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Convulsions in Uttar Pradesh

Print edition : Apr 15, 2000

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The rumblings in the ruling coalition, caused by cross-voting in the Rajya Sabha elections, and the agitation launched by the Samajwadi Party to protest against the bill on religious places, pose serious threats to the Ram Prakash Gupta Ministry in Ut tar Pradesh.

VENKITESH RAMAKRISHNAN

UTTAR PRADESH's ruling coalition, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party, looks set for yet another period of political convulsions. Even as it is riven by internal strife, the principal Opposition party, the Samajwadi Party (S.P.), has launched a State-wide agitation to protest against the Uttar Pradesh Religious Buildings and Places Bill, which is widely condemned as being harmful to minority interests.

Although both these developments spell trouble for the Ram Prakash Gupta Ministry, the possible consequences of the former are considered to be more immediate and serious. The most visible manifestation of the disturbance within the coalition has been a boycott of the Cabinet meeting by one of its leading constituents, the Uttar Pradesh Loktantrik Congress (UPLC), on April 4. The boycott followed a statement from the Chief Minister that castigated the BJP's allies for their role in the recent Rajya Sabh a elections. Gupta had said that the political morality of the allies, especially parties such as the UPLC, had touched a new low. "To ensure the success of their candidate, these parties (allies) have even poached on the senior partner of the alliance," he said. Gupta added: "This is despicable." According to UPLC president Naresh Agarwal, the statement militated against coalition principles. He told mediapersons that his party was upset by the statement; he threatened to take up the matter with Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. Ram Prakash Gupta apparently ignored the threat.

The Rajya Sabha elections were marked by unprecedented cross-voting and horse-trading and the results upset all political calculations. Significantly, it was the BJP that was the worst affected and the UPLC the biggest beneficiary. While the UPLC's Rajiv Shukla topped the winners with an amazing tally of 50 votes in the first round itself, three of the five BJP candidates - Balbir Punj, Ramnath Kovid and Ram Bux Singh - had to wait until the third, fourth and fifth rounds respectively to get through. In terestingly, the UPLC has only 20 members in the Assembly, while the BJP has more than 175. The travails of the BJP candidates proved that more than 20 members of the party had resorted to cross-voting. The two BJP candidates who won in the first round w ere Union Surface Transport Minister Rajnath Singh and former Union Minister Sushma Swaraj. However, these stalwarts were no match for Rajiv Shukla, a journalist-turned politician - they won fewer votes than Shukla. Shukla's victory is all the more signi ficant because a section of the 20 UPLC MLAs, led by Minister Amar Mani Tripathi, had opposed his candidature. Apparently, Shukla secured votes from the BJP, the Congress(I) and the Jantantrik Bahujan Samaj Party (JBSP). He also got third preference vote s from the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP).

The grapevine said during the run-up to the elections that two powerful industrial groups backed Shukla. Whatever may be the truth, even the normally disciplined S.P. legislators played truant; only one candidate of the party, Swami Sakshi Maharaj, won i n the first round. Former Union Minister Janeshwar Misra and Dara Singh Chauhan won only on the strength of second and third preference votes. Apparently, four S.P. MLAs resorted to cross-voting.

The BSP fared relatively better. One of its candidates, Ghanshyam Chand Kharwar, won in the first round, with 47 votes. Its second candidate, Babu Singh Khushwaha, however, lost the election, as expected. The BSP had asked its 50 legislators to cast firs t preference votes in favour of Kharwar and second preference votes in favour of Khushwaha.

The Congress(I) too was hit by cross-voting. Its candidate, Inder Khosla, got only 14 votes in the first round, and was the first candidate to be eliminated from the contest. The Congress(I) has 17 members in the State Assembly. Obviously, three legislat ors resorted to cross-voting.

The Lok Dal candidate, industrialist Jayant Malhoutra, sprang a surprise when he secured 22 votes in the first round. The Lok Dal's strength in the Assembly is only nine. Malhoutra, according to informed sources, managed to garner votes from the BJP and the JBSP. However, he lost to another industrialist, M.M. Agarwal who contested as an independent. Neither could get the required number of 36 votes. In the last round, through the process of elimination, Agarwal - with 29 votes - was declared elected si nce Malhoutra polled only 23 votes.

The cross-voting has tarnished the BJP's image, as it is now evident that the party has become susceptible to electoral malpractices and the misuse of money power, much in the same way as the Congress(I).

Apart from exposing the indiscipline in the party's ranks, the elections highlighted the lack of coordination within the State BJP leadership. According to BJP insiders, the State leadership, informed Rajnath Singh virtually at the last minute - on the n ight before the polls - that he would get only 32 votes against 36, as had been fixed earlier. Rajnath Singh was told that the party was forced to reduce his quota because it was short of the requisite number of MLAs and because "he was quite capable of getting additional support on his own". Finally, it was the eight Thakur Ministers of the allies of the BJP who helped Rajnath Singh sail through in the first round. These Ministers, who had offered support to M.M. Agarwal, finally voted for Rajnath Sing h. According to one of them, they were motivated by the need to uphold what they called the prestige of their caste. "When the State BJP leadership played dirty with Rajnath Singh, we had no choice but to go to his rescue," one of these Ministers told Frontline.

By all indications, it was the cumulative effect of the election results on the party in general and on the leadership of Ram Prakash Gupta in particular that impelled the Chief Minister, unrestrainable in the best of times, to lash out at the UPLC. Init ially the central leadership tried to soft-pedal the cross-voting issue by stating that the beneficiary, after all, was a "friendly party". This was the angle the central leadership presented even after the summoning of the State unit chief, Om Prakash S ingh, to New Delhi. However, when several leaders, including Sushma Swaraj, demanded that the party conduct an inquiry into the incident, the leadership changed its stance. Gupta's diatribe against the UPLC was essentially in response to this. In the eve nt the differences within the State BJP emboldened the UPLC to take an aggressive posture.

A section of the BJP's central leadership is of the view that the present confrontation is the most serious problem since Ram Prakash Gupta took charge as Chief Minister five months ago. This section, which is considered close to party general secretary K.N. Govindacharya, is not happy with the general functioning of the State Government and has been advocating a change of leadership. According to it, Gupta has been found wanting even in holding the party's own MLAs together. This section is also of the view that Ram Prakash Gupta's weaknesses would be further exposed with the S.P.'s agitation gathering momentum. The S.P. has planned a long-term campaign and there are apprehensions that this might take a militant form.

The bill, introduced in the name of checking the activities of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), prohibits the construction of places of worship - temples, mosques and churches - without the prior permission of the District Magistrates (D.M.) . It also gives powers to the D.Ms to demolish existing structures, if it is suspected that they are used for criminal activities.

The bill ostensibly covers all religions, but the general impression is that the main targets, in keeping with the Sangh Parivar's long-term interests, are the minorities, especially Muslims. The Chief Minister had repeatedly said before the passage of t he bill that madrasas (Islamic religious schools) had become sanctuaries for the ISI.

Ram Prakash Gupta's detractors point out that pushing the Hindutva agenda alone would not ensure the longevity of the government. In fact, they have run an inner-party campaign for more than a month on this issue. They have been demanding that Ram Prakas h Gupta be replaced with Rajnath Singh, although the Union Minister is not ready to move to Uttar Pradesh at a time when the party's fortunes in the State are on a downswing.

In this context, some of the Chief Minister's critics have reportedly argued in party forums that it is better to dissolve the Assembly and go in for an extended spell of President's Rule. "This period," a member of this group says, "can be used to impro ve the fortunes of the party by projecting Rajnath Singh as the next Chief Minister." By all indications, this option is being considered seriously by the central leadership. However, it is not clear when the party will take the plunge.

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