A Fair Election In UP?

We must demonstrate the same commitment to monitoring the UP electoral process as we showed in opposing President’s Rule, writes Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Mar 16, 2007 18:46 IST

Why am I opposed to the imposition of President’s Rule in UP? Well, for the obvious reason. I am wary of the precedent it would set. It’s always easy to apply constitutional arguments to causes you approve of. But the true test of your commitment to a principle is when you apply it to something you don’t like.

And while I am hardly a fan of the Samajwadi Party or the manner in which it has run UP to the ground, I believe that Mulayam Singh Yadav’s future cannot be decided on the basis of my likes or dislikes — or anybody else’s for that matter.

The Constitution is quite clear. If a government enjoys a majority in the House, then you need a very special set of circumstances to justify its dismissal. I’m quite confident that even if Mulayam Singh Yadav does not enjoy a majority in the UP Assembly today (though I think he probably does), he will have purchased one by the time the floor test comes around.

As for the special set of circumstances required to suddenly dismiss a government that has a majority, I don’t think they are present in UP. Of course, things are in a mess but it is hard to argue that they are significantly worse than they were a year ago — when the Congress was actually supporting Mulayam.

What does that leave us with? There’s the old a-floor-vote-will-lead-to-horse-trading argument but then that’s as true of nearly every floor test in every state. And besides, the foundation of this entire government was horse-trading. Mulayam did not win his majority at an election. He went out and acquired one. So it is a little late in the day to get self-righteous about horse-trading.

Now, let’s look at the specifics of the UP case. It is tempting to see that move to impose President’s Rule in terms of the Congress’s traditional intolerance of state governments run by other parties — a tradition that was inaugurated by Indira Gandhi when, as Congress president in the 1950s, she was behind the dismissal of the Communist ministry in Kerala.

It is as tempting also to see this episode in soap opera terms. Does it emerge out of vendetta? From personal hatred? Is it merely a battle between two families being played out on the national stage? And so on.

That is certainly how the Samajwadi Party would like us to see it. And, for us in the media, it makes for a good story: so much drama, so many opportunities to recycle stock footage of the principals and a wonderful excuse for us columnists to get self-righteous and tell the government off.

But, there’s a problem with the story as the media have run it: the vendetta that has so enlivened Amar Singh’s innumerable press conferences appears to have begun some years ago. Why wait till now to try and impose President’s Rule if that was the sole motivation? There have been other opportunities before — most recently after Nithari, when a numbed nation might have been readier to accept the dismissal of Mulayam’s government. Why should the Congress suddenly get so exercised now?

It puzzles me that we persist in seeing this issue in Congress versus SP terms. The truth is that the demand for the imposition of President’s Rule is largely bipartisan. The BJP has been asking the Centre to sack Mulayam for months now. The BSP, UP’s other big party, has been far more vociferous than the Congress in demanding Mulayam’s dismissal.

If you were to take a roll-call, the breakdown would be something like this: every party that has to fight an election in UP (except of course, the SP itself) wants President’s Rule. The opposition comes largely from parties that have no stake in UP — and most of those (the DMK, the NCP etc) have now also come around.

The only important opponent of President’s Rule is the CPM. To some extent, this is understandable. It has taken a principled stand based on the Constitution. Less explicable is the affection that exists between the CPM and SP at the top levels. In Harkishen Singh Surjeet’s day, this was understandable because many things that Surjeet did were, well, inexplicable.

But now?

Why does the CPM continue to back the SP? It can’t be out of concern for the poor of Uttar Pradesh. No government has institutionalised crony capitalism to the extent that the Mulayam regime has. Industrialists enjoy unprecedented access to the top echelons of the party and many are elevated to the Rajya Sabha with the party’s backing.

Frequently, the SP seems less like a legitimate political party than a filmi-industrial coalition.

Nor can it be because UP is well-run. Nobody can deny that law and order have broken down in large parts of the state and that party leaders do not care. Mulayam Singh Yadav has still to even visit Nithari. His brother, who did go, dismissed it as a small-time matter of no great consequence. And we know that the local police took no action for months because the missing people were poor.

So it’s not quite the revolutionary paradise that you would expect the CPM to support. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Take away the Communists with their forbidden passion for crony capitalism and we are left with the basic conundrum: why does every party that has to fight an election in UP want Mulayam’s government dismissed? Surely, the BJP has no vendetta with Amar Singh? Mayawati is not obsessed with the Bachchans?

The short answer is that none of the players believe that a free and fair election is possible in UP while Mulayam is in office.

Most people who’ve fought elections in the state will tell you that they fear rigging at two levels. The first is intimidation. Returning officers are threatened, often at gunpoint, and bogus votes are openly cast. The electoral officers are warned that they have to live in UP long after the Election Commission has averted its gaze and that there will be enough time to punish them…

The second level is official connivance. In few other states has the bureaucracy been as contaminated as in Mulayam’s UP. At the local levels, superintendents of police and district magistrates owe their posts to personal loyalty rather than merit. At the state level, civil servants cheerfully disregard service rules to openly support the SP. Corruption is rarely frowned on. UP’s IAS officers voted one of Mulayam’s chief secretaries as the most corrupt officer in the state.

More recently, Times Now channel played footage of senior civil servants at party functions. The chief secretary sang Mulayam’s praises and serenaded his son. The home secretary applauded these utterances and the DGP cosied up to the SP’s top brass.

Obviously, such officers have no incentive to organise fair elections. Not only are they more loyal to their political masters than to the Constitution but they also have a vested interest in making the SP win: their own careers depend on Mulayam’s return to office.

Could you ever have conceived of a situation in which the BJP would demand that a Congress government at the Centre should take over the reins of power in UP? And yet, that’s precisely what’s happening today. The BJP would prefer to see its biggest national opponent take effective power rather than risk one of Mulayam’s dodgy elections. That’s how little faith all political parties have in the prospects of a free and fair election in Mulayam’s UP.

It intrigues me that those who get on their high horses and lecture us on the constitutional impropriety of President’s Rule say so little about the constitutional scandal that is governance in UP today. Of course, they should oppose President’s Rule. But shouldn’t they be at least as concerned with ensuring that there’s a fair election?

And yet, how many times have you heard the CPM condemn the politicisation of UP’s bureaucracy? Have you heard its leaders demand that the chief secretary be sacked or that the top levels of the state administration be reshuffled so that a fair election — the cornerstone of democracy — is possible?

If they have made such demands, then most of us have missed them.

I wonder why they are so silent. And why is the self-righteous outrage so selective on an issue where most other parties are in agreement?

I think it would be wrong to impose President’s Rule in UP. But it would be as wrong — if not worse — for a Mulayam-style election to be held.

The Election Commission has demonstrated that it can be tough — it moved a Punjab police officer just before the election in that state over allegations of partiality. It must now re-apply the Punjab precedent — multiplied to the power of hundred — and sack a few of UP’s biased bureaucrats. The signal must go out that any official who chooses Mulayam Singh Yadav over the Constitution of India will be dismissed. And we, in the media, must demonstrate the same commitment to monitoring the electoral process to ensure fairness that we have shown in opposing President’s Rule.

It won’t be as sexy a story. But, in the long run, it will be much more important.

First Published: Feb 25, 2007 02:31 IST