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Close to a split

Print edition : May 09, 2003

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Faction feuds between the supporters of Defence Minister George Fernandes and Railway Minister Nitish Kumar bring the Samata Party to the verge of a split.

in New Delhi

THE socialists, they say, cannot stay together for more than two years at a stretch, and cannot stay apart from one another either for more than three years. Now the Samata Party, an organisation with a core of erstwhile socialists, is falling apart in characteristic style. Although a split has been averted for the time being after Defence Minister George Fernandes managed to reach an agreement with Railway Minister Nitish Kumar, relations between them continue to be cold and it may be only a matter of time before they part ways. Informed sources say that the party might split as the 2004 Lok Sabha elections draw near. The differences of opinion between Fernandes and Nitish Kumar are so deep-rooted that it looks unlikely that they will stay together and fight the elections.

If the party looks united today, it is because Nitish Kumar is hesitant to take that final step. A Samata leader close to Nitish Kumar said: "Fernandes has done everything to marginalise and isolate Nitish Kumar in Bihar. He has gone to the extent of humiliating Nitish Kumar by not taking action against those who publicly insulted the Railway Minister. After all, how much can he take? It was only natural for him to hit back." The problem, in fact, relates to the struggle to gain control of the party unit in Bihar. Bihar is the only State where the Samata Party has a base, apart from some pockets in northeastern India. Although Fernandes is the acknowledged leader of the party in New Delhi, it is Nitish Kumar who runs it in Bihar.

The genesis of the problem lies in Nitish Kumar's efforts to appoint his supporters in key positions in the State unit of the party. Thanks to his national profile, Fernandes wields some control over the Bihar unit and at present his men occupy key posts. Nitish Kumar's supporters resent this. They alleged that the office-bearers in Bihar tried to marginalise the Railway Minister by not inviting him to important meetings and by issuing statements against him.

In January, Nitish Kumar's supporters demanded that Bihar unit president Raghunath Jha, a member of the Lok Sabha and a supporter of Fernandes, be removed because he had ignored and tried to marginalise the Railway Minister. The demand became so vociferous that at one stage Fernandes offered to resign from the party president's post and pass on the mantle to Nitish Kumar. The offer was rejected, and as a compromise Raghunath Jha was asked to resign and the State executive of the party was dissolved. Bashishtha Narain Singh, a supporter of Nitish Kumar, was made the convener of the Bihar unit and entrusted with the task of overseeing the membership drive and the party elections, which were due in the first week of April.

However, Raghunath Jha's removal and the disbanding of the State executive created resentment among Fernandes' supporters. The Samata Party leader in the Bihar Legislative Council and a supporter of Fernandes, P.K. Sinha, who was removed from the post of party spokesperson, petitioned the Election Commission (E.C.) alleging violation of inner-party democracy. P.K. Sinha said that since he was a member of the party's national executive, only the party president could take action against him. He demanded that the party's recognition be revoked because the dissolution of the State executive and Jha's removal were actions that were violative of the party constitution and the E.C.'s directives. The E.C. issued a notice to the party leadership asking for a detailed reply with regard to P.K. Sinha's allegations. Sinha's move was seen by Nitish Kumar's supporters as a direct attack on the Railway Minister.

The reply that the party gave the E.C. only made matters worse. It informed the E.C. that P.K. Sinha continued to be the spokesperson and that the State executive had not been dissolved. The party leadership claimed that since the procedure prescribed for convening the State council meeting, which had recommended the executive's dissolution, had not been followed, the State executive continued to exist.

Nitish Kumar's followers saw this development as the last straw on the camel's back. On April 13, a meeting of the State executive convened by Bashishtha Narain Singh decided to `expel' from the party five supporters of Fernandes - Raghunath Jha and Brahmanand Mandal, both MPs, and Bhai Birendra, Ganesh Paswan and P.K. Sinha, all members of the Bihar Legislature. The meeting, which was boycotted by Fernandes' supporters, also decided to remove Fernandes' supporter Uma Shankar Singh from the Legislature Party leader's post and replace him with his deputy, Upendra Prasad Kushwaha, a supporter of Nitish Kumar. P.K. Sinha was removed as the party's leader in the Legislative Council and was replaced by Mangani Lal Mandal, a supporter of Nitish Kumar.

Fernandes' followers hit back by saying that Bashishtha Narain Singh did not have the power to convene the meeting as his role was limited to facilitating internal party elections and overseeing the membership drive. Interestingly, the meeting took place while Fernandes' supporters, including Jha and Mandal, were holding a convention at Darbhanga in north Bihar to discuss how to restore "inner-party democracy".

INDICATIONS are that Nitish Kumar is planning to leave the party. However, informed sources said a split was "ruled out" at the moment because Fernandes wants to avert it at all costs. Hectic consultations were held between senior leaders of both factions. Nitish Kumar and Fernandes held one-to-one meetings. This time, though, the Railway Minister looks determined to stand his ground. He has demanded that those who issued statements against him be punished.

On April 19, the Fernandes-led national leadership partially yielded to the demands of the Bihar State executive. It suspended Ganesh Paswan, Bhai Birendra and P.K. Sinha from the party and decided to constitute a disciplinary action committee to review cases of indiscipline and recommend action. However, the demand for the expulsion of Raghunath Jha and Brahmanand Mandal was not conceded.

This formula, informed sources said, may be grudgingly accepted by Nitish Kumar's supporters because otherwise a split would be the only prospect. A supporter of Nitish Kumar said: "We would certainly not want to destroy something that we have so painstakingly created. We would try everything to avoid a split. But Fernandes should see to it that Nitish Kumar is given due respect in the party and should not encourage men who have been publicly humiliating him." Party spokesperson Dr. Shambhu Srivastava said: "Efforts to keep the party united are on. Senior colleagues are having consultations and I am sure the party will come out of this crisis, as it has done in the past."

In fact, a crisis like this is not new to the Samata Party. Yet it managed to stay afloat and if Fernandes' political skills are anything to go by, he will come out unscathed from this crisis too. Moreover, Nitish Kumar is known to be reluctant to break the party and he will try and keep it together as long as he can.

For now, Samata Party leaders look set to sail in one boat, at least until the next Lok Sabha elections. The fireworks, however, will continue.

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