The setting aside of President’s Rule in Uttarakhand by a two-member bench of the Uttarakhand High Court is yet another reminder to political parties not to misuse Article 356 when they are in power at the Centre to dismiss state ministries composed by parties in the opposition. Yesterday it was the Congress that misused Article 356 to get rid of governments in states run by parties in opposition, whether Left, Janata or BJP; today it is the BJP that is misusing the Article to remove governments composed of parties opposed to it. This is surely an extremely dangerous way of reaching the goal of the “Congress-mukt Bharat” of Narendra Modi’s dreams. Because, while it might give the BJP the pleasure of seeing saffron flags fly in yet another political capital, it is going to erode people’s trust in the democratic system as the voters are going to ask what is the point in going to vote a party to majority in a state when the central government is not going to allow it to exist and function.
Article 356 is, as a matter of fact, a tool of colonial legacy. It was a gun the British viceroy used to shoot down governments of provinces they found going beyond limits of moderation. The colonial law provided that if the governor of a province was “satisfied” that a situation had arisen in which the government of the province could not be carried on in accordance with the provisions of the Government of India Act, 1935 he could assume to himself the powers of the government and discharge those functions in his discretion. Much like the British viceroy, the party in power at the Centre in postcolonial India has used similar provisions and methods to dismiss state governments where the parties opposed to it are in power.
The misuse of Article 356 started with Nehru dismissing the Namboodiripad ministry in Kerala in 1959. Indira Gandhi made the misuse an ordinary practice, dismissing more than 30 state governments. No wonder, the High Court bench that quashed President’s rule in Uttarakhand, did not mince words in criticizing the Congress party for imposing President’s rule often. “It is to be remembered,” the bench said, “that power under Article 356 came in for considerable misuse. Incidentally, we must notice that the party to which the petitioner (Harish Rawat) belongs has not covered itself with glory. In the first 40 years of independence, nearly 100 cases of dissolution took place.” Why does Narendra Modi want to follow in the footsteps of Nehru and Indira Gandhi in misusing Article 356, when he is forever emphasizing his radical distinctiveness from them? How is BJP different from Congress if it is not choosing the election route to gain a majority in the house of legislature of a state but the defection route? How can BJP tom-tom itself as an ethical party if it fosters and engineers defections in the parties in opposition in order to topple their ministries and form a ministry of its own? Is not that subversion of the popular mandate given to the party in opposition? Is it not undermining of the principle of cooperative federalism?
The Uttarakhand High Court has only followed the principles laid down by the Supreme Court in the S R Bommai versus Union of India case of 1994. The Janata Party won a majority in Karnataka in 1988 and formed a government under the leadership of S R Bommai. In 1989, after a defection drama, the Centre dismissed the Bommai government under Article 356. He challenged his dismissal and imposition of President’s rule in the Supreme Court. A nine-member bench of the Supreme Court found it a case of misuse of Article 356 and laid down certain principles which the central government had to follow in using Article 356. The first principle was that the question whether the state council of ministers enjoyed a majority or not should be decided by a test on the floor of the House. In accordance with the same principle, the Uttarakhand High Court has restored the Harish Rawat government and asked him to take a floor test on April 29 to prove his claim to majority in the Assembly. The second principle laid down by the Supreme Court in the Bommai case was that the court could question the grounds on which the presidential proclamation was made. The Uttarakhand High Court found that the grounds were “extraneous” and “irrelevant”. Let us hope the next time Narendra Modi gets tempted to remove an opposition government in a state he does it through a floor test to determine who has the majority.