The Uttarakhand High Court’s decision on Thursday to overrule the Centre’s decision to impose president’s rule and restore the Harish Rawat government in the hill state is a step towards restoring constitutional order. The Rawat government has been asked to take a floor test on April 29 and prove its claim to majority in the assembly — the forum where such a test was scheduled to happen but did not. In the hearings, the court repeatedly castigated the Centre for flouting established norms and conventions in deciding a government’s majority. Delineating the balance of powers and drawing the line between the state and the Centre, the two-judge bench felt the Centre was looking with a “magnifying lens” for an “opportunity” in state assemblies to “impose” president’s rule. “The Centre,” the court remarked, was “taking away the power of an elected government” and “introducing chaos”. The governor’s report on the situation in the state, the court found, did not match the claims made in the Union cabinet’s note recommending president’s rule. The Centre was pulled up for misleading the court, and even the president.
Strong words, but the rap from the judiciary should serve as a lesson for a government that seems to think its Lok Sabha tally is an alibi for brushing aside constitutional propriety. It will be under watch as it now goes to the Supreme Court. Article 356, which empowers the president to dismiss a state government on the advice of the Union cabinet, was deemed a dead letter by Babasaheb Ambedkar. However, Congress prime ministers, including Jawaharlal Nehru, found the provision a useful instrument against non-Congress governments in the states. It was finally left to the Supreme Court to end the abuse of this provision and give clear guidelines on its use in the Bommai judgment of 1994. The apex court had then said the majority of a government could be tested only on the floor of the House. The opposition BJP had claimed that the Rawat government had lost majority following a rebellion in the Congress. The floor test ordered by the speaker of the Uttarakhand assembly would have clarified if Rawat had the numbers to continue as chief minister. Instead, the Centre, inexplicably, intervened a day early and recommended president’s rule, violating convention and norms that had evolved since Bommai. The high court has now ruled that the material the Centre produced to back its push for president’s rule is “irrelevant” and “extraneous” to the issue. There was no case for dismissing the Rawat government.
Led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself, the ministers at the Centre have always pledged that cooperative federalism would guide this government’s relations with the states. That promise was hugely compromised in Uttarakhand; the high court has given the Centre an opportunity to redeem that pledge.