| It was an anticlimax to a week-long soap opera. On a day when the Congress threatened to impose President's Rule in Uttar Pradesh and Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav announced that the Samajwadi Party (SP) was withdrawing support to the UPA, a third player entered the scene. The Election Commission (EC) quietly went ahead and declared the dates for the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections, which caught the Congress off-guard. The party had just concluded its daily press briefing with spokesperson Jayanti Natarajan thundering, "The Uttar Pradesh Government has forfeited the moral, political and legal right to continue in office." Just a day earlier, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had met CPI(M) General Secretary Prakash Karat and discussed the situation. Congress strategists were claiming that the UPA was on the brink of dismissing Mulayam. Even the BJP supported this move. Yet, despite its bluster, the Congress failed to strike. As it pondered and debated, the EC wrested the initiative. |
At the Congress headquarters, a red-faced general secretary chided journalists saying that the idea of imposing President's Rule in the state was a figment of the media's imagination. Meanwhile, in Lucknow, an exuberant Mulayam complimented the EC on its decision, saying, "All my rivals have been blown up." The prime minister called an emergency meeting at his residence, where he discussed the possibility of going ahead with the imposition of President's Rule with some of his Cabinet colleagues. Both
Finance Minister P. Chidambaram and External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee felt that it made little sense to antagonise the Left on the eve of a crucial budget session. Moreover, it was feared that imposition of Article 356 may not be upheld by the courts. Given Sonia Gandhi's active role in lobbying for the dismissal, this could be awkward. Though the Congressmen clung on to the chimera of President's Rule, they lacked conviction.
"There was a fear that under Mulayam Singh, no free and fair elections can be held. Our concerns remain. It is for the EC and the UPA to decide," said Janardhan Dviwedi, Congress general secretary. State Congressmen took comfort in the seven-phase election schedule. "By staggering the polls, the EC has indicated that it feels the law and order situation is bad," said UPCC Spokesman Akilesh Pratap Singh. The Congress is celebrating the fact that the EC's code of conduct comes into force immediately, preventing any last-minute transfer of officials.
|AUG 28, 2003: Mulayam wins a trust vote with the help of 37 MLAs who defect from BSP. The Congress too supports him. |
|FEB 8, 2006 & JAN 25, 2007: The chief minister wins two more trust votes. |
|FEB 14, 2007: Supreme Court disqualifies 13 BSP MLAs. Congress says rest are disqualified by implication. |
|FEB 17, 2007: Governor fears horse trading during the trust vote slated for 26th of this month. Congress demands President's Rule, Left disagrees. |
|FEB 21, 2007: EC announces poll dates. |
Mulayam admits that the poll schedule could hurt. "It would pose problems," he says. His MLAs see it as a ploy to harass the chief minister. Mulayam had written to the EC asking for the polls be held in February even though his Assembly's term ends on May 14. The SP fears the power shortages in May will add to the anti-incumbency.
Ever since the Supreme Court's judgement on February 14, disqualifying 13 BSP MLAs who had broken away to support the SP to form the Government in August 2003, the Congress has been maintaining that Mulayam had lost the moral right to continue in office and should resign. Failing which it threatened to dismiss him. What bolstered the party's rhetoric was a report by state governor T.V. Rajeshwar Rao to the Home Minister on February 17, which is said to have voiced an apprehension that the SP could indulge in horse-trading to win a floor vote slated for Febuary 26. "He doesn't have the requisite numbers to win this test," agrees Salman Khursheed, the state PCC chief. It was a volatile week. The Congress launched a high-profile campaign to argue its case, fielding three of its legal luminaries to hold press conferences, all on the same day. Each one-Union minister Kapil Sibal, party spokesman Abishek Singhvi and Khursheed-brandished the Supreme Court judgement and asked Mulayam to step down. In response, SP General Secretary Amar Singh drove down to Delhi from Haridwar and held a press conference of his own, flanked by actor-politician Jaya Bachchan and rebel Congressman Natwar Singh, accusing the Congress of joining hands with the BJP to upstage a secular government.
The BJP had demanded President's Rule but as some of its own NDA allies like Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and Orissa Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik opposed it, it said that it would support President's Rule only if the state polls were held on time.
Behind the scenes, the Congress party managers went into overdrive. The BSP needed no persuasion as it stands to gain even more from Mulayam's dismissal than the Congress does. Congressmen concede that with only 15 MLAs in the current Assembly and no hope of a great revival, it cannot form a government in the state. However, it would prefer to see a 'co-operative' BSP, rather than a hostile Mulayam, come to power. It's not just the political equations but also hostility between 10 Janpath and the SP that determines the politics of the Hindi heartland. When the DMK demurred, it was Sonia who dialled M. Karunanidhi to bring him onboard. Others like the RJD and the NCP agreed to support the Congress.
The only dissenting voice was that of the Left. In the end it was the CPI(M)'s stubborn stand that foiled the Congress' grand plan. When Karat was contacted by both Mukherjee and the prime minister, he opposed the use of Article 356, calling it a draconian clause. Instead, the Left leader said that "the question whether a government enjoys a majority must be tested on the floor of the house". Karat later told the media that if the Congress went ahead with its plans it would cause a 'political breach' in the UPA. Translation: while the Left would not pull down the Congress-led Government at the Centre, it would walk out of the co-ordination committee and not co-operate on economic reforms. Despite this, the Congress wanted to go ahead with President's Rule in the state.
Congressmen claim that the initiative came from 10 Janpath, with both Sonia and Rahul Gandhi preferring dismissal. According to a Congress Working Committee member, the Febuary 19 meeting of the party's highest decision-making body, which advocated President's Rule, was a well -orchestrated event conducted by the Congress president. "It was indicated that Sonia was in favour of President's Rule and that we should speak accordingly," said the member. And it was Sonia who chose the speakers, beginning with Uttar Pradesh Congressman Ram Naresh Yadav. All the leaders from the state were asked to speak and almost all endorsed the demand for President's Rule. A note of caution was sounded by Satyavrat Chaturvedi, party spokesman. Neither Sonia nor the prime minister spoke. Former solicitor-general Dewendra Dviwedi asked Home Minister Shivraj Patil for his views. Sonia's political advisor Ahmad Patel indicated that it was not a good idea for Patil to speak. This gave the Congress a face-saver. Later the party claimed that the demand for dismissal was the Congress' view and not the UPA's stand. "The law minister never gave his view. It was Sibal who spoke to the media in his personal capacity and not as a minister," says a general secretary.
There is still pressure from state Congressmen to dismiss Mulayam. "We will lose face if we do nothing after all the talk," says an MLA. However, apart from the misgivings of the Left, the UPA is also unsure of President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. He was not happy with the Supreme Court's strictures against the then governor Buta Singh's recommendation to place the Bihar Assembly under suspended animation in 2005 without first allowing a floor test, because he feared horse-trading. Rao's report had a strong sense of déjà vu. Slated to address Parliament on Febuary 23, Kalam indicated that he wanted to steer clear of all controversies. So in the end, the Congress is left with a weakened majority at the Centre, not to mention a bitter battle in Uttar Pradesh. It can no longer sell its desperation as morality.
-With Subhash Mishra