These were tactics once used by the Congress. Now, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party at the Centre has got into the game of toppling state governments led by Opposition parties by encouraging defections and using the offices of friendly governors.
The BJP first tasted success with these measures in Arunachal Pradesh, where they managed to dislodge a Congress-led government after a prolonged legal battle. Efforts are also on to capture power in Manipur, where a shaky Congress chief minister is finding it difficult to keep his rebellious flock together.
But the focus is now on Uttarakhand, where the BJP is engaged in hectic efforts to form a government with the help of disgruntled Congress legislators. The BJP’s 35 MLAs including nine Congress legislators met President Pranab Mukherjee in New Delhi on Monday evening to press their case for the dismissal of the Harish Rawat government in the state on the grounds of it being reduced to a minority.
Back in Dehradun, Rawat is trying hard to save his government. Having been asked by governor KK Paul to prove his majority on the floor of the Assembly on March 28, the beleaguered chief minister has hit back at the rebel legislators by seeking their disqualification under the anti-defection law.
Notices have been sent to the rebel MLAs including former chief minister Vijay Bahuguna and senior leader Harak Singh Rawat. Bahuguna’s son Saket and party joint secretary Anil Gupta were expelled on Monday for organising the rebellion in the Congress.
Rawat is currently in touch with disgruntled legislators in the BJP. If he does succeed in winning the trust vote, he could dissolve the Assembly and opt for an early election. The next assembly elections in the state are due a year from now.
While the chief minister is making frantic efforts to make sure that the BJP does not poach more Congress legislators, a high-level delegation, led by former Union minister AK Antony, also called on the President on Monday night to apprise him of the situation in Uttarakhand.
It is anybody’s guess how this battle will eventually end. There is a possibility that President’s Rule will eventually be imposed. The end of his reign may well prove to be a boon for Rawat, who will have a tough time running the government should he manage to stave off the current crisis.
Reports from Uttarakhand indicate that if the BJP does succeed in forming the next government with the help of rebel Congress legislators, it could end up generating sympathy for Rawat as there is a growing sense among the people that he has been betrayed by his own colleagues.
Rawat continues to be seen as the state’s tallest leader as despite his failings and autocratic style of functioning, no serious contender has emerged to rival him. He was previously eclipsed by the grand old Congress leader ND Tiwari, but that is no longer the case.
Conversely, while the BJP may derive immediate satisfaction by overthrowing another Congress government, the move could eventually backfire. This is because of the BJP decision to enlist Congress leaders Harak Singh Rawat and Vijay Bahuguna, both of whom lack credibility and a clean image.
Bahuguna was removed as chief minister after he came in for severe criticism for his failure to handle the 2013 flash floods which resulted in large-scale destruction of property and loss of lives in the state. He was replaced by Rawat. While Bahuguna has still not come to terms with losing the chief minister’s post, Rawat made matters worse by further alienating him and his supporters. Like Bahuguna, Harak Singh Rawat is not a particularly popular figure. Not only has he done the rounds of all political parties, he was involved in a sex scandal when ND Tiwari was chief minister, while corruption charges have also been levelled against him.
While the two main Congress rebels are discredited figures, the BJP is further handicapped as it does not have any charismatic leaders despite having three former chief ministers in its ranks. Its most high-profile leader BC Khanduri, who lost his seat in the 2012 assembly elections even though he was the chief minister at the time, is at 81 years old too old to take on the responsibility again.
Another chief ministerial contender is Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank, who was removed from the post following complaints of his alleged involvement in dubious land deals.
Then there is Lok Sabha member Bhagat Singh Koshiyari, who did a brief stint as chief minister in 2001. Having spent his formative years in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, he is a Sangh favourite. But BJP insiders admit that he does not have the bandwidth to lead the state.
These problems notwithstanding, the BJP has the advantage of being in power at the Centre. It is better placed to sway disgruntled members from rival parties and can always avail the help of the governors it has appointed after coming to power in 2014.
As for the Congress, it has failed to put its house in order and has not been alert enough to the BJP’s political games. The party leadership failed to deal with rebellion in its state units. Congress dissidents from Arunachal Pradesh spent several weeks in Delhi last year, but their grievances went unheard by party president Sonia Gandhi and vice-president Rahul Gandhi. It is the same story in Uttarakhand. Party legislators lodged several complaints about Rawat’s high-handedness but the leadership did nothing to rein him in.