The Congress crying hoarse over the imposition of President’s Rule in Uttarakhand is like the proverbial devil quoting the scriptures.
How else can one describe the response of a party, which was instrumental in dismissing 91 non-Congress governments when it was in power (or the parties supported by it held the reins at the Centre) during the past six decades. And yet, the Congress’ political amnesia, true to its character and moral fibre, is such that it needs to be reminded of its own intolerant past.
In 1951, from the time that the government in Punjab was dismissed during Jawaharlal Nehru’s premiership, President’s Rule was imposed on 111 occasions in different states. Also during Nehru’s tenure, the first Communist government in Kerala, formed by EMS Namboodiripad, was shown the door in 1959. Of course, former prime minister Indira Gandhi takes the cake for invoking Article 356 the maximum number of times (45), and in most cases for political reasons to prevent the growth of regional leaders or parties. If any prime minister can be credited with pulling the plug on state governments out of sheer political spite and unconcealed intolerance, it was Indira Gandhi.
Let us get the facts and figures in perspective. While President’s Rule was imposed seven times during the 16-year tenure of Nehru, it was clamped on 45 occasions when Indira Gandhi was prime minister for almost a similar period. Also, twice when Lal Bahadur Shastri was the PM, six times during Rajiv Gandhi’s premiership, 11 times under PV Narasimha Rao’s tenure and on 10 occasions under former PM Manmohan Singh.
Article 356 was invoked four times each by the Samajwadi Janata Party (Rashtriya) founded by Chandra Shekhar and the Janata Party (Secular) led by Charan Singh. The United Front government headed by HD Deve Gowda used it on two occasions. All these governments were supported by the Congress in resorting to the use of Article 356.
During the six-year tenure of the NDA regime, led by prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, President’s Rule was imposed on four occasions and had to be clamped twice under the present government. In the two latest instances, internal squabbles within the Congress led to a constitutional breakdown in Arunachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, forcing the Centre to act.
It is apparent that the Congress used Article 356 as an arm-twisting tool against the Opposition and invoked it for settling political scores on many occasions; mostly the situation never warranted it. Although the critics of the BJP allege that it was “murdering democracy” and that the NDA was providing the Congress a dose of its own medicine, this is evidently not the case.
In Uttarakhand, for instance, a failed finance Bill was shown as passed when nine legislators voted against it and the government was reduced to a minority. There was a breakdown of the Constitution and the Uttarakhand chief minister was caught indulging in horse-trading on camera by offering inducements to MLAs. The forensic laboratory confirmed that the video (of the sting operation) was authentic. Even as this crisis paralysed the administration in the hill state, the assembly Speaker disqualified nine rebel MLAs a day before the floor test.
These unsavoury incidents led the governor to recommend President’s Rule while keeping the assembly in suspended animation.
It would be apt to recall an important recommendation of the Sarkaria Commission, which went into the whole gamut of Centre-state relations. While recommending that Article 356 should be used very sparingly, in extreme cases as a measure of last resort, when all available alternatives fail to rectify a breakdown of constitutional machinery in a state, it observed that these alternatives may be dispensed with only in cases of extreme urgency where failure on the part of the Union to take immediate action under Article 356 will lead to disastrous consequences.
The commission, in its report, mentioned that Article 356 was used sparingly in the initial years and was invoked 12 times up to 1967. It was resorted to on 62 occasions between 1967 and 1985. “The very first occasion of its use (Punjab in 1951) for resolving an internal crisis in the ruling party, contained the seeds for future misapplication. It rose to a crescendo in 1977 (and in 1980) when President’s Rule was imposed in nine states at the same time”, noted the report.
While pointing out that the Constitution makers were alive to the fact that several regions of the country had no past experience or tradition of the parliamentary form of government, and a failure or break-down of the constitutional machinery in a state could not be ruled out as an impossibility, the Sarkaria Commission report observed that a further duty was, therefore, laid on the Union to ensure that the government of every state is carried on in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution.
The BJP has never been a believer in political skullduggery and has never indulged in overthrowing or dismissing elected governments like the Congress, which has no moral right to even pretend to be the saviour of democracy.
The tragedy of the Congress is that after sinking deeper into the quicksand of political irrelevance over the last six decades and dragging parties supportive of its actions into an inextricable morass, it feels frustrated that it cannot take the high moral ground on any issue. Having been in power for long and wedded to an ideology of opportunism, the Congress with its desire for power has still not been able to come to terms with the BJP-led NDA government’s electoral success and its unwavering focus on development. This seething political frustration that the Congress suffers from is reflected in its puerile criticism of the NDA government on all matters, including the imposition of President’s Rule in Uttarakhand.
M Venkaiah Naidu is minister of urban development, housing and urban poverty alleviation and parliamentary affairs. The views expressed are personal.