THE run-up had been encouraging for the BJP. Minutes before the Gujarat assembly convened on September 3 for a special one-day session to take up the vote of confidence sought by the Suresh Mehta government, the Opposition had held a closed-door meeting. Forty-three Congress MLAs, 12 supportive Independents and 28 MLAs of the Maha Gujarat Janata Party led by Shankersinh Vaghela's henchman Dilip Parikh attended. The Opposition strength stood at 83. The ruling party boasted 94 MLAs in the 177-strong House and was sure of only one outcome: victory. Zealous guarding of 18 fence-sitters had paid off.
But the BJP had overlooked Deputy Speaker Chandhubhai Dhabi. Before the session began, Parikh met Dhabi—who was officiating in the absence of ailing Speaker H.L. Patel—and sought recognition for the 46 pro-Vaghela MLAs who had signed a statement announcing their exit from the BJP. The signatures had already been forwarded to the assembly secretariat for verification by the governor. It is not clear whether Dhabi knew that Parikh's list included the 18 MLAs who had 'returned' to the BJP.
It proved to be a masterstroke. Vaghela was absent, but his handiwork was unmistakable. Minutes into the session, Dhabi dunked the agenda, skipping even the mandatory condolence motions, recogni-sed the Dilip Parikh group and adjourned the House sine die. Result: the BJP's best laid plans of scoring points by seeking a vote itself instead of waiting for the opposition to do so had come to nought.
In just minutes, reactions in the party had run a kaleidoscopic gamut. From hope to shock to anger, and then to the realisation that the wily Vaghela had outwitted its troubleshooters for the second time in a year, almost creating a constitutional crisis in the process.
Said Pramod Mahajan, who was among four BJP general secretaries deputed by the party to resolve the crisis: "We don't mind people playing politics, but not playing politics with the Constitution." Fumed Mehta: "The Deputy Speaker has forfeited his right to the august chair."
Charging the United Front with fishing in troubled waters in collusion with the Congress, with an eye on the forthcoming Uttar Pradesh elections, the BJP stalled parliamentary proceedings for three days. "What business did the Prime Minister have to speak to the leader of the Opposition (Amarsinh Choudhary) for 25 minutes?" asked BJP ideologue K.R. Malkani.
As the stalemate became clear, BJP leaders feared Central rule could be imposed in their 'model-state'. Union Home Secretary K. Padmanabhaiah's statement that there was no plan to do so "as of now" only added to the suspense. But faced with objections from the Left Front, the UF backed down. And Prime Minister Deve Gowda assured Parliament there would be no Central intervention.
Political observers in Gandhinagar and New Delhi say Vaghela's 'victory' is temporary. And constitutional experts agree that the Deputy Speaker's decision was illegal and has no status in law. "We had a majority and we would have proved it, had we been allowed," said Mahajan.
A cocktail of overconfidence and bad planning had derailed Mehta's plans of winning the vote. Unlike last September, the party seemed better prepared this time round. It managed to woo back 18 of the 46 pro-Vaghela MLAs soon after they left, giving Mehta the edge.
But how long the 18 MLAs—some of them owing allegiance to erstwhile state unit chief Kashiram Rana, miffed at being ousted from the post and now playing his cards close to his chest—would stick with the ruling ranks was anybody's guess. It was therefore decided to rush through the vote on September 3 rather than wait for the September 23 Budget session.
But in hindsight the BJP's gameplan had various loopholes. The first was Speaker Patel's health. Hopes that he would recover in time to preside over the one-day session were belied. The second was the cool assumption that Dabhi would go along meekly with Mehta's agenda. But General Secretary Venkaiah Naidu exuded confidence as he addressed the 94 MLAs before they left for the House. He assured them that Mehta had spoken to Dabhi and received his assurance that he would play it by the book.
Less than an hour later, it was all over. The stunned Mehta faction watched Vaghela's men go into "an orgy of hugging and kissing". An indignant Mehta had to console himself by parading 94 MLAs before Governor K.P. Singh that evening and demand that he order the House reconvened so that the confidence vote could be taken up. But Singh too fell 'ill'. That was when the BJP realised its third error, in having seen motives in the governor's meeting with Gowda in Delhi after Vaghela's expulsion.
'Governor ignored us'
Although outsmarted for the moment, Gujarat Chief Minister
Suresh Mehta is confident of winning a trial of strength on the floor of the House. He spoke to Meenakshi Rajan in Gandhinanagar. Excerpts:
How do you view the decision of Deputy Speaker Chandubhai Dabhi in the assembly on September 3 when the confidence motion was slated to be taken up?
The decision was against all established canons of democracy. The exercise of democracy was prevented on the floor of the House. The Deputy Speaker's ruling, recognising the split in the BJP was a wrong exercise of power.
You speak of democracy. But was it democratic on your part to keep 18 MLAs under virtual internment?
I strongly object to these insinuations. Not a single legislator was subjected to restrictions of any sort. Of their own volition, all the legislators who are with us presented themselves before the Speaker, before Governor K.P. Singh, before the press and before the public. They even presented themselves at Gandhiji's samadhi for a public function. How can they have been interned then? Journalists mingled with them freely and asked them questions. These are canards that are being spread to create grounds for something sinister.
How do you see the role of Governor K.P. Singh in the current crisis?
It is unfortunate but true that Governor Singh has been found wanting. We have time and again conveyed our desire to him to allow us to prove our strength on the floor of the House. We have been demanding an immediate decision for convening the House to prove our majority. I have requested him repeatedly but the decision is not forthcoming. We have paraded our strength before him. He could have individually ascertained things for himself. There seems to be a deliberate dragging of feet.
Mahajan says the BJP does not reco-gnise the 'recognition' granted to the Parikh group as the proper procedure was not followed. According to Supreme Court lawyer Shanti Bhushan, "Schedule X of the Constitution makes it clear that only the Speaker is empowered to deal with issues of disqualification and split. Article 180 says the Deputy Speaker merely presides over the sitting of the House in the absence of the Speaker. " But Dhabi is adamant: "Mine was not a political decision. I have just used the powers vested in me."
Senior BJP leaders admit that Mehta's battle to secure the confidence of the House may be a messy affair, although the first move has been made in that direction by expressing lack of faith in Dhabi.
For the BJP, the best-case scenario would be if Vaghela, whom the party sees as "a breaker, not a builder", were reduced to an Arjun Singh and marginalised. For that, Vaghela's ranks will have to be contained, for which the help of Kashiram Rana may be crucial. The worst case scenario would be Vaghela emerging as a third force, with the Congress continuing to be a divided house. The party says it will support Vaghela if he stakes a claim to form a government; but one section feels he may hijack the Congress' KHAM (Kshatriya-Harijan-Adivasi-Muslim) base. Meanwhile, the tug-of-war continues, in preparation for the contest on September 23 (assuming that the governor does not convene a special session). For the moment, Mehta says, the priority is to ensure that the 18 renegade Khajurias stay with the BJP. Efforts are on to win over another 12 of the them. For his part, Vaghela is trying to retain his 28 MLAs and woo back at least 14 of the 18 members who have left the fold.
The present crisis also indicates a deeper problem. Noting that governors are "turning Raj Bhawans into Vidhan Sabhas", constitutional expert Rajeev Dhavan says: "Four times in the past year (once each in Andhra Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh and twice in Gujarat), state governments have been destabilised inter-session." That provides little comfort for the BJP to solve the problem at hand.