This Article is written by Kartik Pathak
India is a great nation whose constitution-makers aimed to make India a federalist nation, meaning a mixed or compound mode of government, combining a general government at the centre with state and regional governments in a political system. The makers of the constitution ensured through various provisions in the constitution that India is a federal country.
These provisions include the three lists in the constitution that are the union, state and the concurrent list ensuring that each level has equal autonomy in making laws for the country as well as the state. Moreover, Article 282 of the Indian constitution accords financial autonomy to the states for spending on public welfare.
These provisions show us how the constitution-makers ensured that India is a federal nation. On the other hand, the constitution-makers have also put several clauses in the constitution which make India unitary during several circumstances which we will further discuss.
The relations between the centre and the state were by and large very smooth. This relationship suddenly changed when in 1967, the non-Congress government came into power in nine states. There was an imposition of the President’s rule through Article 356 of the Indian Constitution. The centre in many instances had imposed an emergency without the permission of the states. It has been pointed out by many political theorists that there were a couple of reasons that led to bad relations between the centre and non-Congress(I) governments.
The emergency by the Indian central government was criticised by many people for many reasons. The first being that the central government had the authority of appointing, dismissal, and the transfer of the Governors of the respective states against the wishes of the Chief Ministers of the state. Article 356 clearly stated that the centre can only impose an emergency on the recommendation of the Governor of the respective state.
One may question how this contradicts the principle of federalism; as we know in federalism, all the three types of government bodies are free to enact laws according to their jurisdiction and powers. So by changing the governors of the states, the government somewhat overrides the powers of the governors and the state.
The imposition of the emergency led to the states demanding restructuring the centre-state relations. Some major misuse of the power given in Article 356 by the centre was that Charan Singh’s government was dismissed when Charan Singh, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh refused to resign when asked by the governor. It is clear on how the centre has been misusing the power. The governor is an appointee of the President, thus is a functionary of the union government.
Thus the imposition of emergency negates the federal character of the Indian political system, where the administration is usually shared between the Union and the State government. The appointment of the governors in the state was always done for an advantage to the central government over the state just because they had the power to override the federal character.
Dr B.R. Ambedkar in the constituent assembly debates also expressed concern over the use of the word ‘otherwise’ which is very vague. Dr B.R. Ambedkar trusted the President to use the power given to him under Article 356 and expected that these powers will be used only when deemed necessary.
One famous case of the central government imposing an emergency in a state was the case of S.R. Bommai Vs. Union of India 1994 SCC (3) 1
This case led the Supreme Court to give a historic judgment over the misuse of Article 356.
In the year of 1989, Janata Dal government was headed by S.R. Bommai in Karnataka. Several members had defected from the party and a question arose on the majority support in the house for the Government. The Chief Minister recommended to the governor that a floor test is conducted to check the majority in the house.
The governor ignored this recommendation by the Chief Minister and reported the issue to the President that S.R. Bommai had lost the majority in the house and no other party was in a position to form a government. The President of India took action under Article 356(1) of the Indian constitution which said that emergency can be imposed in case of constitutional failure.
By invoking the article the state government ceased to exist and the President came into power. This proclamation by the President was challenged in the Karnataka high court by Bommai through a writ petition on relevant grounds. The Karnataka high court held that the proclamation ought to be real and genuine satisfaction based on the relevant and circumstantial facts.
The Karnataka high court dismissed the petition holding that the facts stated in the governor’s report could not be held irrelevant and also held that the governor’s bonafides could not be questioned as his report was based on a reasonable assessment of the relevant facts and circumstances. The court also held that recourse to the floor test was neither compulsory nor obligatory and was not prerequisite to sending the report to the President.
After this S.R. Bommai filed a petition in the Supreme Court against the decision of the high court. The issues which S.R. Bommai raised were; firstly he did not get an opportunity to prove his majority in the house. The second issue that was raised was that the imposition of emergency in Karnataka was mala fide and it was nothing but a political act by the centre and the grounds for imposing emergency were not justified.
The Supreme Court in the decision put an end to the dismissal of the state government under Article 356 without specifying the grounds for imposing emergency. Moreover, the Supreme Court said that an emergency can only be imposed on the recommendations of both the houses in the state. This point is very crucial in the viewpoint of Indian federalism for the reason that it upholds the basic principle of federalism.
Through this provision, the court ensured that the centre does not take advantage of the powers as it was seen previously. It was seen that the President had the power to choose the governor who in turn worked on behalf of the centre and the governor’s recommendation was the final say for the government rather than the say of both the houses in the state.
The case holds major significance in Indian politics for the reason that it put an end to the dismissal of the government by the hostile centre. Moreover, the second significance of the judgement was that the majority can be proved only by holding a floor test and not by the opinion of the government. This was also important as the government could not overuse the power which the governor had in respect of the recommendation to the President.
Supreme Court ordered that if the presidential proclamation is not approved by the Parliament then both houses of the Parliament disapprove or do not approve the proclamation, the proclamation lapses at the end of 2 month period in such as the government which was dismissed revives, secondly Legislative Assembly which may have been kept in suspended animation gets reactivated. Also, the court made it clear that the presidential proclamation under article 356 is subject to Judicial review.
These orders by the Supreme Court in the S.R. Bommai case changed the way emergency is perceived in India. Before this judgement, emergency under article 356 was imposed more than a hundred times in the states but after the judgement of the S.R. Bommai case, this number has dropped significantly. We can say that in the early years this provision was widely misused by the centre by the points mentioned above. After the judgement, the rates have dropped and it is seen that the misuse by the government has decreased.
It can be said that federal structure is not jeopardised anymore by the powers just because of the judgement that changed the course of Indian federal structure. The independence of the judiciary has ensured that the union government is not able to misuse the powers conferred to it and also maintains the dignity of the principle of the federal structure, which the constitution-makers planned to incorporate in the Indian political system. The ambiguity which was removed after the S.R. Bommai case has helped the state government in a more efficient display of power and has stopped the misuse by the union.