On April 21, Harish Rawat received a phone call from fellow Congress leader and lawyer Abhishek Manu Singhvi. Rawat knew it was good news when Singhvi said “Namaskar mukhyamantri sahab (hello chief minister).” Relieved, Rawat laughed and said: “Yes. I had become former chief minister.”
Earlier in the day, the Uttarakhand High Court had struck down president's rule in the state, which the Union government had imposed on March 27. The court also told the Rawat government to prove its majority on the floor of the state assembly on April 29.
The chief minister did not waste any time reassuming office. He held two cabinet meetings and passed 11 populist decisions.
The Centre, however, moved the Supreme Court against the High Court's decision and, within 24 hours, the apex court restored president’s rule in the state, saying it wanted a signed copy of the High Court's order before it could take a decision.
On April 27, in its latest hearing, the Supreme Court said president's rule would continue and there would not be a floor test on April 29. It will start fresh hearing on May 3 and will deliver a verdict on May 13.
The Supreme Court also framed seven questions regarding imposition of president's rule and sought the Centre's response on them.
Over the past few weeks, Uttarakhand has been on a roller-coaster ride, both politically and legally. It all started when nine rebel Congress MLAs, along with BJP legislators, demanded division of votes on the finance bill on March 18. 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.
The following day, Governor K.K. Paul asked Rawat to prove his majority on March 28, but the Centre imposed president’s rule on the eve of the trust vote. Then, the High Court, without staying the president's rule, called for a trust vote to be held on March 31. However, a division bench of the High Court stayed the order, saying the assembly could not be convened during president's rule. On April 21, after multiple hearings, the division bench struck down president’s rule, saying there were serious flaws in its imposition.
The High Court order was seen as a major embarrassment to the Centre and gave credence to the opposition’s charge that the Modi government wanted to destabilise the governments in states where the BJP was in the opposition.
The division bench, consisting of Chief Justice K.M. Joseph and Judge V.K. Bist, said the imposition of president’s rule “undermines the foundation of federalism [and]… toppling of a democratically elected government… breeds cynicism in the heart of the citizens who participate in a democratic system.” It said the defection by the Congress rebels was “sinful”.
After the High Court decision, an emboldened Congress, led by president Sonia Gandhi, took the issue to Parliament, bashing the Modi government for its efforts to destabilise state governments as part of its Congress-free India campaign.
Legal experts in the Congress say the governor wrote eight reports between March 18 and March 26, in which he discussed a host of issues, but did not do the two things required to impose president's rule—he never said there was a failure of constitutional machinery or that “I, the governor, therefore, recommend president's rule”.
Responding to the protests in Parliament, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said Kunjwal refusing to accept the demand for division on vote, and declaring it passed by voice vote, was “a real breakdown of the constitutional machinery.”
The Congress’s legal team, however, says that, as there were allegations of horse trading and corruption against Rawat, it was important to let the assembly function and have a floor test.
Apparently, the BJP was seriously considering approaching the governor to stake its claim to form government. The party held meetings with its Uttarakhand leaders and reached out to MLAs other than the Congress rebels. It claims to have the support of three independents. “Even if these nine MLAs are disqualified, it would not help Harish Rawat's case because there are many more people who are unhappy with him. A floor test would prove as much,” said BJP leader Kailash Vijayvargiya, who is said to be the main architect of his party’s Uttarakhand mission.
However, especially in light of the court’s damning observations, there has been criticism within the BJP about the party's decision to topple the government. It is being said that the party’s moves were completely avoidable; it could have waited for the elections early next year. With the Congress battling anti-incumbency and still carrying the scars of the 2013 floods, the BJP would have had a good chance of forming the next government.
“The primary motive was to defeat the Rawat government on the floor of the house when it took up the finance bill for voting,” said a BJP leader. “However, [party president] Amit Shah is a leader who will take things to their logical conclusion. Hence, president’s rule and efforts to form a BJP government.”
The Congress, however, sees an opportunity in the developments and will now play the victim card. It is already in election mode, with Rawat going on a 'Save Democracy Yatra' to gain public sympathy by accusing the BJP government of conspiring to topple his government.