Floor exercise

40Rawat Legal tussle: Rawat with Congress MLAs | PTI

With the High Court getting involved, the political battle in the state turns into an intriguing legal fight

  • The focus, now, seems to be on why the Centre imposed president's rule. It will file an affidavit in the court, justifying the move.

Temperatures are soaring in the hill state of Uttarakhand. The political tussle between the Congress and the BJP seemed to have reached its culmination when the Centre imposed president’s rule on the state on March 27. However, the following day, in an unprecedented order, the Uttarakhand High Court said Chief Minister Harish Rawat would undergo a trust vote in the assembly on March 31. Surprisingly, the court did not stay the decision to impose president's rule. It also allowed nine rebel Congress MLAs who had been disqualified under the anti-defection law to participate in the trust vote.

With the date set, preparations had begun for the trust vote when, in another twist, a division bench of the High Court stayed it, accepting the Centre's plea that the assembly could not be convened during president's rule, and put off the hearing till April 6. The focus, now, seems to be on why the Centre imposed president's rule. It will be filing an affidavit in the court, justifying the move. Congress lawyers are then expected to file a rejoinder to the affidavit. The political tussle, it seems, is turning into an intriguing legal fight.

Earlier, a stunned Centre had despatched Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi to Nainital, where he argued against the court’s decision to allow a trust vote. He asked the court why there was a hurry for the trust vote and requested time to file an affidavit explaining the reasons behind imposition of president’s rule. The court, in reply, asked him why the Centre was in such a hurry to impose president’s rule.

The order to hold a trust vote had jolted the Centre; it was arguably a validation of the opposition’s charge that the Modi regime wanted to topple state governments run by rival parties.

Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, who was in Australia when the news broke, is said to have spoken with the government's top lawyers, and it was decided that Rohatgi would argue against the order in the High Court.

If the order came as a shock to the Centre, it left the Congress puzzled. Though the party welcomed the order, saying it upheld the right of the government to prove its majority, it could not fathom how its rebel MLAs could be allowed to vote.

Legal experts said the order would not pass constitutional muster. Former Delhi High Court judge R.S. Sodhi said the High Court, in order to do a “panchayati kind of justice”, had tied itself in knots. He said the court had failed in interpreting the constitution as well as in the application of the Representation of the People Act. “The reasoning is that when you do not stay president’s rule, the assembly is in suspended animation,” he said. “And, there is no government and no chief minister. So, how can a house, which is in suspended animation, be convened? And how can a government which does not exist seek a trust vote?”

Some legal experts, however, said the High Court managed a tough balancing act. Former additional solicitor general Vikas Singh said the order was unprecedented in the manner in which it empowered the disqualified MLAs to vote.

Senior Supreme Court advocate Sanjay Hegde said the court had given the government a fair chance to prove its majority, and had also empowered the disqualified MLAs to vote. “The court has tried to restore as much status quo as possible,” he said.

The unprecedented order, it is said, was meant to test the basis on which president’s rule was imposed. On March 18, when the finance bill was tabled in the assembly, BJP legislators and the rebel Congress MLAs sought division of the house. Speaker Govind Singh Kunjwal, however, did not allow division and later said the bill had been passed by voice vote. The BJP had the numbers and said division would have proved that Rawat did not have a majority in the assembly. In light of this, the Centre imposed president's rule.

An interpretation of the court order to allow a trust vote was that if the government won the trust vote, it could become a basis for the court’s decision on president’s rule.

Responding to the Congress’s query on why the Centre could not wait till March 28, when the original trust vote was to be held, the BJP said if the Congress was so confident of its numbers, it should have allowed division when the finance bill came up for voting. “There was a constitutional crisis in the state, and the Congress is responsible for it. The MLAs were disappointed with their own national leadership,” said BJP spokesperson Shrikant Sharma.

Moreover, the government seemed to be trying to manipulate the numbers in the assembly by disqualifying the rebel MLAs, and Rawat was allegedly indulging in horse-trading.

WROTE JAITLEY in a blog: “It is to be noted that till today, neither the chief minister nor the speaker has forwarded a certified copy of the appropriation bill to the governor. Obviously, there is no assent of the governor to the appropriation bill. In any case, all facts surrounding the alleged discussion and passage of the appropriation bill clearly indicate its non-passage.... There are strong facts to suggest that the appropriation bill was actually defeated.”

As a consequence, he said, the government had to resign.

There has been a debate on the Centre's decision to impose president's rule a day before the state government was to seek a trust vote. The decision flew in the face of the Supreme Court’s landmark judgment in 1994, which stated that a government’s majority can only be tested on the floor of the house. The Congress said the BJP wanted to cobble up numbers and form its own government, taking advantage of president’s rule.

“One wrong has led to many wrongs being done by the Modi government,” said Ambika Soni, All India Congress Committee general secretary in charge of Uttarakhand. “The larger question involved is, how can you violate constitutional norms and principles? If you want a Congress-mukt (free) Bharat, fight elections. Do it in a constitutional manner.”

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