A `tainted' Chief Minister

Published : Sep 10, 2004 00:00 IST

A court in Hubli cuts short Uma Bharati's term as Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh and rattles the BJP's "tainted Ministers" campaign.

UMA BHARATI's persistent defiance of the law - she has evaded 18 non-bailable arrest warrants issued against her by the Judicial Magistrate First Class 2nd Court, Hubli, in the last two years - has finally been defeated. The most recent arrest warrant, along with a proclamation for attachment of her property, was served on August 3, 2004, by the same court to the Inspector-General of Police (IG) and the Director-General of Police (DGP) Karnataka. It has come at a particularly inopportune moment for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which finds that its campaign against "tainted" elected representatives occupying offices has now rebounded upon itself with full force.

That a senior elected functionary and Chief Minister of a State could have ignored first a series of court summons and then arrest warrants over a period of two years, cannot be explained away by the argument that the cases are "political" and not "criminal" in nature and that she has been politically victimised for her patriotic determination to raise the national flag on Independence Day. The Idgah Maidan issue became an explosive one thanks to the BJP's campaign in the early 1990s. Six persons were killed in police firing when violence peaked on Independence Day and the day following it in 1994, and Uma Bharati was among those against whom cases were filed under Sections 307 (attempt to murder) and 486 (mischief by fire or explosive substance), both non-bailable offences.

The Congress government in Karnataka has been hard put to explain the sudden reversal of its stand on the Idgah Maidan cases. When the non-bailable arrest warrant was issued on August 3, Uma Bharati was in Bangalore making a media splash with her appeal to the captains of the Information Technology sector to set up shop in Madhya Pradesh. No attempt was made by the State police to arrest her then. It was in the middle of August that the Karnataka government appeared to wake up to the implications of the case. Its Public Prosecutor in Hubli was directed to file an application on August 18 before the First Additional District and Sessions Court praying that an earlier revision petition that had been filed for the withdrawal of the cases be disposed of. Karnataka Chief Minister Dharam Singh has now said that the State government was forced to review the cases in view of the increase in communal incidents recently in the State.

A phase of the court battle closed on August 23 . The original case (No. 563/95) involving Uma Bharati and 21 others, which had been filed before the Judicial Magistrates First Class 2nd Court, Hubli, stands, as does the arrest warrant. Her lawyers announced the same evening that they would move the Karnataka High Court against the orders of the lower court.

The BJP's position is that politically instituted cases are different from cases involving moral turpitude, even though the line of separation between these two types of cases is not always clear to the general public. For example, BJP Parliamentary Party leader L.K. Advani resigned his post and the membership of the Lok Sabha when his name was linked with the hawala diaries. However, in the Ayodhya demolition case, BJP leaders and former Union Ministers Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi and Uma Bharati refused to resign as Ministers despite being charge-sheeted. Their plea was that it was a political case instituted against them during a "mass movement" and therefore there was no need to quit.

However, with the Karnataka government deciding to execute the non-bailable warrant against Uma Bharati this time, the BJP was left with no options but to accept her resignation as Chief Minister, as it would be untenable for a Chief Minister to court arrest even in a so-called "political" case. She was charged with attempt to incite the passions of an unruly mob at Hubli following her defiance of prohibitory orders - very much akin to the Ayodhya demolition case.

The BJP, doubtless, sees a huge potential to revive itself with the reopening of the Hubli episode through the arrest warrant against Uma Bharati. The party is deliberately not accepting that she has been charged with inciting a violent mob, but is rather highlighting her attempt to hoist the national flag at the Idgah Maidan in Hubli in 1994. Owing to its failure to make any impact on other issues - be it its campaign against "tainted" Ministers in the Manmohan Singh government, or Sonia Gandhi's role as the "Super PM" - the party sees the Hubli case as an issue given to it by the Congress on a platter. The party would surely try to take the patriotic high ground and charge the Congress with persecuting those who, after all, only want to hoist the national flag. The Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) has already given Uma Bharati the go-ahead to her Hubli-Jalianwalabagh yatra. The Savarkar issue in Parliament and the Hubli issue could well become the focal points of the BJP's campaign in the Assembly elections this year in Maharashtra.

The BJP president, M. Venkaiah Naidu, rejected the resignation letters sent by Uma Bharati's Ministers. The party saw it as a pressure tactic on the eve of the BJP Parliamentary Board meeting. However, the convention is that when a Chief Minister resigns, so do her Council of Ministers. The new Chief Minister will have to be sworn in along with new Ministers all over again. But for the Karnataka government's decision to serve the non-bailable warrant on her in Bhopal, she would have wished to continue and resist pressures to quit, while awaiting the Hubli court's decision. She sought Venkaiah Naidu's permission to submit her resignation to the Governor on August 23. She also said she would reconsider her decision to resign only if the Karnataka government withdrew the cases against her, and if the Hubli court rejected the charges against her. Even so, Uma Bharati's resignation would make a mockery of the party's position on the Ayodhya issue. It would seem that the BJP would respect principles only when faced with a non-bailable warrant. In the Ayodhya case, she refused to quit as Union Minister, or decline the post of the Chief Minister, even though the Uttar Pradesh government did not withdraw the case against her and the Special Court is yet to find her innocent. Had she taken the Hubli case seriously and represented herself through her counsel all these years, this situation may not have arisen.

But a section of the BJP feels this embarrassment can be turned into an opportunity to attack further the United Progressive Alliance government on the "tainted" Ministers issue, even though there are material differences between the two that the BJP refuses to acknowledge. Shibu Soren, for instance, quit only when faced with an arrest warrant. The cases of other "tainted" UPA Ministers have not reached that stage yet.

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