It was a botched operation to beat all botched operations. The meeting of the Congress Working Committee started at 7.30 pm on February 24 amid a frantic buildup that the Mulayam Singh Yadav government in Uttar Pradesh was going to be dismissed and President's Rule imposed.
All the elements to do so were in place: the governor had sent a report to the centre apprehending the Yadav government would try to rig the vote of confidence due in the Lucknow assembly on February 26; the Supreme Court had passed an order ruling the defection of 13 MLAs in 2003 as illegal, and that, therefore, the present government was illegal too; and top legal guns like Minister for Science and Technology Kapil Sibal had held press conferences and given obliging TV bytes explaining the Supreme Court ruling to reporters who apparently knew no better. All that was needed was orders from The Party and Yadav was history.
That the CWC met and launched straight into a discussion on inflation told its own story.
After the meeting had finished hammering Finance Minister P Chidambaram relentlessly on rising prices, Pranab Mukherjee raised the question for which the CWC had actually been convened: What was to be done with Uttar Pradesh?
The discussion was high octane but lasted only 20 minutes. Mukherjee laid out the political problem: the government wanted to dismiss the UP government, make no mistake, and was strengthened by the judgement of the Supreme Court which ruled that the manner in which 13 Bahujan Samaj Party MLAs had crossed the floor three years ago, had been illegal.
And so the Yadav government has been and continued to be in saddle illegally. But the Left parties had reservations about the imposition of President's Rule, Mukherjee explained.
Therefore there would be a significant ally deficit in Parliament when the matter came up there.
"Mrs (Sonia) Gandhi was all for dismissal. Everything about her body language said so," said a former chief minister member of the CWC.
"Accordingly everyone said what she wanted to hear." The only one to strike a note of caution was water resources minister Saifuddin Soz.
"The MLAs have not yet been disqualified. The matter rests with the speaker," Soz said. Some apprehensions were raised regarding the role of President A P J Abdul Kalam. Finally, it was decided that this was a matter for the government to take action on.
The government appeared unmoved by the legal punditry. Instead of dismissing Yadav, it called for elections two days later. Washed away were all the Congress plans of having tough advisors to the governor, who, once President's Rule was imposed, would straighten things out in the state.
As MLAs belonging to Ajit Singh's Rashtriya Lok Dal, who had pinned their hopes on President's Rule, raged about the Congress's lack of guts, Mulayam Singh Yadav's ministers purposefully moved into election mode.
"Donít let the Congress set foot outside. They tried to dismiss us. We should paralyse them," said MLAs in speeches. Yadav himself was trenchant.
"Thereís a foreign hand behind this government," he thundered at election meetings, whether in Kanpur or Mahoba. It was game set and match to Yadav.
Image: Mulayam Singh Yadav's government got a reprieve when the Union government decided not to impose President's Rule but he still faces charges of corruption.
Reportage: Aditi Phadnis/Business Standard | Photographs: AFP/Getty Images
Seven-phase poll in UP in April, May