In a powerful indictment of the central government, Uttarakhand High Court Thursday said the decision to impose President’s Rule “undermines the foundation of federalism” and “breeds cynicism in the hearts of citizens who participate in a democratic system”. The court quashed the order, severely scolding the Centre for the fourth consecutive day, and declaring that it had told a “blatant falsehood” and used “extraneous” and “irrelevant” arguments through the hearing. Here’s how the central government’s case fell apart.
For over an hour on April 18, Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi had argued that Speaker Govind Singh Kunjwal had displayed double standards that warranted the imposition of Central Rule. The Speaker, Rohatgi said, had chosen to disqualify, on March 27 itself, the 9 Congress rebels who had joined hands with the BJP — but he had refused to act against Bhim Lal Arya, the suspended BJP dissident whose disqualification the party had sought.
On April 20, however, senior advocate Abhishek Manu Singhvi, counsel for former Chief Minister Harish Rawat, pointed out that the BJP had asked the Speaker to disqualify Arya only on April 5, well after his action against the Congress rebels. Arya had been given 7 days to reply — at the end of which it was the complainant who had stayed away from the hearing, Singhvi said. The next hearing had then been scheduled for April 21.
A suprised court then asked the Centre for a clarification, which, in a state of confusion, sought a day’s time. On Thursday morning, 20 minutes before the court started to pronounce its verdict, the government admitted that the argument “was a mistake on (their) part”. It was a damning confession, given that the Speaker’s alleged partisan behaviour had been one of the Centre’s main arguments for the imposition of President’s Rule.
“This means that what was wholly contended by AG, that laxity on part of Speaker and double standards, was without any basis at all,” the court said. “There was no material. We are shocked at that decision-making at the highest level, involving the Cabinet and President… It was a blatant falsehood.”
Dictating the verdict for over three hours on Thursday, the court used the word “irrelevant” at least five times and “extraneous” at least twice while referring to the “material” that the union Cabinet had relied upon.
It referred to a letter from the BJP to the President on the removal, on March 19, of the state advocate-general, which was one of the materials the Centre had used. The BJP had alleged that the law officer, Umakant Uniyal, was removed because he is the brother of Subodh Uniyal, one of the rebel Congress MLAs.
The court found it “baffling” that the removal of the advocate general was used to justify dismissing the government.
“We notice letter dated 26 March…, it had been mentioned that CM… removed advocate general. We are at a total loss to understand how removing of AG is material enough to impose President’s Rule. It is baffling to say the least,” the court said.
The disqualification of the Congress MLAs was an “irrelevant and extraneous” argument for imposing Central Rule, the court said.
“Government of India could not at all have possibly taken disqualification of 9 MLAs of Congress as reason of imposition of President’s Rule. This is irrelevant,” the court said.
“What will happen if they are disqualified or what will happen on March 28 (the day Chief Minister Rawat was to prove his majority in the House), surely cannot be the lookout of the Centre… The central government has to be completely non-partisan. It cannot have any kind of bias. This is extraneous and irrelevant.”
The worst setback for the Centre, however, came on its argument that the “solitary instance” of the “March 18 incident” was enough to impose President’s Rule. It had argued that the Speaker had committed “constitutional sin” by not allowing division, as demanded by 35 MLAs, in the vote on the Appropriation Bill, which is a Money Bill. Had the Speaker allowed the majority to prevail, the Rawat government would have fallen immediately, the Centre had argued.
“Money Bill is the biggest floor test. The government had lost majority on March 18 and there was no requirement of another floor test,” it had argued.
The court dismissed this argument, saying that if it was allowed, it could result in “undue interference” by the central government in the affairs of a state Assembly.
“We are also not oblivious to the grave danger with which acceptance of AG’s argument is fraught. If this is allowed, it could result in undue interference of central government into affairs of state legislature and unwarranted imposition of President’s Rule… This will not augur well for the nation,” the court said.
“It may be true that ordinarily when Money Bill is defeated, government tenders resignation. What happens if it doesn’t resign? Can it be likened to government having fallen, as contended by central government?… We are mystified as to how relying on what happened on March 18, what happened thereafter is sought to be brushed away,” it added.
The court also expressed concern over the Governor intruding into the sphere of the Speaker. The Centre had argued that the Governor had sent representations of BJP legislators to the Speaker regarding the floor test. The court questioned the Governor’s action.
“It didn’t lay within the four walls of Governor to direct Speaker to act in a particular fashion. When he received the representation from the BJP MLAs, it was not open to Governor to control discretion vested with the Speaker, who is also a high constitutional authority,” the court said.