The popular tune of Come September, unlike the rage which the 1961 Hollywood flick created for millions, would not be music to the ears of Uttarakhand Chief Minister Tirath Singh Rawat. The former student activist and present Lok Sabha member from Garhwal was sworn-in as Chief Minister of Uttarakhand on March 10 this year in the midst of the Kumbh fiasco, which is largely now being blamed for the second wave of coronavirus across the Ganga plains and other parts of the country.
The cause for Rawat’s predicament is our Constitution, whose Article 164 (4) states, “a Minister who for any period of six consecutive months is not a member of the Legislature of the State shall at the expiration of that period cease to be a Minister.” Rawat’s problem are manifold the first and foremost being that he is not a member of the state assembly and the state legislature of Uttarakhand being unicameral, unlike some of the larger states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Maharashtra, he has no other option but to enter assembly through a by poll.
A Minister who for any period of six consecutive months is not a member of the Legislature of the State shall at the expiration of that period cease to be a Minister.
The assembly has two vacancies, first Gangotri caused by the death of a sitting MLA due to Covid-19 and now Haldwani, caused by the recent death of Leader of Opposition, Indira Hridyesh, whose seat Rawat may not find very safe to contest. All the other seats in the assembly, whose life anyway ends in March 2022, are for now occupied. Rawat would have to ‘force’ the by polls for both the seats to take place well before September to end the looming political crisis.
In normal circumstances, this should not have been difficult but given the pandemic situation will the Election Commission risk such a move especially when the assembly elections are due in the just-over six-months’ time. In the past the Commission in the situation of ‘less-than-a-year of the life of the House left’, has clubbed the by polls with the general elections to the assembly.
In the recent past, the Commission has been squarely blamed for outbreak of the second wave of coronavirus by holding multi-phased assembly elections in West Bengal despite several opposition parties flagging the issue. Somehow, Tirath Singh Rawat’s fate has also got linked to that of West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who too is not a member of assembly having lost the Nandigram seat to Suvendu Adhikari. Her traditional Bhowanipore seat has been vacated but the Centre to create embarrassment for Banerjee could use pandemic reasons to delay the by polls.
This leaves Uttarakhand Chief Minister Tirath Singh Rawat in not a very enviable situation, which is comparable to that of Girdhar Gamang, the former chief minister of Odisha. In February 1999, Gamang, then a member of the 12th Lok Sabha, was made chief minister of Odisha. Two months later, in April 1999, there was a vote-of-confidence for the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government at the Centre, and Giridhar still resigned from parliament, participated in the proceedings and voted against the government. Vajpayee lost by just one vote (269–270), forcing dissolution of Lok Sabha.
Gamang, and many other Chief Ministers in similar situation, have only resigned their seat of Parliament after a safe passage to state legislature, lest they be left, as described by English poet John Milton in Paradise Lost, in a formless void. In the recent past, there is an example of Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray, who was not a member of any legislature – central or state, forcing his way into legislature through the Legislative Council route, despite the impediments created by Governor Bhagat Singh Koshiyari.
Other Chief Ministers in similar situation, have only resigned their seat of Parliament after a safe passage to state legislature, lest they be left
As mentioned earlier, the council route is not available to Tirath Singh Rawat but the nation’s legislative history has the BP Mandal-Satish Prasad Singh chapter from Bihar, where a stop-gap Chief Minister was appointed for three-days before the incumbent CM returned to the office.
In 1968, the first non-Congress government in Bihar led by Mahamaya Prasad Sinha, faced a revolt. The Congress legislature party led by former Chief minister KB Sahay supported a breakaway group of Socialist Party led by BP Mandal (who later famously authored the Mandal commission report) for the Chief Minister’s post. A problem arose as Mandal was then a Member of Parliament. An unprecedented political arrangement was made where a relatively junior leader Satish Prasad Singh was made Chief Minister, who nominated Mandal to the Legislative Council and vacated the chair for latter. With the new arrangement enjoying support of the Congress, the ruling party at the Centre, Governor N Kanungo went with the arrangement.
For Uttarakhand Chief Minister using this option could be very embarrassing especially when his predecessor Trivendra Singh Rawat is in a rebellious mood and cracks are appearing in the state unit in the run-up to the assembly poll. The last option could be that Chief Minister Rawat declares dissolution of the House and the polls three-months later are held under Central rule.
Even while taking into account the frictions in the state unit, will the Central party leadership risk such a move and invite criticism especially when simultaneous polls are scheduled in the neighbouring and politically more crucial Uttar Pradesh. The BJP in Uttarakhand is certainly in a mess and largely of its own making.
Sidharth Mishra is a political commentator and president, Centre for Reforms, Development & Justice. The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author.