Opposition makes a point

Print edition : June 08, 2018

RjD leader Tejashwi Yadav meets Bihar Governor Satya Pal Malik on May 18 to stake his claim. Photo: PTI

THE Congress, for a change, came up with an innovative way to mount pressure on the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) over the fallout of the Karnataka elections.

In war rooms across the globe, psy-ops, or psychological operations, are used to influence the morale or attitude of opponents. This is what the Congress seemed to be doing following the Karnataka Governor’s decision to invite the BJP, which emerged as the single largest party, to form the government. The Congress, on its part, decided to stake its claim in Goa, Manipur and Meghalaya, where it had emerged as the single largest party in the Assembly elections held earlier. In Bihar, it staked its claim in association with the Rashtriya Janata Dal, asserting that the combine was the largest bloc in the Assembly. The “Karnataka formula” should be applied everywhere, the Congress demanded in a move that is widely seen as a pressure tactic.

In Assembly elections held in Goa in March 2017, the Congress emerged as the single largest party with 17 seats in the 40-member House. The BJP was second with 12 members. But Governor Mridula Sinha invited the BJP to form the government after consulting Union Minister Arun Jaitley (this she disclosed in an interview). She explained her decision at that time by saying that she had waited for the Congress to approach her, but Manohar Parrikar of the BJP, who was then the Defence Minister, staked his claim first and submitted letters of support from regional parties such as the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party (MGP) and Goa Forward Party (GFP), claiming majority. She said she was left with no option but to invite the BJP to form the government. The Congress, left smarting, approached the Supreme Court, which also reprimanded it for not staking its claim in time and ruled that a post-election coalition may form the government if there is no other claimant.

The Congress suffered a similar fate in Manipur and Meghalaya. In Manipur, it emerged as the single largest party with 28 seats in the 60-member House. The BJP, with only 21, quickly cobbled up a majority by joining hands with the regional parties National People’s Party and Naga People’s Front, which had won four seats each, and also the Lokjanshakti Party and the Trinamool Congress, which had won one seat each. One independent member also supported the combine. The Governor was Najma Heptullah, a Congress old-timer who had shifted her loyalties to the BJP.

Now, former Chief Minister Ibobi Singh has submitted his claim to form the government to the Governor, saying that the Congress is the single largest party. “There can't be two sets of rules in the same country,” he said .

In Manipur, however, the Congress’ claim does not stand on strong ground because eight of its MLAs have shifted loyalties to the BJP.

The case of Meghalaya was the most bizarre of all. The Congress won 21 seats in the 60-member House. Yet the BJP, with just two seats, ended up making the government with help from regional parties. It got on board the National People’s Party, which had won 19 seats, by promising chief ministership to its leader, Conrad Sangma. Other regional parties like the United Democratic Party, which had won six seats, and the People’s Democratic Front and the Hill State People’s Democratic Party, which had won two seats each, also joined the alliance. Here too the Congress is now asking for its pound of flesh.

The case of Bihar, perhaps, is the most potent one. When Nitish Kumar resigned in July last year after snapping the “mahagathbandhan” with the RJD and the Congress, the BJP grabbed the opportunity by extending support to him. A new government was formed with 71 MLAs of the Janata Dal (United) and 58 of the BJP. The RJD cried foul and organised dharnas and demonstrations.

After B.S. Yeddyurappa was invited to form the government in Karnataka, RJD leader Tejashwi Yadav lost no time in declaring that going by the “single largest party” formula, the RJD with 80 seats in the Assembly should be invited to form the government. He met Governor Satyapal Malik on May 18, with his own MLAs and the Congress’, and submitted a letter claiming the support of 111 legislators, saying the remaining 11 MLAs required for a majority would come on board during the floor test. In Bihar, a total of 122 MLAS are needed for a majority in the 243-member House. The Congress has 27 MLAs, and a couple of other smaller parties are on his side.

RJD spokesman Manoj Jha told Frontline that his party’s claim was fully justified because the BJP had now decided to go by the “time tested single largest party formula”. “Single largest party used to be the hallmark for deciding who should be invited to form the government until Goa, Manipur and Meghalaya happened. The BJP leadership has to choose whether it wants to go by the time-tested principle of single largest party or the newly baked post-poll coalition logic,” he said.

“Political morality cannot be episodic in nature. The BJP is known for destroying institutions, and in this case it is destroying the institution of the Governor's office. It will prove dangerous for the country in the long run,” he said.

Clearly, however, the party is using the opportunity to prove a point and produce an effect, rather than expecting any concrete result. A senior Congress leader said: “These are symbolic acts. One has to take recourse to symbolism in politics to make a point.” A note issued by the party to all State functionaries on May 17 explains the strategy. Signed by general secretary Ashok Gehlot, it asks All India Congress Committee functionaries across the country to “organise State-wide dharnas at State capitals and district headquarters to protest the blatantly partisan and authoritarian act of the Karnataka Governor”. The Governor, the note said, not only undermined the dignity of his office, but also acted in an unconstitutional manner. “This dangerous precedent strikes at the very root of India’s democracy and portends grave consequences for all forthcoming elections,” it says. It urges the functionaries to use “evocative slogans and innovative techniques to highlight this travesty”.

Purnima Tripathi