As Tamil Nadu struggles under the tussle for power between acting chief minister O. Panneerselvam and the new All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) chief V K Sasikala, state governor C. Vidyasagar Rao has been criticised by former Supreme Court judge P B Sawant for not acting soon enough to relieve the situation. Justice Sawant was part of the panel that passed the historic judgment in the S R Bommai vs Union of India case, wherein the centre’s capacity to dismiss a state government was curbed as per constitutional necessities. The judgement laid down that the only way to resolve internal issues within a state’s administrative functioning would be by means of a floor test determining the support enjoyed by the party in power.
WATCH VIDEO |Former Supreme Court Judge Reacts To AIADMK Crisis, Says Tamil Nadu Governor Should Act Soon
Background to the S R Bommai vs Union of India case
The landmark judgment that drew strict borders between the powers of the centre and those of the state was passed as consequence of a large number of cases wherein Article 356 of the Indian Constitution, demanding President’s rule in a state, had been arbitrarily invoked. Foremost among these instances were the cases in Karnataka, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Himachal Pradesh.
In September 1988, K R Molakery, a legislator in the Janata Dal led government in Karnataka, presented a letter to the Governor along with petitions from 19 other members of the Legislative Assembly stating their decision to withdraw support from the S R Bommai-led ministry. This was soon followed by confusion challenging the authority of the state government. In October 1991, the President issued a proclamation to the Meghalaya government stating its dismissal on grounds of unconstitutional governance within the state. The Assembly was dissolved immediately after. Similarly, the state government of Nagaland in 1988 was dismissed on the basis of a Governor report to the President. Further, the communal riots concerning Babri Masjid had resulted in the President dismissing the BJP-led governments of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Himachal Pradesh.
On account of this large scale use of Article 356 to overpower state legislatures, a panel of nine judges was formed to decide on the precise constitutional limitations of the article.
Provisions laid down by the judgement
After much discussion and debate, the panel laid down a number of guidelines to check on the power of the centre to dismiss a state government, thereby upholding the federal structure of the government of India, as given in the Constitution.
First, the judgment stated that the only way to determine support enjoyed by a particular state government would be by means of a floor test. Second, the court would be eligible to review the matter at hand to determine the relevance of the need to dissolve the Assembly. Third, the only time when the President shall have unconditional powers to dissolve a state government is when there is complete breakdown of constitutional machinery.
A further provision of the judgment upheld the virtue of secularism enshrined in the Constitution in light of the Babri Masjid riots. It said that a party cannot resort to religion for the sake of gaining power, and if found to be indulging in religious politics, Article 356 could be applied.
Given the nature of provisions laid down by the S R Bommai case, a floor test in the Tamil Nadu government seems highly likely to determine the party in majority. Last a floor test was applied in a state government was in May 2016, when Harish Rawat-led Congress government in Uttarakhand emerged victorious.
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