Putsch or democracy?

IF ONE were a conspiracy theorist, nothing would fit one’s master plot as snugly as the United Progressive Alliance government’s dissolution of the Bihar Assembly. It happened suddenly and dramatically. President APJ Abdul Kalam was disturbed in the middle of the night in Moscow so he could sign the necessary proclamation — much in the way that President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed proclaimed the state of Emergency in 1975, from his bathroom.

By Praful Bidwai

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Published: Sun 29 May 2005, 10:38 AM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 3:21 PM

The conspiracy theory goes like this: Was it merely a coincidence that the government decided to recommend the dissolution just as Nitish Kumar of the Janata Dal (United) was allegedly within easy reach of garnering the magic half-way figure of 122 MLAs? Wasn’t Dalit leader Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janashakti Party — which held the trump card because of its 29 MLAs — about to split, with 20 to 21 MLAs going over to the JD(U), along with 17 independents?

Didn’t Governor Buta Singh, an old Congressman, write his second report to the Centre just hours before it decided to dissolve the Assembly — just to create the necessary record and an alibi for an action the UPA had already decided to take, irrespective of the circumstances, because it’s viscerally hostile to the National Democratic Alliance?

If you were an NDA supporter, you would need no convincing at all. It’s all so self-evident. The wily Congress is returning to its authoritarian ways and manipulating the system to keep its opponents out of power. As George Fernandes put it, the UPA’s rule is not only comparable to Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, it’s actually worse! So, by not giving government formation a chance in Bihar, the UPA “murdered democracy”.

Its action was mala fide, irreversible, and violated the Supreme Court’s verdict in the S R Bommai case, which says Assemblies should only be dissolved in the rarest of rare cases.\ Smooth and coherent as all this might sound, the conspiracy theory has big holes. It papers over the fact nobody came close to cobbling together a majority for three months in Bihar, primarily because of a fragmented electoral mandate, in which the 243-member Assembly was divided between three groupings — Rashtriya Janata Dal-Left (79 seats), JD(U)--BJP (92 seats), and Congress-LJP (39 seats).

Secondly, it ignores the brazen horse-trading in Bihar, where each LJP MLA was reportedly being offered crores of rupees and a Cabinet berth to defect to the JD(U)-BJP. This took a particularly grotesque form when several MLAs were abducted to Ghatsila and Ranchi in BJP-ruled Jharkhand, and kept captive lest they change their minds.

There are other flaws too. Kalam is no Ahmed. Ahmed was slavishly dependent on and obsequious towards Indira Gandhi. Kalam isn’t vulnerable to UPA pressure. He consulted his own legal advisers before signing the proclamation. Nor is Buta Singh a consistent Congress loyalist. He has made his rounds of the NDA too. Besides, the dissolution is subject to Parliament’s approval and open to a legal challenge. It’s reversible.

However, the biggest hole in the conspiracy theory is the crucial assumption that Nitish Kumar had already garnered the support of 20 LJP MLAs, the number needed to avert disqualification under the anti-defection law. This defies credulity. Two days before the dissolution, Paswan paraded 10 loyal legislators. Besides, he claimed the support of another four MLAs lodged in jail. At no point of time did the NDA show that it had 20 LJP MLAs on its side. It also counted CPI(ML) MLAs among the independents supporting it! Yet, when confronted by the media, Nitish Kumar said, “numbers don’t matter”.

Ideally, the UPA shouldn’t have waited till the bribery and abduction of MLAs reached glaring proportions. It could have acted soon after Buta Singh’s first report in April. Or, having convinced itself of the fact of horse-trading — which makes a mockery of democracy — it could have carefully collected evidence, and given Nitish Kumar a long rope. His failure to garner a majority despite employing mean and undemocratic tricks would have discredited him. The UPA’s choice of timing was tactless. It played into the hands of its opponents, who now strut about as if they had an assured majority.

It’s hard to predict if the NDA’s stirring defence of democracy will impress anyone outside its contracting support-circle in Bihar. The Alliance is reduced to a rump there, having lost two-thirds of its original strength of MPs.

Besides, the NDA’s own record in toppling or scuttling duly elected governments is no better than the Congress’s. In its six years in power, the NDA was guilty of this six times, including in Bihar (twice), Goa, Arunachal, Manipur and Nagaland. Bihar Governor Bhandari wanted Rabri Devi dismissed in 1999 on fictitious grounds. President Narayanan overruled him.

In 2002, Governor Pandey swore in Nitish Kumar although he patently lacked majority support and quit without a vote. The Jana Sangh led the campaign in 1977 to dismiss all Congress-ruled state governments. Yet, amazingly, the NDA parades itself as a great, consistent defender of democracy and Constitutionalism. However, it bears recalling that for the BJP-with its retrograde agenda of destroying India’s pluralist secularism-democracy and the Constitution are mere instruments. In 1998, it tried to alter the Constitution’s core by setting up a review commission to usher in an ultra-centralised, unitarian, presidential system. It’s another matter that it failed.

Whether or not the dissolution is legally challenged successfully, elections will soon follow. They will give the UPA a chance, the final chance, to put up a united front and rectify the blunder it committed in February. Then, the Congress walked out of seat-adjustment talks with the Rashtriya Janata Dal and teamed up with the LJP on an anti-Laloo platform. If the Congress does not succumb to such parochial means to marginalise its strongest ally, and if it whips Paswan into line-on pain of expulsion from the ruling Alliance-, the UPA has a good chance of improving its performance. It must not squander it.

Praful Bidwai is an eminent Indian journalist and commentator

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