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Buta Singh Redux? Why it's looking ominous for Rajkhowa in SC

Saurav Datta | Updated on: 14 February 2017, 5:31 IST

On 27 January, the Supreme Court began examining JP Rajkhowa's decision to recommend President's Rule in Arunachal Pradesh. But if the apex court's earlier stand is any guide, it doesn't look good for the governor, or the NDA regime.

In 2005, Governor Buta Singh kicked up a political storm when he asked President APJ Abdul Kalam to dissolve the Bihar assembly and impose president's rule.

Read: All you need to know about the Arunachal crisis that's haunting the Parliament

In his report to the president, Singh had claimed that horse trading of MLAs was rife, which threatened constitutional democracy in Bihar.

Since Singh had dislodged the NDA government led by Nitish Kumar, the BJP accused the UPA regime, which had appointed Singh, of trampling on the constitution. The matter eventually ended up in the Supreme Court.

Setting an example

The apex court delivered a scathing indictment against Buta Singh, barely stopping short of calling him a "Congress henchman". In its judgment on 7 October 2005, it struck down the imposition of President's Rule, calling it dishonest exercise of power and an attempt to subvert the constitution.

It found Singh's claims without any tenable basis and held that he had acted outside the scope of his powers. As for deciding on political defections, that was the sole prerogative of the assembly speaker.

In 2005, SC said a governor had no legal power to refuse disclosure his report for judicial scrutiny

The judgment laid out in no uncertain terms that the governor had no legal power to refuse disclosure of his report recommending President's Rule for judicial scrutiny.

As a result of the ruling, President's Rule had to be lifted, and the Congress had to scramble to deflect criticism of political dishonesty and vindictiveness against its rivals.

The story doesn't seem much different this time except that it's the BJP which is in the dock.

In this case too, the governor's role and actions form the crux of the NDA's problems. In particular, Rajkhowa's stand that he is not bound to disclose his report - in which he reportedly claimed that the constitutional machinery in Arunachal had broken down and asked for President's Rule.

Also read: If #ArunachalCrisis is a T20 match, the umpire just ruined it for the BJP

Rajesh Tacho, Chief Whip of the Congress Legislature Party who has moved the apex court against President's Rule, has contented that Rajkhowa's refusal to disclose the report demonstrates extreme bad faith and is an affront to judicial authority.

The Congress claims - as the BJP did in Buta Singh's case -- that Rajkhowa is acting as a proxy of the BJP, which is trying to poach its MLAs and seize power in Arunachal.

Point of contention

This is a serious allegation for it goes to the heart of the working of Indian democracy - cooperative federalism. Stripped of its constitutional and legal intricacies, cooperative federalism essentially means that the Centre would not take overbearing actions against states even if ruled by its rivals.

This is perhaps what was in President Pranab Mukherjee's mind when he asked the Centre to explain why it was so impatient to impose President's Rule in Arunachal. He reportedly tried to dissuade the government from acting in haste but he could do only so much. After all, the constitution's Article 74 obliges him to "abide" by the cabinet's decision.

Sanjay Hegde: it's unlikely that Rajkhowa would stick to his guns and refuse to disclose the report

Now that the Supreme Court has issued notices to them - and the Congress has upped the ante - how could Rajkhowa and the Centre respond?

Senior advocate Sanjay Hegde said it's unlikely that the governor would stick to his guns and refuse to disclose the report. This is for the simple reason that constitutional functionaries are hesitant to go on a confrontation course with the judiciary. He refers to a case from 1993, when the speaker of the Manipur assembly had refused to comply with a court's direction. He relented when he was summoned to appear in court personally.

What will Rajkhowa and the Centre do? They have until 2 February, the next date of hearing in the case, to decide.

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First published: 28 January 2016, 3:27 IST
Saurav Datta @SauravDatta29

Saurav Datta works in the fields of media law and criminal justice reform in Mumbai and Delhi.