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February 26, 1998


T V R Shenoy

The stage is set for a classic battle between two pillars of democracy

If it weren't all so sad, the Uttar Pradesh drama would be seen as a rich comedy. Take for instance a televised interview with Mayawati on Saturday, February 21. "The Bahujan Samaj Party," she declared grandly, "is offering full support to..." At this point there was a halt as she desperately fished for Jagadambika Pal's name!

How do you repose faith in a man whose name you can't remember? But even as Jagadambika Pal mercifully sinks back into the obscurity from which he sprang, the true fruits of Bhandari's mischief are just becoming apparent. And at the top of the list are the doubts thrown on the balance of power between the legislative, executive, and judicial wings.

Odd though it sounds, my misgivings on this score rise from the Supreme Court's ruling of February 24. The issue before the Supreme Court was a simple one in black and white: was it correct to sack Kalyan Singh without giving the BJP leader an opportunity to prove his majority?

Nobody should have any quarrel with their Lordships's decision to ask for a 'composite confidence vote'. It is unusual, but it isn't the first time such a strategy was proposed. On an earlier occasion, the Allahabad high court recommended that the governor send a message to the Vidhan Sabha, asking the House to choose its leader.

This time, however, the governor has been kept out of the picture altogether. The Supreme Court has fixed the date of the vote and the agenda of the House. Moreover, it told the speaker to report back to it after the vote.

If a speaker 'reports' to the courts, isn't that subjecting the legislature to the superintendence of the judiciary? And isn't it encroaching on the sovereign right of the House if a court decides what it may discuss?

This, as I see it, is the nub of the problem. Open any civics textbook and it will tell you that a democracy functions properly only when there is a rough equilibrium between the legislature, the executive and the judiciary. That being the case, can the judiciary, even the highest court in the land, dictate to the legislature?

Of course, the Allahabad high court set aside Bhandari's unconstitutional decision to sack Kalyan Singh. But it was righting a wrong in doing so, part of the system of checks and balances. Yet it stopped shy of encroaching on the powers of the governor (as he himself had trespassed on the rights of the legislature). The high court contented itself with suggesting that the governor ask for a floor-test. It didn't mandate such a vote.

On February 24, however, the ruling seemed to have a very 'corporate' feel to it. It seemed as though Kalyan Singh and Jagadambika Pal were a pair of squabbling corporate barons, with Bhandari masquerading as a crooked arbitrator. Actually, that isn't a very farfetched analogy at that.

The Supreme Court ruling would have been perfectly understandable had it been a takeover bid gone sour. With charges of proxy votes obtained under false pretences flying around, there is only one real solution -- a general body meeting held with court-appointed supervisors.

Unfortunately, the Uttar Pradesh Vidhan Sabha isn't a general body meeting and its speaker isn't an agent of the court. So where does that leave us?

It may not make too much of a difference in the current instance, but let us consider a hypothesis for the future. Another speaker is given similar orders by a judge. If he obeys, an angry legislature threatens to pull him up for contempt of the House. But if he disobeys, the judge charges him with contempt of court. In other words, the stage is set for a classic battle between two pillars of democracy.

And let us not absolve the executive wing for its contribution to this potential mess. I know several politicians who crib about individual criticism. But the courts step in only because of the hyperactivism of people like Bhandari and the refusal of act by men like Gujral!

The result is the slightly worrying situation seen today. Let me sum it up (a) the Supreme Court has assumed the power of the governor and (b) their Lordships have given the speaker the responsibility of 'reporting' to them.

I agree that a 'composite confidence vote' is an acceptable solution for the Uttar Pradesh mess. But I wish the Supreme Court had chosen some other means to achieve that end.

T V R Shenoy

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