The Uttarakhand high court quashed President’s rule in the state on Thursday, restoring the Harish Rawat-led Congress government and asking it to prove its majority in the assembly on April 29.
The verdict comes as an embarrassment for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government at the Centre which has been accused of trying to grab power in states ruled by opposition parties.
The Centre brought the state under central rule on March 27, citing “governance breakdown” after nine Congress lawmakers rebelled against Rawat. The deposed chief minister had challenged in court the Centre’s decision which came just a day before he was to prove his strength in the assembly.
A division bench of the high court said at the end of four days of hearing that they did not find enough material to justify the imposition of President’s rule.
“When the government takes action under Article 356 of the Constitution, it is expected to be non-partisan, it cannot have any kind of bias, but we do not see it here,” the bench of chief justice KM Joseph and justice VK Bist said, referring to the constitutional provision under which central rule was promulgated.
Assistant solicitor general Rakesh Thapliyal, who argued on behalf of the Centre, requested the bench to keep its order in abeyance. When the judges refused saying the Centre can approach the Supreme Court, Thapliyal said the government will do so.
The court ruling came after days of scathing observations against the Centre, which has argued that courts cannot have jurisdiction over a presidential order. The court’s remarks had signaled that the court could strike down President’s rule in the state.
If Rawat fails to prove his majority, the governor could chose to either invite the BJP to form the government or dissolve the house and call fresh elections.
The high court said the disqualification of the nine rebel MLAs by the speaker under the anti-defection law was no material for imposition of President’s rule.
The judges, however, made it clear that they were not completely against central rule as it could be necessary in cases where there was a breakdown of the state machinery and constitutional norms.
“But this was no such case,” the court observed.
The high court observed that the fate of the rebel Congress MLAs was an extraneous matter and it was a constitutional sin to defect. “If a defection has taken place, they have to pay for the sin by disqualification.”
A single bench of the high court will hear on April 23 the rebel lawmakers’ plea against their disqualification, which may impact Rawat’s floor test.
Thursday’s court decision triggered celebrations by Congress workers in the state capital, Dehradun.
“We welcome the high court decision. This is a victory for the people of Uttarakhand. People have a right to govern themselves,” Rawat told reporters.
The verdict also triggered a torrent of criticism against the BJP.
The Congress demanded an apology from Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah for “trampling” democracy. It described the court order as a slap on the BJP’s face for trying to dislodge an elected government.
Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal called the court’s decision “a huge embarrassment” to the NDA government.
“This is a huge embarrassment to the (Narendra) Modi government. He should stop interfering with elected governments and respect democracy,” the Delhi chief minister tweeted.
The Left parties too called the court order a “slap to the subverters” of the Constitution.
“The anti-constitutional juggernaut of BJP’s central government has been halted in its tracks by the judiciary in Uttarakhand,” CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury told PTI.
Similarly, CPI national secretary D Raja said the verdict was “a huge embarrassment” for the NDA government, which acted in an “authoritarian manner”.
Trouble started in the state on March 18 when the BJP and nine rebel Congress legislators led by former chief minister Vijay Bahuguna, whom Rawat had replaced in 2014, said the budget was not passed in the assembly and his government was in a minority.
Though speaker Govind Singh Kunjwal said the budget was passed, Governor KK Paul asked Rawat to prove his majority on March 28. Two days before that, a sting video surfaced, allegedly showing Rawat trying to bribe the rebels. Using this, the Centre imposed President’s rule on March 27.
(With agency inputs)