Contrary to popular belief, President’s Rule was used for the first time in Punjab and not in Kerala -- Punjab was placed under Central rule in June 1951; Kerala followed eight years later. In July 1959, in order to stem Congress’ intra-party fissures, Jawaharlal Nehru turned a Nelson’s Eye on Dr B.R. Ambedkar’s wish in the Constituent Assembly that Article 356 shall remain a “Dead Letter”.
Post Independence, the Indian National Congress ruled both at the Centre and in Punjab (essentially former British East Punjab; PEPSU or the Patiala and East Punjab States Union, comprising erstwhile Princely domains, was a separate entity). Factionalism caused Gopi Chand Bhargava, the first Chief Minister of Punjab after Independence, to hand over the reins to his party rival Bhim Sen Sachar on Baisakhi Day in 1949 -- 188 days later, on Diwali, Bhargava bounced back to power and ruled till June 1951.
Unable to rein in the state leadership, Nehru, who at that point in time was both Prime Minister and Congress president, decided to invoke powers under Article 356. What he could not achieve in his organisational capacity, he sought to correct by executive fiat.
The Supreme Court judgment in the S.R. Bommai case (1994), which has become a benchmark on Article 356, listed ten situations when resort to President’s Rule would not be proper: estoppels on using this provision for sorting out intra-party problems of the ruling party was among them.
Article 356 has an umbilical link to the British era Section 93 of the Government of India Act, 1935 which provided for taking over of a Provincial government by the Governor in case of “failure of law and order”. When the Government of India Bill was debated in the House of Commons, Winston Churchill, who was vehemently opposed to India’s freedom, had suggested that entire India be put under the “rule of the Governor General”.
Replying to a query of H.N. Kunzru, Dr Ambedkar had said in the Constituent Assembly that “good governance” in a Province was not for the Centre to consider (by implication, the electorate was competent to do so). Hoping that the provision shall remain a “Dead Letter”, Ambedkar said that in case it had to be invoked, then the President should take a cautious step: first issue a warning to the province that has erred; if warning fails, then President’s Rule should be imposed and fresh elections ordered immediately so that the people can decide on the governance of the state.
Ambedkar’s “note of caution” has been overlooked ever since the imposition of Article 356 in Punjab in 1951. The erstwhile state of PEPSU was the next to be placed under President’s Rule (1953) when the United Front government in that state lost majority. The nascent linguistic State of Andhra followed (1954) -- Congress’ T. Prakasam lost majority and the claim of Jayaprakash Narain led PSP and CPI combine to form an alternative were bypassed.
The predecessor State of Kerala, Travancore-Cochin, was next (1956). When Kerala was carved with the inclusion of areas from the Madras Presidency, the new state was placed under President’s rule till the Communists, led by E.M.S. Namboodiripad, came to power with a slender majority in 1957. The first ever democratically elected Communist government anywhere in the world was dismissed in July 1959 as the President was satisfied that there was a “breakdown” of the constitutional system.
The Namboodiripad government introduced reforms, including an Education Bill, which did not meet the approval of the Catholic Church and the Nair community inter alia. The question of constitutional rights of minority institutions, which has gained contemporary currency with the Aligarh Muslim University “minority tag” issue, was first referred to the Supreme Court due to actions of the CPI government. The Nair Service Society (NSS) and Christian organisations, along with the Indian Union Muslim League, unleashed an agitation -- police resorted to lathi-charge on 248 occasions and also resorted to firing at the agitators.
The movement, termed as a “liberation struggle” reached its zenith when a pregnant fisherwoman was killed in police firing -- Nehru as PM was in two minds, but the Congress president Indira Gandhi (elected in 1959) extended tacit support to the agitators and wanted Namboodiripad dismissed. The Kerala Governor Dr Burgula Ramkrishna Rao sent a report to the Centre and the CPI government was dismissed (Dr Rao was the first elected CM of erstwhile Hyderabad State and had spearheaded the anti-Nizam freedom movement). Speaking in Lok Sabha, CPI leader S.A. Dange compared the Kerala dismissal to the Ashwathama episode in Mahabharata which had made Yudhisthir’s chariot touch down on ground: he said that Nehru’s image as a tolerant democrat had been blotted. (CPI also referred to a statement by the then US Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, who had expressed alarm at Communists coming to power through elections in India and later in Indonesia.)
With Uttarakhand, Narendra Modi has invoked Article 356 for the fifth time in his 22-month tenure (Atal Behari Vajpayee used it five times in five years). Indira Gandhi used it 50 times in her 15 years spanning two tenures. In their half-year tenures in 1979 and 1990 respectively, Charan Singh and Chandrashekhar used it five times each. The provision has become the antipode of the “Dead Letter” envisaged by Dr Ambedkar. It has been used 126 times and invoked in 29 States and Union Territories. It was used 88 times during Congress rule.
Dismissal of state governments on political grounds reached a crescendo in 1977 when Morarji Desai’s Janata Party government invoked Article 356 to get rid of nine state governments on the ground that Congress which ruled these states had been routed in Lok Sabha polls -- Home Minister Charan Singh wrote to all the nine CMs asking them to quit and Law Minister Shashi Bhushan broadcast on All India Radio the ratio for these dismissals. The matter was challenged in Supreme Court: in the judgment in the State of Rajasthan (1977) it was held that satisfaction of the President is a “subjective one” and cannot be tested by reference to any objective tests.
When Congress returned to power in 1980 it also dismissed nine state governments ruled by other parties. Enmasse dismissals were resorted to by P.V. Narasimha Rao following the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 when BJP ruled Rajasthan, Himachal and Madhya Pradesh were placed under President’s Rule (the UP government had quit, resulting in invocation of Article 356).
The dismissal of the Janata Dal government led by S.R. Bommai in April 1989 brought the issue back to the focus before the Supreme Court. Combining the Karnataka dismissal with cases dealing with Article 356 in other courts, the Supreme Court created a new benchmark in 1994, referred popularly as the Bommai case.
It said that proclamation under Article 356 was justiciable and set the norm that the test of majority has to be carried out on the floor of legislature. It stipulated ten situations in which Article 356 should not be invoked. It underscored the supremacy of numbers on the floor of the legislature and said in case the ruling party in the state suffers reverses in a Lok Sabha poll, it cannot be held as a ground for invoking Article 356. The Bommai judgment underlines that Article 356 cannot be taken as “an absolute or unfettered right of the Centre”.
The Uttarakhand matter is subjudice. Some facts stand out. Clearly horse-trading was going on in Dehradun while focus was on the injured police horse, Shaktiman, whose leg had to be amputated because of the “misdemeanour” of a BJP legislator. Also, on the Budget day, 18 March, when nine Congress rebels teamed up with 27 BJP legislators to demand division of votes (36 is majority in a House of 71), the Budget was deemed to have been passed by “voice vote”, without resorting to a Division. The BJP-Congress rebel combine had asked for voting in writing prior to the commencement of session that day. Governor K.K. Paul provided the besieged Chief Minister Harish Rawat an opportunity to prove his majority by 28 March. Meanwhile, unprecedented developments engulfed Uttarakhand: rebel Congress MLAs were whisked away to Haryana and Rajasthan, away from Dehradun. The residual Congress MLAs were tucked away to a resort in Corbett so that they remain “loyal”. Then, a sting operation surfaced alleging allurements by the CM to the rebels. Also, some of the rebels started having afterthought when it became clear that if an alternative government is formed, it will be someone from BJP and not from their group who will be CM. The phenomenon of “Aya-Ram Gaya-Ram” which originated in Haryana in 1966 haunted Uttarakhand.
When Governor Paul sent his report to the President some days later, resulting in invocation of Article 356, he had a valid concern: financial governance of the state. The Appropriation Bill sanctioning expenditure post 1 April had not been voted and passed by the Vidhan Sabha. No certified copy of the Appropriation Bill was forwarded to the Governor either by the Speaker or the CM. Hence, in order to run the administration of Uttarakhand with financial stability, the Centre had to assume powers. The unprecedented step of proroguing Parliament in the intersession period of recess in the Budget session was necessitated.
Judiciary is seized of the matter at the time of writing. One thing is clear: it is factionalism in Congress or split in coalitions which has necessitated President’s Rule time and again. It is worth noting that state governments run by the Left or the BJP have so far not invited application of Article 356 due to “internal squabble”, though these formations are not sans bickering.
Shubhabrata Bhattacharya is a former Editor of Sunday and National Herald.