Debating India

BIHAR 2000

The Bihar Transition

Friday 31 March 2000, by RAMAKRISHNAN*Venkitesh

The Bihar Governor gives a political hand and ushers in an NDA Ministry, but reaching a dead-end in deal-making it makes way for an RJD alliance government. And there could be more action in store.

in Patna

POLITICAL developments in Bihar last fortnight were reminiscent of a particularly dizzying roller-coaster ride punctuated by sharp climbs, precipitous descents and chilling loops. Fortunes of political parties rose or fell as events unfolded with breatht aking rapidity. Political skulduggery, in which the State Governor himself seemed to play a central role, served to provide an unanticipated loop or two, but in the end, after all that adrenalin rush, the ride wound down in much the same way as it was ex pected to right at the start.

On March 11, Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) leader Rabri Devi was sworn in Chief Minister by Governor Vinod Chandra Pande at the Raj Bhavan in Patna. This was the third time she assumed power in the State, a record unmatched by any non-Congress leader. (Only two other leaders have served three terms in Bihar - Bhola Paswan Shastri and Dr. Jagannath Mishra, both of whom belonged to the Congress.) In the Assembly elections held in February, the RJD, headed by former Chief Minister Laloo Prasad Yadav, emerged as the single largest party, with 123 seats in a hung Assembly, and was widely expected to be invited first to form the government. Curiously, and without proffering any reasons for his action, the Governor on March 3 invited Nitish Kumar, who had been elected leader of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) led by the Bharatiya Janata Party, to form a government and prove its majority in the Assembly within 10 days. The Governor’s action came in for strident criticism because it was patently clear tha t the alliance did not have the numbers in the Assembly.

The NDA’s game plan was evident: it would use the leverage provided by incumbency to pull in MLAs from other political parties or formations and engineer a majority. In particular, the Congress(I), which had a legislative strength of 23, was seen as vuln erable to poaching since that party had campaigned on an anti-RJD platform. The Central and State leaderships of the NDA pulled out all the stops to try and achieve this objective. An assortment of material blandishments was held out - from offers of min isterial berths to appointment as chairpersons of corporations in the public sector or in the joint sector. None of these, however, worked.

On March 9, when the Assembly was to elect the new Speaker and a day before the vote of confidence was scheduled, the NDA realised that its game was up: bowing to the inevitable, it extended its support for the election of Congress(I) leader Sadanand Sin gh, who was the candidate of the RJD, the Congress(I) and the CPI(M). The election of the Speaker had been seen as an occasion for the NDA to test its ability to win over more MLAs to its side. It palpably failed the test.

A day later, conceding that the legislative arithmetic was against his government, Nitish Kumar resigned before the confidence motion was put to vote.

IN the process of recapturing power, the RJD and its partners exposed the NDA’s claims to being upholders of political morality. They also demonstrated that when it comes to fighting electoral battles or managing power-game manoeuvres, they were far more astute than the BJP and its partners. The developments also established that although the elections resulted in a hung Assembly, the mandate was a vote against the BJP and the NDA. Nitish Kumar’s statement regarding legislative arithmetic was an admissi on of the fact that the NDA was outnumbered in the Assembly. The RJD leadership is confident that the prevailing anti-BJP, anti-NDA mood in the House will translate into a positive vote of confidence for its Ministry.

The developments had another ugly fallout in that the office of the Governor was exposed to the charge that it was being used for politicking. Pande’s seeming haste in inviting the NDA to form the government on March 3 will remain central to any debate o n the Bihar situation. The factor of "Raj Bhavan politics" is bound to influence in some measure the course of political action as well as popular reaction in the State. The RJD and its associates, such as the Congress(I), the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Samajwadi Janata Party (SJP), have demanded the recall of the Governor, who acted in an "openly partisan manner".

The intensity of popular feelings against the Governor was apparent throughout the seven days that the NDA was in power; it was more so on the evening of March 10, when Nitish Kumar went to the Raj Bhavan to submit his resignation, and on March 11, when Rabri Devi was sworn in. On both occasions hundreds of RJD supporters thronged the road in front of the Raj Bhavan and raised slogans demanding the Governor’s withdrawal. Some of them fired a few rounds in the air.

LEADERS of the RJD claim that Pande’s decision was another manifest expression of the BJP’s politics of the past five years, which was directed at ousting Laloo Prasad’s party by means fair or foul. Senior RJD leader Sivanand Tewari said that these effor ts had acquired a certain urgency since March 1998.

Citing various instances of misuse of constitutional institutions by the BJP and its associates, Tewari recalled that in September 1998, Governor Sunder Singh Bhandari, who was formerly BJP vice-president, submitted a report which claimed that the law an d order situation in the State had deteriorated under the RJD government, and the Centre acted on the report and recommended imposition of President’s Rule under Article 356 of the Constitution. That move failed because President K.R. Narayanan returned for reconsideration the Cabinet resolution recommending President’s Rule, on the grounds that "the condition precedent for invocation of Article 356 has not been adequately made out".

Yet another attempt was made in February 1999 to dislodge the RJD government. President’s Rule was imposed, again citing collapse of law and order. However, this operation too failed because the Congress(I) refused to support in the Rajya Sabha the motio n to ratify the imposition of President’s Rule. Tewari added that the NDA’s sole political objective in Bihar was to prevent the RJD from getting another term in power. "The BJP leadership has been saying that Laloo Prasad Yadav will decimate all other p arties if he gets one more opportunity in power and that it is time to get him out. Wittingly or unwittingly, the Governor has become part of this game," Tewari said. Pande, he added, had thus forfeited his right to remain the Governor.

Although the Governor’s office has not formally taken note of these accusations, the letter of March 11 inviting Rabri Devi to form the government concedes somewhat obliquely that the decision to invite the NDA first was an error. The letter claims that Nitish Kumar was invited on March 3 because at that time he seemed to have the support of a larger number of MLAs than the RJD did. The Governor’s office states that the NDA had presented documents to establish that it had the support of 151 MLAs, wherea s the RJD had adduced proof of support of only 138 MLAs.

Sources in the Raj Bhavan said that the NDA at that time had 122 MLAs of its own and the support of 12 MLAs of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha and 17 independents, and that the RJD had 123 MLAs of its own and the support of two MLAs of the CPI(M), five of the Bahujan Samaj Party, two of the Krantikari Communist Party, four independents and the lone member of the Marxist Coordination Committee. These sources added that there were indications that the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist)-CPI combine, which had 11 members, would abstain from voting. In such a situation, the sources argued, the number required to establish a majority in the 324-member Assembly went down to 157, and the NDA , which claimed to have the firm support of 151 MLAs, seemed bett er placed than the RJD.

Leaders of the RJD and the Congress(I), however, contest this claim. According to them, the RJD had the backing of 161 members at the point of time the NDA claimed the support of 151 MLAs. They said that on March 2, Congress(I) leader Sadanand Singh, who was in New Delhi, telephoned the Governor in Patna to inform him that his party supported the RJD and that a formal letter of support would be sent over on March 3. Yet, they said, the Governor’s office did not factor in the votes of the 23-member Congr ess(I) group while assessing the relative strengths of the NDA and the RJD-led alliance.

The NDA’s strategists perhaps reckoned that it would be easy to engineer a majority in the Assembly once the NDA was in office. According to a BJP leader, the NDA hoped to repeat the Uttar Pradesh experiment of 1997 when the BJP split the Congress(I), re warded every defector with ministership, and fashioned a majority. "The plan was to try something similar in Bihar," a BJP leader told Frontline.

The NDA fancied its chances in the light of the fact that a section of the State Congress(I) was reportedly not inclined to support the RJD. There were indications that 13 Congress(I) MLAs led by Dr. Veena Sahi, who represented a constituency in Vaishali district that was dominated by upper-caste Bhumihars, were opposed to any association with the RJD. The NDA tried to win over these MLAs with offers of ministerships, positions of chairpersons of corporations, and other material benefits. When these see med to evoke a positive response, the Nitish Kumar regime decided to go in for the floor test on March 10.

However, these manoeuvres galvanised the Congress(I)’s central leadership to take action to protect its flock. It sent senior leaders Mohsina Kidwai and Ajit Jogi to Patna to keep its MLAs out of reach of temptation; aided by the RJD leadership, Jogi and Kidwai carried out this task to perfection. All party MLAs were shepherded into a Patna hotel and virtually held incommunicado. "Even telephone calls were scarcely allowed," said a Congress(I) MLA. Along such constraints, however, the MLAs were given pr omises of "greater consideration" under an RJD regime.

A similar exercise was on at Laloo Prasad Yadav’s residence where the MLAs of the RJD and a few supporting parties such as the BSP were kept under "lock and key". 1 Anne Marg, the official residence of the Chief Minister, where no one is denied entry in normal times, was converted into a virtual fortress.

As a result of these efforts, the number of Congress(I) MLAs who were reported to be ready to back the NDA declined steadily - from 13 at the start to eight and still later to six. The last figure tallied with the number of upper-caste Congress(I) MLAs - three Bhumihars, two Brahmins and one Thakur; but this was insufficient to be counted as a split in the 23-member group. These six MLAs therefore had no option but to stay on in the Congress(I). In the ultimate analysis, the single most important factor that led to the collapse of the Nitish Kumar Ministry was the Congress(I)’s success in keeping its flock together.

WHEN the NDA leadership realised that it would be difficult to split the Congress(I), it resorted to political skulduggery and the use of muscle power. The signature of Ravindranath Mishra, an independent MLA who backed the RJD, was allegedly forged on a letter of support for the NDA and presented to the Governor. Further, BSP MLA Rajesh Singh alleged that he had been kidnapped by Ranjan Tewary, an independent MLA who supported Nitish Kumar, and kept in confinement and pressured to support the NDA. The MLAs of the CPI(M-L) alleged that many of them were offered between Rs.50 lakhs and Rs.1 crore if they would back the government. During these days, Nitish Kumar was on the defensive when questioned about the fact that his government was supported by a d ozen criminals, many of whom had contested (and won) the elections while serving prison terms. He claimed, somewhat limply, that while it may be true that they faced some charges, it did not prevent them from supporting any government.

The NDA’s desperation became more evident when it vacillated on the Speaker’s election. Initially it said that it did not wish to put up a candidate in order to facilitate a unanimous election, but when it became clear that the Opposition, confident of i ts strength, would not back down from a contest, Nitish Kumar said that the alliance would face the challenge. Gajendra Prasad Himanshu of the Janata Dal was the NDA’s candidate against Sadanand Singh of the Congress(I), who had the support of the RJD. H owever, just before the vote was to be taken, the NDA withdrew from the contest, claiming that it wished to adhere to democratic traditions and opt for a consensual process. In truth, it was clear that the NDA had realised that it was sure to lose, parti cularly after the CPI and the CPI(M-L) said they would back Sadanand Singh.

Sadanand Singh was thus unanimously elected Speaker. More important, the NDA’s decision to back off from a contest was perceived as a morale-shattering blow on the eve of the vote of confidence. Even so, NDA leaders persisted with their show of bravado. In response to demands for his resignation, Nitish Kumar said that nothing had happened that warranted that.

The mask, however, slipped barely a day later.

Following a two-and-a-half-hour debate on the confidence motion, Nitish Kumar concluded his speech with the announcement that he was resigning without facing a division of votes. In much the same way that Atal Behari Vajpayee stepped down in May 1996 as Prime Minister after being in office for 13 days, the NDA government went down without a fight.

AS for the RJD, it was on the offensive throughout the Assembly proceedings on the day the confidence motion was taken up. As soon as the members of the two Houses of the legislature gathered for the customary Governor’s address, Laloo Prasad Yadav walke d out, saying that he did not want to see the face of the Governor who had "illegally thrust the NDA government on Bihar". The entire Opposition followed him.

During the debate on the confidence motion, the NDA specifically targeted the Congress(I). Nitish Kumar set the tone by wondering aloud how the Congress(I) could support the RJD when it had contested the elections on an anti-Laloo Prasad platform. He wen t on to quote from Sonia Gandhi’s election speeches that were critical of the RJD. NDA leaders sought to play up the differences of opinion between the RJD and the Congress(I) on the issue of a Jharkhand state and asked both parties to make clear their s tand. On this too, the RJD scored a political point: both Laloo Prasad Yadav and his party colleague Shivanand Tiwary said they would not oppose the creation of a Jharkhand state if the Centre would create a separate state within seven days.

Dr. Shakeel Ahmed of the Congress(I) said that although his party had fought against the RJD, it backed it now in order to keep communal forces out of power. The Union Government, he said, would never allow the creation of a Jharkhand state as more than 50 NDA MLAs had been elected from the Jharkhand areas, and if a new state was created the NDA would lose its support in the rest of Bihar.

AFTER its ignominious fall from power, the NDA has been seeking to scuttle the RJD’s chances of staying on in office. The NDA leadership questioned the wisdom of the Governor’s invitation to Rabri Devi to form the government, on the grounds that she was also an accused in a case against Laloo Prasad Yadav relating to alleged possession of assets worth Rs.42.52 lakhs disproportionate to his known sources of income. Significantly, the Central Bureau of Investigation sought the Governor’s sanction to prose cute Laloo Prasad Yadav in this case only on March 9, a day before the confidence vote was scheduled to be held (see box). According to Union Telecommunications Minister Ram Vilas Paswan, the Rabri Devi government will not last beyond a fortnight.

Leaders of the NDA decided to launch an agitation to highlight the Congress(I)’s "betrayal of the people’s mandate" and the "terrors of the return of jungle raj". Despite all this, Laloo Prasad Yadav and other RJD leaders were confident that the Rabri De vi government would prove its majority on March 16 and take on the NDA’s agitation programme.

If anything, the NDA bloc now seems to be at risk of being breached. One of its constituents, the Bihar People’s Party (BPP), has moved closer to the RJD. BPP president Anand Mohan Singh attended Rabri Devi’s swearing-in function. The BPP has two MLAs, w ho contested as independents.

Trouble is apparently brewing in the Janata Dal (U) camp as well. Senior leader Narendra Singh who, like Anand Mohan, is a Rajput, surprised party bigwigs when he gave up the seat he won on the party symbol and retained the other he won as an independent . This reduced the Janata Dal (U)’s strength to 20. It was perhaps on this basis that Laloo Prasad Yadav claimed that the RJD would have the support of 200 MLAs in the vote of confidence.

There are indications that Laloo Prasad will confront the NDA agitation with a mass movement by the RJD with its focus on the "unjust actions" of the Governor and the CBI. The RJD president accused the CBI of being hand in glove with the Union Government . "The CBI is acting like a political party. We will not allow it to function in the State without a court order. We will tone up our Vigilance Department," he told Frontline. Other RJD leaders said that the CBI’s request for the Governor’s sancti on to prosecute Laloo Prasad and Rabri Devi was the last torpedo fired by a sinking NDA.

For the time being, clearly, Laloo Prasad and the RJD have the upper hand. The NDA’s determination to ensure that the RJD does not have a free run of power and the RJD’s resolve to hold on to it are sure to make for politically volatility in Bihar, parti cularly given the numbers in the Assembly.

See online : Frontline


Volume 17 - Issue 06, Mar. 18 - 31, 2000

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