Friday, April 1, 2016

S.R. Bommai v. Union of India case | Clarity after Bommai

The destruction of the Babri Masjid saw P.V. Narasimha Rao’s government dismiss four State governments lead by the BJP. In 1994, the challenge to this dismissal and earlier impositions of President’s Rule came to be decided by a nine-judge bench in the S.R. Bommai v. Union of India case.
The judgment held that the President’s satisfaction in the invocation of Article 356 could be inquired into by the courts. It upheld the dismissal of the BJP governments to protect secularism, which was part of the Constitution’s basic structure. It held that the President was required to act on objective material and that Article 356 could only be resorted to when there was a breakdown of constitutional machinery as distinguished from an ordinary breakdown of law and order.
The court also held that in no case should a State Assembly be dissolved without Parliament approving the proclamation, and that a test of numerical strength could only be conducted on the floor of the Assembly and not outside it. Relying on a Pakistani Supreme Court decision in Nawaz Sharif’s case, the judgment ruled that an improperly dismissed government could be restored to office. Thus, during Narasimha Rao’s minority government, citizens saw the Supreme Court becoming a strong bulwark of constitutional right and propriety.
The doctrine in Bommai came to be applied by the Supreme Court in the Bihar case of Rameshwar Prasad & Ors v. Union of India . In 2005, Governor Buta Singh, after an inconclusive election, recommended the dissolution of the State Assembly, without it being convened even once. The Court struck down the imposition as unconstitutional but refused to restore the Assembly because another election had already been ordered. Governor Buta Singh resigned in the wake of the judgment.
Since 1994, the instances of the imposition of President’s rule have dwindled considerably. It is only in recent times that a spurt has been seen, and more instances seem to be on the horizon. This year, the Supreme Court has heard for nearly a month the challenge to the imposition of Article 356 in Arunachal Pradesh. Here, a fresh alignment of forces may have overtaken any relief that was possible at the hands of the court. The Uttarakhand case too is soon likely to reach the Supreme Court. The doctrines and parameters of judicial review have already been set out. The question is of the willingness of the judiciary to cut through the political thicket in time to be of consequence to the political process. A majority government may well be tempted to brave an adverse verdict in the distant future, if there is an immediate gain of adding another outpost to the empire.
Our quasi-federal Constitution with unitary features has from time to time seen centrifugal forces overpower centripetal accelerations. But a unitary empire, where Centre and States are always in political tandem, is not what the Constitution makers envisaged. Willing partnerships cannot be turned into forced marriages. India that is Bharat was to be a Union of States. It is now sought to be turned into a state of Union. The Union government may well heed William Butler Yeats’s apocalyptic warning of a world where: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;/ Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,/ The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/ The ceremony of innocence is drowned;/ The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity.”
Sanjay Hegde is a senior advocate of the

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