Man Who Can’t Stay Aloof

Jatin Gandhi has covered politics and policy for over a decade now for print, TV and the web. He is Deputy Political Editor at Open.
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Bhardwaj: Karnataka Governor, Congress headache

“Don’t write me off just yet,” Hans Raj Bhardwaj is said to have told a group of journalists privately, on being left out of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s Cabinet in May 2009. When he left for Bangalore a month later, to take charge as Governor of the southern state, Bhardwaj said he was going to enjoy his political exile at the Karnataka Raj Bhavan. But, after having served as the Union Law Minister in the United Progressive Alliance’s first government from 2004 to 2009, the politically active, three-time minister wasn’t expected to lie low for too long anyway. Not when he was going to be the first citizen of a state ruled by an unstable government of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). And, especially a government that, being the BJP’s first in the south, gave it some sway over a region that had been lukewarm to it all these years.

A senior leader at the Congress headquarters in New Delhi, 24 Akbar Road, admits that Bhardwaj has not been entirely apolitical in Bangalore. He is known to frequently summon Congressmen in Karnataka to the Raj Bhavan and advise them on matters political.

What was behind the scenes became quite apparent last Monday, when he recommended President’s rule within a few hours of a questionable trust vote in the Karnataka Vidhan Soudha. It was a move that made it clear he was just as much in the thick of action as those who manage the party’s affairs from New Delhi. Little wonder, the defence he offered on TV, something governors rarely do, was clipped: “As the head of the state, I couldn’t just sit and watch.”

In a single stroke, he had exposed an inner tussle between the BJP and Raj Bhavan to full public glare. Momentarily, it embarrassed the BJP, even forcing it to seek a second trust vote. But, as the dust settled and things became clearer, the Congress wasn’t pleased either. Of course, the party initially defended his action as news of his report spread. “The MLAs have met the Governor. It would be a subversion of democracy if the BJP government continues in Karnataka,” announced Manish Tewari, Congress spokesperson and Member of Parliament.

Yet, at a core group meeting of higher-ups, the Grand Old Party concluded that they would’ve been better off watching the BJP self destruct than have themselves dragged into the mess. With Bhardwaj’s move, the BJP could begin blaming the Congress for Karnataka’s crisis.

Already, Ravi Shankar Prasad, BJP general secretary and chief spokesperson, has been alleging that the Congress is trying to take over the state through proxy. “Bhardwaj wants to establish Congress rule in the state through the backdoor,” he said. With its dubious record over the decades in keeping the Governor’s office above political power play, the Congress wants to avoid another controversy on that score. Also, with the upcoming Bihar polls in focus, it’s a bad time; remember, the Supreme Court had reprimanded Bihar Governor Buta Singh for dissolving the state Assembly in May 2005, calling it ‘subversion of the Constitution’.

So angry is the BJP that LK Advani has even led a party delegation to the PM, demanding Bhardwaj’s instant dismissal; the party says it will not settle for anything less. “Bhardwaj reacted so quickly just on the basis of TV flashes, sending his report to the Centre, dismissing the trust vote and recommending President’s rule, that his bias became clear,” says Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, BJP vice-president. “He circumvented due process. It seems his report was ready even before the trust vote,” he alleges, adding that the Raj Bhavan in Bangalore has been a nerve centre of dissidence for the past one year.

All this leaves the Congress squirming. But then, Bhardwaj’s capacity for creating trouble for the party is legion. In 2006, he kicked off a storm as law minister by saying that there was no link between the Bofors pay-offs and money in Ottavio Quattrocchi’s British bank accounts. The case was still on. Bhardwaj likes to lean on his closeness to the Nehru-Gandhis, having stood by Indira Gandhi after the Emergency and helped family candidates file their Lok Sabha nomination papers. At one time, he was also fabled to have bragged in private conversation of being 10 Janpath’s legal advisor. Once word of it spread, his political exile began.