May 15, 2016

Uttarakhand: Verdict for Democracy

THE Modi government's sordid attempt to topple the Harish Rawat government in Uttarakhand and install a BJP government with the help of defectors has been thwarted by a vigilant judiciary. Harish Rawat has won the floor test in the Uttarakhand assembly in an unprecedented Court monitored vote by the legislators. The Supreme Court had suspended President's rule for two hours on May 10 to facilitate this process.

Earlier, the Uttarakhand high court in a landmark judgment delivered by the chief justice had castigated the imposition of President's rule one day before the trust vote directed by the governor was to be taken up. The judgment said: “The imposition of President's rule should be seen on a larger canvas because India is a union of states, and in a federal structure, the authority at the centre and state are sovereign in respective spheres....One thing should be clear that it (President's rule) should be used as a last resort and with the greatest care."

The high court had ordered a trust vote to be taken in the assembly on April 29. The central government had gone in appeal to the Supreme Court and asked for a stay on the high court order for a trust vote. The two member bench which heard the appeal gave a stay on the holding of the trust vote on April 29, on the grounds that the written judgment of the high court had not been given, on the basis of  which the parties concerned could frame an appeal.

Subsequently, the Court heard the matter and made observations highly critical of the central government's conduct in the matter and the manner in which President's rule was imposed. It asked the central government if it was agreeable to a floor test to resolve the issue. Cornered, the centre had to convey its acceptance. Thereafter, the Court ordered the floor test to be held on May 10 and suspended President's rule for a two hour duration for this purpose. The Court also appointed an officer to oversee the proceedings.

Any maneouvre to utilise the nine Congress MLAs who had defected to topple the government was nullified by the Uttarakhand high court upholding the disqualification of the legislators by the speaker. The Supreme Court refused to stay this verdict of the high court.

The timely judicial intervention has upheld the Bommai judgment of 1994 of the Supreme Court which had decreed that the floor test in the assembly is the only way to ascertain whether a state government commanded the confidence of the house. It cannot be ascertained by the governor or by the centre by any other means. Further, the merit of the judgment of the high court and of the Supreme Court was to annul the arbitrary use of Article 356 of the constitution in such a way as to ensure the restoration of a government which still commanded the majority in the legislature.

The Uttarkhand episode should be a salutary warning to all those in the future who would like to use Article 356 to topple elected governments. Hopefully, the Congress party has also got the message. It was the Congress governments at the centre which misused the mechanism of President's rule the most to topple non-Congress state governments in the past. It became a victim of the same diabolical mechanism.

As for the Modi government, its image has been badly dented. The anti-democratic ways of the Modi-Shah duo has met with a roadblock. However, given the growing authoritarianism of the regime, it will be too much to expect them to mend their ways. Without relying solely on the judiciary, all the secular, democratic forces must unitedly resist all attacks on democracy and the federal structure.

(May 11, 2016)