On Tuesday, the Supreme Court issued a directive, judiciously mixed with a mild snub to the union government that merits a hearty welcome. Hearing a petition by the Aam Aadmi Party, praying for an immediate dissolution of the Delhi Assembly now in a state of suspended animation, to be followed by fresh elections, a five-member Constitutional bench, tersely told the Central government to come back to it within five weeks with a “positive response.” Their Lordships added that the matter should not be looked at from the AAP’s point of view, but from that of every Delhi citizen who wonders why all of the capital region’s MLAs are “sitting at home and drawing their salaries.”
Before approaching the Supreme Court, the AAP leader, Arvind Kejriwal, had gone to the Lieutenant-Governor of Delhi, Najeeb Jung, with the same request but had drawn a blank. For, Delhi is a Union Territory, and therefore its L-G has therefore to act with the sanction of the union home ministry. With its full and firm control of at the Centre, the BJP is no hurry to do anything about Delhi’s suspended assembly. In all fairness, it must be said that what the saffron party is doing now has been done for decades by whichever party or coalition has been in power. With her overwhelming majority, Indira Gandhi had imposed presidential rule at least a hundred times, more than half the time, unjustly. It was the higher judiciary which, through its judgments, put some restraint on her. It came forward with a remedy. It decided that no assembly could be dissolved until Parliament had approved the proclamation of President’s rule.
However, even this did not end the misuse of the power to dissolve an assembly that was in suspension. Soon after the Congress-led UPA came to power at the Centre, in Bihar the assembly was so fractured that neither the Congress and its allies, nor their opponents, led by Nitish Kumar, were able to muster a majority. Buta Singh, a former Union home minister and a hatchet man of successive Congress prime ministers was governor of Bihar.
Discovering one fine morning that Nitish Kumar was close to winning over a majority in the assembly, Singh reported to the centre that the assembly should be dissolved instantly. The Manmohan Singh Government had a problem. President A P J Abdul Kalam was away in Moscow. New Delhi sent him the relevant file by fax. He signed it and sent it back the same way. The Bihar Assembly was thus dissolved just a few hours before it was due to meet.
Inevitably, the matter went to the Supreme Court, which held that the actions of both the Prime Minister and the President were “unconstitutional”. The court also passed some strictures against the governor and Buta Singh had to resign.
It is against this broad backdrop that all the manoeuvring about the Delhi assembly needs to be discussed. In three successive polls to it since 2003, the Congress Party, under the leadership of Sheila Dixit, had won with a comfortable majority. In the December 2013 election, however, the Congress got a drubbing even worse than in three other states that had gone to the polls at the same time. The Congress strength in the House plummeted to mere eight in a House of 70. The BJP was the largest party, but did not have a majority. The most dramatic outcome of this election was the spectacular debut of the AAP, which was the second largest in the legislature. To everyone’s surprise, Kejriwal had defeated the three-time chief minister, Sheila Dixit, in her constituency by 25,000 votes.
Presumably, no one wanted re-election at a time when the country was involved in the vastly more exciting run-up to the high-stake Lok Sabha election. With the “support from outside” of the eight Congress MLAs, the AAP leader was able to form a government and make extravagant promises to the people, such as free supply of water, halving the electricity bills, the passing of a Lok Pal Bill (for which the state assembly had no authority) and so on. At one time, he even staged a nightlong dharna at the height of Delhi’s winter.
The activities of some of his ministers were even more bizarre. No wonder then that Kejriwal’s government lasted only 49 days. While resigning, he advised the L-G to dissolve the assembly. But because his majority had collapsed, his advice was not binding.
There was no justification for keeping the fragmented Delhi assembly alive, but there was one powerful, if also disingenuous reason to do so: Whichever side won the Lok Sabha poll might be able to cobble a majority through the time-honoured technique of horse-trading. No wonder, shortly after the massive Modi victory, word went round that several Congress MLAs were willing to defect to the BJP in return for a few crores of rupees each. These rumours could have been totally baseless. But they were widely believed because this disgraceful sale and purchase of political loyalties has gone on for too long.
Since, given the composition of the present composition of the Delhi assembly, no viable government can be formed, some are arguing that the assembly should, of course, be dissolved but instead of holding fresh elections, Delhi should be placed under President’s rule for at least six months. Why? Heed instead the wise words of Justice H L Dattu, who headed the Bench: “The citizens will like to be ruled by a government of elected representatives rather than the Lieutenant-Governor.”