom it depends for its survival. The RJD has resolved to face the threat of dismissal politically. Laloo Prasad dared the Centre to dismiss the Government, and said that the people of Bihar were prepared to face any political eventuality.

The appointment of former BJP vice-president Sundar Singh Bhandari as Governor of the State in April was seen by many observers as being part of a "sinister plan" to prepare the ground for the use of Article 356. The appointment of an active and full-time politician to the key office in a crucial State which is ruled by a party that is in opposition to the ruling coalition at the Centre, and which has largely resisted the advance of communal forces, drew criticism from several quarters. And in his two months as Governor, Bhandari has shown himself to be an industrious compiler of "special reports" on the situation in Bihar. He has despatched three such reports to the Centre and, in the wake of the killings of the two MLAs, has hinted that one more report is in the offing. His pronouncements on the law and order situation too have contributed to the suspicion that the BJP-led Government is preparing the ground for resort to Article 356.

The despatch of a three-member team from the Union Home Ministry, ostensibly to make an on-the-spot assessment of the law and order situation in the wake of the killings of RJD MLA Brij Behari Prasad in Patna and Communist Party of India (Marxist) MLA Ajit Sarkar in Purnea, seems to fit into this pattern. (Home Minister L.K. Advani said on June 20 that he had had a brief talk with the team and: "I am told the situation is bad." He said that the Centre would not hesitate to dismiss a State government "if the situation so desired.")

Behari Prasad, who had resigned from the Rabri Devi Ministry following an investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation into his alleged role in a scandal regarding admissions to engineering colleges, was gunned down by unidentified persons at the Indira Gandhi Institute of Medical Sciences (IGIMS) in Patna on June 13. He was under judicial custody and undergoing treatment at the IGIMS, and the Government had claimed that he had been provided adequate security. (A security guard too was killed in the shooting.)

Behari Prasad's murder while he was in custody seriously embarrassed the RJD Government. Just as embarrassing is his widow Rama Devi's charge that some State Ministers were responsible for his killing. Rama Devi barged into Rabri Devi's official residence and staged a dharna. Sources alleged that Behari Prasad may have been killed by influential RJD leaders who too were involved in the admission scandal and who were afraid that he would spill the beans. The sources dismissed as "diversionary" reports that Behari Prasad was killed to avenge the slaying of Samajwadi Party MLA Devendra Dubey. (Behari Prasad was named in the first information report filed after Dubey's murder.)

The three-member team of officials from the Union Home Ministry, which came to Bihar to assess the law and order situation in the State.-SANJAY KUMAR

Ajit Sarkar and two of his supporters were shot dead by unidentified persons in Purnea, his home constituency, on June 14. In identical statements, the CPI(M) Polit Bureau and the CPI Central Secretariat said that Sarkar's killing was "the handiwork" of landlords. The statements said that in recent times, an agitation against illegal possession of land by the BJP MP from Purnea had intensified. The Left parties observed a 24-hour Bihar bandh on June 17 to protest against the "political murder".

Immediately after Sarkar's killing, the State units of the CPI(M) and the CPI demanded the dismissal of the RJD Government, but they retracted from this stand on the advice of their respective central leaders. The central leadership said that it was politically imprudent to demand dismissal since the BJP-Samata Party combine would gain a tactical advantage from such a development. Instead, they pressed for a judicial inquiry into Sarkar's killing. CPI(M) Polit Bureau member Sitaram Yechury said: "We want a judicial inquiry, not imposition of President's Rule."

CPI general secretary A.B. Bardhan said: "We are not demanding the RJD Government's dismissal." He added: "Our State unit took an emotional stand. We understand their sentiments. But at the central level, we have to take a political decision. And we are against the use of Article 356 in Bihar."

REPRESENTATIVES of the State units of the BJP, the Samata Party and the Janata Dal submitted a memorandum to the Governor in which they said that the RJD Government had no moral right to continue in office in the wake of the killings of the two MLAs. Talking to the delegation, Bhandari hinted that he would soon send a report to the Centre. Asked if he would recommend imposition of President's Rule, he did not respond. But he described the situation as "grim".

Leader of the Opposition in the State Assembly, Sushil Modi of the BJP, told Frontline that his party would continue to demand the dismissal of the RJD Government. The Samata Party maintains the same stand. Railway Minister and Samata Party leader Nitish Kumar said that the law and order situation in the State was "at its lowest ebb" and that the administration was steeped in "financial anarchy, mismanagement, corruption and plunder of the treasury." He said: "Even the Patna High Court has observed that there is no government worth the name and that jungle raj prevails in the State."

Nitish Kumar said that the situation in Bihar and Tamil Nadu, where another of the BJP's allies, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, is pressing for the dismissal of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam Government were not the same.

IT was under intense pressure from the Samata Party and the State unit of the BJP that the Centre despatched the three-member team. During a tour of the State on June 17 and 18, the team, headed by Additional Secretary R.D. Kapoor, met Bhandari, Rabri Devi and top State officials, including Chief Secretary S.N. Biswas, Director-General of Police K.A. Jacob and Home Secretary R.K. Singh.

Besides Patna, the team visited Muzaffarpur and Purnea and spoke to State police and intelligence officials about the killings. It also met several political leaders and party functionaries.

Opposition leaders at a meeting with Governor Sundar Singh Bhandari in Patna, during which they alleged that the law and order situation had deteriorated.-SANJAY KUMAR

Sources said that Rabri Devi had told the team that contrary to Opposition propaganda, the law and order situation in the State was well under control. She said that a judicial commission had been set up to investigate the killings of the two MLAs; it had been asked to submit its report within three months.

Laloo Prasad told the team that the Centre was "plotting to dismiss the Bihar Government merely to keep the BJP's allies in good humour." He told Frontline that he had given the team a copy of a "secret" letter from the Joint Secretary in the Union Home Ministry, V.K. Malhotra, to the Cabinet Secretary, which, the former Chief Minister said, "exposed the sinister plan" at the Centre to dismiss the RJD Government. The letter said: "... with systematically erratic and destructive command (in Bihar) the senior civil service is clueless... they badly need support and their umbilical cord may perhaps have to be temporarily shifted from (the) State to the Centre."

Former Chief Minister Laloo Prasad Yadav consoles the widow of Brij Behari Prasad, as the son of the slain RJD MLA wails over his body. At left is the body of the security guard who too was shot dead.-DEEPAK KUMAR

Laloo Prasad appreciated the West Bengal Government's refusal to cooperate with the Central team that was sent to assess the law and order situation in that State. He said that the RJD Government had met the members of the team to Bihar only to avoid further controversies and convey its stand that the BJP and the Samata Party were seeking to make political capital from the killings of the two MLAs.

The former Chief Minister said: "I am guilty of arresting L.K. Advani during his rath yatra, for which the Centre now wants to wreak vengeance." He said that the BJP and the Samata Party were trying to create an atmosphere conducive to the use of Article 356. The killing of the two MLAs was "part of a deep-rooted conspiracy," he added. "Many MPs and MLAs were killed in the past in Bihar, but no such hue and cry was heard then," he said.

Laloo Prasad has been holding regular meetings with senior State Ministers to prepare them for any political eventuality. Sources say that Laloo Prasad is thinking of "staging a comeback to save the RJD Government from harm."

CPI(M) MLA Ajit Sarkar.-DEEPAK KUMAR

THE State unit of the Congress(I) stood by its ally, the RJD, and charged the BJP and its allies with attempting to "politicise" the killings of the two MLAs and "setting the stage for the imposition of President's Rule."

State Congress(I) leaders refused to meet the Central team on the ground that they were unhappy with the level of representation: political leaders, they said, could hardly be expected to present themselves before an officer of the rank of Additional Secretary. "If the Centre was serious about assessing the law and order situation, it should have sent a team of MPs," State Congress(I) president Sarfraz Ahmed said.

In private, Congress(I) sources said that the law and order situation was "on the verge of collapse" and that corruption at the political and bureaucratic levels had ruined the State's economy. However, the Congress(I) is unwilling to part ways with the RJD, which backed Congress(I) candidates in the recent Rajya Sabha elections. Senior party members said that supporting the demand for Central rule would be seen as an act of "perfidy" and would not help the Congress(I) electorally.

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