On going beyond 'Bommai'

Updated - November 17, 2021 05:12 am IST

Published - April 23, 2016 01:12 am IST

The > Uttarakhand High Court’s verdict declaring the > imposition of President’s Rule in the State as unconstitutional was expected, but the quick stay on its operation granted by the Supreme Court means that Harish Rawat is once again a “former Chief Minister” and President’s Rule is back in force. The dismissal of an elected government on the eve of a confidence vote was a drastic measure that no court could have unequivocally endorsed. The High Court after all was only applying the law laid down in the > Bommaicase in 1994, which made it clear that the only place to ascertain the majority of a government was the floor of the House. In assessing the merits of the Centre’s case for the imposition of President’s Rule, the High Court had to examine three main contentions. These were the unusual passage of the > Appropriation Bill through a voice vote rather than a division (following which the Bill was not sent for approval to the Governor), the summary disqualification of >nine dissident ruling party legislators , and a > sting video that allegedly caught Mr. Rawat offering inducements to win back the support of dissidents. Serious though these issues are, the Uttarakhand High Court concluded, and perhaps with some justification, that they did not add up to a breakdown of the constitutional machinery in the State.

While it is impossible to predict what the Supreme Court will make of the High Court’s judgment — the full details of which are not yet available — the > controversy in Uttarakhand is symptomatic of the kind of problem that requires a judicial fix going beyond the rules laid down by the Bommai judgment. Seminal though it was, the Bommai case was essentially about imposing a restraint of gubernatorial discretion — nay, even machination. By the 1980s, Raj Bhavans had become a stage for headcounts and horse-trading; some incumbents resorted to questionable means to prevent legitimate attempts to cobble up a majority. The judgment did put an end, or at least considerably mitigate, this kind of problem. However, those relating to the application of Article 356 today are somewhat more complex. Chief Ministers cling on to posts even after dissidents have clearly reduced their governments to a minority, and partisan Speakers manipulate floor tests by a selective application of the anti-defection law. (The BJP is no stranger to this cynical and self-serving game; in 2010, Chief Minister B.S. Yeddyurappa ‘won’ the floor test in Karnataka after 16 legislators were summarily disqualified.) If earlier the problem was that of partisan Governors, the issues that need to be addressed in today’s political context are that of partisan Speakers and vitiated floor tests. Bommai placed severe limitations, and very rightly in our federal set-up, on the Centre’s discretion to dismiss politically inconvenient governments. While keeping the handcuffs that this judgment had introduced in place, what we need are some fetters to keep the ruling party and their friendly Speakers from making a mockery of floor tests.

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