Debating India


Transition time

Saturday 27 February 1999, by CHAUDHURI*Kalyan

The dismissal of the RJD Government brings to an end a nine-year period during which Laloo Prasad Yadav dictated the political agenda in Bihar.

in Patna

ON February 12, two days after the massacre of 12 Dalits at Narayanpur village in Jehanabad district, the Rashtriya Janata Dal Government headed by Rabri Devi was dismissed and President’s Rule was imposed in Bihar under Article 356 of the Constitution. The Assembly was, however, kept in suspended animation, in keeping with the Supreme Court judgment in the Bommai case.

The dismissal of the 18-month-old Rabri Devi Government brought to an end the nine-year "Laloo Prasad Yadav regime" in Bihar: Laloo Prasad served as Chief Minister from March 1990 until July 1997, when he handed over the administration to wife Rabri Devi after an arrest warrant was served on him in connection with a fodder scam case. Laloo Prasad was subsequently remanded to custody, but even when he was in prison he functioned as the de facto Chief Minister.

The killings in Narayanpur, which came close on the heels of the massacre at Shankarbigha (Frontline, February 26), were seized upon by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Government at the Centre, which had come under tremendous pressure from two of the constituents of the ruling coalition - the Samata Party and the BJP - to dismiss the RJD Government.

News of the imposition of President’s Rule did not create much of a flutter in RJD circles in Patna. A sullen silence prevailed at 1 Anne Marg, the official residence of the Chief Minister; Rabri Devi herself remained incommunicado.

However, Laloo Prasad breathed fire and vowed to challenge the dismissal politically. "Our mass movement will shatter this communal, fascist and autocratic Government," he said. "Puray Bihar mein andolan khada kiya jayega... Sadak se hi sarkar milegi" (There will be a State-wide agitation... We will return to power from the streets).

On February 13, a day after Bihar was brought under President’s Rule, Laloo Prasad took to the streets, leading a "protest march" by RJD activists. He and a few former Ministers were taken into custody for violating prohibitory orders. Addressing party workers before his arrest, Laloo Prasad described the recent killings of Dalits as having been politically motivated. "The BJP-Samata Party combine engineered the massacre to unseat the Rabri Devi Government as they could not fight us politically," he said. He expressed confidence that the Rabri Devi Government would soon be restored as the Centre would not be able to secure parliamentary approval for the dismissal. Evidently, Laloo Prasad reckoned that the Congress(I) would not vote in favour of the proclamation on the imposition of President’s Rule. Subsequent events proved that his calculations were right, although the Congress(I) initially went through a period of vacillation.

The RJD called a State-wide bandh on February 15, but it did had only limited impact. Laloo Prasad, Rabri Devi and a few other RJD leaders again courted arrest in Patna and were released after an hour’s detention.

THE response of most political parties to the dismissal was dictated by considerations of survival. It was left to West Bengal Chief Minister and Communist Party of India (Marxist) Polit Bureau member Jyoti Basu to articulate a nuanced and principled political line, which opposed the imposition of President’s Rule even while condemning the failure of the district administration in Bihar to protect the lives of Dalits. Basu told Frontline that the dismissal was "undemocratic and wrong". The veteran Marxist leader added: "Killings take place everywhere. But the Centre should not make it an excuse for promulgating President’s Rule in a State."

At the political level, the Bihar unit of the CPI(M) has differences with the RJD: the CPI(M), for instance, has distanced itself from Laloo Prasad following his alleged involvement in the fodder scam. Despite political differences, however, the CPI and the CPI(M) condemned the dismissal as "politically motivated and authoritarian".

A joint statement issued by CPI(M) general secretary Harkishan Singh Surjeet and CPI general secretary A.B. Bardhan said that failure to implement land reforms was the underlying cause of the conflicts in Bihar; they alleged that the Vajpayee Government’s decision had been influenced by the "internal problems" of the BJP and the Samata Party.

FOLLOWING the dismissal of the Government, the BJP and the Samata Party are reviewing and recasting their political strategy in Bihar. State leaders of both the parties have been pressing for fresh elections, but they are simultaneously trying to engineer a split in the RJD. Predicting that the BJP-Samata Party combine would form the next government in the State, Sushil Kumar Modi, the BJP Leader of the Opposition, told Frontline that the first major hurdle to "free Bihar from the RJD’s clutches has been accomplished with the imposition of President’s Rule." Modi feels that now that the RJD is no longer in power, the political loyalties of its MLAs will prove unpredictable. "Without power, Laloo Prasad’s party has become vulnerable and it will not be surprising if the RJD splits," the BJP leader said.

Sources in the Bihar unit of the Samata Party said that they had almost won over six RJD MPs, but the prospective defectors backed off following bickerings in the ruling coalition at the Centre.

LALOO PRASAD YADAV became Chief Minister for the first time in 1990 and remained in power even beyond the 1995 elections (except for a nine-day period during the elections when President’s Rule was imposed). Shortly after winning the 1995 election, Laloo Prasad came under pressure from senior leaders in the Janata Dal and its alliance partners to resign as Chief Minister following his alleged involvement in the fodder scam. He was charge-sheeted by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), but he clung on to power until July 1997 when he floated the RJD, resigned as Chief Minister and appointed Rabri Devi his successor.

The RJD Government, however, had trouble staying afloat. It lost the support of the Left parties following Laloo Prasad’s alleged involvement in the fodder scam and the support of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha following the Government’s backtracking on its earlier promise on the creation of a Jharkhand state. Reduced to a minority, the RJD Government was bailed out by the Congress(I), which offered it support from outside.

In the nine years that Laloo Prasad and later Rabri Devi were in power, their political fortunes have witnessed ups and downs. Their regimes were characterised by political unrest, defections, desertion by allies, uprincipled alliances, massacres and large-scale corruption. Reports of the Comptroller and Auditor-General (CAG) have indicted Laloo Prasad and Rabri Devi for financial irregularities. The official residence of the Chief Minister was also raided by the CBI as part of its investigations into the fodder scam.

The Samata Party and the State unit of the BJP have for long been demanding the dismissal of the RJD Government. Their demand became more strident with the BJP-led coalition taking office at the Centre in March 1998. Samata Party leaders George Fernandes and Nitish Kumar mounted pressure on the Vajpayee Government for the dismissal of the Bihar Government. The appointment of former BJP vice-president Sunder Singh Bhandari as Bihar Governor in May 1998 in place of A.R. Kidwai was seen as the first step in the operation.

Soon after he assumed office, Bhandari began sending adverse reports about the RJD Government. He went on record several times as saying that "Bihar is a fit case for President’s Rule." In September 1998, a Union Cabinet resolution recommended to President K.R. Narayanan the dismissal of the Bihar Government. However, the President returned the resolution for reconsideration by the Cabinet. Following the recent massacres, Bhandari reported to the Union Government that law and order has "completely broken down" in the State.

Immediately after President’s Rule was imposed, Bhandari got into the act. Within two hours, Chief Secretary S.N. Biswas and Director-General of Police K.A. Jacob were replaced by Vijay Shankar Dubey and D.P. Sinha respectively. In the first phase of administrative reshuffle, Bhandari rewarded officers whom Laloo Prasad had "shunted out" to low-profile postings for their role in pursuing the fodder scam.

However, the Samata Party was displeased by the appointments, in which it alleged that officials belonging to upper castes had been unduly favoured. Minister for Railways Nitish Kumar criticised Bhandari on this count. However, Bhandari, a veteran RSS leader, was not inclined to accommodate the Samata Party’s interests.

Even as he battled the Samata Party on one flank, Bhandari was torpedoed by "friendly fire" from Union Home Minister L.K. Advani. Bhandari closed down his office, bade goodbye to Raj Bhavan officials and left Patna for New Delhi on February 17, conveying the impression that he would not return as Governor. However, after a day-long drama in Delhi, Bhandari agreed to stay on.

See online : Frontline


Vol. 16 :: No. 05 :: Feb. 27 - Mar. 12, 1999

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