Rawat’s return

Print edition : June 24, 2016

Harish Rawat after the floor test in the Assembly on May 10. Photo: Virender Singh Negi

Prime Minister Narendra Modi. His government suffered a huge loss of face when Rawat won the floor test. Photo: K. MURALI KUMAR

Former Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna (second from right) with other rebel Congress MLAs at a press conference in Dehradun on March 31. Photo: PTI

Saket Bahuguna, son of Vijay Bahuguna, who has been expelled from the Congress for anti-party activities. Photo: Virender Singh Negi

The political drama in Uttarakhand comes to an end with the Harish Rawat government proving its majority in a floor test in the State Assembly after the Supreme Court suspends the hastily imposed President’s Rule.

THE Bharatiya Janata Party’s political misadventure in Uttarakhand ended on May 10 with the Supreme Court “suspending” President’s Rule for three hours to facilitate a floor test by the Harish Rawat-led Congress government, which had been dismissed by the Centre in March. The Narendra Modi government at the Centre suffered a huge loss of face when Rawat emerged victorious in the test.

The political drama exposed Modi’s doublespeak on “cooperative federalism” as his government dabbled in political opportunism of the worst kind even as the Congress was grappling with its own internal crisis. It was political impropriety of the worst order on display between March 18 and May 10 as boundaries were crossed on both sides. If the Congress failed to tackle the crisis in its own ranks, and its Chief Minister was seen bargaining to win over the nine party rebels, the BJP indulged in political opportunism, trying to fish in troubled waters. What started as a comedy of errors in the Congress house ended as a tragedy of sorts for the BJP, which found itself in an embarrassing position.

The drama began on March 18, when nine Congress rebel legislators met Governor K.K. Paul along with 27 BJP MLAs and demanded that the Rawat government be dismissed as it had failed to pass the Appropriation Bill in the Assembly, which meant that it had lost its majority in the House. The rebel MLAs alleged that the Speaker, G.S. Kunjwal, had wrongly declared the Appropriation Bill passed although nine of them had given a written request for a division of votes, which was not granted. Rawat, however, claimed that he still enjoyed a majority in the 71-member House. The Governor gave Rawat time until April 29 to prove his majority.

The scene then shifted to Delhi where the rebel Congress MLAs tried to meet the party high command. Both party president Sonia Gandhi and vice president Rahul Gandhi did not grant them audience. On March 21, the party expelled Saket Bahuguna, former Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna’s son, for anti-party activities as he was understood to have masterminded the rebellion. As the day for the floor test neared, the rebel MLAs declared that they would vote against the government. On March 27, the Speaker disqualified them, paving the way for Rawat’s victory in the floor test. On the same day, the Governor sent a report to the Centre saying that there was a “breakdown of governance” in the State and that he expected pandemonium during the floor test. The Union Cabinet dismissed the Rawat government and imposed President’s Rule in the State under Article 356. The issue was then taken up in the High Court of Uttarakhand, which, in an unprecedented judgment, quashed the President’s Rule and allowed the floor test. The court allowed the disqualified MLAs to take part in the voting but said their votes would be kept secret. This order was challenged in the Supreme Court. The apex court allowed the Rawat government to face the floor test but did not allow the rebels to participate in the voting.

With the nine MLAs counted out, the strength of the House got reduced to 61. With the support of six other MLAs, including two from the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and one from the Uttarakhand Kranti Dal (UKD), Rawat, who had the support of 27 Congress MLAs, sailed through with two more than the required number of 31.

The political tussle in Uttarakhand made two things clear: the Congress leadership was unable to contain the dissidence in its own ranks and the Modi government was embarrassed by the stern message from the Supreme Court against taking advantage of its numerical strength in the Lok Sabha to topple governments headed by opposition parties. When it came to power with a huge majority, the Modi government was expected to act maturely and work towards fulfilling the promises the BJP made during the election campaign. Instead, Modi and other BJP leaders are still seen in campaign mode, attacking the main opposition party, the Congress, and spending their entire energy in ensuring a Congress- mukth (free) India, which is one of the BJP’s election promises. It is ironic that having defeated the Congress in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP should continue to spend its energy in trying to finish off the party, which in any case is struggling with leadership problems.

The circumstances prevailing in Uttarakhand before and after March 18 at best pointed to a rebellion in the Congress against Rawat’s leadership. Those familiar with the recent history of Uttarakhand will not see anything new in this. A floor test, which has been the most accepted method to ascertain a government’s numerical strength since the Bommai judgment in 1994 ( S.R. Bommai vs Union of India), would have settled the issue. Political observers are of the view that there was nothing to suggest a “constitutional breakdown” or a “breakdown of governance”, which was made the basis for imposition of President’s Rule in the State. “To dismiss a democratically elected government a day before it was to face the floor test is a sign of the highest degree of desperation on the part of the BJP,” a senior Congress leader said. Both the High Court and the Supreme Court obviously agreed with this view by allowing Rawat to prove his majority.

Some of the observations made by the High Court bench comprising Chief Justice K.M. Joseph and Justice V.K. Bisht in the case are a damning indictment of the Modi government’s cavalier attitude in imposing President’s Rule. When the Attorney General representing the Centre pointed out that it was unconstitutional on the part of the Speaker to deny division of votes, which would have proved that the Rawat government had lost its majority, the bench remarked, “All is fair in love and war”.

Similarly, commenting on the sting operation showing Rawat bargaining for the support of his rebel MLAs, which was cited by the Centre as a sign of corruption, the bench observed: “The sting operation and conclusions derived from it are totally irrelevant.” It further commented that “hardly any government in India would last five minutes if allegations of corruption against it are sufficient for dissolving it”.

The most striking observation made by the bench, which in essence was a direct criticism of the Central government, was on the action of the President signing the proclamation without asking enough questions. The bench said: “Legitimacy of the President’s decision to suspend the Uttarakhand Assembly is subject to judicial review as even he can go wrong.”

When the judicial observation is contrasted with what Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley told the media immediately after the imposition of President’s Rule, it becomes obvious that the Centre misjudged the situation. Jaitely said there were “cogent, relevant and extremely important grounds” on which the Union Cabinet came to the decision. “There is no better example than this for invoking Article 356 of the Constitution. … Every day [since the suspension of the Uttarakhand Assembly], the provisions of the Constitution are being murdered. It was not only appropriate, but the demand of the time that such an immoral government did not continue in Uttarakhand which has lost its majority,” he had told the media, adding that the Congress government had engaged in horse-trading and that efforts were being made to change the composition of the House.

But after the Supreme Court’s ruling, red-faced senior BJP Ministers were at a loss for words to defend their action and merely stated that they respected the court’s verdict and would sit in the opposition as directed by the court. Many senior BJP leaders, however, admitted in private that the party high command had goofed up its strategy for Uttarakhand as it failed to take the State leaders into confidence.

It may be mentioned that Kailash Vijayvargiya, a senior BJP leader from Madhya Pradesh, was overseeing the Uttarakhand operation. “We were not asked even once for the course of action to be adopted,” a former BJP Chief Minister said. The party high command had missed the plot after showing the initial aggression, he said. “Once you impose President’s Rule, then you should have the arsenal to defend it stoutly. We failed to defend our own action in the apex court. Our arguments sounded half-hearted and our defence unconvincing. This has caused demoralisation among the party rank and file,” he said.

Defending the BJP’s actions, former Chief Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank said the government, for unknown reasons, could not defend its actions in the court. “We should have firmly told the court that no floor test could be allowed when President’s Rule was in force. Since the petition challenging the imposition of President’s Rule is still pending, the apex court should have been asked to first adjudicate on that. Besides, the petition regarding disqualification of nine rebel Congress MLAs is still pending in the High Court. Without resolving these key issues, how can a floor test be ordered? Unfortunately, the government could not forcefully present these points,” he said.

It is a fact that the Supreme Court’s ruling and the subsequent re-installation of the Rawat government has made both these petitions irrelevant. However, political observers said they should have been the key factors to decide whether Rawat should be allowed a floor test or not.

The Congress, on its part, described the entire episode as a “victory of democracy”, but it cannot escape the fact that the Uttarakhand crisis was of its own making. It is a proof of failure of leadership at the highest level, especially that of Rahul Gandhi because “he is the one who effectively decides everything in the party now”, said Harak Singh Rawat, rebel Congress MLA from Rudraprayag.

While the drama was unfolding, the rebels camped in Delhi for several days trying to seek an appointment with Rahul Gandhi, but he had no time for them. (But he spared time to pose for photographs with Jawaharlal Nehru University Students Union president Kanhaiya Kumar.) According to Harak Singh Rawat, their grievances against Harish Rawat were genuine because “his government is steeped in corruption and is hand in glove with the liquor and mining mafias”. He said it was not their intention to go against the party; they only wanted an assurance from the top leadership that the situation would be corrected. “We only wanted to alert the party leadership of the poor image of the Uttarakhand government and wanted it to take corrective measures so that we could go back to the people with some credibility. But we were treated like untouchables,” he said.

The rebel MLAs said they had great expectations from Rahul Gandhi but he failed them. “He has no connect with the local people. He does not interact with anyone. Even when he visited Kedarnath, he was only surrounded by his Delhi coterie and did not even bother to talk to the two MLAs who were accompanying him,” Harak Singh Rawat said. He was one of the MLAs who accompanied Rahul Gandhi on his much-publicised trek to Kedarnath ostensibly to “connect with people”.

“He does not inspire confidence,” another rebel MLA, Subodh Uniyal, said, adding that the party had become rudderless.

Senior Congress leaders are so busy celebrating their victory that they have no time to ponder over some crucial issues. “Why the rebellion happened is a question that needs to be investigated, which we will definitely do. For the moment, I just want to say that this is a victory for democracy and the common man’s faith in the judiciary has been strengthened all over again. Most importantly, the episode will act as a deterrent against planning similar toppling games in non-BJP-ruled States,” senior Congress leader Shakeel Ahmad said.

Although Shakeel Ahmad refrained from commenting on the President’s action, his party colleague Randeep Surjewala was more forthright when he said: “We wish the President had waited a little longer.”

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