The change at the helm in Uttarakhand seems triggered by legal and political obstacles
Pushkar Dhami has replaced Tirath Singh Rawat as the new CM of Uttarakhand, in the second change of guard in the State within four months. Mr. Rawat was not a member of the State legislature, and would have had to be elected an MLA if he were to continue in office beyond six months. The BJP has put out a narrative of a legal limbo to explain the change, claiming that it had become impossible for him to be elected an MLA within the six-month timeframe. Mr. Rawat said in an exit statement that “given the constitutional crisis, I felt it was right for me to resign”. He went on to add, “bypolls could not be held because of COVID-19”, which was not his decision, or the BJP’s to take. The Representation of the People Act 1951 mandates that a bypoll for any vacancy should be held within six months of that vacancy arising, provided that the remainder of the term is not less than one year, or the ECI and the Centre do not certify that holding that bypoll in that timeframe is difficult. The Act does not bar a bypoll even when the remaining term of the Assembly is less than one year, though it becomes optional in that case. In the past, the ECI has conducted bypolls for Assemblies that had less than one year of life remaining. It also remains unclear whether the ECI decided not to conduct bypolls to the two vacant seats in the Uttarakhand Assembly on account of COVID-19 or any other reason.
The change of guard appears to be a political decision of the BJP but the party does not want it to appear so. Over two terms, the BJP has had seven CMs in the State. For all its claimed mastery over matters political, the party picked the wrong horse in Mr. Rawat, an admission implied in his replacement. Far from putting the BJP house in order, Mr. Rawat’s tenure of nearly four months aggravated the tensions within the State unit and embarrassed the party elsewhere. While a political party can run its affairs as it deems appropriate, backing up its decisions with speculation on how the ECI might act creates an unhealthy fog around the institution, which has had to deal with similar situations elsewhere too. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who is not a member of the State Assembly, needs to be elected to it within four months. The Assembly has seven vacant seats but there is no clarity regarding the ECI’s plans to hold by-polls. For its own reputation and to demonstrate fairness in the conduct and timing of elections, the ECI must explain its thinking regarding pending bypolls. The pandemic has raised unprecedented challenges in the management of elections that the ECI has to adapt to. It must do so in a transparent manner and ensure that its actions or silence do not appear designed to accommodate political machinations.