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UP: Prisoner of politics

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The Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister is no one’s idea of a victim. As should be expected from a man who was a wrestler before he became a politician, muscle has never been a dirty word in his dictionary. He has used the complex caste conundrum of India’s most populous state to create a safe deposit of ready votes; one that makes him rich enough to shrug off the scrutiny of political accountability. This is a leader who did not even think it necessary to visit the families of the Nithari victims. But, as a local don once told me, “It doesn’t matter what English types write in their editorials. Cash, crime and caste decide what happens in Uttar Pradesh.”

So, why has the attempt to dismiss the Mulayam government ended up making the Congress look foolish and opportunistic?

Both the BJP and the BSP, the two other major parties in the state, have also supported President’s Rule. Yet, as the political drama enters the endgame, why has the battle for Uttar Pradesh ended up looking like a personal clash of egos, than a political debate about principles?

The source of the party’s new found aggression was a Supreme Court order that disqualified 13 BSP MLAs (the Congress insists the disqualification extends to all 37 BSP legislators) who had switched sides to vote for the present state government in 2003.

I’m no lawyer, but the judgment does seem pretty damning for Mulayam Singh Yadav. In effect it finds that there was never a legitimate split in the BSP four years ago. In other words, the BSP legislators who crossed over to Mulayam’s camp were defectors who should have been expelled. So, when the Congress argues that the verdict makes a statement on the constitutional morality of the state government, it isn’t wrong.

The problem begins when the party uses this order to leapfrog protocol and proposes President’s Rule. It raises all sorts of legal and ethical questions. Can a government ever be declared ‘illegal’ retrospectively? Should a government’s majority not be tested inside the assembly? And most importantly, how can the Congress justify its own support to the state government for more than three years?

Here’s the most bewildering part: surely, Congress strategists always knew that a President whose credibility was blotted by his consent to the midnight cabinet order on Bihar would not be so pliable this time around? Why then has the party allowed the bluster and rhetoric to travel so far that it now has to scramble for a face-saver to hide behind? After similar misadventures in Goa and Jharkhand unraveled, loyal whispers in the power circuit had insisted that the Congress president and the Prime Minister were never in favour of those governments being dismissed. This time spin-doctors may find it hard to sell that disassociation or distance. Both Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh have personally intervened to negotiate with reluctant allies. Even now, after the Election Commission has announced poll dates — providing the party with the perfect excuse to back off and lie low — a section of the party is still persisting with the possibility of President’s Rule.

What’s inexplicable is why the party is wasting so much of its time and energy on plotting a move that is neither clever nor correct.

True, in a state where the top slots in the bureaucracy and police have been filled with political yes-men, the Congress has reason to worry about whether an entirely fair election is possible. But here’s the irony: with a neutral and independent administration at the helm, the Congress may gain a few extra seats. However, the bulk of the harvest would only be reaped by its political opponents — the BSP and the BJP.

Politicians need to understand that Indian voters are only getting smarter. We aren’t fooled by any party’s claim to the higher moral ground. We are aware that the quality of governance under the Samajwadi Party has been pretty dismal. We question why the Congress has chosen to make a ‘moral’ argument right on the eve of elections. We are cynical about the blind support of the communists to Mulayam. We are confounded by how the DMK that once stood for the scrapping of Article 356 can now go along with the UPA on President’s Rule. And we are stunned that the BJP, whose leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee once took a vow of silence to protest President’s Rule in Uttar Pradesh, now seems to have no problem in being on the other side of the debate.

But we still believe in our democracy and the larger questions of constitutional propriety. It’s not for politicians to prop up referees and umpires to ensure that the game is played by the right rules. The job of being arbiter belongs to the Election Commission. An emboldened EC has delivered a number of remarkably independent elections in the last few years — Jammu and Kashmir, West Bengal and Bihar. Most recently, in Punjab, it promptly pushed out the state’s top police officer after allegations of his closeness to the Chief Minister.

It has already declared that the elections for Uttar Pradesh will be held in seven phases, so they can be monitored more closely. The state government has been warned that if backdated transfers of bureaucrats are implemented, it will be treated as a violation of the poll code.

This is war by honourable means. President’s Rule, on the other hand, would only be winning by cheating.

Barkha Dutt is managing editor, NDTV 24x7
Email Barkha Dutt:
Barkha@ndtv.com

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