Upholding Constitution in fragile states
The on-going political crisis in Uttarakhand shows that all is not well in our political system. Despite stringent anti-defection laws and other measures put in place, the legislators are able to circumvent the system, more so in a small state. Things have gone out of control in Uttarakhand as the crisis has been blown up to much bigger proportions raising constitutional questions, legal remedies and also the court questioning the justification of President’s rule. The story does not begin here as it is a continuation of what happened in Arunachal Pradesh six months ago when it was brought under President’s rule following a rebellion in the ruling Congress party.
This brings us to the question why small states are politically fragile. The premise of carving out smaller states shifted since the 1990s from the formation of the linguistic states of the fifties on the basis of language to now backwardness and lack of development. It is said that small is beautiful but in the case of states like Uttarakhand, which was carved out of Uttar Pradesh in 2000, it is the political instability, which is glaring.
While it can be argued that bifurcation and trifurcations have resulted in better management of some states like Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh, most small states in the northeast as well as Goa, Jharkhand, and Delhi have not come up to the mark. While political parties such as the BJP and the BSP are in favour of small states such as Jharkhand, where independent MLAs like Madhu Koda became Chief Ministers, showed the inherent fragility of the polity in the newly carved out states.
Now, Uttarakhand has joined this club. The Assembly has not even passed the annual Budget. It was declared passed by the Speaker amidst demands by the opposition and rebel MLAs for a division of votes, which was not heeded.
So what is the message coming out of Uttarakhand?
The first is that even as more demands from various parts of the country are coming for bifurcating and trifurcating some big states, it cannot be said that small states are indeed the panacea for such problems. The Uttarakhand message is that unless there is political stability, the state cannot grow.
Secondly, the failure of national parties like the BJP and the Congress might give way to the emergence of regional parties invoking regional pride.
Thirdly, the culture of horse trading has not yet stopped. The ruling party, as well as the opposition, is indulging in horse trading and maintaining camps of their MLAs who are shepherded from state to state to avoid poaching from the other side.
Fourthly, the imposition of President’s rule earlier in Arunachal Pradesh and now in Uttarakhand raises fears of Central overreach and the possible misuse of Article 356.
Fifthly, Uttarakhand crisis will have its echo in the current Budget session of Parliament as the Congress-led opposition may not support the over-delayed GST bill, crucial for reforms.
The sixth is that it is indeed a wake-up call for the Congress leadership, which has misread the situation on the ground: be it in Arunachal Pradesh, or Assam or Uttarakhand. Gone are the days of Indira Gandhi when Chief Ministers could be kept waiting for months as the present day politics is entirely different. If the leadership does not change, then the Congress may end up having just three or four states.
Seventhly, President’s rule should be imposed only when it can pass the scrutiny of the courts. In the S R Bommai case, the apex court had categorically stated whether a government enjoys a majority in the House or not must be proved on the floor of the House - the only, appropriate place to test the majority of a government. Here, the President’s Rule was imposed just a day before Chief Minister Harish Rawat was to prove his majority on the floor of the house.
It would have been better had the Governor KK Paul dismissed the Congress government on the question of the constitutionality of the Budget, instead of giving Rawat a week’s time to indulge in horse-trading. Meanwhile, the BJP’s annoyance seems to stem from the fact that the court could even question the Centre’s decision to impose President’s Rule in the first place. But in the landmark SR Bommai case, the apex court also ruled that the proclamation under Article 356(1) is not immune from judicial review. The Supreme Court or the relevant High Court can strike down the proclamation if it's found to be mala fide or based on wholly irrelevant or extraneous grounds. If the court strikes down the proclamation, it has the power to restore the dismissed government.
So, the Uttarakhand crisis should make the political parties sit up and see how to set right the system. The logic of smaller states does not end with their mere creation but they should become more empowered. Smaller states are no guarantee for better administration. There are also fears that the creation of small states can lead to increased regionalism or parochialism which can fuel separatist sub-national tendencies as in Nagaland.
After all, size cuts both ways. It is time to restore the balance and ensure stability in the fragile small states.
(The author is a senior political commentator. Views expressed are strictly personal.)