Night before Centre’s August 5 move, BJP reached out to Congress chief whip in RS; he quit next morning

Lost in the din of the government’s move on August 5, 2019, stripping J&K of its special status under Article 370, splitting and downgrading it to two Union Territories, were the resignations of three members of Rajya Sabha.

It was not known then that the resignations of Bhubaneswar Kalita of Congress and SP’s Surendra Singh Nagar and Sanjay Seth were part of carefully orchestrated moves by the BJP to ensure smooth passage of its legislative plan for the day.

It now emerges that these three members of Rajya Sabha were approached by the ruling party and establishment in the final hours leading to the August 5 announcement.

A top government functionary, in an unmarked vehicle driven by an Assam politician, visited Kalita’s New Delhi house the night before the announcement on J&K to persuade him to dump the Congress and cross over to the BJP.

Such was the secrecy and urgency, sources said, that even Kalita seemed surprised. As Plan B, ruling establishment members had also involved Kalita’s relatives and others close to him. They had been brought to New Delhi from Assam to convince him — this option was never exercised because Kalita agreed.

Kalita and the SP members were key to BJP’s Rajya Sabha arithmetic. A Constitutional amendment Bill requires a special majority for passage in each of the two Houses of Parliament – a majority of the total membership of the House and by a majority of not less than two-thirds of the members of that House present and voting.

As Chief Whip of the Congress, Kalita would have been required to issue a whip to Congress members for voting on the matter announced by Union Home Minister Amit Shah. Moreover, Kalita and his party leader Ghulam Nabi Azad had given notice under Rule 267 to the Rajya Sabha Chairman for a discussion on the situation in Jammu & Kashmir.

To ensure numbers, the ruling establishment had reached out to some in the Opposition. But Congress members, sources said, made it clear that they could do little if Kalita were to issue a whip — violation of the whip would have cost them their membership.

Soon after the House assembled for the day on August 5, the Chairman announced Kalita’s resignation. It had been received from Kalita in the morning, and was scrutinised after enquiring from him and verifying his handwriting. The Congress was stunned.

Asked why he chose August 5, 2019, to resign, Kalita told The Indian Express: “Because that issue… I also supported it for a long time. That we should be one nation, with one flag and one Constitution. Nobody could do it and when this government brought that Bill for abrogation of Article 370, I thought I should support the Bill. I discussed with some of my colleagues in the party (Congress) and I told them that it was an important issue and the Congress should discuss it in the Parliamentary party or in the Working Committee and make a decision to support the Bill. But nothing of that sort happened… Neither the CWC nor the Parliamentary party discussed the issue till the Bill was passed.”

“Finally, I thought if I support the Bill on the floor of the House… Being a member and Chief Whip of the party will go against my principles. So I resigned from Rajya Sabha… And from outside, I supported the Bill,” he said.

Asked whether he knew the Bill was coming, Kalita said: “It was listed and we had discussed amongst ourselves. I discussed it with my colleagues.”

He denied that any BJP leader had met him the previous night and asked him to resign. “Nobody from BJP came to my house. I made my own decision. Of course, after my decision… Then some people (BJP leaders) came… But that was after I resigned.”

The ruling party carried the day with a simple majority in favour of the move, meeting the criteria for a Constitutional amendment. There was no need to exercise leverage from the resignation of Kalita.

The BJP rewarded Kalita with a Rajya Sabha membership months later when he was made the party candidate in March 2020.

SP sources said its two Rajya Sabha MPs, whose resignations were announced the same day as Kalita, informed party chief Akhilesh Yadav and party leader in Rajya Sabha, Ram Gopal Yadav, about “pressure” from a Union minister to leave the SP, days before the August 5 move.

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