February 16, 2020
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If Push Comes To Shove

The BJP toys tentatively with Article 356 as Laloo's detractors gang up for the final heave-ho

If Push Comes To Shove

LAST fortnight saw the most hectic wooing of President K.R. Narayanan in recent times. First, Union home minister L.K. Advani met him, then it was the turn of Janata Dal leaders Ram Vilas Paswan and Sharad Yadav. The reason for the visits: can the president see their point of view in seeking the dismissal of the Bihar government by invoking Article 356? By the looks of it, the president seems satisfied.

The law and order situation in Bihar would make the Tamil Nadu government look like a model of good conduct; the state is bankrupt—government employees haven't been paid for months; the fact that half the state is under flood waters and the people are living out of boats with no assistance from the state government has not helped.

Union home ministry sources sent out feelers that Advani was happy with his visit to Rashtrapati Bhavan. On Friday, party spokesperson K.L. Sharma said the Centre would "seriously consider" imposing Central rule in Bihar. The president, it appears, agrees that the situation is ripe for Delhi to intervene. Similar sentiments are being expressed by Paswan, who says Narayanan enthusiastically listened to his point of view. "The president is satisfied that the situation in Bihar warrants a change," Paswan says, fuelling speculation that it was only a matter of days before their combined nemesis, Laloo Yadav, is taken care of.

But, then, the BJP can't afford to act in haste—it doesn't have enough numbers. Despite Advani's enthusiasm, not entirely misplaced, about the imposition of President's rule in the state, the home minister will find it difficult to carry the allies and even his own government together on such a contentious issue. So even as the Home Ministry looks at all angles to engineer the coup, the prime minister's office has different ideas. Admits a senior prime ministerial aide: "There are far too many checks and balances for imposing Article 356."

 The BJP and its allies lack majority in the Rajya Sabha—the Prasar Bharati incident is fresh in everybody's mind where the government was plainly unable to introduce the bill in the Upper House for lack of numbers. Senior party leaders are of the opinion that better than bloodying its nose in Parliament, it would be better if the BJP decided to strike at an opportune moment.

Parliament is not the only obstruction. The BJP government is acutely aware of the Supreme Court as well. Chief Justice M.M. Punchi, reportedly miffed by the government's decision last month to object to his list of new judicial appointments, is waiting to retaliate. Key BJP advisors have warned the government that moving against the Rabri Devi government is fraught with complications. Should the court give a stay order to the Bihar government in the eventuality of a dismissal, the biggest political gainer would be Laloo and the Rashtriya Janata Dal.

But the pressure on the Centre to dismiss the government is equally strong. Says Samata leader and defence minister George Fernandes: "There are complications, but the dismissal of the state government is imperative. I am sure that once the government is dismissed, there would be no trouble." According to sources, the biggest problem for the BJP government comes not from Laloo but the Samata Party which is shouting hoarse for the ouster of Rabri Devi.

Samata sources admit that unless the government moves fast, the party might even crack up. Several senior Samata leaders like Abdul Ghafoor have reportedly been in touch with Laloo, others are openly aspiring for ministerial berths, leading to fears that there could be a vertical split in the party, something that the Centre would like to avoid at any cost.

Samata leaders like railway minister Nitish Kumar are trying to impress upon the government that if the state government is dismissed, there is a chance of roping in a handful of "disgruntled" RJD MPs to add to the BJP combine's tally. Says Bihar BJP chief Sushil Modi: "It is no secret that we are in touch with some RJD MPs. That process can be easily facilitated"—that is, if the dismissal comes through.

The question is could the decision to topple Rabri Devi be delayed? In Patna last week, there were hints of a "realignment" of political forces—Paswan, Nitish Kumar and former Congress chief minister Jagannath Mishra will share a platform to pursue their one-point agenda: sack the Rabri Devi government. Mishra is the surprise anti-Laloo crusader. For a long time, he was considered so close to Laloo that he was even thought to have practically transferred a huge Congress vote-bank to the RJD in Bihar. He now appears to have picked up the gauntlet, even though the CBI chargesheet has named him as one of the prime beneficiaries in the fodder scam along with Laloo.

Says Paswan: "It is true that the BJP is our biggest enemy, but in the context of Bihar, we have to fight the misrule of Laloo." Paswan, like any other elected member of Parliament, cannot lose sight of his moorings if he has to stay in the reckoning, national interests notwithstanding. That observers say is an open admission that Laloo's political rivals are lining up on one side. If in the days to come, this union makes an impact and draws crowds, the case of dismissing the state government may become stronger. Not that all of the Janata Dal is willing to back the dismissal move. S.R. Bommai, for instance, told reporters in Delhi that he would oppose the dismissal of Rabri Devi.

 In the context, the role of the governor obviously gains in prominence. While Sunder Singh Bhandari has reportedly written to the Centre, detailing the rampant ad hocism and breakdown of the law and order machinery in the state, he is not likely to recommend the dissolution of the assembly. Already, Bhandari and the state government are on a collision course. Bhandari has turned down the state government's proposal to appoint vice-chancellors, something he is entitled to do. Laloo, for long used to the mild ways of former governor A.R. Kidwai, is suddenly not sure if proposals by the state government will be automatically approved.

As the demand to sack Rabri Devi grows louder, the BJP may have no option but to go for it. Thrown in between are presidential assent, the role played by courts and Parliament. Talk about a Hobson's choice.

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