Has Article 356 been the Centre’s AK-56?
It has been used for narrow political gains; rise of regional parties has greatly reduced its usage
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After nearly a year of President’s rule, Delhi has finally managed to emerge from the shadow of Article 356, and is set to have a majority government of its own. But another state, Jammu and Kashmir, is currently under governor’s rule—a form of President’s rule prescribed under the state’s Constitution—and will be, till at least two major parties come together to claim majority.
Like ordinances, the Constitution-makers intended for Article 356—it allows Union government to assume control of states’ governance—to be used only as an ‘emergency provision’. Ideally, Article 356 should only be invoked in case of “failure of constitutional machinery” in the state. During constituent assembly debates, Dr. Ambedkar made clear that “whether there is good government or not in the province (state) is not for the Centre to determine”, adding that he hoped that Article 356 would remain a “dead letter”.
However, even a cursory glance at the data shows that this has been far from the truth. Since independence, it has been used over 100 times. Perfectly legitimate state governments have sometimes been fired to either make them fall in line or to give the Union government’s own party a chance at obtaining power in the state. To claim legitimacy, Union governments have assumed precisely the role Dr. Ambedkar feared they would—that of being determinants of quality of governance in the states.
Though Article 356 had been misused even by Jawaharlal Nehru to dismiss the majority Communist government of Kerala, Indira Gandhi is synonymous with having used it as a weapon against state governments. Its frequency increased sharply post-1967 when Congress party lost power in several states in India.
Faced with the challenge of regional satraps, Indira Gandhi mercilessly kicked them out during her long tenure as the prime minister of the country. True to her Constitution-tweaking ways, she amended the Constitution to keep Article 356 out of judicial purview. This amendment was later revoked by another government.
Surprisingly, the most frequent usage of Article 356 happened under the post-emergency government formed by the Janata Party, which used it to summarily dismiss almost all state governments headed by Congress party. Not surprisingly, Indira Gandhi returned the favour when she stormed back to power in 1980, pushing out most non-Congress state governments.
That said, it is clear that frequency of using Article 356 has been greatly reduced since mid-1990s despite an increasingly higher number of states being ruled by parties other than that in the central government. This is attributable to a fundamental change in the nature of Union governments since mid-1990s. Before this period, even when coalition governments took power in Delhi, only a few national parties came to dominate the government. This was true of governments under Morarji Desai, V.P. Singh, P.V. Narasimha Rao etc. However, starting from the Third Front government under Deve Gowda, the government was deeply fragmented among several regional parties, which influenced the decision-making process at the centre.
There are enough examples to support this thesis. In 1998, when the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led coalition government wanted to impose central rule in Bihar, Tamil Nadu, and West Bengal, its regional allies in the cabinet—Telugu Desam Party and Shiromani Akali Dal—managed to scuttle the government’s plans. In 2000, this restraint worked again when the Vajpayee government planned to dismiss the Communist government in West Bengal. Despite pressures from Trinamool Congress, a BJP ally, the government could not dismiss the West Bengal government due to staunch opposition from other regional allies such as DMK and TDP. Regional parties such as DMK and PMK again prevailed on the Congress-led coalition in 2008 against dismissing the state government in Orissa.
Crucially, the rise of regional parties also lent an increasingly opportunistic and volatile character to Indian polity. This meant that the national parties were always on the lookout for new regional allies, and hence were wary of using Article 356 against their governments.
Besides having had direct political impact, the rise of regional parties has also rejuvenated other institutional safeguards - the courts and the President - against arbitrary imposition of Article 356. Pre mid-90s, both these institutions acquiesced to the whims of the Union government. However, in 1994, the Supreme Court delivered a landmark judgement in which it cited the strengthening of regional parties to posit that it was no longer the prerogative of Union government to determine the quality of governance in states, and dismissal of a state government run by a different party was bound to raise eyebrows. Similarly, in 1997, President K.R. Narayanan, in a first for any Indian president, returned to the cabinet its recommendation to impose direct central rule in Uttar Pradesh. Later, he returned a similar recommendation by another central government to dismiss the state government in Bihar. Faced with presidential resistance, the central government withdrew the recommendations on both occasions.
Manipur has seen the most frequent application of Article 356. The deeply fragmented internal politics of the state, as well as long periods of violence, have often enabled the Union government to impose its fiat on the state.
Besides Manipur, the politically crucial states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, with their fragmented polity, have been on the centre’s radar for long.
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