Election battles

Print edition : January 14, 2005

As Bihar moves close to Assembly elections, the ruling RJD and its president Laloo Prasad Yadav are in the thick of a controversy over alleged violations of the Election Commission's code of conduct.

in New Delhi

Laloo Prasad Yadav announcing at a press conference the cancellation of his party's Kisaan Mazdoor rally in Patna.-

OBSERVERS of politics and life in Bihar must have felt a sense of deja vu in the third week of December as the announcement of Assembly elections to the State was immediately followed by a hullabaloo on political misdemeanours and transgression of electoral rules. Controversy has virtually been the State's middle name for a long time and the appellation gets printed in bold letters during every election season.

One remarkable dimension of the repeating story is that the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and its chief, Railway Minister Laloo Prasad Yadav, have invariably been part of almost every single election-related furore in the past decade. Equally noteworthy is the detail that the RJD and its supremo have managed to make political capital out of practically all these controversies, despite the legal hassles and administrative restrictions inflicted on Laloo Prasad Yadav and his political set-up in every single instance. This unique, and somewhat paradoxical, capacity has time and again exasperated the political rivals of the RJD, especially his principal electoral opponents, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Janata Dal (United), dominant components of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in the State. The tale seems to be following a similar direction this time too.

The controversy erupted after Laloo Prasad Yadav was featured by a number of television channels on December 18 distributing cash to Dalit women at Bihta village in Ibrahimpur near the State's capital Patna. The Election Commission (E.C.) took suo motu notice of these media reports - some of them had suggested that the cash distribution was an inducement to the women to attend the garib kisaan (poor farmers) rally that the RJD had scheduled to hold on December 23 - and directed the State's Chief Electoral Officer K.C. Saha to file a first information report (FIR) under Section 171(B) of the Indian Penal Code relating to the offence of bribery.

The Commission's directive was perceived to be hard-hitting because it accused Laloo Prasad of "disregarding and failing" to abide by the model code of conduct and sought an explanation from the RJD and its president about why the party should not be derecognised over the episode. Since the rally was expected to be the launching pad of the RJD's poll campaign, the E.C. put it also under the scanner, and directed the Railway Board not to run any special trains or divert any trains for it. It deputed a special observer, Sayan Chatterjee, to monitor the rally and despatched its adviser, K.J. Rao, to oversee the situation.

Laloo Prasad's reaction was predictable. He contended that he had not violated the model code of conduct while distributing money to the women but would all the same "put off the rally till the completion of elections and counting of votes" because he did not want to cause "further embarrassment" to the E.C. Laloo Prasad's justification for "money distribution" was multi-dimensional. According to him, he was "merely following an age-old social practice", which entails "youngsters giving money to elders to receive blessings from the aged". He told the media: "The money was given to buy sweets." He also added that it was the BJP that was trying to foist false and frivolous charges against him, who strictly followed election rules.

THERE is little doubt among political observers that the preparations for the December 23 rally were aided significantly by the government machinery, both of the Railway Ministry, led by Laloo Prasad himself, and of the State, which has Rabri Devi, his wife, as its Chief Minister. Any casual observer to Patna during the days immediately prior to and following December 23 could make out the ample support provided by the government machinery.

Election Commission observer K.J. Rao outside Patna's Secretariat, the compound wall of which was covered by posters announcing the rally.-

Every available public space on all-important roads in Patna, and the walls of government or private buildings were plastered with pictures of Laloo Prasad Yadav and Rabri Devi. Such was the quantum of support and the enthusiasm of party activists that even the walls of police stations and the Patna High Court were not spared. Several special trains were got ready to run to Patna from various parts of Bihar. There were also indications that many of the regular trains that ply between destinations far away from Patna were being re-routed to pass through the capital city on the rally day.

By all indications, it was Laloo Yadav's own realisation about the perils of this "support overdrive" that forced him to call off the rally hastily. According to some of his close associates in the RJD, the supremo's body language in the days immediately following the `expose' and the Election Commission's directive was clearly indicative of his concern. From December 19, the day after the cash distribution sequence was telecast, to December 21, the day he announced the "postponement" of the rally, all the interactions that the politician had with the media and the public were characterised by a rare humility. Laloo Yadav addressed mediapersons as "pathrakaar bandhuon" (media friends) and asked them to "help" him in the fight against communal forces.

However, by December 22, even as K.J. Rao was going around Patna collecting evidence about the hoardings, posters and banners, Laloo Yadav seemed to reacquire his bold body language. The reasons for the near-dramatic change were not far to seek. Laloo Yadav himself said it in so many words at a press conference marked by his cheeky bluster. He first recounted the expose on Madhu Shrivastav, the Gujarat BJP Member of the Legislative Assembly, who had allegedly paid a sum of Rs.18 lakhs to Zahira Sheikh, a key witness in the Best Bakery case, in order to save himself from prosecution charges. Having done this, the RJD chief raised his rhetorical questions with theatrical precision: "It is a crime if I give a hundred rupee note to a poor woman to buy sweets, but there is no harm if communalists pay lakhs of rupees to overturn justice? Why are the media silent on this? Why is it that only poor Laloo gets railed at all the time? Are the media playing in the hands of communalists?" The bravura performance, say many RJD activists, including long-time associates of Laloo Yadav, gave enough indications that the party chief was well on course of getting over the crisis.

Taking the cue, other RJD leaders too have started highlighting the contrast between the Gujarat "Best Bakery real bribery" and "Laloo's money to buy sweets unreal bribery". This case is pushed with vigour by RJD activists. Many of them are of the view that even if the E.C. misreads the real import of "Laloo's money distribution gesture" and gives the severest punishment of de-recognising the RJD and takes away its `lantern' symbol, it will not affect his electoral fortunes. "He can immediately float a new party and contest on a new symbol and the poor of Bihar will give him a resounding mandate this time too", said Vinay Krishna, the president of RJD's kisaan cell.

However, there are doubts even within the legal fraternity about whether the E.C. would actually go ahead and derecognise the RJD. While there are no two opinions that Section 16 A of the Election Symbols (Reservation and Allotment) Order, 1968, empowers the Commission to suspend or withdraw recognition of a political party for its failure to observe the model code of conduct or follow lawful directions and instructions of the Commission, the track record of its implementation shows that not many parties have been at the receiving end of the clause. In fact, it has never been possible for the Commission to punish anyone for the offence of bribery at an election.

During the last Lok Sabha elections, the E.C. sent a similar notice to the BJP for the violation of the model code of conduct during the birthday celebration of the party's Uttar Pradesh leader, Lalji Tandon, when saris were freely distributed leading to a stampede and death of 22 people. The E.C. ordered the lodging of an FIR against Tandon for the offence of trying to bribe poor women to further the party's electoral prospects. The BJP replied to the E.C. that any punishment meted out to the party would be "destructive of parliamentary democracy" because political parties could be held accountable for a wrong done by individual party members in their individual capacity.

The BJP also cited a Supreme Court judgment in which it was held that the mass feeding organised by the Congress party as part of the shradh ceremony following the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 was part of the traditional mourning and could not be construed as bribing of voters. The party also highlighted a High Court ruling in which it was held that a candidate, who made a contribution to a gurdwara during an election, was not guilty of this offence, as it accepted his claim that he made such contributions every year. The E.C. was obviously not satisfied with the party's explanation, and issued a "reprimand" to the party, hesitating to take the extreme action of withdrawal of recognition.

There have been other instances too of bribery at elections that have virtually not evoked any punitive measures from the Commission. During the last Lok Sabha elections, Congress spokesperson Anand Sharma had alleged that some of the 100-rupee notes issued by the State-owned Allahabad Bank carried the imprint of the BJP's lotus symbol. About 200 schoolbags, listing the achievements of the Congress government in Delhi, were seized during a raid on a house in Madipur, in west Delhi. The BJP was accused of distributing social security forms imprinted with the lotus symbol in Maharashtra to workers in the informal sector.

In none of these instances does the E.C. seem to have taken any stringent action in accordance with the law. In November last year, it sent a notice to the Congress threatening withdrawal of recognition for the alleged offence of use of the Chattisgarh government's aircraft by Congress president Sonia Gandhi and the then Chief Minister Ajit Jogi for election campaign. The E.C. decided not to take any action after receiving the party's reply in which it explained that the leaders had used the aircraft for non-electoral purposes. It is not known whether these instances have emboldened the RJD and its chief to embark on a confident election campaign in spite of the cancellation of the self-professedly "great" garib kisaan rally.

Whatever the reason, history seems to be repeating itself this election season too in Bihar, particularly in terms of the controversy quotient and its political beneficiary.

With inputs from V. Venaktesan in New Delhi and Purnima Tripathi in Patna.

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