Governor of Jammu and Kashmir Satya Pal Malik played willing marionette to the two puppeteers who, between them, aspire to run an Opposition-mukt Bharat — to use the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) infelicitous but revealing terminology — and dissolved the state Assembly within hours of three parties coming together to stake acclaim to form a fresh government.
Since the BJP-Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) government was dissolved in June, the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly kept in suspended animation and Governor’s Rule imposed in the state, Malik was not bound by the convention of recommending the dissolution of the Assembly on the advice of the chief minister and state cabinet because neither existed. He took a hurried call on the orders of Delhi — in other words, Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The dissolution deprived the PDP the opportunity to form a government in Jammu and Kashmir again. Before dissolving the House, the governor had refused to acknowledge a faxed letter from PDP chief Mehbooba Mufti, who had been the chief minister before alliance partner BJP withdrew support. Malik had also refused to take calls from her, forcing the PDP leader to tweet the letter.
Important political and constitutional issues lie at the heart of Malik’s move. Legally and constitutionally, Malik can say he was well within his rights to dissolve the Assembly. But what Malik and his Delhi minders perpetrated was what is called in legalese as either a “fraud on power” or the “illegal use of power”. Essentially, this means that legitimately available power was exercised, but it was done in the pursuit of illegitimate goals.
If the governor had thought that the state’s constitutional machinery had broken down, he should have sent a report to the Centre recommending the dissolution of the House. That is the normal procedure. Even when a state is to be brought under Governor’s Rule illegitimately — as in the extant case — the Centre usually waits for the governor to send a rigged report. In this case, no report was sought, or, it appears, submitted in writing.
However, the point is that if Malik had wanted the Assembly dissolved, he should have made the recommendation in August, after taking over the gubernatorial reins., or his predecessor NN Vohra should have done so. In fact, enough people had demanded the dissolution of the Assembly, including National Conference leader Omar Abdullah.
The timing of the dissolution makes it clear that Malik moved under orders — willingly or otherwise — to forestall the formation of a government that would prove inimical to the BJP’s calculations. By dissolving the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly, Malik ignored admittedly dodgy precedents set elsewhere by his BJP masters.
Take Bihar. In 2015, an alliance of the Rashtriya Janata Dal, Janata Dal (United) and Congress had swept the state elections and formed a coalition government. In July 2017, barely two years later, in a move clearly orchestrated by outgoing and incoming chief minister Nitish Kumar and BJP leaders, Nitish disbanded the “grand alliance” by resigning as chief minister and was sworn in hours later in the same position, but with the BJP as his new ally. No gubernatorial compunctions seemed to have been experienced in showing the green light to this utterly unprincipled manoeuvre — a blatant betrayal of the 2015 mandate.
Let’s take Goa and Manipur next. In Goa, the Congress won 17 of the 40 Assembly seats and the BJP, 13. The BJP got nine legislators on its side — three each from the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party and Goa Forward Party and three independents. Armed with a list of 22, it was invited to form a government, which it duly did. No reservations were expressed about this opportunist post-poll alliance.
In Manipur, the Congress had won 28 seats out of 60, while the BJP had bagged 21. The Congress’ outgoing chief minister, Ibobi Singh, had staked claim to form a government as the leader of the party that had won the largest number of seats. His claim was ignored, and the BJP was given time to initiate its practiced politics of manipulation. Ultimately, the BJP formed a government in Manipur with the support of the National People’s Party (four MLAs), Lok Janshakti Party and Trinamool Congress (one each), a Congress MLA, who strangely enough did not invite the provisions of the anti-defection law, and independents. BJP governor Najma Heptullah did not seem to be worried about the fragility or stability of this coalition of convenience.
Now take Jammu and Kashmir, as a matter fact. When the PDP and BJP decided to form a coalition government, no questions were raised by the governor about this decidedly surreal alliance. If you really stretch yourself, you can find some common ground between the PDP and National Conference — they are both Kashmiri parties; both are committed to some notion of Kashmiri exceptionalism and autonomy; and both are wary of the BJP’s Jammu-based Hindutva agenda, sharing, as they do, the same kind of social constituencies. Also, the PDP and Congress have been allies in the past. But by what stretch of imagination did the then governor of Jammu and Kashmir decide that the PDP and BJP, who are ideologically and programmatically on absolutely opposite ends of the spectrum, could form a “stable” government? The imagination boggles.
Now, the BJP, in its avatar of the central government, and its man in Srinagar are voicing concerns about the stability of an alliance between the PDP, National Conference and Congress. One newspaper has reported that the central government views this coalition as detrimental to the political situation in Jammu and Kashmir. Of course it does. But not because the “arrangement” would be riven by “contradictions”. The BJP and the central government are concerned because the new arrangement would have shut the BJP out and brought an end to its ongoing attempts to use People’s Conference chief Sajjad Lone as a cat’s paw to induce PDP legislators into his party and form a government with BJP support.
In the process, the BJP has continued with its serial subversion of institutions. From the governor’s post — an unnecessary colonial residue inserted into the polity under the Government of India Act, 1935 — to police-elected provincial governments have been politicised for some time now. Indira Gandhi most famously used it to unseat state dispensations she did not favour — the unseating of the Charan Singh government in 1970, despite the chief minister having the support of the Jana Sangh, the Congress (O) and the Sangathana Socialist Party, may have been a straw in the wind then. But after returning to power in 1980, she cynically manipulated constitutional provisions to unseat several governments.
The BJP’s manoeuvre bears all the fingerprints of Indira’s style of functioning.
What will transpire now is not yet clear. Someone or the other could move court against the dismissal of the Assembly, which would make logical sense. The Congress and National Conference may be content to wait things out for another six months, by when state elections will have to be held. But allowing the BJP to hold the reins for six months through Malik should be a sobering thought.
In a general sense, the Jammu and Kashmir situation, once again, proves one thing though — that the more the BJP becomes like the unreconstructed Indira Congress, especially of 1980s vintage, the shriller its absurd spokespersons become in their denunciations of the Congress and its historical legacy, never mind the fact that the present-day Congress has shed a lot of that baggage.