New Delhi, Jan. 24: Image-conscious Manmohan Singh came under attack from the Opposition today after the Supreme Court’s damaging observations on his government’s role in the Bihar Assembly dissolution in May 2005.
Although the judgment was mainly an indictment of Governor Buta Singh who, the court said, had acted with “undue haste” in preparing reports that led to the dissolution, it said the Manmohan Singh cabinet ought to have been more circumspect.
Accusing the governor of attempting to “subvert the Constitution” and “misleading” the Centre, the court said the government should have verified Buta’s reports that contained the grounds for recommending dissolution before accepting them as “gospel truth”.
Buta had said in his report that the BJP-Janata Dal(U) alliance was trying to cobble together a majority through horse-trading.
The 3-2 split judgment muddied the situation further for the government that was first rocked by the Volcker report on the Iraq oil-for-food scheme and then by the revival of the Bofors scandal.
Manmohan Singh said about the verdict: “The Supreme Court has got authority. We have to respect it.”
After a cabinet meeting, home minister Shivraj Patil, referring to the complexity of the 198-page verdict, said the government would study it carefully and make a statement tomorrow.
“This (complexity) is proved by the fact whereas three judges have held the act (of the governor) unconstitutional, the other two senior judges have disagreed,” Patil said.
It was clear that the Opposition would not be satisfied with Buta’s scalp alone.
Advani said: “The SC observations may seem harsher against the governor, but the culpability of the Prime Minister is evidently greater because it was he who convened the meeting of the council of ministers at the dead of night and it is he who was instrumental in misleading the President.”
The cabinet had met close to midnight in the Prime Minister’s residence and sent its recommendation to the President, who conveyed his assent while travelling abroad.
Before anything else, however, the Prime Minister has to get Buta to resign. The governor was making defiant noises this evening, saying he would hoist the national flag on Republic Day in Patna.
“Who told you that I am resigning' I have not said anything,” Buta said.
Government and Congress sources, however, said his exit was certain. At the same time, they were apprehensive that if made to go, Buta might speak of the circumstances that led to the dissolution. Although the reason he had cited in his report was the threat of horse-trading by the BJP-Dal(U) alliance, there was also pressure from Congress ally Lalu Prasad not to instal a rival combine in power.
The sources said given this possibility of further embarrassment, Buta’s exit had to be made as painless as possible.
Although two of the five judges differed from the majority judgment, the Constitution bench’s indictment of the governor was severe.
“It is a clear case where attempt was made to somehow or the other prevent the formation of a government by a political party ' an area wholly prohibited in so far as the functions, duties and obligations of the governor are concerned. It was thus a wholly unconstitutional act,” the bench ruled.
The judgment was an elaboration of an interim verdict the court gave on October 7, 2005, which nullified the cabinet’s May 23 decision to dissolve the Assembly.
Official sources argued that the verdict was “only an elaboration of the earlier one”, there was no new legal statement and the Prime Minister had already explained that the decision at the time was taken on the basis of the information on hand.
They said the observation that the government should have ascertained the facts did not “amount to a legal indictment”.