Return of Rabri
In the 50 years since Independence, elected state governments have been sent packing at will by those sitting imperiously in judgment in New Delhi. It was almost as if the right to dismiss was a perk that came with holding office at the Centre. Mrs Rabri Devi has made constitutional history by being the first chief minister to be reinstated after dismissal. Given this, the coming days will almost certainly be dominated by Mr and Mrs Laloo Prasad Yadav, a couple with highly developed political instincts. But even as they dazzle onlookers with their inimitable brand of special effects, other participants in this overstretched drama, in particular the BJP and its allies, will surely ponder the constitutional significance of the development. Indeed, henceforth, not just the BJP, no political party will rush to despatch an elected ministry. Even the numerous failings of the Rabri Devi government did not warrant the kind of open prejudice shown towards it by the BJP-Samata Party combine. The Samata Party advanced the untenable claim that dismissal of Mrs Rabri Devi was a promise it had made in its election manifesto. By this logic, the ruling party in a state should be able to deliver to its voters the scalp of the Central government. An elected government cannot be removed simply because its presence is inconvenient to its opponent. The obvious way out was for the Samata Party to defeat the Rashtriya Janata Dal in an election, which evidently it was not prepared for.
The irrational position assumed by the BJP-Samata combine has cost the government enormously, both politically and in terms of prestige. The two parties were well advised to give up on their collective obsession once the President had returned their advice on grounds of constitutional infirmities. A major reason cited then was the government's lack of majority in the Upper House. For the Samata Party, however, it was imperative that it saved its own restless ranks from splitting on the issue and the Jehanabad massacres turned out to be just what it needed to resume its aborted mission. That there was no material alteration in the government's strength in the Rajya Sabha was ignored. Instead, in their enthusiasm, Samata stalwarts George Fernandes and Nitish Kumar misread signals from the Congress camp to mean a go-ahead on Bihar. The conditions precedent for Central governance may not have been explicitly laid down in the Constitution, but the Bommai judgment has so reduced the grounds for dismissal as almost to render Article 356 a `dead letter'. In fact, the judgment had restored the original status of the Article as delineated by Ambedkar and others. Experts are divided on whether developments in Bihar constitute a `constitutional breakdown' -- the only ground now available for dismissal. They are unlikely to differ on another aspect, though: The fact that the Vajpayee government mishandled and miscalculated on Bihar. Fortunately, the BJP's more sensible allies saw to it that the charade was not carried into the Upper House. To the extent the BJP has cut its losses, it should be happy, for lately the government has notched up achievements that it must strive to consolidate.