India: Government Embarrassed due to Gubernatorial Indiscretions

2005

Rana Ganguly

The Congress-led UPA (United Progressive Alliance) Government in New Delhi has experienced major embarrassment over recent weeks due to partisan decision-making by its gubernatorial appointees in the states of Goa and Jharkhand.

In Goa the BJP-led government fell into crisis with four BJP members of the state's Legislative Assembly falling out with the party leadership over ministerial power and responsibilities. The Congress saw this opportunity to seize power by lobbying with the state's Governor, S C Jamir (himself a former Congress Chief Minister of the north-eastern state of Nagaland), to dismiss the incumbent government led by Manohar Parikkar. This was based on the premise that the BJP had lost its majority and that the Opposition now had more seats and should therefore form a new government. However, Pratapsingh Rane, the Opposition Leader (and former Congress Chief Minister of Goa) failed to prove a majority in the State Assembly. Mr Parikkar challenged the Governor's decision by lodging a complaint with India's highest judicial court, the Supreme Court in Delhi, under advice from Soli Sorabjee, a former Solicitor-General of India. The House has not been dissolved as yet but the controversy has already caused enough embarrassment to the UPA, which is regretting its decision to challenge for the leadership. Several senior central ministers including the Home Minister, Mr Shivraj Patil and the Congress Chief, Mrs Sonia Gandhi, have distanced themselves from the prime movers of this campaign.

In Jharkhand, a tribal dominated state in eastern India where elections were recently concluded, the NDA (the National Democratic Alliance formed by the BJP and its allies) won 41 out of a total of 80 state assembly seats and staked their claim with the Governor to form the government. However, the Governor, Syed Sibte Razi, another appointee of the UPA Government, inexplicably ignored them and instead invited Shibu Soren, a leader of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM), an ally of the Congress, to form government. Mr Soren, currently a minister in the central cabinet, was a fugitive from justice until recently and had gained notoriety when he was indicted a few years ago for changing sides in the central elections after accepting a bribe. The then Congress Prime Minister, the late P V Narasimha Rao, was proven guilty of engineering his defection (ruled illegal in a decision based on existing Indian legislation) and had to undergo imprisonment.

The controversy over the recent actions of the governors of Jharkhand and Goa reached the President of India and the Supreme Court. Former Chief Minister Arjun Munda in his petition said 'Soren has himself indulged in such acts of horse-trading which are well known and have come under scrutiny by the Supreme Court in the case of P V Narasimha Rao vs State, popularly known as the JMM bribery case'. Munda also requested that the position of the Soren government be tested in a vote in the state assembly on 11 March; and called for the appointment of an 'independent judge' as an observer of the proceedings to make it 'transparent, peaceful, voluntary and without any disturbance and coercion'. Munda linked the developments in Jharkhand to those in Goa and sought police protection for the legislators. He issued a directive to the Jharkhand Director General of Police not to take coercive action against any MLA until the assembly vote. In fact, all NDA legislators were moved to the north-western state of Rajasthan under police protection so that they could not be kidnapped or coerced into changing sides before the vote. While the President made his displeasure over the arbitrariness of the Governor's action clearly known and ordered the vote in the state assembly to ascertain the majority, the Supreme Court instructed the state machinery to bring forward the date of the assembly vote as a pre-emptive move against coercive measures by the JMM. Predictably, the NDA was invited to form government after it convincingly proved its majority, while Soren and his Congress allies had to migrate from the treasury benches to the other side.

The Supreme Court order on 9 March advancing the date of the assembly session, ordering that it be recorded on video, directing police protection for all legislators and fixing the one-point agenda for the session evoked sharp criticism from some sections of the UPA, but also applause, primarily from the media and NDA members. It led the Lok Sabha (lower house in the Indian Parliament) Speaker and noted constitutional expert, Somnath Chatterjee, to plead for a Presidential Reference (asking the President to make a judgment to resolve the issue) as he thought the Supreme Court had breached the principle of separation of powers, one of the basic features of the Constitution.

WATCHPOINT: Could the Governors have taken such decisions without consulting the Congress Party high command in Delhi? If so, what does this say about the impartiality of the high office of Governor of the state and the morality of the current executive? Can an errant legislature object to the watchdog role of the judiciary in a vibrant democracy?

 

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