Given its notorious political history, Article 356 should have been scrapped long ago. If the provision has continued to remain in the statute book, it’s only because of its usefulness to the ruling party of the day at the Centre, in executing the design of destabilising Opposition-run governments.
However, the Supreme Court’s decision on Wednesday, to quash President’s Rule in Arunachal Pradesh and reinstate the Congress-led government, has once again placed the contentious Article under the scanner. It has extended yet another opportunity to seriously consider removing the politically pernicious Article from the statute book.
Coming down heavily on the ruling BJP, the Supreme Court used strong words in describing Governor JP Rajkhowa’s decision to impose President’s Rule in Arunachal Pradesh as illegal as well as a breach of Constitutional provisions. But the question remains: Will the political class, scalded time and again by such misadventures, draw any lessons from the court's indictment? If past history and present political unravellings are any indication, such a possibility is remote.
Barely two months ago, the court pulled up the Central government led by Narendra Modi, after it leveraged Article 356 to dismiss Uttarakhand’s Congress government led by Harish Rawat. The court then ruled in favour of Rawat, giving him the opportunity to successfully prove his government’s majority on the floor of the House. It must surely have been embarrassing for the Attorney-General to tell the court that the 'Centre wanted to withdraw the proclamation for President’s Rule to enable Rawat to take charge as chief minister'.
Predictably, the Congress has now hailed the Supreme Court’s Arunachal Pradesh decision as a “victory for democracy”. Had the shoe been on the other foot, the BJP would have used the very same celebratory words and slammed the indiscriminate use of Article 356. The fact is there are no good or bad guys in this game. When it comes to misusing Article 356, all of them are equally guilty of political skulduggery.
Political morality has no room in these cynical back-room manipulations, where governments of the day lean on governors who are deliberately appointed to facilitate elimination of regimes led by Opposition parties. As for the gubernatorial posts, they have long since come to acquire the dubious distinction of being nothing but partisan offices which are awarded to the pliable party faithful.
Let’s rewind to the original purpose behind introducing the idea of Article 356. Under this section, President’s Rule can be imposed if a situation “in which the government of the state cannot be carried on in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution” comes to prevail in a state.
“Yet the President's Rule provisions contained in Article 356 of the Constitution have been used mercilessly in the past 50 years in ways virtually uncontrollable either by the Supreme Court or captive majorities in Parliament. An Olympic runner-up in the list of constitutional subversions is the misuse of the ordinance-making power (Articles 123 and 213) of the President and Governors,” wrote lawyer and Constitutional expert Rajeev Dhawan in an article in The Hindu, in September 2000.
Since Independence, India has seen 124 cases of the imposition of President’s Rule in different parts of the country. Manipur has been under President’s Rule on 10 occasions, while Uttar Pradesh and Punjab have been nine times. According to Dhawan, the “travails” of Article 356 started in 1951, when then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru kept the Punjab Assembly in suspension for more than nine months in order to help the Congress government to “get its act together”.
Eight years later and driven by narrow political objectives, Nehru dismissed Kerala’s Communist government led by EMS Namboodiripad. Former Congress prime minister Indira Gandhi made cynical use of Article 356 as many as nearly 50 times to get rid of governments headed by her political adversaries.
On ascending to power, the Janata government dismissed nine Congress-ruled state governments, using Article 356. During the rule of the Vajpayee-led NDA government, TMC leader Mamata Banerjee, then an ally of the Central government, repeatedly urged the Centre to impose President’s Rule in West Bengal (then ruled by the Left Front). Deterioration in the law and order situation was and still continues to be a fig leaf for political aggrandisement.
On ascending to power, Modi repeatedly vouched his commitment to cooperative federalism, thereby attempting to set his government apart from the previous Congress-led regimes. But the blatant use of Article 356 in Uttarakhand and Arunachal Pradesh shows that the present prime minister too is ready to play along in the murky game of destabilising elected governments that are not friendly to the ruling BJP.