A dissolution at midnight

Print edition : June 17, 2005

The UPA government's hasty dissolution of the Bihar Assembly alleging attempts by the NDA to cobble together a government through horse-trading is widely criticised as a politically immature move.

PURNIMA S. TRIPATHI in New Delhi

NDA leaders (from left) Nitish Kumar, George Fernandes and A.B. Vajpayee at a press conference in New Delhi on May 23.-PRAKASH SINGH /AFP

NOTWITHSTANDING the loss of face in Jharkhand, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government has not learnt from its mistakes. This is clear from the manner in which it dissolved the Bihar Assembly on the night of May 22-23.

It was a foregone conclusion that the stillborn Assembly, placed under "suspended animation", would have to be dissolved at some point because no party or coalition seemed to be in a position to form the government. But the haste with which it was dissolved has given rise to a controversy that was wholly avoidable.

The government's action has given credence to the National Democratic Alliance's charge that the Assembly was dissolved only to prevent Janata Dal (United) leader Nitish Kumar from forming the government. This gives the NDA an edge in its campaign against the UPA government in general and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) president Lalu Prasad in particular.

What adds to the controversy is the manner in which the Union Cabinet held an urgent meeting on the night of May 22, apparently to discuss the twin blasts in New Delhi. The meeting ended up recommending the dissolution of the Bihar Assembly at midnight. Such was the urgency that the recommendation was faxed to President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, who was touring Russia. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had already spoken to him on the phone and secured his verbal consent for the same. The presidential assent came at 3 a.m.

The hurry the UPA exhibited was probably triggered by the fact that a motley group of legislators belonging to Ram Vilas Paswan's Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) had taken flight to the Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled Jharkhand, obviously to consider switching sides to the NDA in order to facilitate the formation of a Nitish Kumar-led government. Of the 29 LJP MLAs, 15 were holed up in Jamshedpur in that State. But there should have been no reason for the UPA to worry because they, in any case, would have come under the purview of the anti-defection Act and would have lost their membership. Paswan was confident that there was going to be no "split" in his party because 10 of his MLAs were with him in New Delhi while four were lodged in different jails in Bihar. Under the amended anti-defection law, two-thirds of the members have to leave the party for any split to be constitutionally valid.

Lok Janshakti Party chief Ram Vilas Paswan with his party MLAs at his residence in New Delhi on May 22.-

Besides, it was the sole discretion of the Governor to invite or not invite Nitish Kumar to form the government. In Jharkhand, Governor Syed Sibte Razi did not initially invite the BJP's Arjun Munda to form the government even though the NDA claimed to have a majority in the Assembly. He, instead, invited Jharkhand Mukti Morcha's (JMM) Shibu Soren and justified his action by saying that the majority of a government should be decided on the floor of the House and it was not for the Governor to do a head-count. It is another matter though that Shibu Soren had to quit after he failed to prove his majority, as directed by the Supreme Court.

This route was open to Bihar Governor Buta Singh as well. If he had a suspicion that the NDA was indulging in "horse-trading", he should have waited until Nitish Kumar staked claim. Interestingly, till date, the Bihar Governor has not furnished any additional evidence, except media reports, to justify his charges of "horse-trading". By all indications, the crucial number was eluding Nitish Kumar.

But the Governor's act of recommending dissolution and the urgency with which the UPA struck add an element of certainty to the fear that an NDA government would have been formed through the constitutionally allowed route of one party's merger with another. It also adds credibility to the NDA's charge that the UPA government blatantly misused the office of the Governor. That the NDA will leave no stone unturned to highlight these instances of "political impropriety" was evident when post-dissolution, the NDA leadership turned up in full strength at a press conference, and former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee described the entire affair as the "murder of democracy". Happily for the NDA, it has a potent issue to go to the people now, in addition to its old anti-Lalu Prasad rhetoric, which had actually not paid rich dividends in the recent Assembly elections.

Some senior Congress leaders confess that they could do nothing in the face of Lalu Prasad's obstinacy in this matter and his shrewd political move of convincing the Left parties to support his point of view. Congress leaders admit that for them it was a choice between saving the UPA government and allowing an NDA government to take over in Bihar. "We opted for the former, but we know we will have to pay a heavy price for this," a Congress leader said. Even the Prime Minister, during his trip to the Ranthambore Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan, said the dissolution had become necessary because of the "worst kind of horse-trading taking place in Bihar". He attributed the dissolution to the Governor's reports and gave no other credible reasons.

Interestingly, even Union Home Minister Shivraj Patil, while briefing the media on May 23, failed to give evidence of "horse-trading". He said "some politicians kept the Government of India informed about the things happening there."

Welcoming the Centre's decision to dissolve the Assembly, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Communist Party of India said that the open horse-trading by the NDA had given the Union government no option but to dissolve the Assembly. "The election result did not provide a mandate to the JD(U)-BJP alliance. Yet, subsequently, efforts were made to buy up MLAs, making a mockery of the democratic system," the CPI(M) Polit Bureau said in a statement. Even earlier, the CPI(M) had said that fresh elections were the only alternative in Bihar.

CPI(M) leader Sitaram Yechury blamed Paswan for the political stalemate that had prevailed in Bihar. He said Paswan should decide if he wanted a government of "communal forces" in Patna. "He cannot be in government at the Centre and work for the formation of a government of communal forces in the State. It is for Paswan to decide on which side of the divide he is," he said. The CPI(M), he said, always stood for the unity of secular forces and minimal division of secular votes.

Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) leader Abani Roy also favoured fresh elections in Bihar. The CPI national secretary D. Raja said: "Considering the political crisis and confusion and also the unethical and undemocratic practices which have started in Bihar, the Union government was left with no other option."

The Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), with seven MLAs, the biggest Left group in Bihar, however, has described the entire affair as a "cruel joke with the people of Bihar". It has demanded the recall of Governor Buta Singh. The CPI(ML) blamed both the NDA and the UPA for the crisis. "The JD(U)-BJP combine too had contributed to the present turn of events with its blatant attempts to engineer desertions from the LJP," party general secretary Dipankar Bhattacharya said in a statement.

MEANWHILE, Ram Vilas Paswan remains unruffled by the developments and is confident that the next election will see his party double its strength. Paswan, who expelled the deserters, said a party was not made by MLAs alone but by policies and programmes. "I am committed to secularism and will never compromise on my anti-BJP, anti-RJD stand," he says. Regarding his last-ditch attempt to support a Muslim candidate from the RJD for chief ministership, he said it was to avoid yet another costly election and ensure the formation of a truly secular government.

Although at the moment Paswan appears to be isolated in the UPA, he exudes confidence that his staunch anti-BJP, anti-RJD credentials would see him in good stead in the long run. "I have chosen to row against the tide. It has its dangers, most of all that of the boat overturning, which has happened with me right now."

In his opinion, the best course of action for the UPA would have been to let President's Rule continue without interference for its duration and then take a decision. "But that was not happening. The appointment of a Lalu man (Arun Pathak, former Bihar Chief Secretary) as the Governor's Adviser made my MLAs restive because they could see it was Lalu raj coming through the back door. The other option was to allow the formation of an NDA government or dissolve the Assembly. Both are not good for the overall health of the UPA," he said.

It may be too early for either the Congress or the LJP to spell out its course of action, though both have given hints already. The Congress, say senior party leaders, has no option but to go along with the RJD. The LJP will, most likely, follow an independent course. This, however, will expose the party to the charges of splitting the secular vote, but Paswan remains unfazed.

Making no secret of its aggressive campaign plans, the NDA has already taken to the streets. It organised dharnas and road blockades on May 23, soon after the dissolution announcement. This was followed by a bandh on May 24, which evoked near-total response in Patna and elsewhere and was marked by incidents of arson and other forms of violence. The fact that the NDA will keep up the tempo was evident when State BJP chief Gopal Narain Singh declared: "We will go to the people and not sit silently."

The NDA is hoping to capitalise on the anger of the people for forcing another election so soon. Besides, it hopes, the upper castes, which got lured to Paswan's party in the last Assembly elections in the hope that he will replace Lalu Prasad, would now return to it. Nitish Kumar said the electorate would vote with a clear mind this time. "Last time they were confused. They were clear only about defeating the RJD. But they did not know whom to install. So their votes were divided and the LJP picked up 29 seats," he said.

RJD chief Lalu Prasad.-

But the NDA leaders are also aware that to make gains from the public anger, elections need to be held soon. Hence a delegation of NDA leaders, comprising JD(U) leaders Nitish Kumar, Sharad Yadav and Rajiv Ranjan Lallan, and BJP leaders Arun Jaitley and M.A. Naqvi met the Election Commission on May 25 and demanded early elections, possibly by mid-July, before the monsoon sets in.

Speaking to reporters, Jaitley pointed out that the current term of President's Rule in the State would end on September 6 and "the Election Commission cannot presume that an extension of President's Rule will be approved by it. It was thus its constitutional duty to ensure that a new Assembly is in place before that date". Jaitley said that with only one State going to the polls, deploying adequate security forces should not be difficult and the E.C. could consider a single-day poll.

The NDA is aware that the UPA constituents in the State have not worked out the details of poll alliances and seat-sharing, and hence it has a clear edge over it.

But it does not seem likely that the E.C. will oblige the NDA with early elections. The Central government too is in no hurry. Union Law Minister H.R. Bhardwaj has already said that polls could be held the earliest by September.

Simultaneously, the NDA is working on an aggressive legal action plan against the decision to dissolve the Assembly. Three constitutional experts, most likely Soli Sorabjee, Mukul Rohatgi and Arun Jaitley, will be moving the Supreme Court on behalf of the members of the dissolved House.

The next few months promise to be politically volatile for Bihar, and the developments will certainly have their impact on the Central government as well.

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