February 22, 2020
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Ironic Reversal

As the hawala court orders Sharad Yadav's trial, there could be fresh realignments in the party

Ironic Reversal

JANATA Dal president Sharad Yadav is especially fond of television cameras. Fittingly, it was television reporters who first informed him on August 1 he was to stand trial in the Rs 65-crore hawala scam. And ironically, the very same TV cameras had proved his undoing; the judge's decision to try him was partly based on his 'extra-judicial' confessional statement on Zee TV's Aap Ki Adalat. "Yeh machine-gun (as he terms the cameras) waalon nay mujhe phasaya hai," he reportedly told supporters.

For all Sharad's nonchalant dismissal of CBI special judge V.B. Gupta's decision—"so what is new? It's the same old chargesheet. Why should I quit?"—the fact that he will be the first politician to stand trial on charges of corruption in the Rs 64-crore scam has robbed him of the moral high ground he has occupied ever since former Bihar chief minister Laloo Prasad Yadav was chargesheeted in the fodder scam. As Sharad never failed to remind his detractors, he had resigned his Lok Sabha seat and quit as Janata Dal Parliamentary Party leader as soon as he was chargesheeted (but later re-elected to the Lower House and then, to party pres-identship). As he oft repeated, "I am no Laloo Yadav"—a reference to Laloo's persistent refusal to step down as chief minister despite tremendous pressure until arrest warrants were issued against him.

The timing of the judgement could not have been more dramatic: a day before his tour de force, the national convention of the Janata Dal. The convention ought to have been a triumphal occasion for the newly-elected party president, as Sharad's acquittal had seemed all but certain. However, unlike the other accused, he had publicly confessed to having taken all of Rs 3.9 lakh from "one R.C. Jain" through former Gujarat chief minister Chimanbhai

Patel and even displayed the diary in which his wife had recorded the donation for "electoral expenses". Even as they defended him, Sharad's supporters could barely hide their pique. "How many times must he do political penance for the same chargesheet?" asks MP Nawal Kishore Rai. "He's paying for telling the truth," comments another sympathiser.

For prime minister Inder Kumar Gujral, it was a welcome reprieve. Led by Sharad, the H.D. Deve Gowda faction had planned a two-fold attack on Gujral on his perceived proximity to the Congress and his reluctance to drop the three RJD ministers from his cabinet. And so, at the August 2 JD national convention, Gujral, emboldened by the faction's reversal, thundered: "The biggest challenge before the party is that of morality. We criticise other parties on the subject, so we shouldn't have double standards. This issue has been disturbing us for several months." As a section of delegates raised the cry, "what about the RJD?", Gujral walked off in a huff despite Sharad's frantic efforts to quieten them down.

There is no gainsaying that for the United Front axis led by Gowda, the Left and the Samajwadi Party, the court order has come as a major setback because Sharad has spearheaded their campaign against corruption in general and Laloo in particular. Whether it was the JD presidential election or the campaign against including Laloo's Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) in the United Front, the coterie insisted that corruption was the bottom line. Gowda was, in fact, planning to tour the country on the anti-corruption plank (notwithstanding Congress president Sitaram Kesri's pragmatic suggestion that corruption is preferable to communalism).

 While the Laloo-aligned Congress gleefully declared that Sharad had been hoisted with his own petard, the Left's immediate response was: "It is an internal matter of the party, as the post of party president is not a public office."

Even before the lower court judgement, the Karnataka dissidents led by S.R. Bommai and R.L. Jalappa, dead set against Gowda's perceived stranglehold on party affairs, had threatened a boycott. Sharad did his best to cajole them to attend and was partly successful; while Bommai came, Jalappa stayed away.

"We were protesting against the manner in which the party elections were conducted leading to a split," said a Karnataka JD MP who did not attend. Ostensibly, the absentees were keeping prior commitments. They pointed out that Bommai's name had not been included in the original list of speakers. It was only after his chat with Sharad that the omission was rectified. But Jalappa was left out. The Karnataka dissidents had made it clear their target was Deve Gowda, not Sharad. Indeed, they went out of their way to reassure the JD president.

SHARAD has been trying—without delinking from Gowda—to maintain a balance between him and Gujral. Thus, he had left it to the national council delegates to attack the prime minister and had ruled out any official resolution on the subject of Bihar. The August 1 court order simply put paid to the plan.

Delegates from Karnataka and Orissa, however, insisted on raising the issue of relations with the Congress and other UF constituents. The party leadership would have to clarify its position vis-a-vis the Congress, their main opponent. "We have taken Congress support at the Centre. Does that mean we can't attack the party at the state level? And does the understanding with the Congress extend to electoral politics?" demanded a delegate from Karnataka. At the state JD president's meet, Bihar JD chief Ramai Ram asked: "Where does the tris -hanku (the three RJD ministers in the Gujral cabinet) stand?

Oopar hain, neechay hain, kahan hain?" Stopping short of directly demanding Sharad's ouster as party president—having just emerged from a crisis, even the dissidents are not keen to precipitate another one by attacking Sharad—his detractors pointed out that "Sharad and Laloo are now in the same boat" and therefore should be accorded the same treatment. If Laloo could be ousted from the UF on the grounds of corruption, so could Sharad. But a pro-Laloo minister says Sharad could well "ride it out" unless pressure is built up within the party asking him to step down.

A senior JD minister feels the hawala trial would allow Gujral to keep Sharad on a leash. "The issue will keep festering and cropping up. It may lead to gradual strategic realignments within the Janata Dal." If Sharad were to quit his post, Bommai and Ram Vilas Paswan, neither of whom is particularly fond of the Janata Dal president, would be in the running but a compromise candidate is more likely. If he remains, Sharad will have to do a balancing act: "emerge from the shadow of Deve Gowda" while keeping in mind that Gowda commands the support of powerful factions within the UF.

Sharad's plans went awry from the very beginning—he had never anticipated that Laloo would wind up splitting the party. Nor had he ever imagined that his candid interviews would get him into so much trouble. But his "extra-judicial confessions"—under sections 24, 25 and 26 of the Indian Evidence Act—can be used against him according to a Supreme Court judgement five years ago.

Sharad will now have to fight a legal battle on behalf of the political establishment, say his confidants: "All political parties run on donations. They are not factories." And regardless of the outcome of Sharad's trial, the image of the ruling coalition has taken a serious beating. As chargesheets rip the JD apart and the Left and Congress point fin-gers at each other and Gujral is charged with shielding the corrupt, a JD minister observed: "The BJP will benefit."

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