THE Bharatiya Janata Party's boast of being 'a party with a difference' has been justified by its coup in Uttar Pradesh. There have been parties in the Indian political system that have engineered defections by means mostly foul and rewarded defectors in cash, sinecure or ministerial post. But nobody, not even the Congress, can hold a candle to the BJP when it comes to carrying horse-trading and unprincipled politics to new frontiers of sordidness. No sooner did 'the Kalyan Singh line' within the BJP score what must have seemed (to saffron brigade enthusiasts and apologists) a masterly triumph than the coup dissolved into red-faced, bottom-slapping, 93-tailed farce. R.K. Laxman's Times of India cartoon, reproduced in this cover feature on U.P. developments, is but a good-natured and elegant portrayal of this truth.
The positive nature of the overall political and public response to President K.R. Narayanan's Constitution-watching role in l'affaire Uttar Pradesh, the demoralisation, panic and vacillations within the Congress(I), the divisions, confusions and survival-related anxieties within the United Front - all these might soon take a back seat to the squalid mess the Kalyan Singh dispensation and the national-level leadership of the BJP have made of their coup in U.P. With 93 MLAs, including virtually all the defecting MLAs, on board Kalyan Singh's 'Jumbo', BJP 222, it is now truly the Great Lucknow Circus.
Over a third on board the Jumbo face criminal charges, starting with Captain Kalyan Singh, who has been chargesheeted for offences relating to the vile and barbaric act of demolishing the Babri Masjid and seems to have a sporting chance of conviction. Six of the new entrants face murder and other grave charges. Of them, Harishankar Tiwari and Amarmani Tripathi, both defectors from the Congress(I), take pride of place and therefore command first-class seats: their distinction is to be involved in a combined 47 cases (including 12 murder and 17 attempt to murder cases). The crimes of which some of the other Ministers are charged are nothing to sniff at: they include dacoity, kidnapping, the theft of government property and public nuisance. How long will this ramshackle aircraft be able to fly? Will it crash? Naturally, this kind of approach to the U.P. experience will be objected to as motivated and biased by most, although perhaps not all, saffron brigade sympathisers. All in all, with Kalyan Singh having brought into the Ministry the kind of talent that would have made a mafia don envious, the BJP Government has made a lasting contribution to integrating politics and crime.
The top BJP leaders are masters of rationalisation and justification, expert defenders of the indefensible. Their present stance of 'uneasiness' and 'unhappiness' over the leading aspect of the U.P. development - the total acceptance of the defectors as Ministers, gross by any political standards - is in line with their party's character. It would be a mistake to understand communalism as a political mobilisation strategy to be necessarily fundamentalist. It is capable of alterations of strategy, flexibility of course, and quickness of foot that can discomfit its opponents. It needs moral rationalisations of its actions - both core, predictable actions and those that appear unusual and over the top - all the time to keep its flock together.
Thus the BJP's top leader, L.K. Advani, who essentially blamed secular India and secular parties for creating a situation which made inevitable the violent demolition of the "Babri structure", now blames the spectacle of Kalyan Singh's Jumbo Ministry on the others, notably on Governor Romesh Bhandari's refusal to give Kalyan Singh more than 36 hours to prove his majority (see interview with Advani)! Somewhat contradictorily, Chief Minister Kalyan Singh insists that "the (defecting) MLAs came closer to the BJP with affection" and without conditions, also that they were essentially motivated by "a desire to provide political stability and a stable government to the State." He claims that development work in a huge State such as U.P. needs the services of all these Ministers and, further, that "the masses are not bothered by it." To ridicule the Great Lucknow Circus is not to underestimate the BJP's aggressive push in India's most populous State, where it is clearly the party with the largest political base (something approximating a third of the electorate), or its national-level capabilities and agenda. The Congress(I), which is still a significant all-India player but seems to be in headlong decline and confusion under the stewardship of Sitaram Kesri, has been dealt a body blow in U.P. The U.F. Government displayed fuzziness and clumsiness in handling the fast-developing situation, was lucky to be able to extricate itself from the muddle, and needs to do much better if it is to emerge from all this with any credit.
Now that the Supreme Court's majority judgment in the Bommai case has come to the fore, its full implications must be understood and applied. If it is necessary for political India to safeguard the federal principle from arbitrary assault from Article 356, it is equally important to put the BJP to the strict test of the other part of Bommai. This formulates secularism in precise and enforceable constitutional terms, holds that any mixing up of religion and politics either by a government or by a political party is impermissible and can be proceeded against, and sanctions lawful use of Article 356 against a State government whose acts are "calculated to subvert or sabotage secularism as enshrined in our Constitution." A careful, but non-breathless watch must be kept on the actions of the BJP Government in U.P. by the Centre and by the overwhelming section of political India that is democratic and secular.
Will the Kalyan Singh Government survive the Bommai test? Before this question can be answered, it is imperative that the secular and democratic parties work hard at political mobilisation in the State. They must go to the people to expose the BJP's communalism and unprincipled politics and to win support for a broad and united platform based on democracy, secularism and a worthwhile socio-economic agenda.