Indian states highlight institutional decay
A two-judge division bench of the Uttarakhand high court on Wednesday stayed the floor test mandated by the single-judge bench the day before. This leaves the fortunes of former chief minister Harish Rawat in the balance. Rawat had a tough task anyway because the single-judge bench had allowed the rebel members of legislative assembly (MLAs) belonging to his own party, the Indian National Congress—who had been suspended by speaker Govind Singh Kunjwal on Sunday—to vote. Irrespective of how this crisis culminates, it is important to look at the role of persons occupying three of the most important constitutional positions in the state.
That the chief minister had lost confidence of the majority was clear when the Appropriation bill—a money bill equivalent to a trust vote—could not be passed without the demand for a division of votes, which was denied by the speaker. Krishan Kant Paul, the governor of Uttarakhand, gave Rawat time till 28 March to prove his majority. But it was on the governor’s report that the centre imposed President’s rule in the state using the controversial Article 356 of the Constitution, just a day before the confidence vote was to be held. The rebel MLAs have accused Rawat, using a sting video, of indulging in open horse trading to win majority in the House. Rawat has called the video “false and absolutely fake”.
A couple of months ago, a similar drama played out in the border state of Arunachal Pradesh. The role played by the constitutional functionaries was, if anything, a degree more egregious. A number of rebel Congress MLAs along with the opposition held a special session of the assembly in the makeshift location of a community hall. Governor J.P. Rajkhowa allowed the proceedings to go ahead in which speaker Nabam Rebia was “impeached” and chief minister Nabam Tuki was “defeated” in a floor test. On the other hand, the speaker—a cousin of the chief minister—“disqualified” 14 of the rebel members. The makeshift venue was required because the speaker and the chief minister ensured that the assembly complex was locked for the session called by the governor on being prodded by the Congress rebel and opposition MLAs.
A constitutional crisis erupted due to the inability of the speaker and the Tuki government to convene the assembly within six months of the previous session. President’s rule was imposed before Kalikho Pul, a rebel MLA of the Congress, took charge with support from the MLAs of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Much ink has been spilt over the propriety of using Article 356, but the role of constitutional functionaries has been given far less scrutiny. Both the above examples show the degradation in institutional morality engulfing the highest constitutional positions. The rot does not stop at Uttarakhand and Arunachal Pradesh. The demand for a division of votes by some parties was denied while the BJP won the trust vote in Maharashtra under Devendra Fadnavis in November 2014. Even in the Lok Sabha, the decision of speaker Sumitra Mahajan to declare The Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and Other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Bill, 2016, a money bill has come under a cloud of suspicion. To be sure, this newspaper has supported the bill unequivocally, but its credentials as a money bill remain contentious.
In this context, the warning of B.R. Ambedkar was prescient: “However good a Constitution may be, if those who are implementing it are not good, it will prove to be bad.” Ambedkar had also hoped that Article 356—an acquisition from colonial times—would remain a dead letter. However, the political usage of this legal tool was rampant before the Supreme Court circumscribed the powers of the Union government in the landmark S.R. Bommai vs Union of India judgement in 1994. A verdict of the Supreme Court or a law on anti-defection can work to an extent and no further. Beyond it is the responsibility of the constitutional functionaries who have to implement the Constitution.
A word on the political culture of the Congress party is also in order. Chief ministers are chosen, in an imperious fashion, by the party high command. Local leaders with a grouse are not even granted appointments with the top leadership. The principle of federalism has deepened in India with gradual devolution of administrative and fiscal powers over the years. The political parties need to do their bit by chipping away at political centralization and the repugnant high command culture.
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