February 26, 2020
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The Triangle Trap

Bhandari’s options are narrowing. He may have to invite the BJP

The Triangle Trap

A solution to the political deadlock in Uttar Pradesh was nowhere in sight two weeks after the imposition of President’s rule in the state. The BJP state legislative party chief Kalyan Singh had not come up with the requisite strength to form a government. And the ‘secular forces’ were still divided on the issue of chief min-istership, since the United Front’s Mulayam Singh Yadav refused to accept the BSP-Congress combine’s aspirant, Mayawati.

Consequently, Governor Romesh Bhandari was left with three possible scenarios. First, and most likely according to UF sources, an invitation to the BJP as the single largest party in the state to form a government. The BJP would win a trust vote through the active or passive support of Congress and BSP MLAs—or fail and bring Bhandari back to square one.

Second, the continuation of the status quo, which involves the ratifica-tion of President’s rule by Parliament during the winter session beginning on November 20. This is possible only if the Congress backtracks on its condemnation of President’s rule. Third, Bhandari could dissolve the assembly and call for fresh elections. Again, Parliament would have to agree. "Parliament ki naubat nahin ayegee. Without a firm commitment from the Congress, we cannot risk taking the matter to the House", said a senior Janata Dal leader. That left only the first option, probably after Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda’s return from Harare on November 6.

It was the first option that Gowda discussed with Defence Minister and Samajwadi Party (SP) chief Mulayam Singh Yadav on October 30. Following the discussion, Mulayam headed for the India International Centre (IIC) where he hosted dinner for 19 Rajput SP MLAs. Gowda hot-footed to Congress chief Sitaram Kesri.

Less than 12 hours later, Kesri launched a blistering attack on the UF, warning that it would be "foolish" of them to assume that Congress support to the government was "out of weakness". Kesri was reportedly incensed by Gowda’s insistence that the BJP be invited to form the government and by reports that as many as 22 Congress MLAs were preparing to cross over to the BJP in the event of the party being invited.

Gowda’s objective was clearly to use the bogey of "communal forces" to compel Kesri, Mayawati and Mulayam to reach a compromise. But Mulayam remained adamant that he would accept a compromise candidate as chief minister, but would not back Mayawati. And Kesri continued in his commitment to the BSP.

A day later, UP Congress chief Jitendra Prasada carried the attack a step further by saying the Congress, which had extended support to the UF at the Centre solely to keep the BJP out of power, had been "betrayed by Deve Gowda". In demanding a withdrawal of support to the UF, however, he was in a minority of one. Kesri and other Congress leaders ruled out any such move "over the UP issue". An AICC general secretary pointed out: "If the UF government falls, we currently can’t offer an alternative". Another leader admitted that if necessary, the Congress might have to vote for President’s rule, instead of merely abstaining.

 The BJP mood was cautious. "There is a remote possibility that the BJP will be invited to form a government but the (other parties’) objective of isolating it still holds," declared party spokeswoman Sushma Swaraj. The chances of a BJP-BSP alliance have receded, she said, with the BSP still opposed to the idea of a coalition on the BJP’s terms. Kalyan Singh, who is not keen on an alliance with the BSP, seems to have had his way. The BSP faces a risky situation with its MLAs getting restive. "BSP aur Congress tootenge," predicted a Janata Dal leader. Countering the charge, Prasada said Kalyan Singh is "getting set to do a Vaghela". 

Sources close to Mulayam say he is lobbying for a dissolution of the assembly with the tacit support of the Left, having failed in the last fortnight to cobble a majority. The UF gameplan is to allow the BJP to form a government, let it topple, have a short stint of President’s rule, and then call for fresh elections.

That is something the 33 Congress MLAs don’t want at any price. As a preemptive step, they might just decide to abstain from voting if Kalyan Singh is invited. "Chacha (Kesri) is looking after the (Congress) MP’s interests at the Centre. He must look after our interests or let us look after our own," rationalises an MLA. But will the party high command allow that?

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