Vijayawada: The ordinance tinkering with the tenure of the State Election Commissioner (SEC) remains a grim pointer to show how the 10-month old Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy government in Andhra Pradesh is the latest example in taking controversial decisions which have gotten bogged down in a vortex of legal disputes.
N. Ramesh Kumar, who was shunted out by the government after it reduced the term of office for the SEC from five years to three through an ordinance, approached the Andhra Pradesh high court. His abrupt dismissal also resulted in three public interest litigations from different quarters being filed in the high court.
Earlier, the Supreme Court had refused to intervene in a petition filed by the state government challenging the SEC’s decision to defer the local bodies in view of the coronavirus crisis. The court ruled that it could not meddle with the functions of the SEC.
In an apparent bid to woo the backward classes (BCs) away from the opposition Telugu Desam Party’s (TDP) fold, the YSR Congress government issued a government order increasing the quota in the local bodies from 27% to 34% in the run up to the elections. This spike in the BC quota resulted in reservations for BCs, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes touching 60%, crossing the Supreme Court’s cap of 50%. Citing this cap, the high court struck down the government’s order.
The TDP urged the government to move the apex court seeking to review the high court’s ruling and withhold the local body elections until the issue of enhanced BC quota is settled. But Reddy pushed ahead with the elections as per the schedule, saying his state might have to forego Central grants of Rs 5,000 crore if the elections are put on hold for any longer.
In the run up to the panchayat raj elections, the YSR Congress government introduced village secretariats with the aim of taking the village administration to the doorstep of rural people. When the government attempted painting the so-called village secretariats with colours similar to that of the ruling party’s flag, the high court found fault with this action.
Plan to distribute capital also in court dispute
The chief minister’s flagship agenda of distributing the state’s capital also ran into rough weather, with the high court putting its foot down on shifting the Vigilance and Enforcement Department to Kurnool. The state assembly had in January adopted a resolution seeking to take forward the three capitals agenda. Close on the heels of this decision, a group of farmers from the Amaravati region moved the high court. Subsequently, the court directed the government to put the decision on hold until the grievances of the petitioners are addressed. In the meanwhile, the government was accused of trying to subtly shift the government departments out of Amaravati, in contravention of the court ruling.
The high court ruling in the murder case of Jagan’s uncle Y.S. Vivekananda Reddy apparently embarrassed the government. Responding to the petitions of the victim’s daughter Sunitha Reddy and widow Sowbhagyamma, the court directed the government to divest the state probe agencies of the case and entrust it to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). The petitioners approached the high court, against the delay in the progress of the case, even though the government is headed by a family member of the victim. The petitioners allegedly suspected a family angle to the murder, linking it to the alleged dilly-dallying by the state police. Interestingly, Jagan, while in opposition, demanded a CBI probe into the murder of his uncle, expressing the lack of faith in the state police during the TDP regime.
Court’s direction on PPAs
Another major policy decision of the Jagan government was to revisit the power purchase agreements (PPA) signed between the state-owned distribution companies and solar and wind power developers during the previous TDP government. The government contends that the PPAs were signed at rates higher than other states.
The NDA government advised the state government against tinkering with the PPAs, saying such a move will not send the right signal across to investors.
Ambassadors of countries including Japan, Canada and France, some financial institutions and renewable energy developers had taken up the matter with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Union power minister R.K. Singh and also Jagan, raising concerns over the state’s move to reopen sealed contracts.
This move was also met with disapproval in the high court. The high court ruled that the state cannot seek changes to an agreement signed between a distribution company and a developer. The state government contested the ruling of a single-judge bench of the high court but lost its legal battle on the question of downward revision of the PPAs.
Jandhyala Ravi Shankar, a legal expert, told The Wire that both the Supreme Court and the high court had passed over 50 orders on various decisions taken by the Jagan government in the 10 months it has been in power. “The CM quite often says his party has secured an overwhelming majority of seats—151 in Assembly and 22 in the Lok Sabha—in the 2019 elections. That is true, but it doesn’t mean that the political executive has the powers to destroy constitutional organs like the State Election Commission and rule like a monarch,” he observed. If the elected governments fail to function within the framework of the rule of law, a constitutional breakdown is imminent, Jandhyala warned.
Ummareddy Venkateswarlu, the YSR Congress’s chief whip in the AP Legislative Council, however, refused to comment over the setbacks that the government has faced in courts.