February 22, 2020
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Disadvantage Laloo

A Supreme Court ruling takes the punch out of Laloo's fight against the central leadership

Disadvantage Laloo

IT came as the final legal blow for the scandal-dipped Laloo Prasad Yadav in the run-up to the party's presidential poll this week. On June 28, the Supreme Court ousted his nominee Raghuvansh Prasad Singh as observer for the poll, giving a free rein to JD stalwart Madhu Dandavate to finalise the voters' list. Counsel B.P. Singh conveyed Laloo's reaction to the court: "My faith is only in Raghuvansh Prasad Singh. I cannot put my head before a man who wants to cut me. There are serious allegations against him for siding with my rival (Sharad Yadav)." The same evening, Laloo loyalists declared they would boycott the polls. This was in line with the new tactics Laloo's brainstrust came up with that week. Realising that a dismissal or arrest would be better in the long term than succumbing to prime minister Gujral's advice to resign, Laloo climbed onto the bargaining table.

On June 25, he despatched trusted aide and cabinet colleague Jagdanand Singh to Delhi—ostensibly for the tourism ministers' conference. But Jagdanand had a mission: Laloo wanted him to lobby central leaders that he would not mind stepping down as chief minister, provided he was allowed to continue as party chief—an option unacceptable to friend-turned-foe Sharad Yadav; and that he would not surrender the right to nominate a successor. Laloo's terms: if his own party government at the Centre couldn't give him immunity from the CBI, the party should at least let him stay on as president. He told Jagdanand: "If nothing works out, tell the central leaders I'll go the way that gives me the biggest mileage. And you choose yours."

 Even Gujral's famed diplomatic skills couldn't appease the two warring factions which only hardened their stands, tipping the party to the brink of a formal split. When Gujral proposed that Laloo be permitted to retain the JD presidentship for six months in return for quitting as Bihar CM, the Sharad camp pointed out that the Supreme Court wanted a new party chief elected by July 3. And when he suggested that a third candidate become party president, they bluntly asked him if he was willing to step in. Gujral obviously refused.

Sharad loyalists also can't understand why Laloo wants to nominate his successor. "If Laloo is confident of his strength in the JD, let him get a new chief minister elected. Why should he nominate someone?" commented one party general secretary. With the Sharad group refusing to budge, Laloo men clarified they wouldn't accept Sharad's election.

In Patna, Laloo detractors are already frustrated with the Centre's dilly-dallying. "If we are wrong, let the Centre say that. And if continuing as the chief minister even after being chargesheeted in a corruption case is wrong, then Gujral should remove him," says Ramjiwan Singh, spokesman for the dissidents whose number has not yet crossed 30 in the 167-member JD in the assembly. Not even after CBI special judge S.K. Lal refused bail to Laloo and other politicians, including two cabinet colleagues Vidya Sagar Nishad and Bholaram Toofani. What has surprised them further is the Centre's indifference after the initial oblique threats from the prime minister.

Last week, Gujral called the JD Union ministers from Bihar and told them that the CBI director wanted his permission in writing to arrest Laloo, which would automatically lead to his dismissal. Gujral told them he had declined permission, but that he couldn't hold back for long. Laloo was informed of the developments.

On June 24, the Patna high court bench comprising S.K. Jha and S.J. Mukhopadhyay pulled up the CBI for not arresting the key scam-accused—including Laloo—while several others were languishing in jail. And if implemented, the outcome would be the same—dismissal of Laloo's government. On June 27, Laloo supporters saw a flicker of hope when one of the accused, former Congress chief minister Jagannath Mishra, got bail. But a section of the state bar council disapproved of the priority accorded to the hearing of the Mishra case by acting chief justice J.N. Dubey.

In fact, the state, already reeling under lawlessness, is now headed for chaos with Laloo's men blaming him for not having adopted a confrontationist stand against CBI joint-director U.N. Biswas, and the court, if necessary. "The court's observation for his arrest in a way minimises his chances of getting bail even before it was taken up and ensures his dismissal," they complained.

His advisers' suggestion led to a desperate act. On June 24, about 100 Laloo supporters, including MLAs and ministers, sat on dharna outside the Governor's House, breaching prohibitory orders, to protest against the CBI's 'political intent'. Laloo even refused to come on the line when Gujral called him twice after Governor A.R. Kidwai's displeasure was conveyed to Delhi over the incident.

The only way Laloo can exhibit his might is by flouting convention and flexing numerical muscle. Cornered by the media, he takes this plea: "The Constitution does not bar a chargesheeted person from holding office. I am innocent till proved guilty by the court." If he is pressured to resign without his terms being accepted, Laloo warned Gujral he would force a mid-term poll.

In Delhi, anti-Laloo leaders are more or less resigned to the logical conclusion of the drama: no compromise except giving Laloo a "graceful exit". And that Gujral should ensure at any cost that he is not arrested in harness. "A chief minister is a custodian of the constitution and law. So he should not be in custody," says Mohan . Prakash, a party general secretary close to Sharad. But Laloo has left the entire legal proceedings to the court and refuses to join issue. He concentrates on the political battle instead.

The governor, in a sense, has already begun exercising his powers. He summoned the police and civil administration chiefs to requisition extra central forces; he is monitoring the law and order situation as well—which normally becomes his domain only after imposition of Central rule. Laloo, who has set out on a mass mobilisation campaign, doesn't seem to mind. He begins his itinerant protest against this "assault" from Madhepura, Sharad's Lok Sabha constituency. But Madhepura is only a symbolic site. The real aim is to take the fight to Delhi.

"The people are above our leaders. They are as supreme as the courts for me." Having committed himself to such a line, Laloo would be mildly surprised if he gets some favours from New Delhi. That is why he has already set out to tour the state.

The dilemma now facing Gujral is the question of imposing Central rule. The Sharad group's insistence on Article 356 if Laloo refuses to quit has put him in a spot—especially after his emissaries, Reddy and S.R. Bommai, failed to persuade Laloo.

Laloo, in Delhi a fortnight ago, had already sought advice from constitutional experts, all of whom admitted he was under no legal compulsion to quit if chargesheeted. "He should quit but there's no legal provision that demands that...the Constitution simply didn't envisage such a situation," admitted Shanti Bhushan. UF constituents other than the JD, particularly the Left, were reluctant to endorse the use of Article 356, while calling for Laloo's removal. But as the state teeters close to a law and order collapse, even the most moderate views might harden.

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