Concern over the misuse of Article 356 by the Central government resonated in the Inter-State Council meeting chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Saturday, with a number of non-BJP states flagging concerns. In view of the role played by governors in Uttarakhand and Arunachal Pradesh — criticised severely by constitutional courts recently — Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar went to the extent of demanding that the post of governor be abolished altogether.
Even NDA ally Shiromani Akali Dal went hammer and tongs at the Centre, accusing it of reducing states to the status of “mere beggars”, according to a statement issued by the office of party president Sukhbir Singh Badal.
The Punjab deputy chief minister stressed upon the dire need for a “genuine federal structure” in India with devolution of more powers to states. Badal accused the Centre of “usurping the rights and authority of the states in violation of the spirit and provisions of the Constitution”.
Uttarakhand Chief Minister Harish Rawat, whose government had been dismissed before being restored after an intervention by the High Court, did not, however, raise the issue of the imposition of President’s Rule. He confined himself to talking about issues like the recommendations of the 14th Finance Commission, which he said had reduced the benefits available to his state.
The concerns over the “undermining” of the federal structure were voiced even as the Prime Minister noted that the Inter-State Council was the most significant platform for strengthening Centre-State and inter-state relations, and insisted that the nation could progress only if the union and state governments walked shoulder to shoulder.
The meeting, which took place after a long gap of 10 years, saw a detailed discussion on the 2010 report of the Punchhi Commission on Centre-State relations.
Badal said there was consensus across party lines that the trend towards centralisation of authority still continued. “The most dangerous exhibition of this tendency is seen in how the Centre has been quietly shifting subjects from the State List to the Concurrent List and from the Concurrent to the Union List which amounts to constitutional rampage”, he said.
Nitish Kumar made a strong pitch for respecting the federal spirit, demanding that chief ministers be given a role in the appointment and removal of governors.
“Existing federal democratic structure does not warrant continuance of the gubernatorial post. However, if it is not possible to do away with it, then our opinion is that provisions relating to the appointment of governor must be clearly defined and made transparent,” he said.
“Besides, the chief minister of the state should also be consulted and the criteria laid down by Sarkaria Commission (first Commission on Centre-State Relations), should be followed in the governor’s appointment. The propensity to change the governor whenever a new government is formed must be curbed by making constitutional provisions,” Kumar said.
The Punchhi Commission report too had recommended that for a chief minister’s removal, the governor must give the Leader of the House an opportunity to prove his majority through a floor test, Kumar stressed. “This must be followed in letter and spirit.”
Kumar also quoted the Punchhi Commission report to stress that the use of constitutional provisions like Articles 355 and 356 should be limited to extreme and grave emergencies, when all other options had been exhausted.
“In this regard, we believe that the Constitution has clearly defined grave emergency and there is no scope to fiddle with that. We need to understand that there is a significant difference between grave emergency and a law and order problem. The central government has to function under the ambit of Constitution,” Kumar said.
In his long speech, the Bihar chief minister also touched upon the rights to states to implement schemes as per their needs. “We hope that the central government will respect the federal structure as enshrined in the Constitution and also believe that the guidelines expounded in S R Bommai case by the Hon’ble Supreme Court would be kept in view as guiding principles,” he said.
Noting that suitably amending Article 356 to incorporate the safeguards inherent in the Bommai judgment is an important recommendation of Punchhi Commission, the chief minister of Tamil Nadu said that a reiteration of the safeguards available for elected state governments and preventing adventurism by governors is very essential.
“The Government of India must provide the necessary assurances on this aspect to the states,” she said. She welcomed the government’s pitch for “co-operative federalism”, but warned against allowing it to “become a catchword to impose uniform administrative practices across the country without due regard to the specificities of the socio-economic situation in each state”.
Karnataka home minister G Parameshwara said that on matters pertaining to constitutional governance and management of Centre-State relations, it was essential to institutionalise the process of consultation between the union and states.
“The states should have greater autonomy in respect of subjects in the State List and the Union should be extremely restrained in asserting parliamentary supremacy over them. Harmonious operation of the Concurrent List could be considered as cooperative federalism at its best,” he said.
Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal demanded that the Centre waive the debts of farmers across the country to reduce their sufferings. He also asked for free medicines and diagnostic tests in all government hospitals of the country to help the poor.
Kejriwal also demanded that the Inter-State Council pass a resolution that chief ministers be consulted before the appointment of governors or L-Gs, and that President’s Rule be imposed only if the government loses majority in the assembly. He also raised the issue of Bills passed by the Delhi government that were pending with the Centre, and demanded that they be cleared immediately.