THE most sought after MLA in Himachal Pradesh these days is terrified of politicians. Ramesh Chand, the lone Independent in the state assembly from Jwalamukhi, whose vote can make or break a government in the evenly-balanced House, pleaded with folded hands on March 6 to governor V.S. Rama Devi: "All the politicians are torturing me mentally and harassing me. Please put me in a separate guesthouse."
Chand claims he had never bargained for what occurred the night before. Sword-wielding hooligans of the Congress and the BJP reportedly tried to yank him out of his car when he reached Shimla, after defeating candidates belonging to both parties in Jwalamukhi. Having spent the night in the melee, he was exhausted and trembling like a dry leaf. "He could not even write a letter to me making his position clear about the support," said Rama Devi.
But only four days later, sitting in the kursi he had never dreamt of, a beaming Chand was cracking jokes. Evidently, a first-time MLA, he soon enough realised the worth of being an Independent in a razor-edge situation. He was sworn in as a cabinet minister in the Virbhadra Singh cabinet. The Congress stalwart didn't think twice before offering Chand the irrigation portfolio. Surrounded by his "supporters" in his chamber in the state secretariat, a gleeful
Chand told Outlook jocularly: "Should I now ask the BJP to make me chief minister if they want my support." Chand openly admits that he doesn't deserve what he got in the short-lived Virbhadra government. "Mein bahut chhote sthar ki raajniti karta tha (I was only a small-time politician). I don't deserve to be a minister. There are people who wait for 30-35 years and die an MLA, I'm a small fry," he says.
For, he knows fully well that his worth has not been diminished even after Virbhadra's premature resignation before the vote of confidence on March 12. The BJP is waiting in the wings to grab Chand, who had been an active party member for the last 20 years. He revolted against the leadership of P.K. Dhumal who denied him a ticket. Even under the shadow of the Congress, Ramesh openly says that Dhumal is not acceptable to him at any cost and that Shanta Kumar is still his leader. Indeed, he confesses that that he is ready to rethink his decision on which party to support, provided the BJP promises that Dhumal is not made chief minister.
But it must be noted that Virbhadra's resignation is part of a larger plan. The pro tem speaker Thakur Ram Lal, a Congress member, also resigned from his post along with him, bringing the House back to square one. The effective strength of the assembly is 64, of which the Congress enjoys the support of half the MLAs, including Chand and the speaker who is supposed to cast his vote only in case of a tie. With a Congress member as the speaker, the party loses a vote and its strength comes down to 31. On the other hand, the BJP enjoys the support of 32 MLAs, including four belonging to former Union communication minister Sukh Ram's Himachal Vikas Congress (HVC).
THE pro tem speaker's resignation was aimed at bringing the voting strength of the Congress to 32, thus making it difficult for the BJP to stake a claim. After all, they will also have to appoint a speaker which will push them into minority. In that situation only Chand can save the BJP. And he is more than aware of that. "It's all God-gifted, otherwise who would have bothered about me had this number game not been there," says a seemingly humble Chand.
Amidst all this, the governor is faced with a peculiar predicament, as she can't even invite the BJP after the collapse of the Congress government. One option before her is to put the assembly under suspended animation till June 1998 when elections will be held for the four remaining constituencies. "I hope everything will be all right, otherwise I'll have to take some decision," she told Outlook. However, she will not take any action before consulting the Rashtrapati Bhawan.
Meanwhile, Ramesh Chand is cooling his heels at the chief minister's official residence surrounded by kattar (hardcore) Congressmen, as he likes to put it. The danger of his being kidnapped is so high that the Virbhadra government had provided him AK-47 wielding securitymen. Although Vir Bhadra Singh rubbished all allegations that the Congress was holding the Independent MLA in captivity—"I insist that you take the minister to the coffee house. He is free to go anywhere"—his partymen did not leave Chand unattended even for a second. Surendra Bali, 50, a tough Congress worker who claims he does 150 push-ups every morning, always tags along with the prize catch "to help him".
And the six days in power were an experience in themselves for Chand. For probably the first time in life, he had someone to attend to his phonecalls. When his private secretary buzzed him, he didn't know what to do. His friend-cum-guide Surendra Bali came to his rescue. "X dabao," advised Bali under his breath and the minister obliged. When senior IAS officers, including the secretary of his ministry, would come visiting, he'd say self-effacingly: "Sab to afsaron ko hi karna hota hai, mantri to sirf dastakhat karta hai (it is the bureaucracy that executes everything, ministers only have to sign)."
Not that the BJP gave up easily. Chand was stopped and gheraoed on his way to Shimla "several times" by BJP men asking him to support their party. But he rebuffed every request. After all, how often do you get the opportunity to snub your opponents! Dhumal even sent an emissary to woo him just after his victory. But Chand shot back: "If Dhumal wants to meet me he should come to me. Why should I go to him?" The BJP then dangled a carrot before him by promising that he would be taken to Shanta Kumar in a helicopter—which never came. "Even my father has never sat in a helicopter," laughs away Chand.
Never before has a lone man emerging from the woodwork ever held the key to the stability, and power, for a prospective government. And he will continue to do so, at least till June when four more MLAs might tilt the balance of the House. Till then, Himachal Pradesh politics is bound to spin around Ramesh Chand.