For the Congress, the new year has begun on an ominous note. If the ghost of Bofors paid a surprise visit to the party a fortnight ago, last week it saw the coalition experiment in Karnataka with H.D. Deve Gowda's JD(S) tearing at the seams. This week, it was the Supreme Court strictures against the constitutional gymnastics of Bihar Governor Buta Singh that saw his former colleagues in the Congress squirming in embarrassment. On January 24, the Supreme Court minced no words when, in an elaboration of its October 7 ruling declaring unconstitutional last year's dissolution of the then newly elected assembly, it stated, "The drastic and extreme action under Article 356 cannot be justified on ... whims and fancies of the governor.... The Council of Ministers should have verified the facts stated in the report of the governor before hurriedly accepting it as gospel truth. Clearly the governor has misled the Council of Ministers." Since the Home Ministry is the nodal body that recommends a governor's note for approval by the Cabinet, it was clearly Shivraj Patil's job to verify the contents of Buta Singh's note before passing it on to his Cabinet colleagues.
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As strictures go, seldom has the apex court come down so harshly on the executive. But the Congress typically chose to take refuge behind a fig leaf. Party spokesperson Abhishek Singhvi said, "The judgement does not indict the Government." The party also tried to take comfort in the fact that the judgement was not unanimous but a split verdict from a five-member bench. Chief Justice of India Y.K. Sabharwal, Justices B.N. Aggarwal and Ashok Bhan prevailed over the pro-Buta Singh verdict passed by Justices K.G. Balakrishnan and Arijit Payasat. Their knives already unsheathed with the resurfacing of Bofors, the Opposition was determined to extract maximum blood. Leader of the Opposition L.K. Advani demanded that both Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the governor resign. Manmohan typically said: "Whatever the Supreme Court says, the country has to accept it."
This was the first indication from the Government that Buta Singh may have to demit office. The problem, however, lay in convincing him that his time was up. For Buta Singh, dissidence comes easy. In April 1998 as a minister in the A.B. Vajpayee government, he refused to quit despite corruption charges levied against him in the JMM bribery scandal. Ultimately, the former prime minister had to sack him. The Left indulged in the familiar flip-flop. The CPI(M), which had supported the dissolution of the assembly in May, suddenly changed track and joined the clamour for Buta Singh's head. Congress President Sonia Gandhi met some of her key aides, including Ahmad Patel and Pranab Mukherjee, on January 24 before the Cabinet meeting. Unfortunately, for Sonia, Buta Singh was not the only worry. There was also the Karnataka crisis.
In the meantime, even before the Cabinet met, a defiant Buta Singh said he would not resign. He was in Delhi on the judgement day but called a press conference to announce that he was going back to Patna to take the salute at the celebrations of the 57th anniversary of the republic. In the Government, opinion seems loaded against him, though he has his share of supporters who feel that since both the Congress and the governor had weathered the October storm, they should not react to this judgement also. "Jharkhand Governor Syed Sibte Razi was criticised for encouraging horse trading. And now Buta Singh is being pulled up for preventing horse trading," quipped a Cabinet minister.
Though back in Patna, Buta Singh perpetually kept his former party colleagues in Delhi on tenterhooks, leaving Patil, Patel and Digivijay Singh, Congress general secretary in charge of Bihar, with their fingers on their cell phones. "If we press him to resign he may just turn around and blame the Congress for pushing him to recommend the dissolution. But we also don't want to give the Opposition another issue for the Budget session," says a Congress leader. Patil was also one of the last persons Buta Singh consulted before submitting his now-controversial recommendation to dissolve the Bihar assembly.
With no final decision even 48 hours after the judgement, the press was told that the Government needed time to study the order as it had received a copy of the 462-page document late on January 24 evening. In a weak defence, Patil recalled, "Parliament had discussed the Bihar governor's letter for dissolution and the decision was taken with the approval of both Houses." This was a curious statement. Had Parliament rejected the dissolution, the Government at the Centre would have fallen because that would have indicated that the Government had lost its majority on the House floor. The home minister consulted several legal experts, including Law Minister H.R. Bhardwaj, before he called on the prime minister on the evening of January 25. Patil is believed to have outlined three options before the Government: Buta Singh should fax his resignation after he takes the Republic Day salute; if he refuses to hand in his paper, the Cabinet Committee on Political Affairs be called or he be asked to resign; and the Government could file a review petition in the court. The last option was rejected outright since the Government was not keen to take on the Supreme Court again.
After calling on both the prime minister and the Congress president, the home minister told the press that the Government had deferred the decision on Buta Singh by another two days. Once again, Patil reiterated a 24-hour-old excuse, "We need time to study the judgement. It is over 400 pages long." The subtext was lost on none: the Government needed more time to persuade Buta Singh to go. In the meantime, Buta Singh was getting ready to receive his January 26 salute.
The genesis of Buta Singh's-and the Congress'-current troubles is in the fractured mandate that Bihar voters threw up in the assembly election held in February 2005 (see box).
From the evidence placed before it, the majority bench concluded, "The governor cannot refuse the formation of a government and override the majority claim because of his subjective assessment that the majority was cobbled by illegal and unethical means.... The governor is not an autocratic political ombudsman." Taking a contrarian stance, Justice Balakrishnan observed that in the three months before the dissolution no one had staked claim to form the government. "If the governor has reasonable apprehension and reliable information that unethical means are being adopted by political parties to get a majority they are certainly matters to be brought to the notice of the President of India," he said.
In his 222-page judgement, Justice Payasat said, "When the sole objective is to grab power at any cost, even by apparently unfair and tainted means, the governor cannot allow such a government to be installed."
During the past two years, two governors appointed by the Congress have come in for criticism by the Opposition. In February 2004, Governor Razi swore in a Congress ally, JMM chief Shibu Soren, as the chief minister of Jharkhand, only to have the government fall on the floor of the House. Earlier that month, Goa Governor S.C. Jamir was criticised by the BJP for acting in a "partisan manner" and giving its chief minister Manohar Parrikar only one day to prove his majority, while Congress Chief Minister Pratap Singh Rane was given 30 days.
What is worrying the Congress is also the fact that the office of the President has come under criticism. According to constitutional expert Fali Nariman, President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam also had a "moral responsibility" in this case. There are precedents when Presidents have turned down cabinet recommendations for the imposition of governor's rule. In October 1997, the then President K.R. Narayanan turned down a recommendation by the I.K. Gujral ministry for the dissolution of the Uttar Pradesh assembly.
As far as the BJP is concerned, it has been handed an issue on a platter. If Bofors helped focus the guns on Sonia, Buta Singh has helped the Opposition shift its target right into the Prime Minister's Office. From all accounts it is going to be a stormy Budget session.