June 23, 2021
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Too Little, Too Late

And now comes belated damage control and adoption of the higher moral ground in Goa. But even the old faithfuls would find it difficult to buy the new party line trotted out by various Congress spokespersons. The silence from the PM and the Congress

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Too Little, Too Late

And now comes belated damage control and adoption of the higher moral ground in Goa. But even the old faithfuls would find it difficult to buy the new party line trotted out by home minister Shivraj Patil that the centre "was not happy with what has happened in the Assembly today and has taken suo-motu action without waiting for the governor's report" and that it had decided therefore to impose President's rule in Goa.

The pressure of hostile and angry public opinion cutting across ideological and party lines on the UPA was manifest in the way a hurried meeting of the union cabinet was called within hours of Pratapsinh Rane winning a controversial vote of confidence with the "help" of the pro-tem Speaker Fransisco Sardinha's casting vote. Sardinha did not just help with his casting vote -- he also debarred UGDP MLA Mathany Saldanha from voting on the basis of a disqualification petition filed by Congress MLA Jitendra Deshprabhu.

Amidst furore from the opposition benches, Sardinha put to vote the motion of confidence moved by Rane which resulted in a 16-16 tie in the house with an effective strength of 33 (with the barring of Saldhana). Sardinha then cast his vote in favour of the government. Fearing just this, and with the public outrage over what had been perpetrated in Jharkhand, and by himself on February 2, Governor S.C. Jamir had asked the Speaker only to conduct the motion of vote of confidence. No other business was allowed in the house. But the Goa Congressmen were not put off by any such constraints, it would seem.

Earlier, the Supreme Court had adjourned for Monday the hearing on the petition filed by Manohar Parrikar challenging his dismissal by the governor on Feb 2. But the SC also assured Parrikar's counsel and former Attorney General Soli J Sorabjee that it wanted "to watch the developments in Goa". The court had added, "We are not saying the petition would become infructuous." The SC keeping a close watch and the flak over the Jharkhand decision was not the only pressure on the Congress -- the threat of the remaining BJP MLAs resigning "en masse" was another factor. Effectively, it left the Congress at the centre no choice but to now try and devise a face-saver. Ergo, the hurried cabinet meeting after which it was left to home minister Shivraj Patil to equivocate.

"The Cabinet has decided to impose President's rule in Goa and keep the Assembly under suspended animation. What has happened in the Legislative Assembly of Goa today is not acceptable to the government. It was not proper not to allow one member to vote and then get the Confidence Motion passed with a casting vote given by the Speaker. This is exactly what was done by the previous government and in the Legislative Assembly. If that is wrong, this is also wrong," Patil offered by way of an explanation after the meeting.

As for Jharkhand, the governor cut a very sorry figure after being summoned and heard by the President. The buzz was that the President would at the least ask him to shorten the time given till March 21 to Shibu Soren to prove his majority in the Assembly. After the 30 minute meeting, all the governor would say to reporters was that he was going to "prepone the date". But there was coyness about what the Prez had suggested to him. Later, after meeting the home and the prime minister, he repeated that he "will instruct the government to advance the (session of) Assembly and call it soon." He would not give a specific date about the time, but said it would be before March 21.

Why had he given so much time to Soren? He could only come up with something about it not being a normal Assembly and that being "a newly-elected Assembly, it needed time for appointment of a pro-tem Speaker, oath by new members and the governor's address". He added that in such circumstances, normally 30 days are given for proving the majority but he had, "only given only three weeks". Three weeks to prepare the governor's address? Oh, well, he had to say something. Would it be too much to ask that he be called back?

Earlier in the evening, there was a mild flutter when Girinath Singh, a minister in the Soren government, told a press conference that nomination of an Anglo-Indian legislator would be made before the trial of strength on the floor of the house. Besides the 81 elected members, the Jharkhand assembly has the provision for one nominated legislator from the Anglo-Indian community who has voting rights during a confidence vote. The nomination is made by the governor. Asked whether such a move was ethical before the trial of strength, Singh said, "if the Nitish Kumar government in 2000 could do it in the Bihar assembly, why can't we?" Indeed, but perhaps he forgets the fate of that Nitish Kumar government.

The Raj Bhawan has denied any such move. Perhaps an embarrassed central government has changed its brief? In any case, the important point is that as long as NDA has the support of 41 MLAs, this appointment -- unethical indeed though it would be, if made -- would not really make any effective change. With this nomination, the effective number of MLAs in the house would go up to 82. The Soren government would have to choose a pro-tem Speaker, and on voting the NDA's 41 should easily be enough to defeat the Soren motion, which would only be able to muster up 40 (excluding the pro-tem Speaker). The Speaker's casting vote comes into the picture only in case the votes are tied as happened in Goa today (which is why Goa's Speaker had resigned on Monday, forcing the Congress to appoint a pro-tem speaker). But that is only if the numbers hold till then.

And it is this which explains the NDA's justifiable anxiety. On the other hand, various assorted but minor Congress leaders and spokespersons have been persisting with charges of abduction of independent MLAs. The same charge was reiterated, yet again, in Ranchi by UPA's Girinath Singh in the press conference referred to above. According to him, the NDA had "illegally confined" Enos Ekka in Rajasthan, and that despite the threats and pressure, Ekka would support the UPA during the confidence vote. He was, however, silent on Hari Narain Rai, who, like Ekka, also figures in both the NDA and UPA lists. Both of these MLAs were among the five "paraded" before Jharkhand Governor Syed Sibtey Razi and later, President A P J Abdul Kalam.

One obvious way to read this would be to take it as usual bluff and bluster and an effort to defend the indefensible, with nary an expression of regret or shame, but these are serious charges indeed and if there has indeed been coercion of this kind, it needs to be exposed. Equally serious are the charges levelled by the NDA against police harassment at Ranchi airport and the sensational get-away their MLAs apparently had to make. A thorough investigation and probe in the whole affair is therefore of urgent importance. It is important to fix responsibility and punish the guilty as per law, no matter who they happen to be.

With these developments evoking wide public protests, it is highly unlikely that the Bihar governor would now be in a hurry to invite any one to form a government, and Bihar too seems headed the way of President's Rule. So perhaps that is the silver lining to the cloud and an affirmation of the power of public opinion. A spontaneous, non-violent, expression of outrage by all, cutting across party lines and the media onslaught, did force the Congress to be chastened a bit, however belatedly, and however little. So democracy works, albeit imperfectly.

Also, in many ways, it does point to the importance of the symbolic but crucial role played by the President and the fear of the judiciary. To make the best of the worst situation, it is imperative that a clearer, substantive resolution of the Jharkhand imbroglio is found.And for that it is necessary that the governor immediately reduce the time given to Shibu Soren to prove his majority. That would be the shortest and swiftest way to resolve the crisis, given the murky circumstances, charges and counter-charges.

If this episode manages to shift focus on the irrelevance of governors in modern day India and forces us all to debate and evolve a better system to handle the post-election scenario -- without leaving it to the whims and fancies of an appointed, mostly partisan governor -- it would have served its purpose well. To talk about the obvious need to check criminals in politics and the nexus between politicians and criminals now would be futile, but the equally obvious role of money and muscle power to induce "independent" or smaller parties to give or withdraw support is something that needs urgent and focussed attention.

What is shocking though is that neither the Prime Minister nor the Congress President have been heard from on this. Coming out clean on where they stand would be a beginning. Their silence is deafening.

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