For the Indian political establishment, there are primarily two takeaways from the Uttarakhand episode, both offering much food for sober thought and circumspect action. Firstly, no liberties ought to be taken with Article 356 to dismiss a state government on flimsy grounds; secondly, the Speaker has to act with constitutiol propriety or else his role will come under greater scrutiny. If these two lessons are not properly learnt, the higher courts will not hesitate to drive the lessons home to obdurate governments. The NDA government’s misadventure in Uttarakhand was entirely avoidable had it been more careful after escaping by the skin of its teeth in Aruchal. In February this year, the Congress had argued in the Supreme Court that the manner in which President’s Rule was suddenly lifted in Aruchal and a rebel Congress faction-led government was sworn in — was ‘an experiment’ that will be used to topple governments in other states. ‘If so, then this is a deadly experiment,’ the SC constitutiol bench had then remarked, even as it refused to interfere in the formation of the new Aruchal government for being a ‘legislative matter’. But the tactic of cultivating rebels in the ruling party to engineer a split, imposing President’s Rule, and then lifting it just in time to manipulate the trust vote — was repeated by the NDA government once too often in Uttarakhand with predictably disastrous results.
Had the Supreme Court’s 1994 ruling in SR Bommai vs Union of India been properly digested, the fatal itch to apply President’s Rule in ham-handed fashion would have become an affliction of the past. The apex court had then made it clear that it would keep a strict watch and prevent any adventurism of the sort Congress governments at the Centre displayed during the Seventies and Eighties in knocking down Opposition-led state governments. Unless there is exceptiol circumstance like ‘all-pervasive violence’, Article 356 cannot be used as a battering ram on the plea of constitutiol machinery breakdown in states. It was ruled that the President is not beyond the Constitution, that his exercise of such powers will have to be approved by both Houses of Parliament. Most importantly, the apex court had laid down the rule that floor test is the only way to establish majority. The Uttarakhand precedent is now expected to deter any attempt by political parties to manipulate floor tests in future. It is also likely to make implementation of the anti-defection law more effective, while acting as a dampener on dissident activities.
The Harish Rawat-led Congress in Uttarakhand maged to secure 33 votes in the floor test on Tuesday with the assembly strength reduced to 61 after the disqualification of 9 rebel Congress MLAs. It is instructive to know why the Uttarakhand High Court and later the Supreme Court refused to stay their disqualification by the Speaker. The rebel legislators and the BJP had argued that Speaker Govind Singh Kunjwal acted in blatantly partisan manner — firstly, by declaring the state budget ‘passed by voice vote’ (instead of division) on March 18 when he saw the numbers stacked against the Rawat government threatening its ouster, and secondly, by disqualifying the nine rebel Congress MLAs on the day before the first trust vote called by the Governor on March 28 (which was then pre-empted by President’s Rule). The Uttarakhand High Court said that a quasi-judicial authority like the Speaker should follow the ‘golden rule’ of neither deciding in haste nor sitting long upon such a matter. In this case though, the High Court felt that the Speaker did not act in ‘undue haste’. The bench also ruled that the nine rebel legislators by their conduct established that they have ‘voluntarily given up membership of their political party even if they have not become members of any other political party’. Later, the Supreme Court agreed with the Congress position that the Speaker’s order on disqualification is fil and cannot be questioned in a court of law. It is significant that the apex court, while taking up the responsibilities of a Speaker for the first time in directly monitoring the trust vote in the Uttarakhand assembly, also gave recognition to his authority. Meanwhile, Union parliamentary affairs minister Venkaiah idu on Wednesday called for ‘revisiting’ the Speaker’s role in floor tests and implementing the anti-defection law. It is high time that political parties ruling at the Centre now cease to go by ‘private opinion’, that they respect BR Ambedkar’s hope that Article 356 would remain ‘a dead letter and never be called into operation’. Such constitutiol propriety, in turn, would place the onus on Speakers not to act in partisan manner.