Debating India


No alternative to dissolution

Tuesday 24 May 2005

Three months after Bihar voters delivered a split verdict, the State is set to go back to the people. A second election in so short a time is hardly anything to celebrate, not least because of the time, expense, and energy involved. Yet, under the specific circumstances, dissolution of the State Assembly was the only democratic and constitutionally proper course open to the Centre. The presidential proclamation of dissolution - whereby the President under advice from the Council of Ministers exercises, under Article 356, the powers expressly given to the Governor by Article 174(2)(b) - will take effect only when both Houses of Parliament approve the irreversible action. This is the binding import of the majority judgment of the Supreme Court in the Bommai case of 1994. The practical consequence is that the electoral process in Bihar may take a while to get under way. Over the previous week, sections of the Lok Jan Shakti Party had crossed over to the Janata Dal (United), setting the stage for a tortuous period of horse-trading, claims, counter-claims, and quite possibly litigation. The Constitution clearly envisages President’s Rule as an exceptional, interim measure, and in Bihar the `necessary evil’ came about in a situation where the Assembly was hopelessly deadlocked. In a House of 243, the Rashtriya Janata Dal and its Left allies had 79 seats while the two other alliances, the Bharatiya Janata Party-JD (U), and the Congress-LJP, had 92 and 39 seats respectively. The key to government formation rested with Ram Vilas Paswan who, however, insisted on remaining in trisanku land until his flock revolted.

When the State was placed under President’s Rule in March, the House was kept in suspended animation, not dissolved, precisely because the constitutional convention is to give political parties a chance to break the deadlock and form a government. It was open to both the Congress-Rashtriya Janata Dal and the BJP-JD (U) to use the window provided by President’s Rule to persuade Mr. Paswan to align with them. That was the legitimate route to power. Instead, the JD (U) and the BJP offered inducements to a section of the LJP to cross over to their side. What followed was a drama enacted over and again in Indian legislative history, with the Congress historically being the worst offender. A good number of Mr. Paswan’s 29 MLAs vanished only to materialise in Jharkhand, a State ruled by the BJP and the JD (U). The BJP’s case is that a government was on the verge of taking shape when the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance Government moved in to sabotage the effort. Atal Bihari Vajpayee has even characterised the dissolution move as a "murder of democracy." The Opposition seems conveniently to have forgotten the amended Tenth Schedule to the Constitution, which mandates disqualification of legislators who defect from the party that fielded him or her as its candidate. There is a saving clause to the effect that disqualification on the ground of defection will not apply in the case of the original political party "merging with another political party," as defined in the Schedule, but resort to this would have made a mockery of elective democracy. Dissolution, an irreversible executive decision that needs the higher sanction of Parliament under the Constitution, gives an even chance to the warring political camps to get their act together and win a fresh mandate from the people.

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