The announcement of the poll schedule emboldens the beleaguered Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh to adopt an aggressive posture.
ON February 21, a few hours before the Election Commission announced the election schedule for the Uttar Pradesh Assembly, Lucknow witnessed a curious spectacle: the ruling Samajwadi Party (S.P.) suddenly turned into a combative `Opposition'.
The occasion was the emergency State-level meeting of senior party leaders called by Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav to discuss the dismissal threat faced by his government. Speaker after speaker, including the otherwise demure Members of Parliament Jaya Bachchan and Jayaprada, berated the Congress and the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government it led at the Centre for holding out the threat of dismissal and portrayed the S.P. as a victim of the machinations of the Congress. Party activists were getting stimulated with each successive speech.
By the time his turn to speak came, veteran leader Janeshwar Mishra, having gauged the anxiety building up in the crowd, merely exhorted the cadre to go on the "offensive". He explained that the S.P. and its government had been on the defensive for too long and the time had come to change tactic.
"From now on we are the ones who will go on the offensive against our tormentors - the Central government and Sonia Gandhi, and their associates in the Bharatiya Janata Party [BJP] and the Bahujan Samaj Party [BSP]." Mishra rounded off his speech with full-throated slogans in Hindi and the crowd responded enthusiastically. The anti-Congress mood of the crowd was reflected once again that afternoon when the S.P. leadership announced its withdrawal of support to the UPA government. At the meeting, party general secretary Amar Singh, in a tongue-in-cheek manner, thanked the Congress and the UPA government for "revitalising" S.P. cadre.
Observing the mood at the meeting and its impact on grassroots workers, a local BJP leader told Frontline that the net result of the manoeuvres of the UPA government, aimed at imposing President's Rule in the State, was the injection of an "Opposition-like fervour" into S.P. cadre. According to political observers and several leaders, the announcement of polls at this juncture would give added strength to the ruling party in the early rounds of electioneering. "Mulayam Singh Yadav has got his political timing right for the first time in about one and a half years," the BJP leader observed.
Even a quick look at the recent happenings in the State would give credence to this assessment. Until the February 14 verdict of the Supreme Court disqualifying the 13 BSP Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs), who defected to the S.P. in September 2003, and the subsequent manoeuvres of the Congress aimed at dismissing the State government on the grounds that its formation was "immoral and unconstitutional", the S.P. was practically moving from one crisis to another.
The controversy over the tapping of telephones of Amar Singh in December 2005 and early 2006; the agitation against the Dadri power project under the leadership of former Prime Minister Vishwanath Pratap Singh and actor-politician Raj Babbar who left the S.P. to form the Jan Morcha in mid 2006; the castigation of the State police machinery and the government over the Nithari killings; the departure of the Ajit Singh-led Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) from the Ministry; and the withdrawal of the Congress' support to the government in January 2007 were all part of this series of crises.
The issues thrown up by these developments raised serious questions about the government's commitment to the underprivileged sections of society, its moral authority and even its administrative efficacy. But what kept the S.P. going was its ability to retain its majority in the Assembly by attracting MLAs from other parties.
The success of this tactic was reflected in the repeated tests to prove the government's majority on the floor of the House. There were a dozen floor tests in the past three years, all initiated by the government, and the Chief Minister's penchant for proving his majority became the subject matter of many a satire in the media. But the fact remained that the S.P. was ahead in the numbers game.
All through the repeated floor tests, the BSP, the BJP and the Congress maintained that the S.P. would meet its Waterloo in the case relating to the disqualification of the BSP MLAs. On the basis of the disqualification of the 13 MLAs, another 24 BSP MLAs, who too had joined the S.P. at the time of the formation of the government in 2003, would also face disqualification, the leaders of these parties argued.
The run-up to the Supreme Court verdict was marked by political plans etched out essentially by sections of the Congress leadership, apparently in consultation with Jan Morcha leaders. These plans visualised the RLD's withdrawal from the Ministry and the Congress' withdrawal of support, either before or after the verdict. It was calculated that the cumulative effect of these actions and the disqualification of the 13 MLAs would reduce the government to a minority.
Implementation of the plan began approximately a month before the verdict. The RLD pulled out of the Ministry in the second week of January and the Congress withdrew support in the third week, in anticipation of the decisive blow they expected from the Supreme Court.
Mulayam Singh showed that the S.P. had some more aces up its sleeve to counter the Congress' manoeuvres. The floor test on January 25 showed that the government had the support of 223 MLAs as against an expected support of 210. Thirteen more MLAs, apparently belonging to the BJP, the RLD and the BSP, had obviously supported the S.P. government.
Leaders of the "oust Mulayam Singh Yadav" operation were naturally distressed at this unexpected development. And by all indications, it is this distress that resulted in the frenetic manoeuvres after the Supreme Court verdict, aimed at getting President's Rule imposed.
As it turned out, almost all the arguments raised by the Congress and its associates in this operation boomeranged. The argument that the disqualification of the 13 MLAs would automatically lead to the disqualification of another 24 was rejected by legal experts, including former Lok Sabha Secretary-General Subhash Kashyap. This point was further buttressed when the Allahabad High Court dismissed on February 23 a writ petition seeking the disqualification of the 24 MLAs.
All through this debate and legal wrangling, the S.P. leadership maintained that even if the 24 MLAs were disqualified, the government would still have a majority. It pointed out that 247 MLAs had supported the government in its early days. The consistent stand of the Congress and other Opposition parties was that the verdict that disqualified the MLAs with retrospective effect made the very formation of the Mulayam Singh government improper, illegal and immoral. But this line of reasoning came back biting at the Congress and the RLD because both the parties were very much part of the political exercises that led to the formation of the government.
Over and above all this, the S.P.'s contention that the Congress was planning to postpone the Assembly polls at least by a year with the objective of excluding the State's electoral college from the presidential election, also found many takers.
In spite of these shortcomings, the Congress went ahead with the plan doggedly. Such was its single-minded pursuit that it virtually pressured parties such as the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), which have consistently opposed the use of Article 356, to concur with its view. The Congress had not bargained for an equally determined and principled opposition to the imposition of President's Rule from the Communist Party of India (Marxist).
As the Opposition's moves unravelled following the verdict, there were reports that President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam was hesitant to order the dismissal of the government. Apparently, he wanted the Central government to come up with a foolproof case in order to avoid judicial strictures that might cause embarrassment to the Office of the President. By all indications, the President's position was prompted by past experience. The proclamation of President's Rule in Bihar in 2005 was criticised by the Supreme Court in a later order, bringing about the resignation of Congress leader Buta Singh as the Governor of the State.
Congress leaders privately admit that the party was forced to slow down its moves after the February 20 meeting between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and CPI(M) general secretary Prakash Karat. Karat left the Prime Minister with no doubts about the party's opposition to imposing President's Rule before a floor test announced by the government was conducted.
He also made it clear that if the government went ahead with its injudicious plan, it would cause a political breach between the UPA and the Left. The Congress' case for dismissal of the government was further weakened by the E.C.'s announcement of the poll schedule. Still, there are indications that sections of the Congress want to go ahead with the plans to dismiss the S.P. government.
The fundamental premise of the leaderships of all the three major Opposition parties and the Jan Morcha for seeking the removal of the S.P. government is the same. These parties are of the view that the S.P. will have an advantage if it remains in power at the time of the elections.
The Congress fears that an S.P. in power will win 40 seats more in the Assembly of 403 than it would do otherwise. Another section of the Congress is convinced that the party will benefit if Governor's Rule prevails during the elections.
The basis for all these calculations is not clear. But what is clear, however, is that the political image of the Congress has taken a beating in the State on account of its injudicious and flawed operations. The manner in which the party hobnobbed with the BJP to oust the government is increasingly being seen as a gross tactical error.
Other parties that supported the move to impose President's Rule more or less share the loss of credibility suffered by the Congress. Voices within the BJP and the Sangh Parivar have castigated the leadership for the line it took.
According to a Hindutva ideologue considered close to former BJP president L.K. Advani, "the party's stance vis-a-vis the developments showed that the leadership had become so sectarian and short sighted that it looked at national politics through the narrow prism of Uttar Pradesh".
"In retrospect", the ideologue pointed out, "the BJP should never have compromised on its opposition to Article 356 but should have at the same time pursued an intense campaign exposing the failures and wrongdoings of the Mulayam Singh government."
The manner in which the DMK and the NCP capitulated to Congress pressure underlined the fact that considerations of realpolitik are paramount to these parties.
The developments have, without doubt, increased the political and moral stature of the Left parties, especially the CPI(M). In spite of the many differences they have with the S.P. on questions of policy and governance, the Left parties took a consistent and principled position against the dismissal of the government. The way the CPI(M) was able to slow down the Congress through its actions is seen as a mature political move.
According to the Hindutva ideologue, the real triumph in the U.P. developments has been achieved by the CPI(M). He is of the view that the manner in which the CPI(M) leadership carried itself through the course of events and the political and moral weight it has acquired from the process should make it the leader of any prospective Third Force grouping.
The E.C.'s announcement of poll schedule stunned the State Committee offices of the BJP and the Congress into silence. The mood in the S.P. office was one of cautious optimism. Having announced its candidates for more than 100 seats six months ago, the BSP was evident not banking on the dismissal of the S.P. government to advance its poll plans.