23 APRIL 2016
On going beyond 'Bommai'
The Uttarakhand High Court's verdict declaring the imposition of President's Rule in the State as unconstitutional was expected, but the quick stay on its operation granted by the Supreme Court means that Harish Rawat is once again a "former Chief Minister" and President's Rule is back in force. The dismissal of an elected government on the eve of a confidence vote was a drastic measure that no court could have unequivocally endorsed. The High Court after all was only applying the law laid down in the Bommai case in 1994, which made it clear that the only place to ascertain the majority of a government was the floor of the House. In assessing the merits of the Centre's case for the imposition of President's Rule, the High Court had to examine three main contentions. These were the unusual passage of the Appropriation Bill through a voice vote rather than a division (following which the Bill was not sent for approval to the Governor), the summary disqualification of nine dissident ruling party legislators, and a sting video that allegedly caught Mr. Rawat offering inducements to win back the support of dissidents. Serious though these issues are, the Uttarakhand High Court concluded, and perhaps with some justification, that they did not add up to a breakdown of the constitutional machinery in the State.
While it is impossible to predict what the Supreme Court will make of the High Court's judgment - the full details of which are not yet available - the controversy in Uttarakhand is symptomatic of the kind of problem that requires a judicial fix going beyond the rules laid down by the Bommai judgment. Seminal though it was, the Bommai case was essentially about imposing a restraint of gubernatorial discretion - nay, even machination. By the 1980s, Raj Bhavans had become a stage for headcounts and horse-trading; some incumbents resorted to questionable means to prevent legitimate attempts to cobble up a majority. The judgment did put an end, or at least considerably mitigate, this kind of problem. However, those relating to the application of Article 356 today are somewhat more complex. Chief Ministers cling on to posts even after dissidents have clearly reduced their governments to a minority, and partisan Speakers manipulate floor tests by a selective application of the anti-defection law. (The BJP is no stranger to this cynical and self-serving game; in 2010, Chief Minister B.S. Yeddyurappa ‘won' the floor test in Karnataka after 16 legislators were summarily disqualified.) If earlier the problem was that of partisan Governors, the issues that need to be addressed in today's political context are that of partisan Speakers and vitiated floor tests. Bommai placed severe limitations, and very rightly in our federal set-up, on the Centre's discretion to dismiss politically inconvenient governments. While keeping the handcuffs that this judgment had introduced in place, what we need are some fetters to keep the ruling party and their friendly Speakers from making a mockery of floor tests.
Growing cracks in the U.S.-Saudi alliance
When U.S. President Barack Obama arrived in Riyadh to attend a regional summit of Gulf leaders, he was welcomed by the local governor, not by King Salman Bin Abd al-Aziz himself. Given that the monarch personally welcomed other leaders who arrived for the summit, this is a strong indicator of the deep rift in the U.S.-Saudi alliance. The visit was positioned as a major diplomatic outreach to the kingdom by Mr. Obama, perhaps his last as the President, to allay concerns about Washington's approach towards Iran and other contentious issues such as the civil war in Syria. But it turned out to be a low-key affair with both sides holding on to their respective positions. This is not the first awkward moment in the over 70-year-old U.S.-Saudi alliance. On the face of it, relations are riddled with contradictions. One is a democracy that has even embedded human rights issues into foreign policy actions. The other is a closed society ruled by a conservative, authoritarian family. But economic and strategic interests - the U.S.'s dependence on the Gulf for oil, the fight against Soviet communism and the war on terror - had helped both countries set aside these contradictions and build a strong partnership based on trust. Of late, with the region witnessing massive changes, this partnership has come under enormous strain.
Relations turned sour when Washington refused to protect the regime of Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian dictator, when he was threatened by mass protests. The mistrust deepened when President Obama declined to bomb Syria. It hit a new low when the Iranian nuclear deal was signed. The Obama administration is against bombing Bashar al-Assad's regime because it thinks a collapse of the state in Syria would help the Islamic State. Likewise, it wants Iran to play a more responsible role in regional politics, especially in stabilising Iraq and defeating the IS in Syria: both are vital for American interests in the region. This marks a clear divergence of interests between the U.S. and its Sunni Gulf allies, who are worried about Iran's growing stature in West Asia. Interestingly, Mr. Obama pressed ahead with his policy despite pressure from the Gulf. One reason is that the U.S. is no longer dependent on the Gulf for oil, thanks to its domestic shale boom. Another is the realisation in Washington that it needs Iran to stabilise the region. That doesn't mean it is going to abandon Riyadh or embrace Tehran. Both the U.S. and Saudi Arabia still need each other. Despite tensions, U.S. defence sales to the kingdom and other Gulf countries have soared in recent years. The U.S. is still committed to the security of its Gulf allies. On the other side, Washington and Tehran do not even have full diplomatic relations. But the underlying message of Mr. Obama's policy changes is that it can't be business as usual for the Saudis. A rebalancing is under way.