The Uttarakhand Assembly took a floor test of former chief minister Harish Rawat’s government on Tuesday, and according to reports on various news channels, Rawat has won the trust vote. The Supreme Court of India will declare the official result on Wednesday.
It was an unprecedented vote in that it is being directly supervised by the Supreme Court.
In India’s constitutional history, the courts have never had to step in on the functioning of a legislature and it’s for that reason alone that, irrespective of whether Rawat actually wins or loses, the message is already loud and clear. The message is for the NDA government at the Centre. And it is simple: Hands off Article 356.
The BJP should introspect on its acts that brought about this unprecedented denouement in Indian democracy where the apex court not only challenged the Centre’s imposition of President’s Rule in a state, but also accorded to itself the responsibilities of a Speaker. Never before in the parliamentary history of India, not even during the Emergency, had the legislature been subjected to such judicial accountability.
The BJP should have realised that Article 356 is a no-go area since the SR Bommai case when its use became justiciable. The verdict in the Bommai case was a strict warning against the Centre’s adventurism and vile tactics to topple state governments led by its rivals. But, perhaps the BJP felt emboldened by its machinations in Arunachal Pradesh and made the mistake of implementing the same template in the hill state: Promote instability by luring rebels, impose President’s rule, revoke it and allow the rival faction to manipulate the trust vote.
In Uttarakhand, the high court checkmated the Centre by first, warning it against revoking the President’s Rule to pre-empt a trust vote and then, quashing it. That the Supreme Court almost upheld the spirit of the verdict by mandating voting on the floor of the House under its supervision is a rebuke the Centre should not forget. The other important lesson, and this is for every political party, is that the days of Aayaram and Gayaram are history.
By disqualifying rebel MLAs from voting in the Assembly, the judiciary has upheld the Anti-Defection Law in letter and spirit.
The fear of the law is now evident in Uttarakhand legislators. Before the Supreme Court-monitored voting, there were rumours that many horses were available for trading in the state’s political market. Now, afraid that they would be disqualified, they have gone back to their party stables.
Over the past two months, the Narendra Modi government has faced a series of embarrassments, taken several U-turns and been forced to rollback decisions it announced with a lot of fanfare.
The way it has gone around destabilising governments in smaller states — first Arunachal Pradesh and then Uttarakhand — it is apparent the BJP is using the Lok Sabha mandate to accumulate power through undemocratic means. Instead of using the mandate to fulfil the promises made to voters, it is more eager to destroy the rivals and pursue politics of vendetta. Perhaps the only jumla the party has taken seriously is that of making India Congress-mukt.
Even if it manages to topple the Congress government in Uttarakhand, the blot of being made to fall on its knees by the judiciary after toying with Article 356 will be difficult to erase.
When Uttarakhand Chief Justice KM Joseph, who was part of the two-member bench that quashed President’s Rule in the state, announced the verdict, he used some really harsh words for the Centre. He said the Court was “pained” by the Centre’s actions in the case on imposition of President’s Rule in Uttarakhand where the Centre was acting like a “private party” instead of being impartial. “We are pained that the Central government can behave like this. How can you think of playing with the Court?” he asked.
Uttarakhand should be a timely reminder to the BJP against the perils of playing with the Court, Article 356, democracy and the 2014 mandate.