The Uttarakhand assembly held a floor test on Tuesday morning acting on the directives of the Supreme Court, but the results will be formally announced by the apex court only on Wednesday. It may well stand resolved once the outcome of the floor test is declared, but the crisis in Uttarakhand leaves behind some unhappy traces.
To begin with, the Centre has cast itself in unflattering light. It is seen to have tried to destabilise another government in an Opposition ruled state. While overruling the Union cabinet’s decision to impose president’s rule in Uttarakhand, the high court had pulled up the Centre for flouting established norms in deciding a government’s majority. The Centre, the court had said, was “introducing chaos” in the state and suggested that it was misleading the judiciary. The HC decision was based on the Bommai case guidelines where the Supreme Court laid down unequivocally that the assembly was the right platform to test a government’s majority. However, the Centre appealed against the HC ruling, the Supreme Court stayed the HC order, postponed the floor test it had ordered for April 29 and involved itself in the conduct of the floor test subsequently on May 10. In the process, it has touched off a question: Was this handholding necessary? In its eagerness to ensure that the process is blemishless, the SC inadvertently reduced itself to playing nanny to the legislature. Undoubtedly, the behaviour of a section of legislators in the state influenced the judiciary. But in the process, it may have unsettled the delicate balance of power between institutions — and the principle of legislative supremacy in the conduct of its own affairs.
The Uttarakhand episode has seemed to be an ugly throwback to the bad old days when a Congress-ruled Centre brazenly wielded Article 356, a provision deemed to be a dead letter by Babasaheb Ambedkar, to dismiss opposition governments. Bommai had buried the ghost in the 1990s and there were very few controversies regarding the imposition of president’s rule in an era of fragile coalitions since. The Modi government’s use of Article 356, first in Arunachal Pradesh and now in Uttarakhand, has raised serious concerns about its commitment to federalism. But even as the Central government reflects on the damage it has done to its own reputation, the court must also ask itself whether it could have been more mindful of its own boundaries in Uttarakhand.