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Over 100 blows old, Article 356 is a hammer that all govts love

The determination of breakdown of constitutional machinery may be done by the President at any time, either upon receipt of a report from the Governor, or suo motu.

Written by Ashutosh Bhardwaj | Amitabh Sinha & Debabrata Mohantynew Delhi, New Delhi |
March 29, 2016 1:36:48 am
The Supreme Court judgment asked  President to ensure that Art. 356 is not used for political purposes. The Supreme Court judgment asked President to ensure that Art. 356 is not used for political purposes.

Article 356, among the most controversial and misused provisions of the Constitution, empowers the President to withdraw to the Union the executive and legislative powers of any state “if he is satisfied that a situation has arisen in which the government of the state cannot be carried on in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution”.

The determination of breakdown of constitutional machinery may be done by the President at any time, either upon receipt of a report from the Governor, or suo motu.

Bommai watershed
Since the formation of the Republic, President’s Rule under Art. 356 has been imposed on states on over 100 occasions. These instances, however, declined considerably after a nine-judge Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court passed its judgment in S R Bommai vs Union of India in March 1994, defining the framework of application of Art. 356.

In his 2012 paper, Bridling Central Tyranny in India, social scientist Anoop Sadanandan noted that Art. 356 was invoked on 40 occasions in the 15 years before Bommai, and only on 11 in the 15 years after 1994. A combination of factors, including the emergence of coalition governments with representation from regional parties, and an assertive President’s office and judiciary, checked the trend.

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The 1988 Sarkaria Commission report on Centre-state relations commented on the arbitrariness with which Art. 356 was used: only 26 out of 75 cases until then were “just”, it said — in the rest, the Centre had intervened either to prevent a party from forming the government, or dismissed a state government even when it had a majority.

Coalitions no different
While it is often believed that the absence of governments with strong majorities at the Centre ensured effective checks and balances, Sadanandan’s research shows Art. 356 was frequently invoked even by coalitions. In just about 2 years, the Morarji Desai and Charan Singh governments dismissed as many as 12 governments, and in 1990-91, the Chandra Shekhar government imposed Central rule in 4 states in 7 months in power. The VP Singh government imposed Art. 356 in 2 states in 11 months. Until the mid-1990s, President’s Rule was imposed in a state roughly every 6 months by single-party central governments, and every 7 months by coalitions.

President and courts
Three years after Bommai, in 1997, President K R Narayanan for the first time returned the Cabinet’s recommendation for Central rule in UP. Later, he returned a recommendation to dismiss the Bihar government. On both occasions, the Centre withdrew its move.

The judiciary stopped the Centre’s hand for the first time in 1996 — when Allahabad High Court declared President’s Rule in UP unconstitutional and ordered restoration of the Assembly. In 2006, the Supreme Court struck down Art. 356 in Bihar.

Anticipating alliances
Sadanandan notes that the possibility of striking opportunistic alliances has acted to disincentivise the imposition of Central rule. A government, irrespective of its current majority, might be dissuaded from dismissing the state government of a party which, though in opposition then, might be an ally later. Thus, in 1998, the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government withstood pressure from its ally, the AIADMK, to dismiss the DMK government in Tamil Nadu and, a year later, got the DMK’s support in Vajpayee’s second term.

Recently, both Arunachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand have seen Congress governments losing power after a section of its MLAs rebelled and joined hands with the BJP. While in Arunachal, a government of Congress rebels is in power with BJP support, in Uttarakhand, the BJP has declared that it would have its own CM, and would not pick a rebel.

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