The SR Bommai versus Union of India verdict of 1994 had clearly told the lawmakers that the Article 356 (imposition of president's rule in a state) was well within the purview of judicial review by the Supreme Court of India.
Now the July 13, 2016 verdict by a constitution bench of the apex court, which termed Arunachal Pradesh governor JP Rajkhowa’s dismissal of former chief minister Nabam Tuki unconstitutional, clearly defines the limitations of a governor while discharging his role as an agent of the Centre in uprooting elected state governments. The Janata Dal government of Karnataka, led by Bommai was dismissed by the Congress-led Union government in 1989. The Congress government of Arunachal Pradesh, led by Tuki, was thrown out of office by the BJP-led government in Delhi in 2016.
If the 1994 verdict defined the centrality of the floor test in determining the majority of an elected state government, the 2016 verdict clarifies that a governor cannot act without the advice of the chief minister and his council in carrying out functions like advancing or calling an Assembly session.
In fact, that was the basic reason behind the apex court’s verdict that dismissed the proclamation to impose President’s Rule in Arunachal Pradesh on January 26, 2016. The Bommai verdict put an effective brake on the blatant misuse of Article 356.Though the Bommai verdict effectively checked the arbitrary use (and misuse) of Article 356, it didn’t deter the Congress government under PV Narasimha Rao from slapping it 11 times during its five-year tenure. Union governments are still using it, though the average has come down. If the average of proclaiming President’s Rule was 2.15 before 1994, it is still 1.4.
The BJP government led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee imposed President’s Rule five times from 1999 to 2004. The Congress government under Manmohan Singh used the Article 12 times during its ten-year rule.
And the current Narendra Modi government has already done so four times during its first two years in office.
This includes the two highly controversial decisions in Uttarakhand and Arunachal Pradesh - both of which have been nullified by the Supreme Court. The reaction of the BJP leaders to the Supreme Court's verdict was loaded with statements like “we are yet to get the answer”, “we will do a structured examination of the order” and that the party found the verdict “strange”.
It is a clear indication that the party felt that it didn’t commit any fault in imposing President's Rule and that it will be ready to do so even in the future.
Such responses imply that the BJP may be forced to accept it that the order has come from the Supreme Court, but it will not accept it in practise. Moreover, the game is still wide open.
The Tuki government will now have to prove its majority. The next round is going to be fought around the issue of disqualification of 14 rebel Congress MLAs. Governor JP Rajkhowa has asked Tuki to prove his majority in the Assembly by July 16, 2016.
And the whole issue may be taken to the apex court again. But can the Congress cry foul or take the moral high ground that it is claiming today?
The Congress has always been notorious for dismissing the elected governments in states and the party has exercised/exploited these options innumerable times during its long reign in India – some 55 years of India’s 69 independent years.
During these 55 years, the Congress-led Union governments used Article 356 88 times to proclaim President Rule in various states. And like the Congress is complaining now – with Uttarakhand and Arunachal – all those parties whose governments were dismissed by the Congress government at the Centre did likewise.
So, in a way, the Congress is getting some of its own medicine back, facing something that it so conveniently did when it was in power. A very famous poem that is taught in school says that those who have seen defeats in life can only know the true taste of victory.
And it applies to both the parties involved here – the BJP-led NDA government in the Centre and the state governments run by the Congress and there are already murmurs of the similar developments in Himachal Pradesh and Manipur.
Going by the poem, and going by proverbial wisdom, the Congress is now facing the brunt of defeats, first electorally, and now in the name of the Constitution, and we should expect that it will not hesitate to use (or misuse Article 356) once it regains the power in Delhi, either in 2019 or later.
Since then the provision has been used only 22 times – including the most recent one in Arunachal Pradesh. If we take the Bommai verdict year (1994) as the baseline, there have been only around 30 instances of President’s Rule being imposed in various states.
Till 1996, Article 356, which empowers the Centre to dismiss any elected state government and impose President’s Rule if it finds the constitutional machinery to have broken down there, was used 103 times by the various Union governments.