Status quo in Aruchal
An experiment in toppling state governments which began in Aruchal Pradesh has come unstuck, with the Supreme Court now putting the clock back in reinstating the bam Tuki-led Congress government in the state. The hard hitting verdict by the apex court’s constitutiol bench shows the lines Governors must never cross. This in turn should force a sober re-think in the Executive, read the government at the Centre, whether it will be at all feasible to use Governors as agents to help push the agenda of the ruling party. The Congress has done it umpteen times, engineering splits and defections, then using Governors as battering rams to unseat opposition state governments by imposing President’s Rule under Article 356. In its crusade for a ‘Congress-mukt Bharat’, the BJP is widely perceived to have taken the toppling game up to another level — by cultivating a dissident faction, following up with the Governor to bring about President’s Rule, wait for a change in the balance of power in the state assembly, and then give outside support to a new dispensation. After the Supreme Court’s ruling allowed the dismissed Harish Rawat-led Congress government in Uttarakhand to prove its majority through floor test last May, all eyes were back on Aruchal Pradesh. After all, it was Aruchal that had hit headlines with a bizarre set of political developments in December last. The Supreme Court has now quashed Governor Jyoti Prasad Rajkhowa’s December 9 decision to advance the state assembly session by a month; it has also set aside all steps and decisions taken thereafter by the House as ‘unsustaible’.
The apex court has used some strong language to criticize the Aruchal Governor’s role, holding his decision to advance the assembly session by nearly a month and fixing the House agenda — as ‘illegal and unconstitutiol’, violative of Article 163 read with Article 174 of the Constitution. It also ruled that the Governor cannot direct the Speaker as to how assembly proceedings should be conducted. It must be remembered that Governor Rajkhowa in his controversial order had fixed the agenda for the House, the first item of which was to take up ‘on priority’ a notice for removal of the Speaker served by the opposition. The ruling party had then hit back, with Speaker bam Rebia disqualifying 14 dissident Congress MLAs with effect from December 15, a day ahead of the preponed session. The assembly building was then shut down on the Speaker’s orders, after which opposition and dissident Congress legislators ‘impeached’ the Speaker and passed a ‘no-confidence motion’ against Chief Minister Tuki in a makeshift session held at a community centre and a hotel. Meanwhile, Tuki supporters and opposition activists clashed in the streets. As a five-judge SC constitutiol bench began hearing a Congress appeal challenging the constitutiolity of the Governor’s actions, the Union cabinet imposed President’s Rule in Aruchal on January 25 this year. This was revoked on February 19, and on that day itself dissident Congress leader Kalikho Pul was sworn in as the new Chief Minister after a floor test.
Now the SC bench has made it clear that the Aruchal Governor did not have power to bring forward an assembly session in the first place — without the aid and advice of the Chief Minister and his council of ministers. Its ruling says: ‘If the Governor had any doubt about the majority of the Tuki government, the best course of action is to have ordered a floor test, which he did not do’. As for the Governor’s justification for his actions that a ‘biased’ Speaker would otherwise act in support of Chief Minister Tuki ‘even though he had lost his majority’, the apex court had this to say: ‘The Governor must keep clear of any political horse-trading, and even unsavoury political manipulations, irrespective of the degree of their ethical repulsiveness. Who should or should not be a leader of a political party, is a political question, to be dealt with and resolved privately by the political party itself. The Governor cannot make such issues a matter of his concern’. In particular, the Supreme Court has taken issue with the Aruchal Governor engaging with a ‘breakaway group’ that was not legitimate in terms of numbers, i.e. ‘two-third’ of the concerned political party — as specified by the Tenth Schedule, popularly referred to as the anti-defection law. When the political crisis blew up in Aruchal, the Congress had 47 legislators in the 60-member House, with 21 of its members in the breakaway group. The situation remains the same, with Kalikho Pul now expressing confidence that he has the numbers with him to win any floor test. If the 21 dissident Congress MLAs and 11 BJP MLAs stay together, the Congress will have an uphill battle to keep its government afloat in Aruchal. The fate of the 14 Congress dissidents disqualified by Speaker Rebia on December 14 last will be vital in any floor test, with the Gauhati High Court staying their disqualification in January this year. This has now been noted in the SC ruling as well, with the bench observing that the Gauhati HC stay order proves that ‘there are appropriate remedies in place’ for disqualified legislators, which makes it unnecessary for a Governor to take up cudgels for them.