The imposition of President’s Rule in Uttarakhand has proved to be one big political and constitutional misadventure for the Modi government. The High Court has trashed the Presidential proclamation under Article 356, and made several observations that couldn’t have been music to the ears of the BJP top brass.
Even worse for BJP is the fact that the High Court ruling, delivered on a petition filed by the ousted Chief Minister Harish Rawat, would serve as a moral victory for Congress. The Rawat government will now have to take a vote of confidence on the floor of the State Assembly on 29 April.
The High Court judgment - besides its legal, constitutional and political implications - would always stand out for the fact that it was delivered within a span of 20 days, from the day the Centre had challenged the single judge’s order to hold a floor test, even as the state continued to be under President’s Rule.
The courts have usually taken a much longer time, stretching months and even years before arriving to a conclusion on such critical issues. The Uttarakhand High Court judgment shall ever serve as a reminder to the political leadership at the Centre.
While the Centre may move the Supreme Court, as its lawyers indicated in Uttarakhand when the judgment was pronounced, one could always argue that last word on the subject has not yet been spoken. But, there is no denying the fact that this is a huge setback for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah.
The BJP leadership had taken a tough stand and had tried to justify their actions by stating that the Speaker’s action, of not allowing a division (voting) on the appropriation bill (annual budget) and passing it by voice vote despite being in minority (27 of BJP and 9 Congress dissidents opposing in a House of 70 MLAs where 67 were present that day), amounted to constitutional breakdown.
They had taken the plea that as per the constitutional norms, the government falls if it fails to pass a money bill - an appropriation bill in this case. The division bench of the Uttarakhand High Court, obviously, was not convinced by its arguments.
Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, the most articulate voice in the Modi Government and a legal luminary, wrote about the subject in his blog titled 'A state without a budget' that Uttarakhand was a fit constitutional case for President’s Rule to be imposed:
“There are strong facts to suggest that the Appropriation Bill was actually defeated. As a consequence, the Government had to resign. On 18 March the majority was declared to be a minority and vice versa, and on 27 March the composition of the House was attempted to be changed in violation of the Constitution to convert a minority into a majority,” Jaitley wrote.
“This is an unprecedented case of a Speaker declaring a failed Appropriation Bill as passed and then failing to certify falsehood. This leaves the State without any approved financial expenditure with effect from 1 April 2016. What better evidence do we need of a breakdown of Constitution? The Congress Government of Uttarakhand was murdering democracy every day from the 18 to 27 March,” Jaitley wrote in a blog.
His arguments have fallen flat now, unless the Supreme Court takes a different view on the judgment than the Uttarakhand High Court.
What makes matters worse for BJP is that the nine rebel Congress MLAs, who were disqualified by the Speaker, can’t participate in the trust vote on 29 April. They might still have a window of hope as the Court will rule on their petition challenging the Speaker’s order in the next eight or nine days.
The Congress, meanwhile, is trying hard to lure them back into their fold. An alleged sting conducted revealed a video of Harish Rawat bribing MLAs in order to gain their support. But all this has already been taken into consideration by the High Court.
Politically, it leaves BJP in an awkward situation, more so because the Assembly elections in the state are due in the next eight to nine months. The election campaigning would pick up momentum in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand once the current round of elections in Assam, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Puducherry are over.
Harish Rawat is already donning a halo of innocence and if he succeeds in convincing the voters that he was wronged by the Centre, the political damage could be even higher for the BJP.
The vote of confidence in the Uttarakhand Assembly on 29 April would surely decide Harish Rawat’s fate; however, its implications will have a far greater bearing on the Modi government.