The Union government suffered a major setback with Uttarakhand High Court quashing President’s rule in the hill state and directing ousted CM Harish Rawat to prove his majority on April 29th. The HC had also upheld the disqualification of 9 rebel MLAs observing that they have to pay the price for constitutional sin of defection. But, in the latest development the SC has set aside High Court’s order and re-imposed President’s rule in the state.
The High Court’s judgement is based on previous Supreme Court judgements. The Supreme Court has clarified in several judgments that Central rule was no substitute to testing a democratically elected government’s strength on the floor of the assembly.
- In 1977, then Janata Party government asked CMs of nine Congressruled states to resign or face dismissal through Article 356. This was challenged in the SC, which took a lenient view of the political manoeuvring. It said judicial review of presidential proclamation was on a limited ground and couldn’t touch political aspects.
- But the judiciary started taking a stern view of Article 356’s misuse after overturning the Centre dismissed SR Bommai in Karnataka and the Meghalaya government in 1989 and 1991. Bommai case ruling of 1994 became the guiding light for constitutional courts.
- Here, the court said floor test was the best method to judge an elected government’s majority. It said, “The SC or HC can strike down the proclamation if it is found mala fide or based on irrelevant or extraneous grounds. When called upon, the Union of India has to produce the material on the basis of which action was taken. It cannot refuse to do so, if it seeks to defend the action.”
- In the Ranmeshwar Prasad Vs Union of India case (2005), the supreme Court reiterated this position: “The President’s satisfaction has to be based on objective material. The objective material must vindicate that the government of the state cannot be carried on in accordance with the provision of the Constitution. That is a condition precedent before the issue of the proclamation.”
Was it necessary to impose President’s rule in Uttarakhand?
No, say few experts. It is because none of reports, submitted by the governor to the centre, spoke about the breakdown of constitutional machinery in the state. Instead, President’s rule was imposed in the state by the President based on Centre’s advice. The centre’s argument is based on the way the appropriation bill was passed in the state.
What the law says?
The President can exercise powers under Article 356 ‘either on the report of the Governor or otherwise’. Here, the word ‘otherwise’ means the President may act even without the governor’s report. Article 356 says that if any piece of advice is given by the Centre and a state government does not comply with it, it shall be deemed that ‘there is breakdown of the constitutional machinery of the state’. It does not mean corruption or misuse of powers by the Speaker.
Now, the Supreme Court of India; the final arbiter of the constitutional maters will decide the case. While doing so, it will definitely look back to the point when a judgement by their predecessors changed the course of federal politics in the country. While pronouncing its judgement in S R Bommai case, the constitutional bench of the highest court made the arbitrary use of Article 356 of the Constitution very difficult. Now more than two decades after the Bommai case, apex court will once again deliberate upon the use and abuse of the Article 356.
If Supreme Court overturns the high court order, it would raise serious questions about the ability of judges of lower courts in handling matters of constitutional crisis. The Supreme Court also needs to take a serious look at the current lacunae in the system like the Parliament approval within two months when a government is in minority in the Upper House.