A division bench of the Uttarakhand High Court on Wednesday stayed the previous order of the single bench for conducting a floor test to determine the majority in the House. As the legal quagmire surrounding the state becomes more complex, it is important to scrutinise the politics behind it all.
In 1994, the Supreme Court in the landmark SR Bommai vs Union of India case held, "In all cases where the support of the Ministry is claimed to have been withdrawn by some legislators, the proper course for testing the strength of the Ministry is holding the test on the floor of the House."
They added, "the assessment of the strength of the Ministry is not a matter of private opinion of any individual be he the Governor or the President. It is capable of being demonstrated and ascertained publicly in the House. Hence when such a demonstration is possible, it is not open to bypass it and instead depend upon the subjective satisfaction of the Governor or the President. Such private assessment is an anathema to the democratic principle, apart from being open to serious objections of personal mala fides”.
The court also made clear the circumstances under which the decision to impose President’s Rule can be made without going for a floor test. The court held, “The sole exception to this will be a situation of all-pervasive violence where the Governor comes to the conclusion — and records the same in his report — that for the reasons mentioned by him, a free vote is not possible."
These guidelines laid down in the SR Bommai vs Union of India judgement were not even considered in the Uttarakhand case. On 27 March, just a day before the trust vote in the Uttarakhand Legislative Assembly was to be taken, and Chief Minister Harish Rawat was to prove majority support for his government, the Centre dismissed the Congress government and imposed President's Rule, citing a breakdown of governance.
Speaker Govind Singh Kunjwal, on 27 March, disqualified the nine Congress rebels from the legislative assembly under the anti-defection law. This decision again will be interpreted by both parties as it suits them.
With the disqualification, the strength of the 70-member Uttarakhand Assembly has been reduced to 61. Now, with the Uttarakhand High Court staying the floor test, this question will prop-up again when the incumbents will be asked to prove their strength.
Whether the nine disqualified candidates should be allowed to vote in the floor test should be debated on the basis of legal and constitutional provisions. But the assumption that the same might happen is naive.
The Congress is contending that as the nine legislators have been disqualified by the speaker, they cease to be members, and hence are not qualified to vote. The counter argument, highlighting the fact that the speakers disqualified the members after President’s Rule was imposed, also raises a pertinent question: did the speaker have the Constitutional authority to decide the fate of rebel Congress legislators?
While the legal state of affairs created in the state is disturbing, what is more worrying is the way the political tug-of-war will be played out in the next 24 hours, hints of which have already started emerging with allegations of horse-trading surfacing against the Congress government.
If the question that is being asked by the court now was deliberated upon before the Centre slapped President’s Rule; if a little caution had been observed while reading the Constitutional provisions; the guidelines in the SR Bommai vs Union of India had been followed, then the common man would have retained his trust in the democratic process of this country.