Debating India


The return of the RJD

Saturday 13 March 1999, by RAMAKRISHNAN*Venkitesh

The BJP-led Government is forced to revoke the unjust dismissal of the Rashtriya Janata Dal Government in Bihar.

in New Delhi

WHEN Union Home Minister and Bharatiya Janata Party leader L.K. Advani stood up in the Lok Sabha after question hour on March 8 with a request to the Speaker to be allowed to make a statement, it was clear to all what that statement would be. The curtain was being rung down on the three-week-long Bihar political drama, and it constituted an ignominious reverse to the BJP-led Government. The February 12 order imposing President’s Rule in Bihar was being revoked by the Government following its failure to muster enough support in the Rajya Sabha to ratify the presidential proclamation issued on the basis of a Cabinet Resolution. And this meant that the Rabri Devi-led Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) Ministry in the State would be reinstated automatically.

Advani did not dwell at length on the task at hand for him. He compressed it in three sentences: "The Union Cabinet met today morning and decided to recommend to the Rashtrapati, revocation of President’s Rule in Bihar. The President is out of town today and shall return in the night. All formalities for revocation of President’s Rule in the State would be completed after that."

As a jubilant Amar Singh, spokesperson of the Rashtriya Loktantrik Morcha (RLM) - of which the RJD is a part - pointed out later, the statement only put the official stamp of defeat on what was projected as a great political offensive by the BJP and the Samata Party when the RJD Government was dismissed on February 12. Those in the Government as well as the Opposition had seen the defeat coming since February 22, the day the Congress(I) decided to oppose the Government’s resolution in Parliament to ratify the imposition of President’s Rule. The Congress(I) decision ensured that the move would be defeated in the Rajya Sabha, where the ruling coalition is in a minority. The passage of the resolution in the Lok Sabha on February 26 made no tangible difference to the situation. Still, the Government leaders, especially those belonging to the BJP and the Samata Party, left no stone unturned in their effort to hang on to the perceived political gains made with the imposition of President’s Rule. The Congress(I) was approached twice to try and persuade it to change its stance, first before the voting in the Lok Sabha, and the second time on the evening of March 7. On March 7, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee had a 45-minute meeting with Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi at which he appealed to her to support the resolution "in the interests of the country". The overtures made ahead of the Lok Sabha voting contained suggestions of a quid pro quo in Bihar if the Congress(I) went along with the Government. The compensation package offered to the Congress(I) included the replacement of Governor Sunder Singh Bhandari by a person acceptable to that party.

However, after the Congress(I) president rejected the requests and the Cabinet met on the morning of March 8 and decided to revoke the order, the coalition leaders resolved that the Congress(I) would be "thoroughly exposed" in an explanatory note that would be sent along with the revocation recommendation to the President. The note, according to some leaders of the coalition including those of the BJP, would highlight how the Congress(I) had shifted its position vis-a-vis the RJD Government, in the process betraying the interests of Dalits and other downtrodden people in the State and how that shift had made the arithmetic in the Rajya Sabha go against the Government.

BJP ideologue K.N. Govindacharya told Frontline that the Congress(I) doublespeak had contributed to the reverse suffered by the Government. He said: "One day the Congress(I) president states that the RJD Government has no moral authority to rule, and the next day the party wants the same Government back in office. This is ridiculous."

But according to leaders of other parties in the ruling coalition, including those of the Trinamul Congress and the Akali Dal, the shift in the Congress(I)’s stand was not the only reason for the reverse suffered by the Government. The Congress(I) decision had a chain reaction on the BJP’s own alliance partners and this spawned differences of opinion within the coalition about the path to choose. This was reflected in the statements of leaders of the coalition including Vajpayee, as also in the repeated postponement of a decision on the strategy to be adopted in the matter. The manoeuvres to delay the introduction of the ratification resolution in the Rajya Sabha also reflected this.

Thus on March 5, the Prime Minister reiterated, following a two-hour meeting with alliance partners, that it was the "Government’s prerogative to decide when it would bring the resolution to ratify President’s Rule in Bihar. He added that Opposition tactics to stall proceedings in Parliament would not force it to bypass other business in the Rajya Sabha and introduce the resolution in haste. Commenting on this statement, leaders of the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), the Trinamul Congress and the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) admitted that the real reason for this posture was the confusion in the Government over the strategy it should adopt on the issue.

"The question," an MP from a party in the coalition pointed out, "was not how to achieve the political goals of the Government but how to save its face in the face of the Congress(I) decision." A meeting of the Cabinet had been convened on March 3 and then too the decision was to defer the matter. The March 3 meeting, however, had asked the Home Ministry to prepare a note on the options available before the Government, suggesting that the Government was in a quandary.

During this phase, there were three viewpoints in the coalition. A dominant section of the BJP, and the Samata Party, wanted attempts to be made to prolong the period of President’s Rule by delaying the presentation of the ratification resolution in the Rajya Sabha while exploring the possibility of moving the Supreme Court to review the S.R. Bommai judgment in reference to the situation in Bihar. A Samata Party Minister told Frontline: "The minute attached to the proclamation had shown that the President was convinced that the constitutional machinery had broken down in the State. In such a context, a technicality like the ratification of the presidential proclamation in the Rajya Sabha should not stand in the way of promoting proper governance in the national interest." The Bihar units of the BJP and the Samata Party championed this line.

However, parties such as the TDP, the MDMK and the Trinamul Congress argued that the Government should take the honourable option of revoking the proclamation as it was clear that the ratification Resolution would not make it through the Rajya Sabha. Sections of the BJP that are considered to be close to Vajpayee were reportedly in agreement with these parties. According to TDP leader Yerran Naidu, he had stated in meetings with senior leaders of the BJP that his party had supported the ratification resolution in the Lok Sabha only on the assumption that the Government would withdraw the presidential proclamation in the face of its certain rejection in the Rajya Sabha.

The third view within the coalition, held by parties such as the Akali Dal and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), was that the Government could let the proclamation lapse on technical grounds on April 12, two months after it was issued. In the meantime, these parties are reported to have suggested, the Government could use the Governor’s regime to bring about whatever minor political and administrative changes it wanted in the State.

It is clear that the views of the other allies have prevailed over those of the Samata Party and the dominant sections of the BJP. And clearly, the parties which are worst-hit here are the BJP and the Samata Party. When the leaders of these two parties decided to give in to pressure from their State units and went ahead to manoeuvre to dismiss the RJD Government, the calculation was that they would be able to convince the other parties about it. However, it was not to be.

As a matter of fact, once the Congress(I) decision to oppose the ratification resolution came, the TDP and the Akali Dal had debated why they should give up their stand against the use of Article 356 merely to advance the interests of the BJP and the Samata Party. This situation raised visions of a defeat of the Government in the Lok Sabha on the Bihar question, despite its majority support in the Lower House. It was at this point that the BJP and the Samata Party tried to open a line of communication with the Congress(I) seeking support to the resolution.

When the Congress(I) refused to bite, the Prime Minister had to use all his persuasive skills, besides a threat to resign, in order to get the TDP and the Akali Dal to toe the line. The problem that these parties had in associating themselves with the Congress(I), their principal enemy in their States, also helped the BJP’s cause.

IN the wake of the revocation of President’s Rule, the BJP and the Samata Party, as stated by Govindacharya, plan to "expose the Congress(I) doublespeak" and "champion the cause of the Dalits and the downtrodden". However, the Government is bound to face mounting demands from Opposition parties to remove Governor Bhandari, on the strength of whose report the Central Government made the recommendation to impose President’s Rule. Bhandari’s conduct as Governor before and after the dismissal has come in for criticism. Indeed, the Congress(I) had cited Bhandari’s statement that he would always be committed to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) as one of the reasons for its refusal to support the resolution. According to the Congress(I), "Bhandari’s statement was proof of the RSS control over Governor’s rule."

Bhandari will be at the centre of the next round of the Bihar battle. And all sections of the BJP and the Samata Party will end up defending him in spite of their reservations about him. The outcome will be unpredictable, but it is certain that Government will continue to face trying times.

THE Congress(I), despite having caused great discomfiture to the Government, is itself not in a very enviable position. The party’s decision has triggered a revolt in its Bihar unit and as many as 40 Pradesh Congress(I) executive members have resigned their positions. The State Congress(I) had, during the last six months, taken an increasingly aggressive stand against the RJD Government. State Congress(I) general secretary Kripanath Pathak said that the reason given by the CWC for not supporting the imposition of President’s Rule - that Governor’s rule was being controlled by the RSS - is not quite convincing for party workers in Bihar. "All that the move has resulted in," according to Pathak, "is that the faction led by former party president Sitaram Kesri and former CWC member Tariq Anwar has become stronger."

This revolt had apparently compelled the Congress(I) to move to pacify its rank and file. Media reports regarding Sonia Gandhi’s suggestion to RJD leader Laloo Prasad Yadav to replace Rabri Devi as Chief Minister with a Dalit leader is, by all indications, part of a Congress(I) move to mollify its ranks in the State. Laloo Prasad has firmly denied that there was any such suggestion from Sonia. He added that there was no question of the RJD accepting it even if there was such a suggestion. In this context, it is to be seen how the Congress(I) will seek to set its own house in order in the State.

UNDOUBTEDLY, the real gainer in the game is the RJD, which lost and regained its Government - with the bonus of a martyr’s halo. Its associate in the RLM, the Samajwadi Party (S.P.), as well as the Left parties that have taken a consistent position on the Bihar issue, have also scored. They had campaigned in Parliament and elsewhere against the undemocratic and unjust dismissal. The RJD leadership believes that the revival of the Government would also boost its popular support. Some RJD circles even want the party to go in for elections now to capitalise on the situation.

But before all this, Bihar has to witness the battle over the Governor. How far, in the meantime, the real problems of the people - such as economic backwardness and social inequalities - would be addressed is a question without an answer.

See online : Frontline


Vol. 16 :: No. 06 :: Mar. 13 - 26, 1999

SPIP | template | | Site Map | Follow-up of the site's activity RSS 2.0