We have a new entry in the iron laws of Indian politics list. It goes as follows. When political parties are in or close to power at the Centre, they see the merits of the strong-Centre model of federalism, and when they are away from the Centre, they can only see its limitations. The BJP was highly critical of the office of governor, sang the cooperative federalism song and endorsed the Bommai judgment when in opposition. In sharp contrast, as the ruling party today, it only sees the advantages of the same instrumentalities it was critical of two years ago.
More than two decades after the Supreme Court verdict limiting the abuse of constitutional power by the Central government to dismiss a state government, Article 356 is once again at the centre of the debate. The Bommai judgment in March 1994, while reiterating the Sarkaria Commission’s observations, brought Article 356 under judicial review, laid down clear guidelines under which state governments could be dismissed, and spelt out appropriate mechanisms for that process. The judgment underlined the point that the assessment of the strength of a “ministry is not a matter of private opinion of any individual” but a question to be decided on the floor of the House.
The floor test procedure draws from the core idea of a parliamentary system that governments derive their legitimacy and authority from the confidence of Parliament. Furthermore, the court mandated suspension rather than the summary dissolution of the state assembly until both Houses of Parliament ratified the proclamation.
There are three dimensions to the current fracas in Uttarakhand and examining their inter-relationship will help us appreciate why Article 356 is a recurring issue in Indian politics. First, government-opposition relations are fundamental to making sense of Centre-state relations in India. In the run-up to the 2014 general election, the BJP simultaneously promised cooperative federalism as well as a Congress-mukt Bharat. After Arunachal Pradesh earlier this year, and Uttarakhand now, it appears that the two promises sit uneasily with each other. For more than a year and a half, we have been witnessing the battle to achieve a Congress-mukt Bharat in terms of ideas. However, notwithstanding the hullabaloo, it has remained invisible since it has a traction of its own primarily because of what political scientist Suhas Palshikar calls the majoritarian shift to the right in the 2000s.
Parallelling the mindspace battle, Arunachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand represent cruder and brasher attempts of the same agenda. In both states, the BJP is probably less concerned about having a government of its own than with discrediting the Congress as an organisation. With numerous state elections on the horizon, what could be better publicity than a party that cannot hold together?
Since the inauguration of the republic, Central governments have used Article 356 for partisan advantage of the ruling party. However, under Indira Gandhi, the provision became an important tool to shape the political system to suit her agenda. The eerie similarity between her and the current regime should not be missed. Both brook no opposition, do not necessarily respect institutional propriety, and act as if they are here to stay forever.
Indira Gandhi used Article 356 not only to reduce dissent within her party but also to check the opposition parties of the time. Notwithstanding the rhetoric of cooperative federalism, the BJP regime today is walking the same path to stamping its dominance. Like Indira Gandhi, the BJP appears to be using assembly suspension to tactfully change the ruling composition to its advantage. Suspensions are double-edged: On the one hand, they seem to uphold the spirit of the Bommai judgment by giving the state a chance to get things back on the rails. But on the other, they also provide strategic actors with enough space for manipulation. Despite the lofty claims of saving democracy, protecting the interests of the state and so on, as the Congress in the past, the BJP obviously has no qualms in stoking dissent and encouraging party switches.
Second, internal party dynamics should not be ignored when probing systemic issues. The relatively weak state of party organisations in India, and the Congress organisation in this particular case, have to be considered. First of all, intra-party groups or factions exist in almost all parties and need not always have negative connotations. The working of different groups within the Congress in Kerala is probably a good example of how internal competition keeps the party alive. Factions can, therefore, act as weather vanes of public opinion and make political parties more flexible and representative.
The problem arises when party factions convert their success into a winner-takes-all system, leaving no space for the other groups. The reported experience of Congress dissidents in both Arunachal and Uttarakhand shows that systematic exclusion led to frustration and demoralisation, ultimately jeopardising the party itself. Ruling factions must be open to negotiation and sharing power, and the central leadership should not be taking sides.
Finally, structural frameworks matter. Institutional studies tell us that since actors adapt their behaviour to the institutional rules in place, the effects of rules are often invisible. Small states with less than 100 legislative assembly members have been unstable and have had a more frequent change of leadership compared to larger states. The lower thresholds to beat the anti-defection law incentivise party switches and this may explain the instability. Second, the strong-Centre model of federalism combined with the weak financial position of many smaller states also encourages them to shift positions. These two factors make smaller states particularly vulnerable not only to party switches but also to the machinations of the ruling party at the Centre.
The Congress is at the receiving end for the first time. It can cry itself hoarse but history suggests that it will do nothing to institutionalise a fairer system if it is in a position to do so.