Democracy is best looked at not as a binary condition but as a spectrum. Anything which produces responsible government furthers democracy. One of the enablers, of course, is free and fair elections. But just as important as that are things like decentralisation and rule of law.
If one tries to place the recent happenings in Arunachal Pradesh on this spectrum, they would most definitely fall closer to the undemocratic end. Last month, Governor JP Rajkhowa convened a session of the assembly without the advice of the legally-elected Congress government. The session was held in a community hall in the capital city of Itanagar after the district administration “sealed” the Assembly Secretariat Complex. In the session – boycotted by the chief minister – the Speaker was impeached. Soon enough, the governor advised that Arunachal Pradesh’s government be dismissed and recommended President’s Rule in the state under Article 356 of the Constitution. Since the constitution demands that this can only happen “in case of failure of constitutional machinery”, the governor produced as proof a photo of a local bovine being slaughtered, terming it cow slaughter.
Given that the slaughtered animal wasn’t a cow and given the fact that even cow slaughter is perfectly legal in the state, the goings-on in Arunachal Pradesh are a good example of just how misused the option of President’s Rule is in India.
Colonial origins of Article 356
It is frequently forgotten that India’s constitution borrows widely from a document that served as British India’s constitution in the last decade of the Raj: the Government of India Act of 1935. For the first time, this law promised a large measure of self-rule for Indians – but only at the provincial level. Strategically, the British planned a “retreat to the Centre”, maintaining an iron grip over Delhi, even as Bombay, Calcutta, Madras, etc. would almost completely be controlled by Indian politicians.
But, of course, this was colonial rule and there were limits. One check was Section 93 of the Government of India Act which allowed a provincial governor – appointed by the British Raj in Delhi – to assume the powers of a provincial government if the administration cannot be “carried on with the provisions of the act”. This was the first avatar of the current Article 356.
The Congress – which had won the elections in eight of the 11 provinces at the time – protested strongly against the undemocratic provision of Section 93. It demanded that the British Viceroy give an assurance that the governor would not interfere with the working of the elected provincial governments. Linlithgow, the Viceroy, did and only then did the Congress assume office.
Independence meant that the Central government which the British had controlled for 200 years was now in the hands of the Congress. With a change of role came a change of heart towards Section 93, which was inserted almost unchanged as Article 356 in India’s new republican constitution.
India is unique among federal countries to have a provision to dismiss elected provincial governments. It is also unique among democratic countries to have exercised such a provision so liberally. Since 1950, there have been 113 instances of democratically-elected state governments being dismissed by Delhi.
On paper, Article 356, much like Section 93, is only to be used “in case of failure of constitutional machinery”. Given its origins as an instrument of colonial control and the absolute power it accords to the Centre, it is, however, not surprising that it has been used most often to guard the interests of the ruling party in Delhi. As JR Siwach wrote in 1977, the “main consideration” in case of Article 356 “has always been the interests of the Congress Party in the Centre”. Replace Congress with Bharatiya Janata Party and you’ll have the current situation in Arunachal Pradesh.
Nehruvian use of 356
The first use of Article 356 was also a great example of its misuse. Nehru, unhappy with Punjab Chief Minister Gopichand Bhargava, dismissed him even though he enjoyed a majority in the Assembly. Moreover, in what would become a regular practice, the governor’s letter asking for President’s rule originated not with the governor but with the Centre itself. Historian Granville Austin writes that in this case, the Congress had “blended its interests with questionable national needs to take over a state government”. In 1954, the Andhra state’s government was dissolved because the Centre feared a communist regime taking power.
In 1959, Nehru dismissed the communist government in Kerala even as the Congress was involved in a bitter political battle in the state. How did the governor justify dismissing an elected government which still enjoyed the confidence of the house? “It is not necessary that a no confidence motion be passed,” the governor said. “I am convinced that the government has lost the support of the majority of the people.”
The inner voices of unelected governors are, in all respects, a poor constitutional method to judge the support of an elected government. Nehru is often remembered as a great democrat – and with good reason. But if one needs to argue the other side, Nehru’s use of Article 356 to further the Congress’s own political needs is good material to do so.
Peak and trough
Matters, though, reached a crescendo in the 1970s, as instability at the Centre meant Delhi would often dismiss elected governments in order to further the narrowest of politic interests. In 1977 and 1980, the Janata Party and Congress dismissed state governments not controlled by their party on a mass scale, not even bothering to hide behind the fig leaf of constitutional breakdown.
In 1983, the Sarkaria Commission, which was set up to examine the balance of power between state and central governments, did recommend that Article 356 only be used in extreme cases, but any real curb on the powers of the Centre would come from the judiciary. In the 1994 Bommai vs Union of India case, the Supreme Court laid down strict guidelines on how a state government is to be dismissed, making it mandatory for a no-confidence motion to be passed in the house. “The assessment of the strength of the Ministry is not a matter of private opinion of any individual be he the Governor or the President,” the judgement read. It also made the use of Article 356 subject to review by the courts, overturning the earlier convention where the government of India was supreme.
This along with the fact that India’s polity became naturally more federal with the decline of the Congress and rise of regional political formations, made Article 356 a rarely-used provision in the 2000s. Of course, it might be no coincidence that Arunachal Pradesh has happened now that there is again a single party that, for the first time in two decades, has a simple majority in the Lok Sabha, emboldening the unelected governor to try and dismiss a state government.