Mamata’s tantrums

BACKWOODSMEN of Haryana’s khap panchayats and the Congress MPs from that state raring to support these medieval men are not the only ones needing elementary education in what the Indian Constitution is all about. The Union railway minister, supreme leader of the Trinamul Congress, and an apparently indispensable ally of the Congress in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), Mamata Banerjee’s need for a crash course in the same subject is much the greater.
Almost everyone is aware that nothing can be done about her all too frequent tantrums or her magisterial pronouncement that she would run the railways from Kolkata, not from Rail Bhavan in New Delhi. But someone has got to restrain her from persisting with her crusade for the “dismissal” of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M)-led Left Front government in West Bengal so that state Assembly elections can be held long before they are due. Her single-point agenda to be her home state’s next chief minister is as well known as her blind hatred of the Marxists who have been ruling West Bengal uninterruptedly since 1977.
Indeed, for want of positive response to her imperious demand from the Manmohan Singh government she has often blamed it for “providing oxygen” to the Marxists. After 35 years in power and having received a drubbing in the Lok Sabha elections last year, the CPI(M) seems on its way out in any case. Can’t the lady — some times accused of making common cause with the Maoists — wait? Her reply to the charge is that there are no Maoists in West Bengal, and that all the killings in the state are the handiwork of Marxist cadres.
The reasons for both Ms Banerjee’s hankering for immediate ouster of West Bengal’s Marxist ministry and the Union government’s unstated awareness that this cannot be done any longer are not far to seek. The letter and spirit of the Constitution, as adopted by the founding fathers, had never visualised arbitrary removal of state governments by the Centre. But during the era of a single-party dominance this healthy provision, like several others, was brazenly circumvented and even violated time and again. New Delhi could get rid of any state government not to its liking simply by asking the governor to report that the government of the state concerned could not be carried on in accordance with the Constitution. On receipt of such a report, all that the Union government had to do was to invoke article 356 of the Constitution and, with a single stroke of the President’s pen, the state government was sent out. With the Congress Party’s huge majority in both Houses, Parliament’s mandatory approval of the proclamation was a foregone conclusion.
There was one such glaring instance even during Nehru’s long reign although he was a stickler for constitutional norms and democratic decencies. This was the dismissal in 1959 of Kerala’s Communist ministry, headed by E.M.S. Namboodiripad, which had the distinction of being the first Communist government to come to power anywhere in the world through free and fair elections.
As the Sarkaria Commission on inter-state relations reported way back in 1983, after the Nehru era, especially during the time of Indira Gandhi, the misuse of the exalted office of governor and capricious dismissal of state governments increased conspicuously, primarily because usually partisan politicians were appointed governors and there was no restriction on their return to active politics. In the wake of the imposition of the Emergency in 1975 nadir was reached. To sack the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam government in Tamil Nadu, the necessary report was written in New Delhi; the then governor of the state, K.K. Shah, was asked just to sign it. Many years later, a self-respecting governor of the same state, Surjit Singh Barnala, resigned rather than succumb to the Centre’s pressure to recommend the imposition of President’s Rule.
The successive Congress governments in Delhi may be more culpable in this respect because they have ruled longer than other parties but no party, when in power, has been free from guilt. Indeed, one of the first things the Janata government did after Indira Gandhi’s defeat in the 1977 general election was to impose President’s Rule in nine Congress-governed states on the specious ground that these ministries had forfeited the right to rule after their party’s comprehensive defeat in the parliamentary poll. When only 33 months later, Indira Gandhi returned to power she reciprocated the compliment in all nine states, then being ruled by the Janata or its allies. Her more disastrous action was the dismissal of Farooq Abdullah government in Kashmir in July 1984 that contributed to the subsequent trouble in the sensitive state that hasn’t ended yet. Six weeks later her henchmen got the Andhra government of film star N.T. Rama Rao sacked. She had to eat humble pie and reinstate him.
To this day no one has paid any attention to the Sarkaria Commission’s wholesome recommendations to end this malaise. What then is the corrective that has made things difficult for Mamata-di? In 1989, the Rajiv Gandhi government had dismissed S.R. Bommai’s government in Karnataka that owed allegiance to some faction of the Janata Dal. He went to the Supreme Court that not only invalidated the Centre’s action but also laid down effective safeguards against its repetition. Yet, in 1997, hectored by Mulayam Singh Yadav, the Gujral government tried to dismiss the Bharatiya Janata Party ministry in Uttar Pradesh and install an alternative coalition, headed by a Congressman. To his credit, President K.R. Narayanan refused to sign the proclamation.
Old habits die hard, however. In the Bihar Assembly elected in 2005 no party had a majority so President’s Rule was imposed. But, in accordance with the Bommai judgment, the Assembly was kept alive. The moment it seemed that Nitish Kumar, opposed to the UPA then as now, was able to muster a majority, on governor Buta Singh’s recommendation, the UPA-1 government dissolved the Assembly in indecent state in the course of a single evening even though President A.P.J Abdul Kalam was away in Moscow. The proclamation was faxed to him and he signed on the dotted line. The Supreme Court declared the sordid exercise “unconstitutional”. Mr Buta Singh had to resign. Ms Banerjee, please note.

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