A Governor and a politician

Print edition : March 07, 1998

The dismissal and reinstatement of the Kalyan Singh Ministry raise questions about the constitutional validity of Governor Romesh Bhandari's action and the BJP's ability to provide stable government.

IT was a mere four months ago that Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Kalyan Singh split the Congress(I), the Janata Dal and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and cobbled together a majority in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly. He then claimed that he would provide a stable government that would rule for the full term. But on February 21, Uttar Pradesh was plunged into grave political instability. Within a span of three days the State witnessed a series of shock political developments - the withdrawal of support to the Government by the Uttar Pradesh Loktantrik Congress (UPLC), the dismissal of the Kalyan Singh Ministry by Governor Romesh Bhandari, the swearing in of a new Cabinet under UPLC leader Jagadambika Pal and its equally prompt ouster on the basis of an interim order of the Allahabad High Court, which stayed the dismissal of the Kalyan Singh Government. Clearly, contrary to the claims of the BJP in October 1997, the most populous State of the country was nowhere near achieving political stability.

The factors that led to this situation included the fragile and dishonest nature of the coalition that Kalyan Singh had forged as well as the reckless manner in which Bhandari acted in dismissing the BJP-led Government and ushering in the Jagadambika Pal Cabinet. More than anything else, it is the role of the Governor that has come in for criticism. His order dismissing the Kalyan Singh Government was stayed on February 23 by a two-member Bench of the Allahabad High Court, which directed that the "status quo prior to the dismissal be restored". This led to the reinstatement of the BJP leader as Chief Minister, at least technically. The court said that the Governor was free to direct Kalyan Singh to prove his majority.

However, Pal refused to comply with the court order. So much so that for a few hours on the evening of February 23, the State seemed to have two Chief Ministers. Kalyan Singh and Jagadambika Pal enacted an unparalleled farce with Pal sitting in the Chief Minister's office, claiming to be the man in charge, and Kalyan Singh presiding over a Cabinet meeting in the adjoining Cabinet room. Pal's strategy seemed to be to move the Supreme Court and get a stay against the High Court order.

UPLC leader Jagadambika Pal (right) being sworn in Chief Minister by Governor Romesh Bhandari on February 21.-SUBIR ROY

THE sequence of events that almost caused a serious constitutional crisis started on the afternoon of February 21 when 12 MLAs of the UPLC and three of the breakaway Janata Dal went to the Raj Bhavan and informed the Governor that they were withdrawing support to the Kalyan Singh Government. They also staked their claim to form a government with the support of the Samajwadi Party (S.P.), the BSP, the Congress(I), the Janata Dal, the CPI, the CPI(M) and the Bharatiya Kisan Kamgar Party (BKKP). The leaders of these parties presented to the Governor a letter committing their support to the new claimants to majority. On the basis of this, the UPLC and the breakaway Janata Dal claimed the support of 221 MLAs. Kalyan Singh also met the Governor and asserted that he still enjoyed majority support in the Assembly. He said that he was ready to prove his claim on the floor of the House.

However, the Governor accepted the claim of the UPLC and the breakaway Janata Dal, at face value. Barely six hours after this, he had dismissed the Kalyan Singh Government. In its place was sworn in on the night of February 21 itself an 18-member Ministry led by Jagadambika Pal. The Governor wanted Pal to prove his majority by February 24. Bhandari contended that he was "convinced about the minority status of the Kalyan Singh Government" and that "allowing it to continue would only encourage horse-trading." Bhandari insisted that he was following the Supreme Court verdict in the S.R. Bommai case and that the condition laid down that Pal should face the floor test was in keeping with this. The question whether Kalyan Singh should be given an opportunity for a floor test was brushed aside on the basis of the argument that the Bommai case essentially pertained to situations where the Assembly was dissolved and the government was dismissed.

The BJP reacted sharply. One of its Ministers, N.K.S. Gaur, filed a writ petition in the Allahabad High Court challenging the Governor's action. The party's prime ministerial candidate, Atal Behari Vajpayee, reacted emotionally and announced that he was starting a 'fast-unto-death' demanding that the Governor be recalled. Vajpayee continued his fast for one night in Lucknow and then shifted to Delhi.

Meanwhile, in the High Court, one of the judges on the two-member Bench before which the case came up, Justice D.K. Seth, gave a verdict on the night of February 21 staying the dismissal of the Ministry without hearing arguments in favour of the Governor's order. But the other judge, Justice Virendra Dixit, decided to hear the arguments. The order staying the dismissal was passed on the afternoon of February 23.

Kalyan Singh at a press conference after the dismissal.-SUBIR ROY

WHILE the legal wrangling on the issue is bound to continue, it is certain that the political factors that led to the crisis will also loom large in the coming days. The kind of appeasement that Kalyan Singh resorted to attract defectors while engineering a majority in October - making all of them Ministers and thus creating a jumbo Cabinet - only helped speed up the process of political degeneration.

By all indications, the UPLC-led plan to bring down the Government and bargain with parties, including the S.P. and the BSP, for positions of power, existed as early as November 1997. Through such action the UPLC leadership hoped to make better gains than those that would accrue to it through participation in the Kalyan Singh Government. Besides, it had its grouses against Kalyan Singh. Foremost among them was the Chief Minister's move to make all the defector-MLAs Ministers. Kalyan Singh had done this with the objective of creating divisions between the leaders of the coalition partners and their MLAs. The calculation was that by making all of them Ministers, the MLAs were made equal to the leaders of their respective parties, and therefore the majority of them would stay with the BJP even if the leaders decided to part ways with the BJP. This upset Pal and UPLC president Naresh Agarwal, who was sworn in Deputy Chief Minister in the Pal Cabinet.

Naresh Agarwal was in the forefront of the toppling game. By the middle of November he had started negotiations with former Chief Minister and BSP leader Mayawati for a deal under which he would become Chief Minister. The negotiations gained momentum in early December with the collapse of the I.K. Gujral Government at the Centre and the announcement of Lok Sabha elections. Apparently, the plan discussed with Mayawati was to form a UPCC-led government in which the BSP, the Congress(I), the BKKP, the Janata Dal and its numerically superior breakaway faction and some independents would become Ministers. The S.P. and the Left parties were expected to support this arrangement from outside. However, the proposal was not acceptable to the S.P. leadership. The UPLC leadership decided to bide its time.

The UPLC leaders' efforts received an impetus with Sonia Gandhi's entry into politics and the organisational revival it caused in the the Congress(I). They started negotiating with their former mentors in New Delhi. Naresh Agarwal confabulated with All India Congress(I) Committee vice-president Jitendra Prasada and Pal with a fellow Thakur, Arjun Singh. Negotiations with Mayawati and the S.P. were resumed in the last week of January.

By the first week of February, senior leaders like Arjun Singh joined the exercise. Following Arjun Singh's intervention, the BSP agreed to withdraw its insistence on joining the government.

Meanwhile, discussions that UPLC leaders had with S.P. leaders evoked a positive response; the BSP's willingness not to insist on being part of the government was reason enough for them to play along. By February 12, negotiations with various parties were over and the UPLC, along with its friends in the breakaway Janata Dal, was set for the kill. However, a problem cropped up within the UPLC. Arjun Singh's direct talks with Mayawati made Jagadambika Pal the front-runner for the Chief Minister's post. Agarwal, who had all along led the game, was sidelined. Naturally, this upset Agarwal. He and his supporters wanted to buy time, and informed Mayawati and other leaders that it was best to implement the plan after the elections.

However, both the S.P. and the BSP insisted on going ahead with the plan ahead of the polls. Agarwal's muted opposition to Pal's elevation and the negotiations to overcome it had already delayed matters, and the first phase of polling was over. The S.P. leadership calculated that the collapse of the Kalyan Singh Government would raise questions about the BJP's claims of forming a stable government, and if this was to make any electoral impact, the fall should take place before February 22.

Second, Pal managed to enlist the support of a third group in the UPLC, led by Amarmani Tripathi. This took his tally of supporters to 16 out of 22. With this, Pal threatened to split the UPLC and still become Chief Minister with the support of Opposition parties. Agarwal knew that his objections would not work and agreed to become Deputy Chief Minister. The die was cast and the moves were finalised on February 20, setting in motion the developments of February 21.

THE normal course of action for the Governor after the withdrawal of support by the UPLC and the breakaway Janata Dal to the BJP Government would have been to ask Kalyan Singh to prove his majority on the floor of the House. However, for reasons best known to him, Bhandari dismissed the Government. Bhandari ignored even a fax message from President K.R. Narayanan asking him not to take any hasty step regarding the future of the Kalyan Singh Government. Bhandari claims that he went by the book. In his report to the Centre prior to the dismissal of the Government and in interviews to the media, he stuck to this position.

Talking to Frontline barely two hours before the Allahabad High Court struck down his decision, he maintained that whatever the court's verdict might be, he would stand by his decision. He said: "My job was to take a decision that would help prevent horse-trading, and that too in extremely confusing and difficult circumstances. I am fully convinced that I have acted constitutionally. More important, my conscience is clear."

However, five hours after the High Court issued its order, the Governor revised his stance and issued a notification stating that the order would be implemented. Clearly, the conviction with which he denied Kalyan Singh an opportunity for a floor test was no longer visible. If he had stuck to his earlier position, U.P. would have had two Chief Ministers simultaneously, one recognised by the Governor and the other by the judiciary.

Apart from giving a peculiar interpretation of the Supreme Court verdict in the S.R. Bommai case, Bhandari cited a precedent set by Motilal Vora in 1995 when he, as the Governor of U. P., refused an opportunity for a floor test to Mulayam Singh after the BSP withdrew support to his Government. According to Bhandari, the Governor did not accept Mulayam Singh's demand because "Mayawati had been promised outside support by the BJP, which had given her a majority."

However, it is well-known that the dismissal of the Mulayam Singh Government was on the basis of other factors too, including the collapse of the law and order machinery.

Bhandari said in his report to the Centre, that "a more stable government is possible, with lesser chances of horse-trading by inviting Jagadambika Pal" as leaders of various Opposition parties had promised their support to Pal. "I have to go by what the leaders of the recognised political parties maintained," the report argued. Going by what these leaders said, Bhandari concluded that the Pal Government would have the support of 221 MLAs while the BJP had the support of only 197 members.

Atal Behari Vajpayee announces his decision to go on a "fast-unto-death" demanding the recall of the Governor.-SUBIR ROY

According to legal experts, one question that Bhandari failed to consider was whether there was any split in any of the parties supporting Pal, including the UPLC. He should have considered this because only 12 UPLC legislators had met him to inform him about the withdrawal of their support. Two MLAs had only spoken to him on the telephone, expressing their support to the leadership's decision. More important, two other MLAs of the UPLC, Diwaker Vikram Singh and Vivek Singh, had earlier come with the BJP delegation that claimed majority support for Kalyan Singh. These two later came along with a UPLC delegation too and expressed their support to Pal. "Their position was suspect and the Governor should have checked whether there was a split in the UPLC," said I.B. Singh, an advocate in the Lucknow High Court. But Bhandari said in his report that "the question of whether a split has taken place or not was for the Speaker to decide."

All the arguments that Bhandari used to justify his action was negated by the High Court.

At the end of the day, the Governor's hasty action could prove politically costly to the non-BJP parties. The way in which the Kalyan Singh Government was dismissed, the BJP's campaign over this, and the stay issued by the High Court on the Governor's order, have all generated a sort of sympathy for the BJP. Seeking to exploit this situation, the BJP has begun efforts to win back MLAs who had left the party and bring in members from other parties as well. At least 10 of the 22 UPLC MLAs are expected to go back to the BJP. By all indications, the BJP has also convinced Naresh Agarwal to return to the Kalyan Singh Government.

If the legal battle on the dismissal issue helps install Kalyan Singh back in the chair, the BJP is certain to prove its majority. For recent history has shown that the party in power in Uttar Pradesh would come up with a majority, given the prevalent buy-and-sell culture.

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