THE Uttarakhand High Court judgment on imposition of President’s Rule in the state — the subsequent Supreme Court ruling and the floor test — are being seen by the Opposition as an indictment of the NDA government at the Centre. However, for the Congress, the judgment is also a signal to President Pranab Mukherjee that he should have been, as one of its leaders put it, “a bit more circumspect” and not allowed himself to be “led by the nose by the Narendra Modi government”.
On Uttarakhand, the Union Cabinet met late at night on March 26 to recommend President’s Rule on grounds that the High Court found very weak. Before the end of next day, Mukherjee, who is considered one of the most astute politicians with a remarkable sense of history, had already signed on the dotted line.
“He knows better than being a rubber-stamp,” said a senior Congress leader on the condition that he not be named. “He’s a walking encyclopaedia on such matters, he knows the importance of the balance of powers in the system more than anybody. That’s why it’s a surprise that he hasn’t ever sent back any controversial or legally suspect matter for reconsideration of this Cabinet. At least, there isn’t any that we are aware of. As President, we don’t expect him to be sympathetic to the Opposition but, at least, he should be seen as neutral and questioning the constitutionality of what the government wants him to do.”
The Congress leader cited other examples where, he said, Mukherjee wasn’t exactly his otherwise “sharp, probing self”.
“Remember the number of ordinances that the Modi government wanted to bring just before the Parliament session last year, including the one on the land law? The President allowed himself to be convinced by the ministers who met him. On Arunachal Pradesh, too, it was the same story,” said the Congress leader.
Incidentally, one of the rare occasions when Mukherjee was seen making a political intervention was last year when he — twice within a fortnight — referred to growing incidents of intolerance, expressing “the apprehension whether tolerance and acceptance of dissent are on the wane”. More recently, in his Republic Day address, Mukherjee underlined the need to “guard ourselves against the forces of violence, intolerance and unreason”.
Senior Congress leader and former law minister M Veerappa Moily minces few words. Asked if the President should have sent the recommendation with regard to imposition of President’s Rule in Uttarakhand back to the Cabinet, Moily said, “He could always have, and he should also have called people for a discussion.”
But why didn’t he?
“I don’t know,” Moily said. “The President should not have hurried. We did not hesitate to convene the House, that too on the direction of the Governor. Immediately, we responded. Had we not responded to the Governor’s call, then the President could have had some ground. The President has to discharge his duties according to the Constitution of India, which also vests lots of responsibility on him to ensure that the federal polity and its sanctity are maintained.”
Moily added, “When they have convened the House… (in) one or two days what would have happened. He should have said that they have already taken steps to go for a floor test and there is no hurry. He should have very firmly put his foot down. He has to go by the letter and spirit of the Constitution. He cannot go only by the aid and advice of the Cabinet. That is a part, yes a component… the main component maybe… but there are other components. Uphold the letter and spirit of the Constitution because federal polity is an important fabric of the Constitution. When the Government of India wants to launch an assault on that federal fabric contrary to many Supreme Court decisions like in the Bommai and Rameshwar cases, how can he put a signature on that?”
Senior Congress leader and former Union Information and Broadcasting minister Manish Tiwari was equally blunt.
“In a situation where there was a floor test ordered by the Governor and the Central government decides to override it and recommend the imposition of President’s rule, the question that I would ask myself is whether the President was obligated then to follow the mandate of Article 74 or he could have a taken a different course given that from the Bommai judgment to the Bihar judgment, the only method of testing the majority of the state government is through a floor test. Given that the President is duty bound to protect and defend the Constitution of India, would it then not have been open to the President to send the matter back to the government for reconsideration? While I am not giving a judgement on whether the President did right or wrong, I am only trying to explore the options which are open to the President in such a situation,” he said.
Tiwari, also a senior advocate, added: “The office of the President stands on a different template altogether. Nobody is saying that the President is not bound by the aid and advice of the council of ministers. But where there is an apparent conflict which could lead to subversion of constitutional process… he does not only uphold the Constitution but he upholds the law and the law as laid down from Bommai to the Bihar is clear.”
Another senior Congress leader and senior Supreme Court lawyer, Vivek Tankha, expressed disappointment. “The President is the conscience-keeper of the nation. If his conscience failed at that time, we can only term it a big disappointment. This (Uttarakhand) is a case where the President failed and the court had to intervene,” Tankha said.
A questionnaire sent to President’s Press Secretary Venu Rajamony elicited no response. Rajamony’s response when reached on phone was, “No comment”.