A house in disorder

Print edition : January 05, 2002

The split in the Bharatiya Janata Party's legislative wing in Chhattisgarh has raised doubts about the central leadership's ability to ensure the party's unity.

THE Bharatiya Janata Party, the major constituent of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) that rules at the Centre, was rejoicing over its success in achieving all-party support for the government's response to the December 13 terrorist attack on Parliament House, when news came about the split in Chhattisgarh. On December 20, 12 of its 35 Members of Legislative Assembly (MLAs) deserted the party to float the Chhattisgarh Vikas Party, only to merge with the ruling Congress(I) the following day. The split reduced the strength of the BJP to 23 in the 90-member Assembly.

Raipur Mayor and leader of the dissident MLAs, Tarun Chatterjee (left) announces on December 21 the merger of the newly formed Chhattisgarh Vikas Party with the Congress(I).-

Led by Tarun Chatterjee, the Mayor of Raipur, the 12 MLAs met Speaker, Rajendra Prasad Shukla and expressed their desire to form a new party. After ascertaining the views of each of them, the Speaker recognised the new party. Chatterjee, who represents the Raipur (Rural) seat in the Assembly, alleged that the decision to split the BJP was forced on the MLAs by the party's senior leaders who humiliated them. The dissident MLAs claimed that the lack of effective leadership and the consequent inability to fulfil the promises made to the people was another reason for the split.

On December 21, the new party merged with the Congress(I), expressing faith in the leadership of Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi and State Chief Minister Ajit Jogi. Since Jogi was present at the legislators' meeting with the Speaker, it was clear that the split had his backing.

However, keen to set at rest speculation that he had engineered the split, Jogi stated that since his government had a comfortable majority, it did not need to split the BJP. "This only shows that people are fed up with the BJP at the State level and that is why there have been desertions from the party," Jogi said.

Jogi has been virtually under siege ever since the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, headed by BJP leader Dilip Singh Bhuria, declared that he did not belong to any Scheduled Tribe (S.T.) and was therefore ineligible to contest from a seat reserved for STs. Though the Commission's order has been stayed by the Chhattisgarh High Court, which is yet to pronounce its verdict on the issue, a few MLAs within the Congress(I) have been demanding Jogi's ouster from the post of Chief Minister. There are at least four dissidents in Jogi's Cabinet, including Mahendra Karma, who belongs to a Scheduled Tribe. He has been insisting that Jogi's claim to being a tribal person be decided by the tribal people themselves.

Jogi's inability to drop the dissenting Ministers had begun to undermine his authority within the party. Jogi was Sonia Gandhi's nominee for the post of Chief Minister. His lack of support among the MLAs has been a serious handicap. When Jogi became Chief Minister in November 2000, he was not an MLA. In February 2001, he contested from Marwahi, a reserved seat held by the BJP's Ram Dayal Uike. Uike vacated his seat on frivolous grounds and helped Jogi seek election to the Assembly from that reserved seat. Jogi won with a margin of over 50,000 votes, and Uike was made chairman of the State SC/ST board with perks equivalent to those of a Cabinet Minister. Now Jogi has to reward the new entrants from the BJP with ministerial berths. He hopes to do it after consolidating his position in the party.

It is not as if the BJP leadership was caught entirely unawares. Three days prior to the split, a prominent local daily had carried a speculative report that it was imminent, and had even named the 12 MLAs who were likely to desert the party. The party's central leaders paid little heed to the warnings from informed sections within the party. They did nothing to address the grievances of the disgruntled legislators. Party vice-president Madan Lal Khurana, who is in charge of party affairs in Chhattisgarh, was busy mobilising dissent against the central leadership over the "unresolved people's problems" in Delhi.

The embarrassed central leadership of the BJP sent a three-member team consisting of Union Ministers Ramesh Bais and Raman Singh and Rajya Sabha member Lakhi Ram Agrawal - all hailing from Chhattisgarh - to assess the situation in Raipur. The team, which held meetings with local leaders and legislators, alleged that the MLAs were lured with money and positions by the Chief Minister. Bais alleged that threats of investigation into alleged scandals involving the BJP legislators were made by the Chief Minister's supporters in order to woo them to his side. Bais said that the party had suspected the loyalty of only three MLAs - Chatterjee, Madan Singh Dahriya and Lokendra Yadav. Others had reportedly promised the central leaders that though they were not happy with Agrawal's influence over the party's affairs, they would not leave the party. This indicated the increasing rift between the influential Bania community, which dominates the party, and the new entrants belonging to the backward sections, who were always kept outside the party's power structure.

Curiously, the party's central team that visited Raipur consisted of those leaders whose style of functioning was in the first place alleged to be the reason for the rift. According to Bais, although the central leaders had been apprised of the discontent among the MLAs, nobody expected as many as 12 MLAs to leave the party together.

Bais claimed that several of the 12 MLAs had agreed to split the party in the belief that they would be launching a new party, and not joining the Congress(I). The swift merger of the new party with the Congress(I) that Chatterjee engineered left no room for further dissent by the MLAs, he said. The BJP team has demanded an inquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigation into the allegations of horse-trading even though it has not been able to gather any evidence in support of them. Allegations have also been made that a particular business group paid money to the rebel MLAs in exchange for their support to elect its representative, a Congress(I) candidate, to the Rajya Sabha.

But the bottomline is that with the party rethinking its strategy for the Assembly elections in December 2003, many BJP MLAs are unsure of their future. Bais admitted that the rebels' exit has given the party an opportunity to field new faces, preferably from the hardcore cadre of the party. Loyalty, rather than winnability, would be the major criterion in choosing candidates for the next assembly elections, Bais hinted.

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