The poll schedule for Uttar Pradesh unveiled by the Election Commission (EC) on Wednesday appears to have wrecked the Centre's plans to dismiss the Mulayam Singh Yadav government. Though technically there is no bar on imposing President's rule under Article 356 in a state where elections have been announced, the chances of this happening in UP have now distinctly receded.
The UP opposition's concerns about the fairness of polls held under a Samajwadi Party (SP) led government have also been addressed to an extent by the seven-phase voting schedule the EC has laid down. This will help the EC to monitor the campaigning and the polling closely. "There is less reason to seek central rule," said a senior Congress leader from UP who had been at the forefront of the oust-Mulayam campaign.
Sources in the Home Ministry said they had sought a five-phase election in UP, but the EC has broken the poll up into seven phases. They said legal experts they consulted had told them that the option of invoking Article 356 was not closed. But the leadership would need to weigh the electoral consequences of doing so, as well as consider the embarrassment that might follow if President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam balked at endorsing the step.
The signals emanating from the Congress camp suggested that the party was reconciled to abandoning the idea of removing Yadav. Instead, in its poll campaign, it would harp upon the moral and constitutional questions relating to the Yadav government's legitimacy, that had arisen after the Supreme Court judgment disqualifying 13 former BSP MLAs, and which had led the Centre to consider President's rule in UP in the first place.
"We were held back by the compulsions of coalition politics," said a top AICC functionary. "The CPM protected Mulayam without realising that the post-poll scenario may witness a repeat of 2003 when the SP leader formed the government through a manipulated majority."
"The UPA is more important than UP," Satyavrat Chaturvedi, Rajya Sabha MP, reportedly said at the Congress Working Committee (CWC) meeting on Monday, cautioning the leadership that Mulayam's dismissal might not go down well with the president. The other factor the party could only ignore at its peril, he said, was the likelihood of being seen to be on the same side as the BJP.
At present the party could at least hope to capture some part of the sizeable anti-SP vote bank in the state. Congress sources felt Yadav had helped swell this vote bank by withdrawing support to the UPA at the Centre just hours before the EC announcement.
Former additional solicitor general Devendra Dwivedi argued that the announcement of elections under Article 324 of the Constitution did not impinge on the Centre's powers to invoke Article 356. But other legal experts like Fali Nariman insisted that central rule would be invalid as the Constitution was not merely about technicalities.
The Left parties, whose pressure reigned in the Congress from imposing President's rule in UP, remained relentless. "It will be politically incorrect to impose President's rule after the announcement of elections," said CPI's D. Raja.
After the SC verdict on February 14, the Congress managed a consensus within the UPA on Mulayam's dismissal. However, the CPM remained steadfast in its opposition.
What finally restrained the Congress was the CPM's reported threat that it might withdraw cooperation —if not support — from the UPA if it sent the UP government packing. With Parliament's budget session round the corner, the Congress could ill-afford to ignore the warning.