It is a well-known fact that Article 356 of the Constitution has been used, misused and abused by the powers at the Centre –mostly Congress party to unsettle the non-Congress governments in the state on very flimsy grounds.
Arunachal Pradesh is not the only isolated case in point. A cursory look at the history of such events would prove this point beyond doubt.
As per the provisions of Article 356 President’s Rule can be imposed in a state in case of failure of democratically elected government, mainly due to lack of majority. The state is brought under Central Rule, the Governor being the representative of the President.
When President’s Rule is imposed the Chief Minister and his Council of Ministers stands dissolved and the Governor becomes the de jure constitutional head. The state assembly is either put in the suspended animation so that alternatives for forming popular government could be explored or the House is dissolved and fresh elections are conducted.
This provision of imposing Central Rule has its origin in the Government of India Act 1935 that formed the bedrock of our Constitution and its provisions. The then British Occupation Government of India conceded right to government to provincial bodies but inserted a provision of “retreat to the Centre” to keep an iron grip over the native politicians ruling these provincial councils.
But, of course, this was colonial rule and there were limits. One check was Section 93 of the Government of India Act which allowed a provincial governor appointed by the British Raj in Delhi to assume the powers of a provincial government if the administration cannot be “carried on with the provisions of the act”. This was the first avatar of the current Article 356.
The Congress which had won the elections in eight of the 11 provinces at the time protested strongly against the undemocratic provision of Section 93. It demanded that the British Viceroy give an assurance that the governor would not interfere with the working of the elected provincial governments. Linlithgow, the Viceroy, did and only then did the Congress assume office.
After Independence the Congress replaced the British Rule with a difference that Section 93 became Article 356 in our new Constitution keeping the provisions intact and unchanged.
This Article makes India a unique nation amongst federal democracies to have provision to dismiss an elected popular government and the successive governments in Delhi have used this Article liberally. Since 1950, the year in which India accepted the Constitution and proclaimed itself a Republic, there have been 113 instances of unsettling the democratically elected governments in the states.
Ignoring the directive principle that states “Article 356 is only to be used in case of failure of constitutional machinery”, the governments at the Centre used, misused and abused it umpteen times obviously to guard the political interests of the ruling party in Delhi. As JR Siwach wrote in 1977, the “main consideration” in case of Article 356 “has always been the interests of the Congress Party in the Centre”.
Ironically, it was Nehru, one of the framers of the Constitution and First Prime Minister of India who misused the Article 356 in dismissing the democratically elected government of Punjab headed by Chief Minister Gopichand Bhargava.
Moreover, in what would become a regular practice, the governor’s letter asking for President’s rule originated not with the governor but with the Centre itself. Historian Granville Austin writes that in this case, the Congress had “blended its interests with questionable national needs to take over a state government”. In 1954, the Andhra state’s government was dissolved because the Centre feared a communist regime taking power.
In 1959, Nehru dismissed the Communist government in Kerala even as the Congress was involved in a bitter political battle in the state. How did the Governor justify dismissing an elected government which still enjoyed the confidence of the house? “It is not necessary that a no confidence motion be passed,” the Governor said. “I am convinced that the government has lost the support of the majority of the people.”
Matters kept on deteriorating until reaching a climax in 1970s, as instability at the Centre meant Delhi would often dismiss elected governments in order to further the narrowest of politic interests.
In 1977 and 1980, the Janata Party and Congress dismissed state governments not controlled by their party on a mass scale, not even bothering to pretend that they were working under the constitution.
In 1983 the Sarkaria Commission by the central government of India to examine the relationship and balance of power between state and central governments in the country and suggest changes within the framework of Constitution of India.
It recommended that Article 356 only be used in extreme cases, it gave 247 recommendations but none were implemented. Any real curb on the powers of the Centre would have to come from the judiciary.
- Bommai v. Union of India case in 1991 was a landmark judgment of the Supreme Court of India, where the Court discussed at length provisions of Article 356 of the Constitution of India and related issues.
This case had huge impact on Centre-State Relations. The misuse of Article 356, popularly known as “President’s Rule”, to impose central authority on states, was stopped after this judgment.
The Supreme Court laid down strict guidelines on how a state government is to be dismissed, making it mandatory for a no-confidence motion to be passed in the house. “The assessment of the strength of the Ministry is not a matter of private opinion of any individual be he the Governor or the President,” the judgement read. It also made the use of Article 356 subject to review by the courts, overturning the earlier convention where the government of India was supreme.
Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, Chairman of the Drafting Committee of the Constitution of India, referred to Article 356 as a dead letter of the Constitution. In the constituent assembly debate it was suggested that Article 356 is liable to be abused for political gains.
Dr. Ambedkar replied,
“I share the sentiments that such articles will never be called into operation and they would remain a dead letter. If at all they are brought into operation, I hope the President, who is endowed with these powers, will take proper precautions before actually suspending the administration of the provinces. I hope the first thing he will do would be to issue a mere warning to a province that has erred, that things were not happening in the way in which they were intended to happen in the Constitution. If that warning fails, the second thing for him to do will be to order an election allowing the people of the province to settle matters by themselves. It is only when these two remedies fail that he would resort to this article.”
But this was never the case and before the judgement in Bommai case, Article 356 has been repeatedly abused to dismiss the State Governments controlled by a political party opposed to ruling party at centre.
Former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi tops the list of Prime Ministers to impose Central Rule in states. She did so on 50 occasions! Morarji Desai invoked this Article for 16 times, Manmohan Singh for 12 times, P V Narasimha Rao for 11 times, Jawaharlal Nehru used it for 8 times, Rajiv Gandhi 6 times, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Chandrasekhar five times each while Narendra Modi in his brief tenure of two years imposed President’s Rule three times.
By Virag Pachpore