A CRISIS DEFUSED

Print edition : November 01, 1997

A blow-by-blow account of the BJP's sordid power play in U.P., the Union Cabinet's near-fatal blunder and the President's unprecedented decision to go by the book.

"Ek ghante ka sarkar hai (this is a one-hour government)," Congress Legislature Party leader Pramod Tiwari confidently announced before the now-infamous vote of confidence in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Government in Uttar Pradesh. When Tiwari made this remark, he might well have expected what followed to lead to presidential rule. Over 90 governments have been dismissed in India since Independence, many of them for alleged offences against the Constitution that did not take place or paled into insignificance compared with the disgusting violence in the Uttar Pradesh Legislature on October 21. But President K.R. Narayanan's historic decision to return the Cabinet's recommendation for the Proclamation of Central rule in the State could mark a decisive transformation of the much-abused powers of Central governments to end the rule of their political opponents in the States.

The curtain rose in Uttar Pradesh well before many observers in New Delhi had realised the intensity of the BJP-BSP dispute. On October 12, former Chief Minister Mayawati and BSP chief Kanshi Ram held a meeting with top BJP leaders, including L.K. Advani, Atal Behari Vajpayee and Chief Minister Kalyan Singh. The BSP demanded a joint State coordination committee to be formed to check what Kanshi Ram described as Kalyan Singh's "wayward" approach to his job. Mayawati's ire with Kalyan Singh's rule centred on his decision to reverse many of the decisions of her Government, including transfers and postings of officials. Most important, however, was a September 23 order of the Kalyan Singh Government, asking officials to stop "misuse" of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. The BJP held firm. There was no coordination committee during Mayawati's six months in office, it said, and there was no need to set up one now. The most it would concede was a rewording of the order, placing the emphasis on the proper use of the Act for the protection of Dalits.

On the morning of October 13, Mayawati launched a broadside against Kalyan Singh at a rally in Lucknow, accusing him of executing an anti-Dalit agenda. The rally was the precursor to a State-wide agitation programme to protest against atrocities on Dalits. This was not the first instance of aggressive rhetoric from the BSP camp, but it provoked an extraordinary response. Four days later, BJP State party boss Rajnath Singh told a press conference in Lucknow that if the BSP wished to withdraw from the coalition, it was free to do so. As the largest single party in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly, Rajnath Singh went on to say, it would stake its claim to power as it was confident of winning a vote of confidence from the House. Responding to questions from journalists, Rajnath Singh said that it would be "most unfortunate" if any BSP Ministers had participated in an agitation held the previous day. This was the first time that a senior BJP official had used such blunt language about its coalition partner.

These tough remarks confirmed the worst fears harboured by Mayawati and Kanshi Ram. Dissent in the BSP, provoked by the leadership's high-handedness, had clearly been capitalised on by the BJP. The BJP was now confident that in the event the coalition collapsed, it would be able to win over enough Opposition MLAs to continue in power. An overwrought Kanshi Ram spent much of October 17 communicating with Congress(I) president Sitaram Kesri. The dialogue led to an initial plan for a Congress-led coalition with the BSP, and outside support from the Samajwadi Party. The BSP would concede the Congress(I)'s claim to the Chief Minister's office, that going to the affable N.D. Tiwari, newly appointed president of the Uttar Pradesh Congress Committee. Samajwadi Party leader and Union Defence Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav was contacted in Calcutta with the proposal but he took little time to turn it down. A revised proposal followed for a government of the Congress(I) and Ajit Singh's Bharatiya Kisan Kamgar Parishad, supported from outside by both the Samajwadi Party and the BSP. Mulayam Singh again did not bite.

President K.R. Narayanan. His unprecedented decision to return the Cabinet's recommendation for the proclamation of Central rule in Uttar Pradesh could mark a decisive transformation of the much-abused powers of Central government to end the rule of political opponents in the States.-N. RAM

The BJP offensive spearheaded by Rajnath Singh rolled ahead. On October 18, the Uttar Pradesh Cabinet met in Lucknow, to rename an administrative Division Chitrakoot. Part of the Division consisted of the Sahuji Maharaj Nagar district that Mayawati had earlier carved out of Banda district. The symbolic elevation of high Hindutva icons over those of the Dalit movement was calculated to insult the BSP. BSP Ministers responded by boycotting the meeting, a gesture that conveyed not only anger but helplessness.

Kanshi Ram spent the entire afternoon in conversation with Kesri. Between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m., the two radically reworked their earlier strategy. The BSP, unsure of its standing and with every indication that many in its ranks were closet sympathisers of the enemy, or were unwilling to stay on a sinking ship, could no longer afford to wait for Mulayam Singh to come on board. "You withdraw from the Government," Kesri told Kanshi Ram. "I'll make sure the Assembly is dissolved."

On April 19, BSP MLAs and workers who had been summoned to the Lucknow party office to discuss the party's future plans for a mass contact programme were thus confronted with an altogether different agenda. Mayawati announced that the BSP was withdrawing support to the BJP. In anticipation of BJP efforts to win over the BSP MLAs it had earlier contacted, all MLAs were kept in confinement in the office itself. Governor Romesh Bhandari was formally informed that Mayawati had withdrawn support to the Kalyan Singh Ministry. While the Chief Minister claimed that he continued to enjoy the confidence of the House, the leaders of other major parties demanded the dissolution of the Assembly.

At 4-30 p.m, Bhandari was addressing a press conference on the issue. Something, it became clear, had gone badly wrong with the plans of Kesri and the BSP. The Governor said: "In view of the competing claims before me, and the Supreme Court's judgment in the Bommai case, I am convening the House at 12 noon on October 21 to provide an opportunity to the Kalyan Singh Ministry."

Despite Bhandari's promise of a floor test, the way things were going within the United Front there was no guarantee that it would be allowed. In New Delhi, Mulayam Singh was arguing bitterly with his United Front partners, demanding that the Government be dismissed. The Communist Party of India (Marxist), and at least some CPI leaders like A.B. Bardhan, backed his position. Kesri, whose promise to Kanshi Ram had so far come to nothing, began to issue dark threats about the future of the I.K. Gujral Government if it did not comply with the demand. The regional parties in the U.F., uneasy about any form of Central interference, were clearly unhappy with the trends, and through October 19, the debate went on. It is entirely possible that Mulayam Singh might have prevailed in the end, for despite Prime Minister Gujral's "instincts" and personal convictions, the pressures on him from the Congress(I) and Mulayam Singh were intense. But three factors were to ensure that a floor test would in fact be held, with consequences that were to prove momentous.

Trial of strength in the U.P. Assembly on October 21. Raghuraj Prasad Singh (standing on bench), an independent MLA supporting the BJP, and BJP MLA Sukhvir Singh Pundir (foreground, face shielded with a wooden board) prepare to hurl microphone stands at Opposition MLAs (not in picture). Naresh Agarwal, leader of the breakaway Congress MLAs, is in the back row (in white kurta, right arm outstretched).-SUBIR ROY

The first factor was President Narayanan's determination to discharge his constitutional duties with integrity and in an informed and thoughtful way. Sensing the emerging crisis in Uttar Pradesh, he had taken the trouble to familiarise himself with the Supreme Court judgment in S.R. Bommai vs Union of India, which constitutes as of now the last word on Article 356.

President Narayanan, who had risen from humble social and economic origins, knew the value of reading. He had been a reading man all his life. He was not about to sacrifice that habit just because he found the Rashtrapati's engagements full and crowded, and time difficult to make now. Rashtrapati Bhavan insiders say the President snatches whatever time he can, usually late in the night, to read a book he gets his hands on. Narayanan also knew, from his professional and intellectual experience, that one needed to be prepared with serious reading to meet a situation; having to read a book or treatise in a hurry when a situation descended on you made things difficult, because the higher your career took you, the less time you were likely to find to read seriously.

For this particular situation, the President had asked for an expert summary to be prepared of the apex court's judgment in the Bommai case. Reading the summary made it clear that the "President's power" to issue an Article 356 Proclamation was a conditioned power; that action under Article 356 was judicially reviewable; that the President's satisfaction, which was necessarily "subjective", must be formed on "relevant material" which could be scrutinised by the higher courts; that no irreversible action, to wit, dissolution of the Legislative Assembly, was permissible unless both Houses of Parliament approved the presidential Proclamation; that until then, the most the Central executive could do was to keep the Assembly in "suspended animation"; and that even after parliamentary approval, the courts could, in fit cases, restore the status quo ante. In arriving at these conclusions, the Supreme Court majority, the expert summary made clear, had inter alia held that a floor test was obligatory except in the rarest of rare cases. The President learnt from the summary not only the overall binding conclusions in the judgment, he knew who had held what on key issues, the ratios, and other relevant particulars.

Armed with this knowledge, the President faced the situation confidently and clear-sightedly. He told Prime Minister Gujral when they met in the Rashtrapati's private quarters, after a banquet for the Latvian President on Monday, October 20, that if the Cabinet, refusing to allow a floor test, sent him a recommendation for promulgating Article 356, he would send it back for reconsideration. Gujral immediately reported the President's views to his Cabinet, which knew as early as October 20 what was in store. Gujral and his Cabinet also knew that if they reiterated the recommendation for President's rule, Narayanan would be obliged to sign the Proclamation, but the political fallout would be deeply embarrassing.

Secondly, despite the Congress(I)'s threats to bring down the Government in Delhi, the U.F.'s major regional constituents were opposed to the use of Article 356 to bring down a State government, given their own bitter experiences of the misuse of this provision. Sources close to Prime Minister Gujral told Frontline that his own sympathies lay with the course of allowing a floor test and accepting the outcome sportingly. Key figures like Union Home Minister Indrajit Gupta, also familiar with the content of Bommai, also came out in favour of a floor test. Mulayam Singh, who with the support of the CPI(M) insisted that the Uttar Pradesh Assembly be dissolved, was marginalised. In the end, the President's views proved persuasive and there was no stopping the floor test, scheduled for October 21.

The third, and possibly most important, reason that enabled the U. F. to resist Kesri's bluster was the spectacular disintegration of the UPCC that day. N.D. Tiwari, who had arrived in Lucknow on the night of October 19 to take charge of the UPCC from Jitendra Prasada, was finding things going horribly wrong. Key party leader Naresh Agarwal, who had flown to Lucknow along with Tiwari and shared a sumptuous breakfast with him the next morning, had in fact been busy taking most of the veteran Congress(I) leader's flock into the BJP. At 6 p.m. on October 20, nineteen Congress MLAs met Assembly Speaker Kesri Nath Tripathi and said that they had formed a separate group, the Uttar Pradesh Loktantrik Congress (UPLC). Just an hour later, three of seven Janata Dal MLAs followed in their wake. A disgusted Mulayam Singh, who had flown into Lucknow in the afternoon, told confidants that a BJP government would now inevitably come to power. "We sowed the seed for this," he told one confidant, "now we must reap the crop."

The support of the UPLC was in fact the real basis of the BJP's confidence before facing the floor test. (Frontline, in its October 31 issue, was the first publication to anticipate this development, and had quoted sources in the Kalyan Singh camp who asserted that "the day the Uttar Pradesh Congress appoints a new president to replace Jitendra Prasada, the Legislature Party will split and one section, consisting of 15 to 18 MLAs, will move to the BJP.")

In the BSP headquarters, meanwhile, the BJP retained contact with the MLAs who had been recruited, allegedly by financial inducement, for its cause.

In the 1995 crisis that led to the fall of the Mulayam Singh Ministry, the sequestration of BSP MLAs had been one reason for delays in the leader's plan to break that party. Now, cellular telephones operating discreetly in the toilets were used to devastating effect. A statement from Kanshi Ram's adviser, Narendra Singh Chowdhury, attacking Mayawati's "dictatorial style of functioning", was conveyed to dissidents inside the office. Late on the night of October 20, the BSP dissidents confirmed their willingness to vote for the confidence motion after being informed of the creation of the UPLC. An escape bid by 12 MLAs led to an altercation at the office late at night.

Responses to this wholly unanticipated crisis showed the depth of chaos the defections had caused. In a late night report to the President, Bhandari claimed to have received affidavits from four Congress MLAs to the effect that their signatures had been forged in the documents earlier submitted to the Speaker, and that they had been intimidated and offered financial inducements to join the UPLC. All 22 UPLC MLAs, however, met the Governor to deny having anything to do with the affidavits. Five Samajwadi Party MLAs also submitted similar affidavits. Bhandari used these documents in his report to argue that horse-trading was under way. He also suggested that there was a strong possibility of violence in the House during the next day. The report appeared to explain his reasons for issuing highly controversial instructions to the Speaker of the House earlier in the day. These were that a proper lobby division be carried out rather than a show of hands, and that the session not be adjourned until voting was complete. The Speaker responded that the House was not obliged to comply with the Governor's directives. The stage had been set for a fracas.

THE fighting in the Assembly started two minutes after the House began proceedings at 12 noon with a rendering of Vande Mataram. CLP leader Pramod Tiwari started the ugly brawl by marching into the well of the House and demanding a lobby division. He was joined by a group of angry BSP MLAs, one of whom was seen throwing a small loudspeaker at the Speaker's chair. Within minutes, MLAs were engaged in near-mortal combat, using iron microphone stands, paperweights, broken glass from the windowpanes, and furniture. Several persons sustained serious injuries.

Although the Congress(I) and the BSP had started the battle, the honours, if they can be called that, went to the BJP, aided by plainclothes police officials, and several party members who had no business to be in the House. By 12-20 p.m., the House had been cleared of all Opposition members. Within 15 minutes, Mayawati as well as several Congress(I) and Samajwadi Party leaders and other Opposition leaders were sitting in a dharna outside the Raj Bhavan demanding that the BJP Government be dismissed.

INSIDE the House, Kalyan Singh's Government won perhaps the most infamous confidence vote in Indian history. At Prime Minister Gujral's residence in New Delhi, United Front leaders, Ministers Indrajit Gupta, P. Chidambaram and Murasoli Maran and Sitaram Yechury of the CPI(M), met informally, watching this unedifying spectacle on television and receiving ball-by-ball reports. Minister S. Jaipal Reddy was also in some of the time. The BJP's unanticipated victory in the confidence vote, and more important, the political skulduggery that surrounded it, left the group stunned. A furious Mulayam Singh, who had left Lucknow in disgust for Guwahati, had made his sentiments known to his allies. Yechury, too, left the meeting after expressing his unhappiness over the course of events. The CPI(M) had wanted dismissal in advance of the floor test. Now that the vote of confidence had been faced and won by Kalyan Singh, Yechury pointed out, the U.F. Government had to face the logic of the situation.

Armed with chairs and microphone stands, BJP MLAs and a few partymen who are not members of the House advance towards the Opposition benches. Former MLA Sunder Singh Baghel and former MLC Avadhpal Singh were among the outsiders who were present in the House that day.-SUBIR ROY

Through the morning and well into the afternoon, Governor Bhandari was constantly on the phone, discussing his reports on the day's events in detail with the Prime Minister, receiving inputs from him and refining their content and structure. Chidambaram, informed sources told Frontline, played bass to this duet, with his skills as a lawyer being called on to shape the finer points of Bhandari's reports. Although both had opposed the imposition of President's rule initially, intense pressures from the Congress(I) and disquiet over the BJP victory had forced them to change their stand.

At 4 p.m., when the Union Cabinet met, they had Bhandari's reports, vetted and partly shaped by Gujral and Chidambaram, before them. The Governor's reports and faxes described in detail the events in the Assembly, emphasising the responsibility of the BJP for starting the violence. He warned, somewhat dramatically, of State-wide bloodshed if the BJP was allowed to continue in office. Allegations of horse-trading were also included. On the basis of these observations, the Governor's report concluded that the constitutional machinery had collapsed in the State, making President's rule imperative. To his report were attached excerpts from the findings of the Governor's observers at the Assembly, which affirmed the claim that the violence had been engineered by the BJP. The Cabinet debated the report vigorously for some eight hours. Mulayam Singh Yadav and his Samajwadi Party colleagues used the support they had outside the Cabinet, that of the CPI(M), the CPI's Bardhan and above all a shaken Congress(I), to push adamantly for the dismissal of the Kalyan Singh Ministry. The regional parties expressed their unease, but the pressure on the Front proved decisive in the Cabinet that night.

NEAR midnight, the Proclamation of Article 356 was ready for President Narayanan's signature. He had just returned from Gwalior, had immediately read the reports of the Governor and his observers, and met Attorney-General Ashok Desai for a relevant technical clarification. Union Home Secretary K. Padmanabhaiah, due for retirement on October 31, was put to work as the Cabinet's courier. Given the informal discussion of October 20, Gujral could have been in no doubt as to how the President would react. The President now had further reason not to be convinced of the case for Central rule. A vote of confidence had, in fact, taken place. The narrative in the observers' report did not bear out Governor Bhandari's conclusions about who started the violence in the Assembly.

Bhandari's own reports were most unsatisfactory. In the President's assessment, they failed to establish that the constitutional machinery had broken down in Uttar Pradesh. The apprehensions he expressed of bloodshed in the State proved way off the mark, or rather over the top. Further, if "horse-trading" was in fact the key factor which led Congress(I) and BSP MLAs to switch sides, why had Kalyan Singh been unable to purchase their loyalties during the prolonged stalemate from October 1996 to March 1997? The factional differences that emerged after Jitendra Prasada's removal had clearly played a leading role, as had the fact of Kalyan Singh's incumbency and MLAs' fears that the House would be dissolved.

When Gujral telephoned the President around midnight and informed him that the Cabinet was sending him a recommendation of President's rule, including dissolution of the Assembly, Narayanan told him that he would send it back quickly. However, if the Cabinet wanted to send it back to the President, he would be obliged to sign the Proclamation. But either way, the Cabinet needed to decide quickly if Gujral did not want to put off his foreign trip further.

PRESIDENT Narayanan, contrary to fevered media reports, sent no detailed message or questionnaire back to the Cabinet. His three line message, dictated to his secretary and conveyed to the Prime Minister, comprised two sentences, the first merely recording the fact of his sending it back for reconsideration. Those close to Narayanan say he was not even aware at this point that this was the first time an Article 356 Proclamation was being sent to the Union Cabinet for reconsideration by a President. The second sentence recorded the President's view that the Governor's report had not established that the constitutional machinery had broken down and that President's rule, including dissolution of the Assembly, was called for - in the light of Bommai. In the circumstances, these three lines carried with them great power.

Received at 2.30 a.m. on October 22, the note did force the postponement of Gujral's journey abroad. Later in the morning, 222 MLAs supporting Kalyan Singh were airlifted en masse to New Delhi and began a dharna outside Rashtrapati Bhavan. Through the day, at meetings of the Cabinet and through informal discussions, U.F. constituents addressed the day's fallout and lessons.

By the morning of October 23, the regional parties had been stung into action. They now knew which way the wind was blowing. With the charge led in the Cabinet by Maran, they strongly supported the President's views and demanded reversal of the Cabinet's near-fatal decision.

The enormous public goodwill that had greeted the President's stand had underlined years of popular resentment against abuses of Article 356 by successive Union (mostly Congress) Governments. Indeed, Rashtrapati Bhavan was to receive hundreds of letters of support from ordinary people in the days to come. But political factors were of more immediate importance. The Congress(I), reduced to a shambles after the debacle in Uttar Pradesh, was no longer in a position to force the issue with the United Front. The CPI(M) also softened its stand in deference to the President's views, legal opinion and regional party sentiments. If President's rule had to be imposed, party leader Harkishan Singh Surjeet later explained in New Delhi, it should have been done before the floor test took place, not after. The Cabinet meeting at a second session in the afternoon reflected this changed reality. The President's decision to return the Proclamation was accepted with respect, and withdrawn.

Back in U.P., the size of Kalyan Singh Ministry, which was 23 after the BSP pulled out of the coalition, expanded handsomely - to 93. Seventy new members were inducted into the Ministry on October 27, and they included 12 BSP and 22 Congress defectors. The Congress(I) saw the induction of the breakaway MLAs into the Ministry as proof that horse-trading had taken place and sought their prosecution under the Prevention of Corruption Act.

THE emphatic assertion of federal values outlined in Bommai is likely to have an abiding impact on Centre-State relations in India. But the denouement is unlikely to see the end of the political crisis in Uttar Pradesh. In the short term, the issues of the violation of democratic rights by the victorious BJP and, more specifically, of the fate of BSP defectors remain to be addressed. The BJP-affiliated Speaker has recognised the defectors as a separate group free of sanction under the anti-defection law on the basis of a tissue-thin argument that one of the MLAs had announced in the House that 12 more MLAs were in fact part of their group. The Speaker's highly coloured decision is likely to face legal challenge. In the long run, the Bommai framework could well come into play, possibly sooner than later.

Any communal misadventure by the BJP could attract the provisions of Article 356, for the judgment that speaks up for federalism also bars the state and political parties from mixing up religion and politics and going against the constitutional philosophy and provisions championing secularism. Enforcing these less well- known parts of Bommai could prove as critical to India's future as the events of October have been.

A letter from the Editor


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