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Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Explained: Amid Maharashtra drama, recalling a landmark SC judgment — S R Bommai

The historic judgment by the nine-judge Bench in SR Bommai vs Union of India in March 1994 laid down the supremacy of the floor test in determining the support enjoyed by the party in power.

, Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi | Updated: November 27, 2019 7:47:03 am
SR Bommai, Former Chief Minister of Karnatka and Janta Dal united Leader. (Express Photo)

The Supreme Court on Tuesday directed Maharashtra Governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari to ensure that the trust vote be held on Wednesday

The developments of Tuesday morning — a culmination of a chain of events that was set in motion after the Shiv Sena-NCP-Congress approached the top court against the decision of Koshyari to administer the oath of office to Devendra Fadnavis and Ajit Pawar — were overtaken in the afternoon by the resignations of Fadnavis and Pawar.

However, several of the observations made by the Supreme Court in its order are, and will be relevant for this and similar situations involving the role of the Governor in a hung House in the future. Perhaps, the most important of these references were the ones that the court made to what is known as the ‘Bommai case’.

The historic judgment by the nine-judge Bench in SR Bommai vs Union of India in March 1994 laid down the supremacy of the floor test in determining the support enjoyed by the party in power.

What is the S R Bommai case, and why is it significant?

In 1985, the Janata Party won the Assembly elections in Karnataka, and formed the government under Chief Minister Ramakrishna Hegde. Hegde was replaced by SR Bommai, also of the Janata Party, in 1988. That year, the Janata Party merged with the Lok Dal, forming the Janata Dal, and new members were inducted into Bommai’s Ministry.

In September 1988, K R Molakery, a legislator from the Janata Dal, defected from the party, and presented a letter to Governor P Venkatasubbaiah along with petitions from 19 other members of the Legislative Assembly, stating their decision to withdraw support to the Bommai government.

The government of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi at the Centre dismissed the state government using Article 356, without giving Bommai a chance to prove his majority, and imposed President’s Rule.

The Karnataka decision was seen as controversial, and more such examples followed across India.

In October 1991, the President issued a proclamation dismissing the Meghalaya government on grounds of unconstitutional governance. The Assembly was dissolved immediately after.

Earlier in 1988, the Nagaland government was dismissed on the basis of a report sent by the Governor to the President.

After the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the Centre dismissed not just the government of Uttar Pradesh, but also the BJP governments in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Himachal Pradesh.

The nine-judge Bench in the Bommai case adjudicated on a range of issues around the constitutional limitations of the use of Article 356.

The Supreme Court ruling

The court laid down a number of guidelines to curb the Centre’s capacity to dismiss a state government, and upheld the federal structure enshrined in the Constitution.

The ruling laid down the law that the only way to determine support enjoyed by a particular state government would be by means of a floor test.

Also, the court ruled that the validity of a proclamation of President’s Rule is subject to judicial review.

Third, the court said that the only time the President shall have unconditional powers to dissolve a state government is when there is a complete breakdown of constitutional machinery.

The judgment also underlined the secular nature of the Constitution in the wake of the Babri demolition, and said that a party cannot resort to religion for the sake of gaining power and, if found to be indulging in religious politics, could be acted against using Article 356.

Read | Tamil Nadu crisis: Why the S R Bommai case might be invoked to resolve the problem

Significance of the judgment

Since the Constitution came into force, President’s Rule under Article 356 has been imposed on states on over 100 occasions. These instances, however, declined considerably after the S R Bommai ruling.

Apart from an assertive judiciary, the emergence of coalition governments with representation from regional parties in the 1990s also checked the trend.

Don’t miss from Explained: What happened on 26.11.1949, celebrated as India’s Constitution Day?

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