The party’s attempt to wrest power in various states by wooing rebel MLAs is part of its conquering game and bolstering numbers in the Rajya Sabha so that it can get crucial legislation passed there
By Ajith Pillai
The eventual fate of the Congress government in Uttarakhand led by Chief Minister Harish Rawat will be a matter of routine record. But the twisted political plot that unfolded in the last fortnight of March in the hill state will go down in history as yet another dark chapter in democracy—a glaring example of the misuse of Article 356 by the center to dislodge an elected government and impose president’s rule on the eve of a floor test in the state assembly.
It was a decision that left the central government red-faced. The Congress challenged the imposition of president’s rule in the Uttarakhand High Court which held that the floor test must be held with one of its observers (the court registrar) present. The single judge’s order did not however revoke the imposition of central rule in the state although it controversially revived the state assembly for a day to facilitate the floor test on March 31.
But that decision was stayed till April 7 by a division bench of the same court after the central government went in appeal against the earlier order. At the time of going to press, the Uttarakhand tangle remains unresolved with the next court hearing scheduled for April 6.
In the wake of the single judge’s order, many constitutional experts were of the view that the Uttarakhand High Court while sticking to the apex court judgement in the 1994 Bommai case on the use of Article 356 also deviated from it.
The Supreme Court had then ruled that the floor test was obligatory to determine if a government enjoyed the support of the house. But it also made it clear that a court cannot question the advice given by the cabinet to the president to invoke Article 356. It can only question the reasons cited which led to the dismissal of a government.
Said former attorney general Soli Sorabjee: “In the light of the Bommai judgement, it is incomprehensible that the HC can grant a stay of the President’s proclamation for keeping the assembly in suspended animation. It is also incongruous that the High Court could order a floor test by reviving the assembly.” Incidentally, the Uttarakhand High Court order strayed from accepted norms by allowing the nine Congress rebel MLAs disqualified by the speaker to cast their votes at the time of the floor test.
But l’affaire Uttarakhand does raise a few pertinent questions that go beyond the legalities and the nitty-gritty of state politics.
What was it that propelled the BJP-led NDA government at the center to resort to imposing president’s rule in states—first in Arunachal Pradesh and now in Uttarakhand? Was it part of its strategy of rendering “Bharat Congress Mukt (free)” or is that too simplistic an analysis based on Narendra Modi’s rhetoric ahead of the 2014 elections?
More pertinently, as several constitutional lawyers fear, does the Uttarakhand crisis point to the shape of things to come when a majority government at the centre veers towards imposing unitary NDA/BJP governments in the states?
As Supreme Court lawyer Sanjay Hegde put it to the media: “The Indian Constitution is supposed to be quasi-federal.
Now it becomes a unitary Constitution or unitary way of performing actions. Since there is a strong majority government at the Centre, we may well see more such cases, but that would be bad for federalism.”
If BJP insiders are to be believed such a grand design was always there on the drawing board since Narendra Modi came to power at the center. But they point out that the immediate context is also meshed into elections due in five states in April this year and others to follow in the first half of 2017. Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Puducherry, Kerala and Assam will elect their new governments this year and in 2017 Uttarakhand, Punjab, Goa and Manipur will go to the polls.
In the first round, the BJP hopes to pull off a victory in Assam. In other states, the party would be rather happy to improve its vote share or bag a few seats. To consolidate its position before the next round of polls the party is keen to mark its presence in as many states as it can. The thinking is that toppling opposition governments and establishing its own will crucially help the BJP bolster its numbers in the Rajya Sabha enabling it to get crucial legislations passed in the upper house where these are being currently blocked by the majority opposition.
Article 356: Invoked 126 times
Toppling governments is nothing new. It all started in 1959 when Article 356 was used to dismiss the world’s first democratically elected communist government, which was in Kerala. EMS Namboodiripad (right) had to quit as CM following protests by the Congress against land reforms and education policies of his government.
It is widely believed that Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was reluctant to declare a constitutional crisis citing law and order breakdown and invoke Article 356, but his daughter, Indira Gandhi, prevailed upon him.
She still holds the record for imposing president’s rule—she used it as many as 50 times during the 16 years she was in power. In all, Article 365 has been invoked 126 times and the Congress has the dubious distinction of having employed it 88 times. Jawaharlal Nehru himself used it only eight times between 1947 and 1964.
When the Janata government under Morarji Desai (right) came to power after the Emergency, it went on a dismissal spree sacking as many as 16 Congress state governments in three years (1977-1979).
The Vajpayee government dismissed five governments during its five-year-tenure between 1999 and 2004. The Narendra Modi government has already invoked president’s rule in Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand and more recently, in Arunachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand.
That this strategy is at work is the worst kept secret in political circles in Delhi. It perhaps explains why even Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal who has an unassailable maj-ority has expressed concern about moves to bring his government down. “An IB officer has told me that one big industrialist has been entrusted with buying AAP MLAs. In Delhi they plan to suspend 21 MLAs and then attempt to buy 23 more,” he told the state assembly.
It is true that Kejriwal’s apprehensions are without any basis and evidence. Perhaps the Delhi chief minister was only adding his voice to the fears of opposition parties that the days of non-NDA state governments are numbered and that the toppling game is actively on and any points of vulnerability will be exploited.
This was articulated by BJP’s ally in Maharashtra, the Shiv Sena. An editorial in Saamna, the party’s mouthpiece, had this observation on Uttarakhand: “We are not concerned about the Congress losing power. But, as the Opposition parties say, should you strangulate democracy? In a democracy, the voice of the opposition is of paramount importance. A one-party rule is worse than Emergency or dictatorship. The country will be ruined if the opposition is eliminated and poison is thrown at allies.”
An Intelligence Bureau source explained the process of displacing governments to India legal: “The modus operandi employed is simple, tried and much tested. Identify rebels within the ruling dispensation and lure them over with sops of varied kinds—ministerial berths, chairmanship of corporations or monetary gain. Then trigger a crisis and ensure that the government falls short of a majority. The operation may take a few months but every political party in power has played this game.”
The BJP tried it out within months after it came to power in 2014. Its target: the BJD government in Orissa However, it came a cropper when the MLAs wooed spurned offers and refused to revolt against chief minister Naveen Patnaik. The BJP soon turned its attention on Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal. Here too it had to beat a hasty retreat because the disgruntled elements who were identified did not want to have anything to do with the saffron party.
So the next port of call was the Congress government in Arunachal Pradesh where disillusioned Congressmen ignored by the party high command were wooed. What followed was the imposition of president’s rule and a prolonged court battle which came up to the Supreme Court before former Cong-ress rebel Kalikho Pul was sworn in as chief minister in February.
But why was Uttarakhand seen as ready for picking? Like in Arunachal Pradesh, the sharp dissensions within the state Congress and disconnect between local leaders and the party high command offered an opportunity to the BJP.
What transpired has been detailed in a surprisingly candid statement that BJP general secretary Kailash Vijayvargia gave to The Indian Express. To quote: “I was told by the party to go to Uttarakhand and analyze the political situation. Some people who wanted the state government to fall approached us and said that they wanted to join the BJP. They gave me documents which showed what the present government is doing there. The forest mafia, land mafia, mining mafia and alcohol mafia, they are all active in the state, and these people approached me with proof of this. So we reached an agreement that during the last session of the Vidhan Sabha, when the money Bill would be taken up, we would demand a floor test, and if they (the Congress rebels) voted in our favour, then the government would collapse.”
So the drama that transpired in the state assembly on March 18 when the money Bill was sought to be passed was prescripted. The BJP had used the Congress rebels to plunge the Harish Rawat government into crisis. But when Governor KK Paul set March 28 for a floor test, the BJP panicked since they feared the rebels might either be wooed back or since they were disqualified by the speaker they might not be able to vote against the government and the Rawat government would survive. So the hasty decision to invoke president’s rule.
The Arunachal Pradesh experience should have alerted the Congress high command on the risks involved in not managing dissent within its state units. Suddenly there is talk that Himachal Pradesh, Manipur and Karnataka may be next on the BJP hit list. So 10 Janpath has finally opened its eyes to clear and present danger and efforts are on to smooth ruffled feathers in these states.
The toppling game is nothing new (see box) but it is not a healthy trend and does not augur well for Indian democracy. It is also an insult to our constitution that a statute me-ant to be used in the direst of circumstances is employed as and when a few rebels are spotted. The political script drafted in Uttarakhand is a prime example of that.