Article 356 of the Constitution, which empowers the Centre to dismiss a state government, has been frequently used to settle political scores and demonstrate political dominance. The decades of the 70s and 80s were especially notorious for its misuse — and almost all dispensations have used the provision during their time in power at the Centre.
The so-called Bommai judgment (which bunched the dismissals of three different state governments into one) in 1994 took a dim view of the actions of the Centre and the Governor, and laid down the floor test as the way to determine majority. Another big political shift of that decade was the involvement and participation of powerful regional forces in governments at the Centre.
This stretched the boundaries of what India was — as a federation, and not just a Union of States — and there was, a few exceptions notwithstanding, a little less anxiety over the past two decades about central governments targeting state governments in order to establish their own party’s rule, or to destroy opposition governments.
The return of a virtual one-party government led by the BJP, and its recent actions in Arunachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, have, however, re-opened old wounds. With no regional party having any significant clout in the NDA, there are apprehensions that India might be beginning to turn its back on the progress that the federal principle has made since the 1990s.
As Uttarakhand sees a floor test on Tuesday to determine whether the sacked Harish Rawat government has majority, here are five less known but key examples of dismissals of state governments by parties at the Centre — offering a window to the history of the use and misuse of Article 356 of the Constitution.
The government of PEPSU (Patiala and East Punjab States Union), a union of eight princely states, a precursor to Punjab (including in effect, present day Punjab, Haryana and Himachal), was the first state to face the use of Article 356 against its government. The “United Front” government of Gian Singh Rarewala was seen as an irritant by the Congress government at the Centre, and was dismissed in March 1953. It wasn’t an outright political dismissal like that of the EMS Namboodiripad ministry that was to follow, but it prompted Dr B R Ambedkar, who was part of Jawaharlal Nehru’s cabinet, to rue the inclusion of Article 356 in the Constitution and wonder if it had been a mistake.
EMS headed the world’s first elected communist government, and the Congress saw communists, the national opposition at the time, as its principal rival. Land and education reforms in Kerala ranged powerful lobbies including the Catholic Church, the Nair Service Society and the Indian Union Muslim League against the government. Their long-drawn Vimochana Samaram, an anti-communist “liberation struggle” that began in 1958, paralysed the state. The state Congress supported the agitation. Nehru, who analysts say was nudged by the new Congress president Indira Gandhi, dismissed the Kerala government in July 1959 — the first classic political dismissal under Article 356 of a state government by a central government of a different party.
1976, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat
The DMK government was dismissed during the Emergency on January 31, 1976. The politics of Tamil Nadu had been an irritant for the Congress ever since it lost control of the state in 1967; there was probably also a view that dismissing the DMK, a powerful regional force, would take away the momentum from anti-Emergency forces in the country. The Emergency also saw the dismissal of the Gujarat government, the culmination of developments that began with the Navnirman Movement in 1974, and led to the resignation of Congress Chief Minister Chimanbhai Patel. But that did not stem the crisis, and the Gujarat Assembly was suspended and eventually dissolved on March 12, 1976. The ostensible reason was “non-passage” of the state Budget.
1998, Uttar Pradesh
On the eve of the final round of polling for the general election, Governor Romesh Bhandari dismissed the state government led by BJP’s Kalyan Singh. Jagdambika Pal of the breakaway Loktantrik Congress was appointed Chief Minister and asked to prove his majority. Kalyan Singh moved the Allahabad High Court, which ensured his reinstatement. Fasting and protests outside President K R Narayanan’s house also helped build pressure, and this became a test case of how not to dismiss a state government. It happened close to the Bommai judgment that had established the floor test as the touchstone for majority, and in the middle of a general election — and Pal was never recognised as a Chief Minister in any meaningful way.
In the first 11 months of its tenure, the NDA government tried to dismiss the RJD-led government in Bihar twice. In September 1998, President Narayanan sent back the recommendation, but in February 1999, as the Ranvir Sena carried out two massacres of Dalits within weeks, the Centre claimed a breakdown of law and order to recommend the dismissal of Rabri Devi’s government. President Narayanan, who was in Kolkata, relented this time. Interestingly, in the general elections, Janata Dal (U) leaders George Fernandes and Nitish Kumar had sold the certain dismissal of the RJD government as a benefit of voting in the NDA at the Centre.