UNITED Front spokesman Jaipal Reddy was in high good humour on the evening of October 27, buoyed by news of Uttar Pradesh chief minister Kalyan Singh's troubles. Kalyan, in creating a jumbo cabinet featuring every last one of the Congress defectors who supported him, had inadvertently pulled prime minister I.K. Gujral's chestnuts out of the fire. Reddy, a Gujral loyalist, was exultant: "The BJP has been exposed".
Under fire from Congress and some UF constituents for having allowed Kalyan's government to survive, the prime minister succeeded, at least temporarily, in deflecting their anger away from him and towards the BJP. Cracks were papered over as UF members united to lambast the UP CM. If Kalyan had not bribed legislators monetarily, he had certainly done so with ministerial berths, they said. The mood in the Gujral camp changed from apologetic to complacent.
Gujral had launched a damage-limitation exercise even before leaving for the UK on October 23. Aware that Janata Dal president Sharad Yadav had called an "ad hoc Political Affairs Committee (PAC)" meeting at his home on October 24 to discuss the UP issue, Reddy primed his party colleagues before leaving the capital. As a result, Gujral-baiter and UF chairman H.D. Deve Gowda found himself isolated at Sharad's dinner. When he criticised Gujral for having permitted Kalyan to prove his majority instead of immediately imposing President's rule, he was silenced by Planning Commission deputy chairman Madhu Dandavate. The senior JD leader pointed out that Gowda, as prime minister, had been permitted a vote of confidence after the Congress withdrew support to him. Even more importantly, Gujarat's governor allowed the Rashtriya Janata Party a floor test after the Congress pulled the rug. Since the two crises—UP and Gujarat—happened simultaneously, the Centre had to take the same line on both. For once, Srikant Jena and Ram Vilas Paswan backed Gujral rather than Gowda.
Having dealt with his own party, Gujral had to face the UF steering committee. Conscious that his globe-trotting had already attracted criticism, he cancelled his trips to Bonn and Paris and to Kuala Lumpur for the G-15 summit. He told UF leaders that he knew president K.R. Narayanan's "mind" even before the cabinet decided to impose President's rule in UP. He had agreed to the proposal because no one was aware what had actually transpired in the UP assembly during the vote of confidence, the initial reports of mayhem in the House being somewhat vague. On the following day, bowing to the opinion of the federal front and the president, the decision was reversed.
Samajwadi Party leader Mula-yam Singh Yadav, backed by CPI(M) veteran H.K.S. Surjeet and Sharad Yadav, attacked Gujral for not having imposed Central rule immediately after the BSP's withdrawal of support to Kalyan, but they were silenced by Jyoti Basu. Backing him were federal front leaders and home minister Indrajit Gupta, who maintained that use of Article 356 would be inappropriate. A miffed Mulayam then turned his ire on a hapless BKKP chief Ajit Singh, who condemned the violence in UP. The SP was not responsible for it, snapped Mulayam.
Gowda was silent for the most part, but, when prompted to speak, managed to slip in a broadside against Gujral. He recalled that he had spoiled BJP chances in Gujarat last year by imposing President's rule and putting the assembly in suspended animation until its rebel Shankersinh Vaghela was in a position to cement his alliance with the Congress. Likewise, in UP after the elections, he had not allowed Kalyan a chance to form the government. But the implicit criticism of Gujral went unheeded and the two UF groups agreed to disagree.
Especially because two patches of common ground were found, the first being the need to amend the Anti-defection Act to prevent UP-like scenarios in future. UF convenor Chandrababu Naidu's view that the law had proved ineffective was backed by Sharad and the leaders agreed that it should be reviewed. They united in taunting the BJP for having abandoned its principled stand to indulge in open horse-trading. UF leaders who had warned that the Centre would oust Kalyan given the slightest opportunity, now predicted that his government would fall under its own (crushing) weight. For Gujral, it was a reprieve.
The UF may now have to "readjust" its ties with the Congress, senior leaders feel. Not only is Congress boss Sitaram Kesri upset with Gujral's handling of the UP crisis, which led to the split in the state unit, but is himself under fire from his own party. Kesri-baiter Jagannath Mishra is talking openly about alternative leadership in the shape of Sharad Pawar or Congress vice-president Jitendra Prasada. The party might well have to split to survive, Mishra hinted. Seva Dal president Harish Rawat and Pawar loyalist Abrar Ahmed wrote to Kesri, hinting that the UP debacle was due to a leadership failure, a feeling echoed by several MPs. Kesri's authority vis-a-vis the UF has been diluted and his threats of destabilisation lack force. The cadre is upset and Kesri-baiters have become active, but a senior leader admits that ousting a Congress president is a difficult task. As always during a crisis, the demand for Sonia Gandhi to come forward is being raised.
Fishing in troubled waters, former prime minister Chandra Shekhar has mooted an alternative to the UF. He has called a meeting of "Rashtriya Madhya-Margi Dals (national centrist parties)" in Rajgir on November 8 and is persuading Mulayam, RJD leader Laloo Yadav, Lok Shakti chief Ramakrishna Hegde, RJP chief Shankersinh Vaghela and disgruntled Congress leaders to attend. So far, there aren't many takers.