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Pre-election battle

Print edition : Oct 27, 2001 T+T-

Members of all Opposition parties in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly resign demanding the dissolution of the House and the holding of early elections even as the BJP-led State government refuses to give in.

UTTAR PRADESH is witnessing a queer spectacle. All Opposition members of the State Assembly have resigned demanding the dissolution of the House and early elections. On the other hand, the State government is sticking to its stand that the term of the House expires only in March 2002 and hence it will not recommend its dissolution.

First it was Samajwadi Party (S.P.) legislators who resigned en masse on September 11. The Congress(I)'s 13 MLAs submitted their resignation letters to Speaker Kesri Nath Tripathi on October 16, and 46 legislators of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) resigned on October 17. Five others, including former Chief Minister Kalyan Singh who leads the Rashtriya Kranti Dal (RKD), resigned along with the Congress(I) MLAs. The Opposition parties asserted that the term of the Assembly would expire on October 17 and fresh elections should be held without delay. However, the State government argued that the term of the Assembly was counted from the day it held its first sitting. The present Assembly met for the first time on March 26, 1997, and its term expired only on March 27, 2002, it contended. Chief Minister Rajnath Singh said: "There is no question of recommending dissolution of the Assembly. The government will continue. Elections will be held on time and a new government will be there in the State by March 27, 2002. It is not for the State government to announce elections. It is the job of the Election Commission. We are ready to hold it anytime."

Hence the onus is now on the Election Commission (E.C.) to issue the notification for elections. However, the E.C. has so far given no indication of early elections in the State. On October 13, Chief Election Commissioner J.M. Lyngdoh told mediapersons in Dehra Dun that the term of the U.P. Assembly expired in March 2002 and elections would only be held on their basis. However, senior E.C. officials agreed that the situation in Uttar Pradesh was unprecedented since never had a State Assembly existed without Opposition members. They clarified that they were bound by the law which stated that the term of an Assembly should be counted from the day of its first meeting. "It is indeed a strange situation. But we are not concerned with the functioning of the House. Our job relates to the holding of elections at the right time. We can announce early elections only if the State government makes such a recommendation. In this case there is no request from the State government to this effect," said a senior E.C. official.

Interestingly, the Opposition parties too have not indicated that they are serious about pursuing the case for early elections. None of the Opposition parties has petitioned the E.C. seeking early elections. "We have received no request from any political party to this effect," confirmed a senior E.C. official. Hence the impression has been created that the resignations were only meant for public consumption.

The S.P. has not yet discussed its future strategy in the People's Front (P.F.). Opinion polls indicate that the S.P., a major constituent of the P.F., will emerge as the single largest party in the Assembly. "We have not taken up the issue yet in our meetings. But we do think it is immoral for the Rajnath Singh government to continue in office now," said D. Raja, a national secretary of the Communist Party of India (CPI).

Interestingly, the resignations of the Congress(I) MLAs appear to have been a half-hearted move. All the resignations have not yet been accepted by the Speaker because these were not in the required format. Out of the 13 resignation letters, only two have been accepted so far. Apparently, others had mentioned in their resignation letters that they were to be considered valid only if the Assembly was not dissolved by the midnight of October 17. However, rules do not allow resignations based on such conditions. More important, there was difference of opinion among the Congress(I) MLAs on the issue of resignations. Some, like Dr. Ammar Rizvi who became the Deputy Speaker after the S.P. MLAs resigned, were not in a mood to resign. It was only after party president Sonia Gandhi made it clear that those who wished to remain in the party should resign immediately that the 13 MLAs submitted their resignations. Those who resigned also included persons who joined the party recently, such as Jagdambika Pal (unattached), Rajpal Tyagi and Dr. Muslim (both S.P.) and Mohammed Muqeem (independent).

"Our demand is the dissolution of Assembly and the imposition of President's Rule so that fresh elections can be held in an impartial manner," said Subodh Kant Sahay, All India Congress Committee secretary in charge of party affairs in U.P. However, he said that given the BJP's track record, the Rajnath Singh government was not expected to be worried about propriety or morality. "After the induction of George Fernandes, they have shed all pretence to morality. We do not expect them to be bound by either ethics or morality," Sahay said. Significantly, the bigger the mess the BJP makes of itself, the better it is for the Congress(I) which is hoping to lure the fringe supporters of the BJP to its fold. The impressive rally that Sonia Gandhi addressed in Lucknow on October 15 has boosted the morale of Congress(I) workers, who see the prospects of their party reviving in the State. Sonia Gandhi is to address a few more rallies in various parts of the State - a rally of backward caste people in Meerut on October 20, a 'parivartan' rally in Basti on November 6 and another one in Kanpur on November 12.

Meanwhile, BSP vice-president and former Chief Minister Mayawati criticised the Rajnath Singh government for "running away from elections". She said it indicated a sense of desperation in the BJP. "The BJP has lost all hopes of coming back to power. That is why it is clinging to the chair for as long as it can," she said.

The S.P. attacked the BJP for what it called the latter's "immorality". S.P. president Mulayam Singh Yadav has exhorted his party workers to gherao Ministers and MLAs of the ruling alliance in order to force them to resign. Countering the S.P.'s charge of "immorality", the Chief Minister announced that MLAs of the ruling alliance would not accept their salary after October 17; instead they would donate the amount to the Chief Minister's Relief Fund.

Speaker Kesri Nath Tripathi said that the resignation of Opposition members did not affect the life of the Assembly because the law stated that the House should be dissolved only if more than 50 per cent of its members resigned. In the 403-member House, only 152 have resigned. The remaining members include 156 of the BJP, 17 of the Uttar Pradesh Loktantrik Congress, 13 of the Lok Janshakti, six of the Jantantrik BSP, nine of the Rashtriya Lok Dal, three of the Janata Dal (United) and two of the Samata Party. Moreover, 11 Congress(I) Legislators continue to be members of the House as their resignations have not been accepted.

MEANWHILE, on October 19, the Supreme Court dismissed an interim application seeking immediate dissolution of the Uttar Pradesh Assembly and stoppage of salaries and allowances to MLAs on the grounds that the term of the House expired on October 17. The interim application, filed by Virender Mohan Singh, a former MLA, was rejected by a Division Bench of the court comprising Justices V.N. Khare and B.N. Agrawal. The Bench said the application would be considered during the hearing of Virendra Mohan Singh's main petition, which requested the court to issue a direction to the E.C. to hold elections to the Assembly. (The court has issued notices on the main petition.) In his interim application, Virendra Mohan Singh claimed that the term of the Assembly expired on October 18. Hence the salaries and allowances of MLAs should be stopped and the House dissolved immediately to hold elections, he argued. Appearing for the State, Attorney-General Soli Sorabjee and Solicitor-General Harish Salve said that Article 172(1) of the Constitution stated that the term of the Assembly began the day it held its first meeting. The Uttar Pradesh Assembly had met for the first time on March 27, 1997, and hence the House should be constituted only by March 26, 2002, they argued. They added that the E.C. should hold the elections accordingly to meet the deadline of March 26, 2002. The ruling came as a breather for the State government, which was finding it difficult to counter the onslaught of a united Opposition.

Now, with some five months of campaign time available to the Opposition parties, one can expect a lot of drama in the days to come. Unwittingly, the Rajnath Singh government has only provided them ammunition for use against itself.