Fractured verdict

Print edition : April 04, 1998

With neither the Congress(I) nor the Bharatiya Janata Party able to cobble together a majority in the State Assembly, Himachal Pradesh has been placed under President's rule.

UNCERTAINTY prevails in Himachal Pradesh as Governor V.S. Rama Devi recommended President's rule in the State and kept the State Assembly in suspended animation after Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh resigned on finding that the Congress(I) had little chance of putting together a majority in the 68-member Assembly.

The elections to the Assembly, held simultaneously with the Lok Sabha elections, threw up a hung verdict. The Congress(I), the single largest party, has 31 MLAs and the support of an independent. The BJP has 28 MLAs of its own (one of the winning candidates died) and the support of four members of the Himachal Vikas Congress (HVC) of former Union Minister Sukh Ram. The two groups are thus tied with 32 MLAs each in the House with an effective strength of 64. Elections for three seats and the byelection for one seat will be held in June. The days that followed the announcement of the election results were marked by sensational political developments. The Governor invited Virbhadra Singh to form a government and he was sworn in Chief Minister. However, just a week into office, he resigned without facing the trial of strength that was slated for March 16.

The Congress(I) would have secured only 31 votes in a trial of strength as the pro tem speaker, who belonged to the party, could not have cast his vote unless there was a tie. It had tried to wean away two disgruntled HVC MLAs, Prakash Chand and Mansa Ram, who had parted company with the HVC and formed the Himachal Kranti Party. However, this party formally merged with the BJP, raising the latter's strength to 30.

The BJP, which had suffered a blow with the death before the announcement of results of its candidate in Paragpur, suddenly found itself in a comfortable position. With the support of Sukh Ram, who got elected from Mandi, and another HVC MLA, its effective strength rose to 32.

It was high drama from the early hours of March 6, when BJP State chief Prem Kumar Dhumal met the Governor to stake his claim to form a government. Sukh Ram had met the Governor earlier. The situation became tailor-made for horse-trading.

The Congress(I) made a desperate attempt to win the support of Sukh Ram, but the latter would not oblige unless Virbhadra Singh was removed from the leadership. He suspects that Virbhadra Singh was behind the corruption cases against him. The Congress(I) also assiduously wooed the lone independent MLA, Ramesh Chand, in the week following the formation of the Government. To win the support of the independent MLA from Jawalmuki, a former BJP activist, it offered him a place in the seven-member Virbhadra Singh Ministry. Ramesh Chand, who now moves around under heavy security cover in view of the political climate, was at one time a staunch supporter of BJP member of Parliament and former Chief Minister Shanta Kumar. His opposition to the BJP stemmed from his opposition to the leadership of Prem Kumar Dhumal.

IF the stalemate continues, the opportunity for a test of strength may present itself on March 27, when the Rajya Sabha election will be held. The Congress(I) ticket has gone to N.C. Parasher, who will take on Sukh Ram's son Anil Sharma. The BJP has given the ticket to Anil Sharma, and in return the HVC has withdrawn from the contest in the Mandi Lok Sabha constituency. The Mandi election will be an acid test for Virbhadra Singh's popularity as his wife is contesting there.

However, a section of the BJP is keen to form the Government before that and may force the BJP-led Government at the Centre to act in this matter.

The Election Commission announced on March 21 that elections to the three remaining Assembly seats - Kinnaur, Bharmour and Lahaul-Spiti, where elections were postponed because of bad weather and the byelection to the Paragpur constituency would be held on June 3. The results, expected on June 6, may help revive the Assembly.

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