A battle in U.P.

Print edition : May 09, 1998

The long-standing schism in the Uttar Pradesh unit of the BJP threatens to create another crisis for the Kalyan Singh Government.

EVEN as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) grappled with the contradictions within the ruling coalition at the Centre, in the second week of April the infighting in its Uttar Pradesh unit assumed alarming proportions. It was an open confrontation with the two factions issuing public statements against each other. Chief Minister Kalyan Singh went on record as saying that a section of the leadership of his party had hatched a conspiracy to oust him from office. These leaders, Kalyan Singh said, were trying to tarnish his image by means of a campaign of character assassination.

Although Kalyan Singh did not mention names, it was clear that he was referring to leaders such as Rajnath Singh, the party's State unit president, and Lalji Tandon, Urban Development Minister. The two leaders have complained to the central leadership about the Chief Minister's style of functioning and suggested that the problems in the State unit can be solved only by removing Kalyan Singh from the post.

Trouble in one of the BJP's most important State units could not have erupted at a more inopportune moment for the central leadership. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, whose major preoccupation in recent times has been to find ways to mollify the various constituents of his coalition Government, had to intervene in Uttar Pradesh. He had prolonged meetings with Kalyan Singh and Rajnath Singh on April 29 in New Delhi. The leaders also met the outgoing party president, L.K. Advani, and his successor, Kushabhau Thakre.

Chief Minister Kalyan Singh with the BJP's U.P. unit president Rajnath Singh.-SUBIR ROY

According to BJP source, there were heated arguments at these meetings. Kalyan Singh, the sources said, was asked to mend his ways and carry the entire State unit with him. His suggestion that the party go in for fresh elections was apparently rejected. The central leadership also reportedly told Rajnath Singh and Lalji Tandon that it was not advisable to remove Kalyan Singh at this juncture as he was the most popular BJP leader in the State. They were also reportedly assured that a code of conduct would be evolved soon to guide the functioning of the State Government and the party.

The central leadership has been able to bring about a ceasefire or sorts. However, not many people in the State party believe that this will last. A former State executive member of the party said: "The factors that have caused the present situation are deep-rooted and it will be naive to expect that they will disappear with some tough talk or the formulation of a code of conduct."

One factor behind the present conflict is the longstanding struggle between an upper-caste group consisting mainly of Brahmin and Bania leaders and a backward-caste group led by Kalyan Singh. The problem has now been aggravated by allegations of corruption, differences between the BJP and its coalition partners in the State such as the Uttar Pradesh Loktantrik Congress (UPLC), complaints about the Chief Minister's style of functioning and so on. A major complaint was that he was inaccessible to party MLAs and that he did not treat them well.

THE fight between the upper-caste and backward-caste groups has seen many twists and turns since October 1996, when the present Assembly was constituted. The upper-caste group, led by Lalji Tandon and Public Works Minister Kalraj Mishra, has systematically tried to undermine Kalyan Singh's influence in the party since the Assembly elections. It was to strenghten themselves vis-a-vis Kalyan Singh that they advocated an alliance with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) to form a government in the State. Their efforts succeeded in March 1997 when the alliance was formed, but their joy was short-lived as the coalition collapsed in October. Since then the Kalyan Singh line of splitting Opposition parties such as the Congress(I) and the BSP to rustle up a majority in the Assembly gained more acceptance in the BJP. In implementing this line, Kalyan Singh was greatly helped by the strategic alliance he had forged with the Thakur group led by Rajnath Singh. Together, the two leaders subdued the upper-caste group and established control over the party and the Government. Rajnath Singh's manoeuvring skills helped Kalyan Singh prove his majority in the Assembly in October 1997 and then in February 1998 after his Government was ousted by Governor Romesh Bhandari.

Urban Development Minister Lalji Tandon.-SUBIR ROY

The present crisis erupted when the Thakur-backward caste alliance collapsed. Kalyan Singh's feeling of insecurity stemming from the growing clout of Rajnath Singh and the latter's unhappiness at being denied a greater say in the affairs of the government led to the collapse. The differences came out on April 10 when Kalyan Singh ordered the transfer of 102 officers of the Indian Administrative Service, including 44 District Magistrates. According to Kalyan Singh, these transfers were ordered because many Ministers and MLAs had complained about them. Rajnath Singh was upset that a majority of the postings were made without consulting him.

Two days after the mass transfers were ordered, it became even more clear that Kalyan Singh was preparing himself to take on Rajnath Singh. Kalyan Singh left the BJP national executive meeting held in New Delhi before it concluded in order to attend a Kshatriya sammelan organised by a BJP Member of the Legislative Council, Ajit Singh, in Lucknow. Significantly, Rajnath Singh, a Kshatriya, was not invited to this conference.

Reacting to queries from mediapersons on his exclusion from the conference, Rajnath Singh said that it was not proper for the Chief Minister to attend meetings organised on the basis of caste, especially when the party was committed to fighting casteism and caste parties.

Sensing a conflict between Kalyan Singh and Rajnath Singh, leaders such as Lalji Tandon lost no time in patching up with Rajnath Singh. According to BJP sources, Tandon even agreed to support Rajnath's candidature for the Chief Minister's post.

EVEN as the new group started enlisting the support of MLAs to overthrow Kalyan Singh, a newspaper report alleging Tandon's involvement in a scandal generated a controversy. According to the report, the Comptroller and Auditor-General's (CAG) report on the financial mismanagement of the Ambedkar park project, initiated during the BJP-BSP regime led by Mayawati, indicted Tandon and his Urban Development Ministry for squandering public money on the project. The report also said that the CAG had asked the Urban Development Secretary to give an explanation for this wasteful expenditure.

Tandon created a flutter when he alleged that the CAG report was leaked deliberately by officials. Denying any leakage from the administration, Kalyan Singh said that newspapers had their own methods to collect information. This was followed by a slanging match between the groups owing allegiance to the two leaders. Tandon's supporters took pains to convince the media, with documentary support, that 78 per cent of the work on the controversial project was undertaken by the Public Works Ministry and that the Urban Development Ministry's share was only around 20 per cent. The Irrigation Department, headed by Om Prakash Singh, a confidant of Kalyan Singh, had also spent Rs.2 crores for the project, they said. But, Tandon's supporters said, the CAG report "deliberately left out" all these facts and targeted only the Ministry under Tandon. This, they added, indicated that Kalyan Singh and his supporters were trying to win over Public Works Minister Kalraj Mishra and thus divide the group led by Tandon and Mishra.

Public Works Minister Kalraj Mishra.-SUBIR ROY

The counter-offensive came in a newspaper interview given by Kusumlata Rai, a Lucknow Corporator. She said that a "few leaders close to Prime Minister Vajpayee were trying to tarnish the image of the Chief Minister" and that this was "damaging the interests of the party."

As the battle continued, the BJP's coalition partners such as the UPLC took a position against the Chief Minister. UPLC leader Naresh Agarwal had been unhappy with Kalyan Singh. His complaint was that the Chief Minister showered favours on junior MLAs from his party apparently in an effort to undercut him.

Responding to the UPLC's hostility, Kalyan Singh said that a section of State BJP leaders was playing into the hands of the party's allies. He also suggested to the central leadership that the party go in for fresh elections to clear the confusion. Rajnath Singh responded by telling the central leadership that the problem was not with the alliance but with the Chief Minister's ways and his lack of interest in the development of the State.

Clearly, the conflict is not over despite the truce brought about by the central leadership. Kalyan Singh wants to take full control of the party and his opponents are equally determined to thwart him. According to a State BJP leader, the stalwarts of the party wanted the National Council meeting in Ahmedabad to pass off peacefully; then the truce will come to an end.

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