"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." The principal architect of the Indian Constitution, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar made this statement with reference to Article 356. Today, the fears of Dr. Ambedkar have turned into reality. For those like Ambedkar believing the use of this Article should be judicious, the present-day situation is that of hopeless adversity.
Article 356 or “President’s Rule” is that part of the Constitution which deals with presidential discretionary powers. In terms of legality, discretion is defined as the ability to choose where, how and with what severity to act. An individual with discretionary powers has the ability, then, to choose to utilize his or her options and decide which to use, whether this is arresting a person on the street (criminal) or evicting someone from an apartment (civil) or anywhere in between.[i]
Article 356 has been the focal point for political discussions and debates since its introduction in the Indian Constitution. Since Independence, this article has been brazenly misused a multiple number of times only to suit the despotic whims and fancies of the Centre.
President’s rule is proclaimed in a state on account of failure of the constitutional machinery of that state. It gives the President power to assume control of the state in question. This happens on receipt of a report from the Governor stating that the government of that state cannot be carried on with accordance of the Constitution. It essentially means that when a democratically elected government is incapable of forming a government mainly due to lack of majority, the state comes under complete control of the Centre, through the Governor.
This Article gives the Central Government the right to propose President’s Rule only if “the situation has arisen in which the government of the state cannot be carried on.” The motivation for applying this principle, however, rarely is the one in the books. Most of the times, it has been utilized for the sole purpose of sacking the government in the state. When it was introduced in the Constitution, many leaders of the Constituent Assembly expressed their apprehensions towards it. They were anxious that this kind of authority in the hands of a president could be exploited by the Centre against the states if the parties ruling the Centre and the State happened to be different ones.
“The proper thing we ought to expect is that such an article will never be called into operation and that they would remain a dead letter.”
Dr Ambedkar also thought that Article 356 would never be brought into practice, and as mentioned above, if it were to be brought into practice, it would be done with utmost precautions and care. Even though he managed to put the debate to an end in the Constituent Assembly by appealing for a vote that said this provision would be a “dead letter”, the dispute around it has still continued.
The first disputed misuse of this article dates back to 1959, when Jawaharlal Nehru ousted the communist-led government of Kerala, despite it having the loyalty of the House. What mustn’t be forgotten is that whilst the Communist government was being dismissed, the Congress party was embroiled in a rather resentful political clash. Nehru evoked a practice in the Centre that has proven to be extremely domineering in practice.
Following the footsteps of Nehru, Indira Gandhi and after her, the Janata Government both toyed with this Article. This was done by ousting elected governments just to retaliate against their political rivals or to reclaim their lost power. One of the best examples of this was after the emergency when the Janata party came to power in 1977 it beseeched President’s Rule to dismiss nine Congress governments. Making it into a cat and mouse game, when the Congress came to power in 1980, it dismissed as many non – Congress governments.[ii]
A commission called the Sarkaria Commission was set up in 1983 by the Central government to examine the relationship and balance of power between state and central governments of the country and suggest changes within the framework of the Constitution of India. It was headed by a retired Supreme Court judge named Justice Ranjit Singh Sarkaria. The Commission identified that the use of Article 356 had been rising as time ticked by.
This trend of dismissing governments for political gain came to a stop when Rajiv Gandhi came into power. But this was only because the Congress had emerged triumphant in many states. And it was rather short-lived, too. When PV Narsimha Rao came to power in 1992, he dismissed four states ruled by BJP in response to the Ram Mandir turmoil.
The landmark case of S.K. Bommai vs. The Union of India was one where the court discussed at length the provisions of Article 356 and other related issues. It had a severe impact on centre-state relations. The judgment aimed at curbing the exploitation of Article 356. The Supreme Court in its judgment mentioned that this article is an extreme power and must only be used as a last resort. The judgment was passed by a bench of 9 judges, all of whose views were similar as the concerns that the Sarkaria Commission.
In recent times, we saw the President’s Rule being imposed in two states- Arunachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. In Uttarakhand, the role the Centre played was scrutinized and the President’s proclamation was challenged; whereas in Arunachal Pradesh, the Governor was reprimanded. The Congress reclaimed power in Uttarakhand after the Supreme Court directed a floor test and in Arunachal Pradesh, the “unconstitutional” use of powers by the Governor was proclaimed as adequate to hand over the reins to the Congress government.
These circumstances once again highlight the nature of Article 356. The judgment of the Bommai case of 1994 sought to restrict its misuse. It analyzed that the future of a State Government couldn’t be decided at the Raj Bhavan but through strength in the Assembly. It also came to a conclusion that imposition of President’s rule and grounds for dismissal of a government is subject to judicial review. No matter what political party holds the reign of power, this draconian article has been used to play mindless games of power.
Article 356 gives the Centre ample powers to assert its rule over a state if the constitutional machinery fails and that state doesn’t possess the means to regain the constitutional machinery. The fundamental function of this article is to give more powers to the Centre and assist the state in times of dire crisis. But it has always been used to dissolve the state government governed by political rivals. It is perceived by many as a peril to the structure of our democracy. But at the same time, one mustn’t let slip away that it is this article that comes to the rescue when there is genuine turmoil and breakdown of constitutional machinery. Guidelines provided by the Bommai judgment should be strictly adhered to ensure wise usage of this article. The Indian polity to remain democratic in essence must retain Article 356 and bring it into practice with deliberation and utilize it only when the states are thwarted with malfunctioned governance.
[i] Thorburn, Malcolm (Apr 2008). "Justifications, Powers, and Authority", Yale Law Journal. 117 (6): 1070–1130.
[ii] Manoj C.G., (January 28, 2016). “From BJP to Congress, the shifting stands on use, abuse of Article 356”, The Indian Express, New Delhi. http://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-news-india/from-bjp-to-congress-the-shifting-stands-on-use-abuse-of-article-356/
- Vinodh Reddy (December 20, 2016) ”Emergency Provisions: Article 352,356,360” https://edugeneral.org/blog/polity/emergency-provisions-article-352-356-360/
- Jaimin R. Dave “A Key To Presidential Proclamation under Article 356 of Constitution of India” http://www.legalserviceindia.com/article/l324-S.-R.-Bommai-v.-Union-of-India.html
- Gyanant Singh (April 28, 2016) “Article 356: ‘The Dead Letter’ comes alive once again” http://www.governancenow.com/views/columns/article356-uttarakhand-harish-rawat-the-dead-letter-comes-alive-once-again
- Virag Pachpore “Imposition of Central Rule: A historical perspective” http://indiaopines.com/imposition-central-rule-historical-perspective/
- G. Noorani “President’s Rule: Limits and Checks” http://www.frontline.in/static/html/fl2812/stories/20110617281204500.htm
- Thorburn, Malcolm (Apr 2008). "Justifications, Powers, and Authority", Yale Law Journal. 117(6): 1070–1130.
- Manoj C.G., (January 28, 2016). “From BJP to Congress, the shifting stands on use, abuse of Article 356”, The Indian Express, New Delhi. http://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-news-india/from-bjp-to-congress-the-shifting-stands-on-use-abuse-of-article-356/
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