February 16, 2020
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King For The Day

Factional leaders gun for the chief minister, but national poitics saves his crown-for the moment

King For The Day

DURING his first term as chief minister, Kalyan Singh began his day by holding a meeting with the senior ministers of his cabinet and top officials of the state where views were discussed openly and decisions taken. In other words, a perfectly consen-sual politician at a time when the BJP ran a state government on its own strength and did not need consensus. Now in a second term where the party has to depend on valuable outside support, is the chief minister losing that crucial touch?

In fact, one of the primary reasons why Kalyan could continue to hold office in Lucknow last week was because the prime minister himself looked in trouble in Delhi. So just when some irate BJP MLAs from UP demanding a change in leadership met Atal Behari Vajpayee at the height of the Jayalalitha crisis, they realised they had chosen a wrong moment. Sealing the fate of their demand, at least temporarily, the party leadership stated late on April 9 that no change was envisaged in UP.

The immediate cause for the revolt against Kalyan was his appointing corporator Kusum Rai as chief of the state social welfare board, a decision seen largely by his detractors as cocking a snook at not just the dissidents but the party high command as well. That's because Kusum is seen to have become virtually an extra-constitutional power by virtue of her proximity to the chief minister. To be sure, her appointment has gone down badly with some of the party MLAs and ministers who see in it a deliberate tactic to humiliate them.

Says one senior minister: "This appointment shows that the chief minister cares little for public opinion. By doing so, he has also asked the central leadership to lay off the state. He has taken advantage of the fact that the Centre is in trouble." The move is likely to ruffle more feathers, including those of some who form the props of the government. Already, one—Ganesh Bihari of the Jantantrik Bahujan Samaj Party (JBSP), a key ally—sounds indignant. "Kalyan's action is not in the interest of the state," Bihari said, suggesting that more allies could join the chorus of protests.

Kusum Rai's appointment has sparked off agitations, particularly from the BJP's own women's wing, an event unheard of until recently. Says the chief of BJP's Mahila Mor-cha, Lajja Rani Garg: "Despite the years we spent in politics, the fruits are given to others who've never worked for the party and got their post only because of their proximity to the chief minister." So when the women met state party chief Rajnath Singh last Thursday, vociferous in their opposition to Kusum Rai's appointment, the powerful BJP leader—reportedly at loggerheads with the chief minister—just threw up his hands. But a source close to Kusum says her ability to organise public meetings and work for the party has rattled stalwarts who see in her a potential threat. "After the way she organised Kalyan Singh's meetings in Luck-now and eastern Uttar Pradesh, is it too much if she gets something in return?" questions the source. Kalyan's allies are expected to demand their own pound of flesh as well. The JBSP, for instance, wants at least three of its members to head state corporations. Loktantrik Congress boss Naresh Agra-wal is seeking more posts for his men and some others are likely to follow suit.

By all accounts, the latest barrage of 'anti-party activities' charges is by far the strongest faced by Kalyan Singh where party members are trading charges indiscriminately and publicly.

But, says BJPMLC Rajesh Pandey: "It's wrong to call us dissidents. We are loyal party-men. We are only demanding that Kalyan be changed. We have no problems if the high command installs anyone else, but Kalyan Singh's continuance in office is bad news for the BJP in the state. In the eventuality of elections, there is a good chance that our numbers will decrease."

BJP leaders say that apart from showering undue favours on one single cor-porator, Kusum, at the expense of other senior party leaders, the chief minister's personal attitude towards fellow legislators borders on the vindictive. They quote a series of such appointments where senior BJP leaders, particularly those from the party organisation like Rajnath Singh, have been humiliated. So when Rajendra Tiwari was sacked by Rajnath as president of the Luck-now BJP, it took Kalyan Singh just 24 hours to appoint Tiwari as chairman of the essential commodities corporation. Similarly, Ram Kumar Shukla was 'rewarded' with the chairmanship of the consumer cooperative federation after he had announced the formation of the Kalyan Singh Fan Club. The recent crisis was fuelled by the resignation of state cabinet minister Devendra Singh Bhole, who quit on the floor of the assembly, raising embarrassing charges against the chief minister.

There's more. Anti-Kalyan legislators say that MLAs opposed to him have been victimised. "Oppose Kal-yan Singh and get booked," says MLA S.S. Dang, in an admission not usually associated with intra-party affairs. The reasons are not far to seek, say the agitating legislators. They point out that some important MLAs opposed to Kalyan—like Bhole, Kovid Kumar Singh, Badshah Singh, Ganga Chauhan and Neeraj Chaturvedi—have been booked under FIRs that have been registered on direct orders from Kalyan.

Despite it all, Kalyan Singh seems hellbent on riding the storm. He told journalists on his return from Delhi that there was no question of his quitting. The prime minister, he said, had made it clear that there was to be no change of leadership. Emboldened, Kalyan even went in for a large-scale reor-ganisation of the state machinery, transferring 131 IAS and IPS officers on Friday night. What about the charges being levelled against him? The chief minister was disdainful: "Who are these rudderless MLAs demanding a change? Who knows them? If minority opinion was allowed to prevail over the opinion of the majority, it would mean the end of the democratic process."

Some party MLAs, on the other hand, say Kalyan Singh has no time for them. But the chief minister, usually a brusque and a no-nonsense politician, defends his style, at the core of which he says is transparency, honesty and a campaign against corruption, which he claims hurts too many. Says close Kalyan aide and senior minister Omprakash Singh: "Where is the question of a change in leadership? Kalyan Singh is the leader with the most stature in our midst."

Meanwhile, Kalyan loyalists have launched a counter-offensive. Says one: "The fact of the matter is that it's a handful of MLAs asking for Kalyan's head. Has anyone published a list of legislators that exceeds more than a dozen? All this talk of 50 legislators calling for a change of leadership is wildly exaggerated. If MLAs have a grievance, the place to air it is at party fora. It's painful to see leaders fanning factionalism." Counters MLC Pandey, one of those who met central leaders in Delhi: "We have tried to approach the chief minister and talk it out with him several times, but have been summarily shown the door. Ordinary legislators can't even get an audience with him. Can this be considered a pro-party attitude?"

In a simmering battle of attrition, the last word on a change of leadership in the state is yet to come. Hostile party legislators were told to hold their horses when they went to Delhi, but there is little doubt that if the Vajpayee government survives, the intensity of dissident activities against Kalyan is going to increase manifold. Senior leaders admit that a temporary truce has been called, given the developments at the Centre and in a bid not to add to the BJP's woes.

For now, at least, Kalyan Singh's stock as an administrator remains high; his efforts to beautify Lucknow, for example, have been welcomed. But when the stakes in political gamesmanship remain as high as Uttar Pradesh, development could be the last thing on people's minds.

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