Hours after Punjab Governor Banwari Lal Purohit withdrew his permission to the Bhagwant Mann-led AAP government to convene Thursday a special session of the Punjab Assembly for a trust vote, a political slugfest erupted with the AAP leadership crying foul and calling it a “murder of democracy”, with Delhi Chief Minister and AAP supremo Arvind Kejriwal charging that Purohit changed his decision at the behest of the BJP-ruled Centre.
As the AAP MLAs took out a march to the Raj Bhavan in Chandigarh in protest against the Governor’s move, the Mann government said it will move the Supreme Court to challenge it.
A day after giving his assent to the Mann Cabinet’s proposal to hold a special Assembly session, Purohit withdrew it on Wednesday, citing Rule 58(1) of the Rules of Procedures and Conduct of Business of the Punjab Assembly. Justifying his decision, the Governor, in a note, stated, “Only a no-confidence motion can be brought against the Council of Ministers. A session cannot be summoned just for a confidence motion. If there is any other item like legislative business, then the Governor can permit a special session.”
At the centre of the row is “Operation Lotus”, which the AAP camp alleged the BJP has launched to poach its legislators in a bid to topple the six-month-old Mann government. On September 14, a day after eight Congress MLAs in Goa defected to the BJP, the Punjab police registered a case in this connection after a delegation of 12 AAP legislators led by finance minister Harpal Singh Cheema approached DGP Gaurav Yadav, accusing the saffron party of allegedly offering their party MLAs a bribe of Rs 20-25 crore each as part of its “Operation Lotus” in Punjab.
Subsequently, on September 19, CM Mann announced the convening of a special House session on September 22 for a confidence motion. The AAP-led Delhi government and the JMM-led Jharkhand government recently held such sessions to get confidence motion passed as a show of their strength.
The AAP, which swept Punjab in the February Assembly polls, has 92 MLAs in the 117-member House, as against the principal Opposition Congress’s 18 seats, the Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal)’s three and the BJP’s two. Both the BJP and the Congress had opposed the Mann government’s special session move and had sent separate representations to the Governor against it.
It was former deputy speaker Bir Devinder Singh who first red-flagged the session, urging the Governor to consult the Vidhan Sabha rule book. The Raj Bhavan then reportedly called him on Wednesday morning and later took the counsel of former MP and constitutional expert Satya Pal Jain on the matter.
Governor Purohit, known to be a stickler for rules, succeeded VP Singh Badnore in September last year when the then Congress government had been in the throes of a turmoil. So far he has administered the oath of office to two CMs, including the Congress’s Charanjit Singh Channi besides Mann. He began touring the state a month after the Mann dispensation took the reins, visiting the border districts of Pathankot, Gurdaspur, Amritsar, Tarn Taran, Fazilka and Ferozepur.
Known as a “pro-active Governor” in Tamil Nadu where he was posted for four years, Purohit used to regularly tour that state to monitor the progress of the centrally-sponsored schemes. He was known to personally interview vice-chancellors after their appointments had triggered a controversy. He had also reportedly opposed the then AIADMK-led government on several occasions.
In Punjab, Purohit has made at least two rounds of visits to the border areas until now. In April, he was accompanied by even CM Mann at some places. He resumed his border visits from September 12. Calling illegal sand mining a threat to national security, Purohit had called for registering a case of treason against the guilty.
The Governor, who has met a large number of sarpanches as well, is said to have made a strong pitch for the Centre’s Agnipath, exhorting the border youth to join the army in large numbers through this short-term recruitment scheme. The AAP has been up in arms against the Agnipath scheme.
With the Opposition leaders, including senior Congress leader and Leader of the Opposition Partap Singh Bajwa, citing the Governor’s statements to launch a scathing attack on the Mann government for its alleged failure in stopping illegal mining at the border, there had been murmurs that the two could be on a collision course.
There were reports earlier that the Punjab government had, in an unprecedented move, raised objections to a week-long religious function at the Raj Bhawan in April refusing to pay its bill, but the latter never gave its reaction over it.
With the AAP now openly accusing the Governor of allegedly doing the BJP’s bidding, their conflict is set to intensify now. While Kejriwal tweeted “When ‘Operation Lotus’ started failing and the numbers were not complete, a call came from above asking him (Purohit) to withdraw the permission”, Mann asked how could Purohit cancel a House session called by the Cabinet. What their face-off means for state politics and administration would be seen in the coming days.