THE stage had been all set for a smooth transition of power. With all his rivals having backed out from the contest, the unanimous election of Virendra Kumar Sakhlecha, the blue-eyed boy of RSS, as the new chief minister of Madhya Pradesh had become a certainty.
On the eve of the election, a joint statement by all his prominent detractors and cabinet ministers of the erstwhile Jana Sangh faction had cleared the decks for the 48-year-old lawyer-turned-politician.
Among the signatories for the unanimous election of Sakhlecha were his political rivals, Sunderlal Patwa and Sheetala Sahay, who till almost the last moment were themselves seriously toying with the idea of entering the leadership contest with socialist support.
Even the attempts by a section of the socialists, Sakhlecha’s main detractors in the party, to set up a token candidate representing an organisation of Harijan and adivasi legislators against him, petered out; a Harijan backbencher who had earlier announced his candidature retired from the contest at the eleventh hour.
And, of course, no one —not even the five non-Jana Sangh ministers who had passed a resolution asking Joshi to continue — talked about outgoing chief minister Kailash Joshi’s belated offer to continue “if desired by the majority of party members”.
When newsmen called on Sakhlecha in the morning of Janauary 17, the day elections were scheduled to be held, he seemed perfectly relaxed. His telephone buzzed intermittently as friends and well-wishers called up to congratulate. Ministers, MLAs and public men streamed into house.
The morning papers had said that his election as the leader of the Janata legislature party that evening would be a mere formality.
However, a 25-year-old Harijan MLA, Kailash Sonkar, sprang a surprise by announcing his candidature at the last moment, in the meeting itself. He was supported by a section of the erstwhile BLD, led by Mama Baleshwar Dayal, MP, which was determined not to let Sakhlecha go uncontested.
However, it was at best a symbolic contest; Sakhlecha secured 195 votes as against Sonkar’s 25.
Obviously, Sonkar, did not have the backing of either the former socialists, who number nearly 75, or of the tribal and Harijan legislators, who form almost one-third of the 230-member-Janata legislature party.
“The fight by Sonkar was token and to maintain internal – democracy in the party,” said Chandramani Tripathi, a former socialist who had seconded Sonkar’s name in the contest.
On Janauary 18, Sakhlecha was sworn in as the — twelfth chief minister’ of Madhya Pradesh since the formation of the state 22 years ago. His predecessor, Kailash Joshi, whose illness had almost crippled the administration for the last three months, heaved a sigh of relief.
He told newsmen that he still had his now-famous bouts of depression which had led to the political crisis, with the dramatic announcement of his resignation on Janauary 5. He however continues to be a ‘minister without portfolio’ in the Sakhlecha cabinet.
Sakhlecha had narrowly missed becoming chief minister soon after the assembly election in June last when he was persuaded by the high command to withdraw in favour of Kailash Joshi, a lightweight acceptable to all sections of the party.
That should have been a sure disappointment, for Sakhlecha, who had resigned from Rajya Sabha to enter the state assembly, had his, eyes set on the chief ministership.
But Sakhlecha had the political patience to wait till the chief ministership that was his rightful claim as the most powerful man in the state Janata party came to him by an unexpected and unanticipated turn of events.
At the Janata legislature party meet, convened to elect the new leader, Joshi himself ‘proposed Sakhlecha’s name as his successor. It was seconded by Sunderlal Patwa and Shitala Sahay, both of the Jana Sangh faction and both considered his main adversaries in the leadership contest, and Jabbar Singh and Shivprasad Chanpuria, respectively of the Socialist and BLD groups which had thwarted his chance of becoming the chief minister in June last.
Sakhlecha, who held a thick bunch of portfolios in the Joshi ministry, has had many years of experience both in the state assembly and the Rajya Sabha. His 15 years as an active opposition leader in the state assembly and the spell of administrative experience as deputy chief minister during the SVD regime ten years ago earned him a dominant position in the Joshi cabinet. In fact, he was looked upon by many as a de facto chief minister.
Just as Joshi’s weakness was his strength —he commanded the support of all sections of party only because of his vulnerability — Sakhlecha’s strength might turn out to be his weakness. Known as a competent administrator, he is looked upon with fear, respect and hatred by different political groups in the state.
Socialists allege that Sakhlecha cares little for democratic niceties, and he is widely suspected to be the author of the ‘mini-MISA’ ordinance. As a matter of fact, it was the fear of Sakhlecha’s inevitable dominance that had made the socialists and others in the state persuade Joshi not to step down in November last. But they were numerically too weak to have a candidate of their own.
ECONOMIC & POLITICAL WEEKLY 28 January – 4 February 1978