Lessons from Uttarakhand crisis

Uttarakhand Chief Minister Harish Rawat has been in and out of the Chief Minister’s chair in the last two months since the crisis broke out when nine Congress MLAs turned rebels. Supporting the rebels the BJP wanted to form the government. Both sides had claims and counter claims of majority in the tiny Himalayan state. It was resolved at last on Tuesday when Rawat proved his majority under Supreme Court monitored floor test.

The crisis in Uttarakhand was a result of the dismissal of the Rawat government using Article 356 which has a significant impact on the stakeholders and players. For the Congress, Rawat’s proving the majority on the floor of the house is a big boost when it is still struggling to find its feet. For the Chief Minister, it is indeed a moral victory. Rawat, the former Seva Dal chief, has dug his heel in Uttarakhand politics for about five decades and is one of the grassroots politicians. He found his position shaky. The crisis has shown that he had miscalculated and underestimated his opponents.

Although Rawat is back, he faces many challenges. The first is to keep the party united; the second to face the elections next year, the third to keep his coalition partners Progressive Democratic Front including the elusive BSP satisfied, and fourth concentrate on the administration. He has to face the CD sting against him. Rawat had a long wait to become the Chief Minister. In 2002, N.D. Tiwari overtook him while in 2012 it was Vijay Bahuguna, but, however, luck smiled at him when he became the Chief Minister in 2013.

The Congress has won for the time being but it should learn a lesson or two as to how to treat its state units. Good sense prevailed on the leadership that it stood by Rawat in his hour of crisis. It was clear that all was not well in the Uttarakhand Congress or else this crisis would not have erupted. Even the former Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna who led the revolt had been waiting for an audience with the Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi for two years. The other leaders too had complained about the lack of access. Arunachal Pradesh was the same story.

For the BJP, it is a setback and a warning not to be in haste. It is a message that the Article 356 should be handled with utmost caution. There were expectations that there would be a full stop after the Bommai judgment, which held only floor test should be the final test of any government to survive or otherwise. The Congress claims that the Centre was in a hurry to destabilise opposition ruled states. Uttarakhand elections are just a few months away and combining with the nine rebel Congress MLAs was only fishing in troubled waters. The BJP had perhaps miscalculated. A few more months and the Rawat would have faced anti-incumbency and rebellion within the party and collapsed. Moreover, the BJP has to set its house in order. The party has three former Chief Ministers — BC Khanduri, BS Koshyari, and Ramesh Pokhriyal — all of them want to lead the party in the next Assembly elections.

For the judiciary, it is a step ahead to assert itself. What was a political crisis has turned into a legal and a constitutional anomaly, in the sense that the judiciary has had to step into the domain of the legislature. The Centre had precipitated the problem by dismissing the state government a day before it was to prove its majority in the Assembly. In the Centre’s view, the constitutional machinery had broken down after nine Congress MLAs had withdrawn support to the government. The judiciary has upheld the disqualification of the nine MLAs upholding the law against horse-trading. It shows ultimately that the legislators were afraid of being disqualified and voted in accordance with the law and the party whip.

For the first time, a Supreme Court-monitored floor test had been held in an unprecedented manner. There are some who wonder whether such hand holding was necessary and whether it goes beyond what was envisaged by the framers of the Constitution who made watertight compartments for the judiciary, executive, and legislature. A decade ago when the Supreme Court issued a notice to the then Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterjee after some MPs were expelled on charges of bribery, he sent it back without replying to it on the ground that the courts had no jurisdiction in the matter.
The BJP is demanding that the role of the Speaker in the State should also be addressed. The landmark Bommai judgment has established that the judiciary can examine President’s Rule and the majority can be established only on the floor of the house. All these are bigger questions arising out of the Uttarakhand crisis. It is time to set up another Constitutional review Commission to look at these ticklish questions.

However, the Uttarakhand episode brings out one point—legislators are ready for purchase. Otherwise why these sting operations? Why did both sides shepherd their flock to different parts of the country? The JMM case did not end horse-trading as has been proved subsequently. This moral 
problem can be solved only by the will of the political parties and the legislators.       

(The views expressed are strictly personal.)

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