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Unpardonable violation of the Constitution

By Inder Malhotra

To call what has been raging from Goa to Ranchi during recent days political impropriety or machination would be the understatement of the century. Chicanery, deceit and unpardonable violation of the Constitution would be a more appropriate, yet mild, description of it. Ironically, the deplorable events have boomeranged on the shadowy Smart Alecs who had orchestrated them. They thought they were serving the Congress' cause; instead, their folly has given their party a severe jolt.

The Congress president, Sonia Gandhi, and the Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, could not have been more embarrassed than they are. However, their hurried steps to limit the damage — such as the imposition of President's rule in Goa and the directive to the Jharkhand Governor, Sibtey Razi, to advance the date for testing the majority of the Shibu Soren Ministry that should never have been installed — amount to no more than trying to put out a blazing fire with an injection syringe. They have to come to terms with the rude reality that the trickery that could pass muster in the 1970 and 1980 just would not work in today's vastly changed circumstances. There is a point beyond which the game of adhering only to the form of democracy and subverting its substance cannot go on indefinitely without causing national disaster.

Governor's office

To avoid this danger the entire polity and the political class would have to put an end to some of the persistent and reprehensible practices that have made a mockery of Constitutional proprieties and rule of law. The foremost of these is the crass misuse of the office of Governor for palpably partisan purposes, to the advantage of the ruling party or combination in New Delhi. The Congress has indulged in this nefarious act longer and too often because it has had a greater opportunity to do so. The record of the BJP, when in power, has been no different. Moreover, long is the list of Governors who have disgraced themselves and defiled the Constitution they had sworn to preserve and protect. On this roll, Mr. Razi would occupy a special place because he has attained the dubious distinction of being called by the President to ``explain'' his action and of being disowned even by those who had instigated him in the first place. He surely has forfeited the right to continue in his post.

One must hasten to add that there have been honourable exceptions to the general behaviour of most denizens of Raj Bhavans. B. K. Nehru was a shining one. He refused to dismiss the Farooq Abdullah Government in Jammu and Kashmir in 1984 and was transferred to Gujarat. Surjit Singh Barnala, now back as Governor of Tamil Nadu, had flatly declined in 1990-91 to sign a report, dictated by New Delhi, with the disingenuous intent of imposing President's rule in this southern State. His successor obediently signed on the dotted line.

Sarkaria recommendation

The Sarkaria Commission's sound recommendation that politicians should normally not be appointed Governors and certainly not in States ruled by parties other than that in power at the Centre has been gathering dust for 22 years. Under these circumstances, one might ask, what is the point of appointing a fresh commission on Centre-State relations? Sadly, as the shenanigans in Goa have underscored, several Speakers of legislatures have become collaborators of bent Governors in recklessly violating the Constitution and elementary democratic norms. Since the chair in a legislature is the authority to determine the legality of splits in parties, a whole lot of Speakers — including two of the Lok Sabha — have given dubious rulings on the subject. The most astonishing was a 1997 ruling of the then Uttar Pradesh Speaker, Kesari Nath Tripathi, that amounted to declaring that the 12 defectors from the 89-member Bahujan Samaj Party constituted the requisite one-third of membership and therefore the split was valid! An amendment of the anti-defection law to make either the Election Commission or the Supreme Court the sole arbiter of the legitimacy or otherwise of party splits is long overdue. All the protests that the BJP and its allies have mounted against the outrage in Jharkhand are entirely understandable. It also stands to reason that the saffron camp is pulling out all stops to ensure that the Jharkhand trickery is not repeated in Bihar. But the cause of democracy is not being served by the wilful and daily disruption of Parliament — a pernicious practice that dates back to the day the Babri masjid was demolished, indeed even earlier. The time has come to cry halt to it. Let Parliament discuss how to end, once and for all, the misuse of gubernatorial powers and other abuses. To shut down Parliament is no remedy. An earlier budget was passed without any discussion. Unless the leaders of major parties realise their responsibility the latest Budget, too, might meet the same fate.

Tailpiece: In Parliament's Central Hall they are saying that the choice of Haryana's Chief Minister has exposed spectacularly the hollowness of the Congress' spectacular electoral victory in that State.

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