The imposition of President’s Rule in Uttarakhand, just a day before a scheduled trust vote in the state assembly by the Harish Rawat-headed government, brings back memories of the widespread misuse of a constitutional provision whose invoking had become refreshingly rare in recent times. A cynical way of looking at it is the Congress — which frequently employed Article 356 to dismiss opposition-ruled state governments while in power at the Centre — being paid back in its own coin. But such subversion of democratic principles is most unfortunate, when it comes from a dispensation under a prime minister who has made “cooperative federalism” a cornerstone of his governance approach. Moreover, it goes against the grain of the current times when fiscal, administrative and implementation powers in most areas are being increasingly devolved to the states. Nobody would know this better than Narendra Modi, who, as the Gujarat chief minister in a 2012 Republic Day-eve blog, voiced concern over the “systematic disruption” of the country’s federal structure “merely to suit the whims and fancies of the rulers in Delhi”.
The Modi government has justified bringing Uttarakhand under Central rule by holding that the Rawat government has lost majority, rendering its continuation “unconstitutional and immoral”. But it is a settled law — based on the principles laid down by the Supreme Court in its landmark 1994 S.R. Bommai judgment — that the majority enjoyed by any government has to be tested on the floor of the House. In this case, Uttarakhand Governor K.K. Paul had even set a date (March 28) for the conduct of the floor test. It is not clear what prompted him to send a report that formed the basis for imposing Central rule a day before the vote was to be held. The Governor has apparently cited possible pandemonium during the scheduled trial of strength. But could that mere apprehension have qualified as “breakdown of constitutional machinery”, which was the main criteria laid down in the Bommai ruling for invoking Article 356? There seems no convincing evidence of such a breakdown having taken place in Uttarakhand.
But the more worrying implication of the dismissal of the Congress government in Uttarakhand, which comes on the back of a similar imposition of President’s Rule in Arunachal Pradesh, is a breakdown in cooperation between the BJP and the main opposition party at the Centre. At a time when important legislation, especially those relating to the economy, need to be passed and the ruling coalition does not have the required numbers in the Rajya Sabha, such unnecessary confrontation does no help. The latest confrontation was all the more unnecessary, as it has involved invocation of an article in the Constitution that ought to be relegated to the dustbin of history.