S. R. Bommai v. Union of India and Some Instances of President’s rule on States

Majority of the times article 356 is misused, until the landmark judgment of S. R. Bommai v. Union of India[1].

This case put an end to the arbitrary dismissal of State governments by Central government. And the verdict also ruled that the floor of the Assembly is the only forum that should test the majority of the government of the day, and not the subjective opinion of the Governor, who is often referred to as the agent of the Central government.

S.R. Bommai was the Chief Minister of the Janata Dal government in Karnataka between August 13, 1988, and April 21, 1989. His government was dismissed on April 21, 1989, under Article 356 of the Constitution and President’s Rule. Dismissal was on grounds that the Bommai government had lost majority following large-scale defections engineered by several party leaders of the day. Governor P. Venkatasubbaiah refused to give Bommai an opportunity to test his majority in the Assembly despite the latter presenting him with a copy of the resolution passed by the Janata Dal Legislature Party. Bommai went to court against the Governor’s decision to recommend President’s Rule. First, he moved the Karnataka High Court, which dismissed his writ petition. Then he moved the Supreme Court. On March 11, 1994, a nine-judge Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court issued the historic order, which in a way put an end to the arbitrary dismissal of State governments under Article 356 by spelling out restrictions.[2]

Judgment

The verdict concluded that the power of the President to dismiss a state government is not absolute. The verdict said the President should exercise the power only after his proclamation (imposing his/her rule) is approved by both Houses of Parliament. Till then, the Court said, the President can only suspend the Legislative Assembly by suspending the provisions of Constitution relating to the Legislative Assembly. “The dissolution of Legislative Assembly is not a matter of course. It should be resorted to only where it is found necessary for achieving the purposes of the Proclamation,” the Court said.

The SC laid down certain guidelines so as to prevent the misuse of Article 356 of the constitution.

  1. The majority enjoyed by the Council of Ministers shall be tested on the floor of the House.
  2. Centre should give warning to the state and a time period of one week would be given to reply.
  3. The court cannot question the advice tendered by the CoMs to the President, but it can question the material behind the satisfaction of the President. Hence, Judicial Review will involve three questions only:
    a. Is there any material behind the proclamation
    b. Is the material relevant.
    c. Was there any malafide use of power?
  4. If there is improper use of Article 356 then the court will provide remedy.
  5. Under Article 356(3) it is the limitation on the powers of the President. Hence, the president shall not take any irreversible action until the declaration is approved by the Parliament i.e., he shall not dissolve the assembly.
  6. Article 356 is reasonable only when there is a breakdown of constitutional machinery and not administrative machinery.

The conditions President has to consider before imposing the rule:

  1. If the President is convinced that a situation has arisen in which the government of the state cannot be carried on in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution.
  • The state government is unable to elect a leader as chief minister within a time prescribed by the Governor of that state.
  • There’s a breakdown of a coalition leading to the chief minister having a minority support in the House, and the CM fails to prove majority in the given period of time.
  • Loss of majority in the Assembly due to a vote of no-confidence in the House.
  • Elections postponed on account of situations like natural disasters, war, or epidemic.


Some Instances of President’s rule on States

  • Recently on November 12, 2019, Maharashtra Governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari imposed President’s rule in the state following an election that did not lead to formation of government. The situation arose after all the four major parties — the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Shiv Sena, Nationalist Congress Congress (NCP) and the Congress Party — didn’t stake claim to form a government and failed to stitch alliances to prove a majority. This led to president’s rule in the state of Maharashtra.
  • Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Mehbooba Mufti resigned following withdrawal of support by coalition partner BJP. The state was under President’s rule from June 19, 2018, to October 30, 2018. On October 31, 2018, J&K was split into two Union Territories: Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh and that ended the President’s rule by default.
  • Congress MLAs of Arunachal Pradesh, joined hands with the BJP, destabilizing the state government. So, President’s rule was evoked and stayed in force from January 25, 2016, to February 19, 2016. The Supreme Court declared the imposition of President’s rule as ultra vires and reinstated the dismissed Congress-led government in the state.
  • Between January 19, 2009, and December 29, 2009, President’s Rule was in force in Jharkhand due to the elected government’s loss of majority. In 2010, too, Jharkhand was under President’s rule from June 1 to September 11. In 2013, BJP’s ruling coalition partner JMM withdrew its support to the government. Chief Minister Arjun Munda had to resign, and President’s rule was in force from January 18 to July 12.
  • President’s rule was in force in Bihar from March 7, 2005, to November 24, 2005, on account of an indecisive outcome of state elections. In this case, the Supreme Court ruled that the imposition of President’s rule without giving the elected legislatures a chance to form a new government was unconstitutional.

[1] 1994 AIR 1918, 1994 SCC (3) 1

[2] https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/what-is-the-sr-bommai-case-and-why-is-it-quoted-often/article23929119.ece

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