Sack of Bihar House: mixed media reaction

IN Opinion | 27/05/2005
Sack of Bihar House: mixed media reaction 



The Indian Express supplied the much-needed legal dimension to this saga of constitutional mockery.



Dasu Krishnamoorty


For fifteen years, Lalu Prasad Yadav, monarch of Bihar and saviour of secularism, dazzled the Indian media, often impairing their editorial vision. But as his electoral fortunes and rustic wit began to desert him, the shine too declined, helping newspapers, with some exceptions, recover some measure of editorial perspective. This was evident as Bihar’s regent, Bute Singh, manoeuvred  the dissolution of the three-month-old legislative assembly in "the interests of democracy." For some newspapers, Lalu mattered and for others Bihar mattered in their editorial assessment of this murder of democracy, as good old Atalji called it. The Indian Express, a relentless critic of the BJP, and the Pioneer, BJP’s best friend, found themselves on the same side in appreciating the ‘democratic’ act of Buta Singh. The Hindu managed to write an editorial without a mention of these two major characters, something like Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark. The Deccan Chronicle and the Tribune swung between kabhi haan and kabhi naa.


The Indian Express dismissed without much ceremony Buta’s horse-trading thesis and demanded he substantiate it. Refusing to endorse the innocence of the UPA government, the Express editorial said, "The unholy haste with which the Assembly has been dissolved therefore suggests only one conclusion: the Centre has gone out of its way and used every constitutional contrivance to protect and further Laloo Prasad Yadav’s brand of politics and governance." The Hindu expressed its dissent, "Under the specific circumstances, dissolution of the State Assembly was the only democratic and constitutionally proper course open to the Centre." Even while blaming the JD (U) and the BJP for cleaving Ram Vilas Paswan’s LJP, the Hindu conceded that "the Congress historically was the worst offender" when it came to horse-trading.


The Hindu, however, chose not to explain what were those "specific instances" that compelled Buta Singh to fly to Delhi, compelled the Union Cabinet to burn the midnight oil and also disturb the President’s sleep in his Moscow suite. Without that explanation, these words sounded as vague and vacuous as ‘ground realities." The Times of India called a spade a spade. Its editorial said, "Ironically, the Assembly was dissolved just when the NDA looked like it could form a government by breaking Paswan’s party. Given that, New Delhi’s moves -- inspired, no doubt, by Lalu Prasad - smack of partisanship."


The Asian Age was not far behind. In a front page article, one of its senior columnists, Sanjay Basak,spelt out the UPA government’s poorly disguised objective in these words: "It became increasingly clear to the UPA think tank that the NDA was moving rapidly closer to government formation in the State, and this prompted Rashtriya Janata Dal supremo and railway minister Lalu Prasad Yadav to mount pressure on his UPA colleagues for immediate action." For unspecified reasons, the Hindu balked at stating the obvious, which the Asian Age did. While the Hindu believed that Bihar voters delivered a split verdict, the Indian Express minced no words in declaring that "the mandate of the elections held earlier this year had clearly gone against him (Lalu) and his family."  In contrast to the "specific circumstances" of the Hindu, the Deccan Chronicle found "prevailing circumstances" a better expression. It wrote, "Assessing against the totality of the prevailing circumstances, particularly the frenetic efforts of the NDA/BJP to form a government at any cost. another round of Assembly elections in Bihar is possibly the best way to extricate the State from the situation of stalemate that has stalled the installation of a viable, stable and durable government."


The Centre cannot be faulted, wrote the Chronicle and talked of NDA resorting to horse-trading. But was it not evident that there was no such need because it was the unrest in LPJ ranks that led them to the open doors of the NDA? Its editorial itself acknowledged this factor without ambiguity saying, "The main impediment to a UPA government led by the RJD/Congress combine was the LJP leader Ram Vilas Paswan all of whose formulae fell by the wayside after he was neatly upstaged by his own party MLAs who were so exasperated with his one-upmanship as to break away from him." The Indian Express demanded proof of horse-trading. The Hindu was less harsh and content itself saying that the JD (U) and the BJP offered inducements to a section of the LJP to cross over to their side. The Times of India did not find it worthwhile to refer to it. Ditto the Tribune. Laloo Prasad said that "there would be a realignment of forces for the next assembly polls," a pompous euphemism for horse-trading.


The Indian Express supplied the much-needed legal dimension to this saga of constitutional mockery. Manoj Mitta, one of its senior editors, hinted at the possibility of the Supreme Court passing an interim order to prevent fresh elections while it examines the validity of the dissolution. The paper referred to the apex court’s Bommai judgment that specifically says "there are no judicially discoverable and manageable standards to decide the allegations of horse-trading. Even otherwise, according to the Express, the charge of horse-trading does not apply where two-thirds of the members of a legislature party merge with some other party. The rebel MLAs of LJP were reportedly close garnering the requisite strength when Buta Singh made the pre-emptive strike.


The grand old Tribune thought, "Monday’s dissolution of the Bihar State Assembly was not entirely unexpected ever since the people of the State threw up a fractured mandate." Fair enough, the Tribune commented on the "hurried manner in which the Centre dissolved the House" (obtained after A.P.J.Abdul Kalam’s approval) and agreed, "For the action, taken under pressure from Lalu Prasad Yadav, is seen as an attempt to foil JD (U) leader Nitish Kumar’s efforts to form a government following an accretion of support to him from a sizable chunk of the Lok Janashakti Party members." The silence of both the Tribune and the Times of India on horse-trading discounts such an attempt has ever been made.


Sadly, no ‘secular’ newspaper chose to comment on Paswan’s insistence on a chief minister from the minority community. Naming a chief minister is the privilege of the legislators and Paswan tenaciously clinging to that demand is a travesty of democracy that needed to be editorially pointed out. In the past, Abdul Gafoor became Bihar’s chief minister as did Barkatullah Khan and A.R.Antulay, in Rajasthan and Maharashtra, all Hindu majority states, without the help of a Ram Vilas Paswan’s theatrics. It was a demand made to embarrass other parties though it was doubtful if there were any takers for Paswan’s bait in the minority community.  The Tribune made a passing reference to it, stressing more on Paswan’s obstructionist tactics than on the communal nature of his demand.


Since elections are a foregone conclusion, the media were left with little space for comment. The Indian Express hoped that "the voters will display the maturity of seeing through the RJD cynical tactics and punish the party by conclusively voting it out and even more decisively this time around." Despite these riders, the Hindu convinced itself that "the dissolution gives an even chance to the warring political camps to get their act together and win a fresh mandate from the people." The Deccan Chronicle stressed on the need for a decisive verdict. "If there is one lesson to be drawn from the events in Bihar, it is this: Indian democracy has to mature beyond the shenanigans of Paswans and Lalus," said the Times of India and added, "the forthcoming elections will test whether parties and politicians have got this message."


The dramatis personae in this political pantomime are clearly Lalu Prasad Yadav, in and out of jail, and Buta Singh, in and out of parties, now Congress, now BJP, and now Congress again. "As the Bihar governor, it needs to be unequivocally emphasized that he has set a dangerous precedent which cannot do Indian democracy any good," said the Indian Express. The Tribune too has no faith in Buta Singh’s constitutional probity, reflected in the following passage: "Ensuring free and fair elections will be a daunting task for the (election) commission. At the same time, the Governor’s role will come under critical scrutiny. Sadly, his style of functioning in the last few weeks seems clearly partisan and does not inspire much confidence. In the end, the heading of the Chronicle said it all, eloquently, "Lalu wins, Bihar loses."


PS: I have deliberately used both Lalu and Laloo to refer to the same person because different newspapers use different spellings while the Hindu uses both.


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