POACHING on Members of Parliament is an informally accepted fact of political life. Particularly in a situation as tight as the current Lok Sabha—split down the middle, with treasury and Opposition benches almost on par. But in Bihar, last fortnight, the numbers game seemed to take off in earnest, with an all-too-new twist.
The first signs of strange goings-on began with the visit of Rajasthan chief minister and BJP's troubleshooter Bhairon Singh Shekhawat to Patna, ostensibly to celebrate the ongoing birth centenary celebrations of the state's renowned freedom fighter Babu Kuer Singh. Quizzed by reporters on what should be done in Bihar, now that a BJP government was at the Centre, Shekhawat replied that the Rabri Devi government should not be dismissed—the only state that deserved Article 356 was Tamil Nadu.
Was the state waking up to a new realignment? After all, Laloo Prasad Yadav is classically in the anti-BJP camp, anti-BJPism is the leitmotif of all his political campaigns, and along with Mulayam he had formed an important axis to keep the BJP from sweeping two politically crucial states in the last general elections.
More was in store. Rajput chieftain Anand Mohan, an MP of Shankarsinh Vaghela's Rashtriya Janata Party organised a get-together in his village to remember Kuer Singh. It had an unlikely starcast: Shekhawat and Laloo. The two leaders shared the stage and joked with each other in front of disbelieving state BJP workers. Shekhawat's stock reply to journalistic queries: the Bihar government should not be dismissed.
Speculation picked up tempo when one of the first acts of newly-appointed Bihar governor Sunder Singh Bhandari, an old RSS man, was to let it be known that there was no question of dismissing the Bihar government, that it was not the BJP policy to indulge in such tactics.
Significantly, neither does Bhandari seem in any hurry to sanction prosecution in the key fodder case against Laloo. This is much to the chagrin of BJP ally Samata Party, which for months now has been demanding that the sanction for the case, presented by the CBI nearly eight months ago, cannot be stalled on any grounds.
To Laloo's ears, it was pure music. Threatened with dismissal every day when the BJP was not in power, the present assertion by a ruling party strongman that the Rabri government should stay is an indication, if any is required, that politics is one thing, governance quite another.
Things have now changed drastically for the former chief minister. The BJP people aren't the only ones apparently cosying up to Laloo. Newspaper reports hint that at least five of the 13 Samata Party alliance members—all veterans in their own right like Abdul Ghafoor, Digvijay Singh, Prabhunath Singh—were disgruntled at not being accommodated in the Union cabinet or rewarded some other way. They have reportedly been meeting Laloo in an effort to create an alliance of their own.
Is Laloo's Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) attempting the feat of running with the hare and hunting with the hounds? Said Ranjan Yadav, MP, acting RJD president and Laloo's long-standing and trusted friend: "There is no question of aligning with the BJP." Asked his opinion of the new governor, Yadav replied: "Bhandari is a seasoned politician. He is a mature man. His steps are measured and his appointment is welcome." Could there be a realignment of forces? "All I can say," commented Yadav, "is that there are a lot of disgruntled elements in all parties."
WITH such low-levels of stridency between sworn enemies, questions are bound to be asked. But state BJP leaders claim the media is blowing the whole thing out of proportion. "The question of allying with Laloo does not arise. Let the government fall, but there can be no compromise on Laloo," says state Opposition leader, Sushil Modi of the BJP. According to Modi, Shekhawat had consulted him before embarking on the trip with Laloo and there was no question of 'hobnobbing' as has been suggested. "I appear with Laloo on several platforms. Does it mean that we are going to join hands?" asks Modi.
But critics die hard. Points out Bihar JD leader Ganesh Yadav: "The secret understanding is that if Jayalalitha pulls out of the BJP-led alliance, Laloo and his MPs will abstain from voting and help save the government. Operation Save Vajpayee has begun and Laloo will have an important role to play in the proceedings." Senior RJD leaders, however, say that such motives are unlikely: Laloo would harm his basic vote-bank, his bread and butter, if he goes with the BJP.
But that is front number one. Front number two has a different scenario. In that, irate Samata MPs are meeting Laloo regularly, assuring him of their support against the policies of Union railway minister Nitish Kumar, who they allege is only interested in policies designed to help the Kurmi community. Abdul Ghafoor 'accidentally' met Laloo at the Gopalganj Circuit house—both of them just happened to be there. While the contents of the accidental discussion is not known, a week later Ghafoor hastily put out a denial saying there was no question of joining hands with the RJD. Ditto with Prabhunath Singh and Shakuni Chowdhary, both laws unto themselves.
"Some of the goings-on are strange indeed," said Samata Party leader Jaya Jaitley. "No official explanation has been asked by us—or offered by the BJP—for the Shekhawat episode. But all this talk of our MPs meeting Laloo for pulling down the government is bunk. Even at the Samata national executive, none of our people made any unreasonable demands. We feel the Bihar government is a fit case for dismissal, but there is no undue pressure." According to Jaitley, some Samata MPs are getting 'impatient', but would not necessarily jeopardise Vajpayee's government.
The sanction for the fodder case against Laloo would appear to be a test case for the BJP-Samata alliance, as senior Samata leaders are keen that the CBI cases against Laloo be expedited as soon as possible. "This," asserted Jaitley, "is the least that can be done."
As of now, however, the political parties are engaged in the numbers game. Once the summer session of Parliament begins, the ruling combine will have their hands full with handling Opposition moves like Cut Motions: the only way in which the government will survive is if it manages to muster enough members. Says Sushil Modi: "If Laloo is trying to win over our MPs, we are doing the same. There are at least a dozen RJD MPs who are in touch with us."
The days to come are likely to be interesting. Byelections in the state next month will indicate the public mood. Disgruntled leaders, particularly in the Samata Party, are questioning the BJP's earlier announcements about dismissing the Bihar government immediately after coming to power.
On the other hand, George Fernandes and Nitish Kumar are impressing upon members that it is not just a question of one state government: dismiss one and you will have to follow suit. The key question is whether there will be further realignments in the days to come. For, if they do happen, many prophesies will be thrown out of the window.