Lessons from Uttarakhand

Updated - November 17, 2021 02:36 am IST

Published - May 12, 2016 01:53 am IST

Former Uttarakhand Chief Minister Harish Rawat’s victory in the floor test was a foregone conclusion after the Supreme Court barred nine dissident Congress legislators from participating in the confidence vote. The votes of 27 remaining loyalists and a six-member bloc have seen him through. The result, which has been confirmed by the Supreme Court, brings an end to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s political misadventure in exploiting the dissidence within the Congress and attempting to install a government either run or backed by defectors. Ever since the government led by it hastily imposed President’s Rule on the eve of a floor test scheduled in March, it has been unable to convince the judiciary of the justification for doing so. Two legal principles stood in the way of its plan: the bar on defection and the primacy of the floor test in determining a government’s majority. Whatever be the right of legislators to disagree with their leadership, it is limited by the rule against defection, as the law stands at present. In Uttarakhand, of course, the situation was complicated by the fact that a clear majority in the State Assembly — made up of BJP and rebel Congress MLAs — had pressed for a division of votes in writing in advance of the Appropriation Bill being taken up. While there is no escaping the fact that Mr. Rawat had lost his majority in the House, one lesson from the development is that one piece of impropriety (remaining in office by the use of the Speaker’s disqualification powers) does not justify another piece of possible illegality (the imposition of President’s Rule after attempts at toppling a government were stalled).

As for Mr. Rawat, he will still have to face possible prosecution if the CBI decides to press ahead with its probe into a ‘sting operation’ that showed him offering bribes to some MLAs for their support. The legal challenge to his reinstatement is also by no means over, with the Supreme Court still to take a view on whether the disqualification of the rebel Congress MLAs was valid. At a larger level, the Uttarakhand crisis raises important questions that are relevant to the functioning of democracy: should Chief Ministers who have lost their majority take recourse to the anti-defection law to stay in power? Is disqualifying inconvenient MLAs an acceptable way of managing the majority of a government? On the flip side, should a few lawmakers, who constitute a fraction of a party’s strength in the legislature, be allowed to topple a regime at the behest of the opposition? While the floor test rule to prove majority laid down by the Bommai judgment must remain, the time may have come to rethink the provisions that give Speakers untrammelled power to adjudicate on the issue of defection, particularly when such rulings can have a direct bearing on a trust vote. Bommai insured State governments to a large extent against the Centre’s machinations, as the BJP has just rediscovered to its embarrassment. But the growing misuse of the anti-defection law by ruling parties across the political spectrum suggests that Assemblies need some insurance against scheming State governments as well.

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