But 24 hours laterin the face of intense pressure from other UF constituents, who wanted the RJDs status vis-a-vis the Front to be tied to Laloos resignationGujral was doing the familiar: retreating.
But happily for Laloo, by July 12, he had found new friends in the south: Tamil Nadu chief minister M. Karunanidhi, Karnataka chief minister J.H. Patel and, to some extent, TMC supremo G.K. Moopanar.
Gujral chose Badayun in Uttar Pradesh to clarify that he and the Left parties shared the same perception on the issue of probity in public life. And without mentioning Laloo, he again said anyone chargesheeted in a corruption case should step down. But this backhanded nod to his professed ideal only served to underline his willingness to compromise. For, he clearly has no intention to remove Laloo or drop the RJD ministers, even if that means a confrontation with the Left as well as Sharad Yadav, newly elected president of the Janata Dal.
Given all his handicaps, Gujrals line of action (or lack of it) is tuned well to the bleak post-split scenario in the UF. The formation of the RJD has given birth to two parallel and opposite poles. For, Laloo has succeeded in diverting a limited issuewhether a chargesheeted chief minister can continue in officeinto one to which the future of the Gujral government and the UF seems linked now. The issue that bogs the coalition partners is whether or not the RJD should be allowed to join the Front.
The Left partieswith 56 members in the Lok Sabhahave taken an unambiguous stand on the RJD stalemate, despite inner differences in the CPI and the CPI(M). Lending muscle to the camp are Mulayam
Singh Yadavs 17-member Samajwadi Party, Chandrababu Naidu 20-member Telugu Desam, the five-member Asom Gana Parishad and a majority of the residual Janata Dal with 29 MPs.
The issue has also sown seeds of dissent in the four-member regional Frontdespite unanimity on neutralising Article 356. The DMK, which by and large agreed with the Left hitherto, has adopted a pro-Laloo stance. The TMC, though at odds with the DMK on other issues, concurs on the RJD question. "It is unwise to reject the support extended to the UF by the RJD," asserts the DMKS Karunanidhi. "The earlier Janata experimentsthe Morarji Desai and V.P. Singh governmentshad to go because of lack of unity within their parties. Some traditional backstabbers in Delhi are now working to create a similar fate." A parallel gesture in favour of the status quo came from Karnataka chief minister J.H. Patel, whose ministry was imperilled by the revolt of deputy chief minister Sidda-ramiah and seven other cabinet colleagues in the wake of the JD split.
Laloos villains are not difficult to identify. The Left, his shrillest critic, has all but given up on the UF experiment. Hardening its stance on its pet issues, the Left is clearly leveraging itself for the next election.
On the other hand, Karunanidhi has gravitated to the camp of V.P. Singh, now undergoing treatment in London.
(See box.) Hence his preference for Gujral and Laloo. The binding theme: the forces of social justice should not be weakened by unprovenor in Laloos words, motivatedcorruption charges.
GUJRAL, however, is more worried about the Congress role in the balance of power. As long as the 145-strong Congress extends its support to Gujral in the Lok Sabha, the perceived loss of prestige is just a subtle tradeoff for the stability of his dispensation.
This gives the Left with prime ammunition: harping on corruption more than anything else, it charges Gujral with having mastered the art of compromise. "During H.D. Deve Gowdas tenure, investigations into corruption in high places were pursued vigorously. It is unfortunate that Gujral, who was projected as a man with a clean image, has sought to underplay the issue," says CPI(M) general secretary H.K.S. Surjeet.
Surjeet also questions Gujrals right to retain the RJD ministers. "Its for the UF steering committee to decide on taking the RJD into the UF. It has to be kept in mind that the RJDs formation is for the disruption of the UF and the JD," he asserts. Given the rigid lines the constituents of the steering committee have taken, it is unlikely that the issue will be sorted out in its meeting scheduled on July 17.
For all this, Gujrals survival instinct will prompt him do the Congress bidding. And with the Congress reassurance that it will continue supporting his government, the numbers game favours Gujral. In the process, the growing divide between Gujral and the Left could polarise the UF.
Worryingly for the UF, these battlelines are already evident and Sharad Yadav, who wants the Laloo government dismissed, could exacerbate the inherent divisions. He has already warned Gujral that failure to take action against Laloo would amount to a compromise on corruption. He also made it clear that RJDs membership of the UF depends on consent from the UF constituents in Bihar and, more importantly, on Laloos resignation as chief minister.
With Laloo showing no sign of quitting, UF constituents in Bihar have joined the agitation for his ouster. On July 11, Mulayam flagged off the "Bihar Bachao, Bihar Banao" rath yatra at Patna to mobilise public opinion on the fodder scam.
Other key players in the anti-Laloo crusade, and by extension in the anti-Gujral campaign, are Gowda and Ram Vilas Pas-wan. V.P. Singhs appeal to Paswan to soften his stance towards Laloo has not cut much ice. And the upshot is that another experiment at coalition governance seems set for an untimely end.