HR Bhardwaj’s decision may well be the right one, but his methods set an unfortunate precedent
Karnataka Governor Hans Raj Bhardwaj’s assent to prosecute Chief Minister BS Yeddyurappa has opened a debate on governors pushing the envelope on constitutional matters. While the central issue is Yeddyurappa’s alleged favouritism and amassing of wealth, it is worthy of recall that these charges are being investigated by the state’s Lokayukta. The haste and actions of the Governor point to a larger political conspiracy, in which a showdown is inevitable—between the Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The Supreme Court has clarified that the governor does have such powers, in the AR Antulay vs RS Nayak case and at least three more instances where governors gave the nod: for Lalu Prasad, J Jayalalithaa and Virbhadra Singh—all chief ministers then. But in all these cases, it was the investigating agencies that had sought sanction and not private individuals. In Yeddyurappa’s case, the Governor sanctioned prosecution based on the petition of two lawyers, calling themselves the Justice Lawyers’ Forum.
That Bhardwaj has hardly been acting independently is very clear. There have been several instances when the honourable Governor’s actions were questionable, to say the least. The former Law Minister in UPA-1 has publicly pledged loyalty to the Congress President even after being appointed to the gubernatorial post. And he has been encouraging efforts to destabilise the BJP’s first government in South India ever since he replaced TN Chaturvedi at Raj Bhavan.
While experts interpret the Supreme Court’s observations to suit their defence, Bhardwaj’s actions, based on a petition by two advocates, have left him open to allegations that don’t augur well for Centre-state relations.
The 53-year-old lawyers, Sirajin Basha and KN Balraj, affiliated to the Janata Dal-Secular, had approached the Governor with 35 land grab charges against the Chief Minister. Their claim that the Lokayukta refused to entertain their complaint, and hence they had to petition the Governor, does not wash as they could have still approached the High Court.
Bhardwaj, who spent considerable time with the petition, asked for and inspected all the files that the government provided. When it became clear that he would sanction the CM’s prosecution, the CM wrote to him even as the state cabinet also urged him not to sanction the prosecution. The Governor, instead, chose to publicly humiliate the CM by saying, “Ulta chor kotwal ko dantey (the thief scolds the policeman).” On 21 January this year, the Governor made public his views to the media. Strangely, a copy of the sanction letter was not given to the CM till noon the next day. In the 21 January letter, he refers to 15 such cases and says that the state lost Rs 465 crore while the CM’s family made gains of Rs 189 crore.
While it is not clear how he arrived at the figure, his action smacks of political vendetta, giving the impression that, unable to invoke Article 356 and dismiss state governments at will, the Centre is willing to use the Raj Bhavan as a tool.
But, due credit must be given to the Governor for having put on his thinking cap. As he explained in his communiqué, ‘A prima facie case was made out for sanction of the CM’s prosecution under section 19 (1) of the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988 and under section 197 of the Criminal Procedure Code, 1973.’ He added he had examined legal issues including ‘whether the doctrine of aid and advice is attracted for giving the requisite sanction. And whether sanction can be given on the basis of a complaint and documents furnished in support of the allegation without investigation.’ His wisdom: ‘Democracy would be at stake if I don’t [act].’
Here, the Governor is certainly guilty of not seeking the opinion of the state cabinet on whether to take cognisance of the petition, especially as an investigation was already underway.
The two lawyers also lost no time in filing charges against the CM for criminal conspiracy, criminal breach of trust, cheating, forgery and criminal misconduct by a public servant in the designated magistrate’s court that deals with corruption cases. They also filed a caveat in the High Court to prevent the CM from getting a stay without their case is heard.
On an earlier occasion too, when rebels and independents had walked out of the BJP government, the Governor was quick to send a report to the Centre that Yeddyurappa had lost his majority in the house and toy with the idea of letting the opposition form an alternative. Even when he was reminded that a floor test was the only way to count the numbers, the Governor controversially wrote to the Assembly speaker asking him to desist from suspending the rebels and independents. Yeddyurappa won the test after the speaker suspended them. Later, the High Court too upheld the speaker’s action.
A defiant Yeddyurappa has now refused to resign and has indicated that he would take the battle to court. Even as he plans a state-wide yatra after the Karnataka bandh, which the party has called a success, the BJP leadership met the President, petitioning her to recall the Governor. The Chief Minister also has the support of all BJP MLAs, who have come together despite differences among them, in view of the wafer-thin majority that the party has in the Assembly.
“The Governor cannot stomach my popularity despite his attempts to brand me corrupt. It’s an unconstitutional and mala fide action of the Governor in collusion with the opposition Congress and JD-S,” Yeddyurappa retorts.
“Bhardwaj always set precedents. We all know what he did to favour Quattrocchi, who is Congress President Sonia Gandhi’s close friend. Ever since he was made Karnataka Governor, he has been trying to destabilise the government,’’ says a senior BJP leader. Bhardwaj is alleged to have delayed the government’s response after Quattrocchi was arrested in Argentina, and later favoured the Italian by defreezing his bank accounts, which supposedly held bribes from the Bofors howitzer deal.
As a thick political fog of uncertainty envelops Karnataka, the question is whether the kotwal acted in public or party interest. In a constitutional system, even a chor has the right not to be discriminated against.