S.R. Bommai vs. Union of India[i] is one of the landmark judgements given by the Supreme Court of India about the president’s rule under Article 356 of the Indian Constitution. The case has widely developed Article 356 which was being blatantly misused and has also helped in maintaining and aligning the federal system with India’s unification. This judgment stopped the central government’s unconstitutional removal of the State governments. The judgement of the case also firmly held that the floor of the Assembly was the only medium to measure the plurality of the government of the day and not the arbitrary judgement of the governor, sometimes referred to as the representative of the central government.
During the year 1989, S.R. Bommai was the Chief Minister of Karnataka representing the Janata Dal Government. In April 1989, many MLA’s defaulted and submitted their withdrawal letters from the Janta Dal Government to the governor of Karnataka. After which the governor sent a report to the President and he mentioned in his report that Mr. Bommai’s party lacks majority support because of the withdrawal of the Ministers and as there is no other party who can form a government, therefore as per Article 356(1) President Rule should be imposed and Janata Dal should be removed from power. Mr. Bommai recommended Governor for a floor test and asked for Assembly to be summoned to examine the majority of the party. This idea was rejected by the governor. Following this, the President proclaimed as per Article 356(3) in 1989 which was approved by the Parliament, and the government was dismissed.
S.R. Bommai challenged the validity of the proclamation through a writ petition in the High Court of Karnataka. The court dismissed his writ petition and held that the proclamation made in compliance with Article 356(1) of the Constitution of India is not completely beyond the scope of judicial review; the satisfaction of the President under Article 356(1) is a prerequisite for the right of the proclamation to be valid and legitimate satisfaction on the grounds of the appropriate facts and events.[ii] Therefore, the extent of judicial review is limited to investigating whether the motives revealed carry some reasonable connection with the proposed proclamation.
S.R. Bommai then appealed before the Supreme Court. He petitioned that his party did not get the chance to prove the majority in the assembly and that the President’s rule was solely a political act as there were no grounds for imposition of President rule and therefore the President rule is mala fide. He also contended that the union government must reveal the facts or reasons due to which the satisfaction was formed for the imposition of the President rule to the court and they should not be relieved of this duty based on Article 74(2), but the Union Government i.e., the then Government of India, failed to do so.
In Meghalaya, Nagaland, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Himanchal Pradesh, the same legal issues emerged as the President had issued similar proclamations in these states, and thus all the cases were collectively heard by the Supreme Court.
A bench of 9 judges was constituted and it consisted of S.R. Pandian, A.M. Ahmadi, Kuldip Singh, J.S. Verma, P.B. Sawant, Katikithala Ramaswamy, S.C. Agarwal, Yogeshwar Dayal, and B.P. Jeevan Reddy.
The main issue before the bench was- Whether the president rule issued under Article 365 is valid? The answer to the issue is subjected to the following questions:
- Whether the President’s rule comes under the purview of judicial review?
- What does it mean by “a situation has arisen in which the Government of the State cannot be carried on under the provisions of this Constitution”[iii] in Article 356(1)?
By the majority of 5:4, the Supreme Court held that President rule was unconstitutional which was imposed in the state of Karnataka, Nagaland, and Meghalaya. The President’s rule imposed in the states of Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Madhya Pradesh was upheld unanimously as the practices of the parties were not consistent with India’s constitutional secular character.
In 1983, Indira Gandhi had constituted a commission on Union-State relation headed by Justice Ranjit Singh Sarkaria and the commission submitted its report in 1988.[iv] The Sarkaria Commission while reporting on the application of Art. 356, adopted the intentions of the framers of the Constitution which were for this provision, to only be put to use when the President is satisfied that the state government is no longer in control of the affairs of its territory and immediate intervention is required as a matter of last resort. The commission also recommended a floor test for proving the majority, etc. These reports are not binding on the judiciary but rather are to shed light on important subjects. However, in S.R. Bommai vs. the Union of India, the SC considered it.
The nine-judge bench in the case gave seven opinions. The court in its seven opinions has reflected on the federal nature of the Constitution of India. In India, the principle of federalism cannot be practised in its strict sense and the court also emphasized that the implementation of the federal nature of the American Constitution would lead to deception on the Constitution of India. The Supreme Court ruled that the power of the president to declare president rule has certain limitations and it shouldn’t be solely based on the satisfaction of the president but rather on the report and opinion of the governor. It was also held that the president rule is subjected to judicial review as there is no harm in it and if the facts are found to be misleading, the court has the power to strike down the rule even if it has the consent of both the houses and restore the dismissed government to power and “revive and reactive the Legislative Assembly wherever it may have been dissolved or kept under suspension”.[v]
The court also laid down the meaning of Article 356 and how the power is to be used, the power bestowed upon the President by Article 356 is not absolute rather it’s a conditioned power and the president can only exercise it on the approval of both the houses as per Article 356(3), until the approval only the legislative assembly can be suspended by the President. Furthermore, it has been said that the invocation of Article 356 of the Constitution should be treated as the last power in the possession of the President.
Analysis Of S.R. Bommai Case
In the case of S.R. Bommai, the decision of the Supreme Court has proven to be the most suitable to curb the problem of the abuse of authority by the Executive. The Court rightly rejected opposing arguments that by interpreting the Central Government should control the State government as intended by the legislative drafters of the Constitution of India. As part of the Basic Structure, the Court defined Federalism and Secularism in it. The decision of the President is not fitting for judicial review and should be strictly decided by the central government was also overruled in the case of the State of Rajasthan.[vi] The courts recognized that the pluralistic form of democracy was undermined and abused by political parties and thus held that in order not to use those powers in a mala-fide way, the judiciary must act as a watchdog. Though the Court issued instructions on the imposition of the President’s Rule in states, it also gave enough scope to the Union Cabinet and the discretion of the President.
A high-water mark of judicial review was marked through the decision in Bommai. It is a positive advancement and will help the future cases in reducing the repeated attacks on the States by the Centre by pointing out “are neither satellites nor agents of the Centre.”[vii] There is, however, legitimate concern about the abuse of Article 356 by the Centre on the basis that the Government of the State is behaving in violation of the basic features of the Constitution. As indicated by Justices Kuldip Singh and Sawant, the absolute judicial review would be the real protection, extending to an investigation, and validity of the essential facts relied upon the claims under Article 356. It is disappointing that this critical question of the scope of judicial review could not be unanimous. Minority judgments have displayed an unnecessarily cautious attitude and have often overlooked the undeniable reality of the brazen violation of Article 356 by all political parties in our nation. Any timorous withdrawal from the robust judicial activism reflected in Bommai will cause significant problems in the future and lead to negative consequences of the dissolution of another important function, Federalism, by one or more fundamental features of the Constitution.
Some judges including Justices Sawant and Ramaswami, have individual observations about what the fundamental features of the Constitution are and recorded their opinions on whether they come under the purview of the basic structure of the Constitution. These observations cannot be considered by the Supreme Court as a declaration of the law or can be treated as obiter dicta of the apex court to be followed by the High Courts because as noted, no situation arose to make them. Also, no general declaration can be made about a permanent catalogue of fundamental features. The sad part is that the true ratio of the decision cannot be derived with confidence at the end of the day concerning numerous other topics on which different and disparate claims have been made. It was very important to have an order recording the final decisions emerging from the majority decision. It is rightly said, that the law should be transparent and precise to avoid any conflicts. The same healthy prescription refers to a law declared by the Supreme Court, particularly when we are told by it that “judges are presumed to know the tendency of parties concerned to interpret the language in the judgments differently to suit their purposes and the consequent importance that the words have to be chosen very carefully so as not to give room for controversy.“[viii] (emphasis added)
But as is the case from this judgement, States have been strengthened following the historic Bommai judgement and they have a new identity that relates to the mandate they have received from the population, thereby growing its relevance. The political misuse of Article 356 in general situations has been curbed down by the Supreme Court in the Bommai case. Moreover, after reviewing the judgments of the Supreme Court, it is clear that they believed that because both the Union and the State Governments have been directly elected, so both are similar. Hence, no discrimination or domination of the Centre can take place in the States in India. The federal structure of India has usually attained wherein the States are not the subordinate or puppets of the Central Government. To promote the welfare of the people and prevent the attitude of dominance, co-operative federalism is needed to be adopted to maintain a balance between the State and the Union Government. The Constitution of India has provided both governments with certain powers to prevent a dominating attitude of either of them. The judiciary also helps to keep a check on the actions taken by them which goes against the spirit of the Constitution. Therefore, the ruling of the Bommai case by the Supreme Court helped in preserving the federal system and ruled that federalism and secularism come under the scope of the Basic Structure of the Indian Constitution.
Post-S.R. Bommai’s Judgment Era
The scope of Article 356 got much wider after the S.R. Bommai case, which formed the base for many advanced principles of judgement. These cases assured that the judiciary acted in an activist way to sustain democratic norms and the character of federalism. Even after the Bommai case, the misuse was still in practice, but the frequency was reduced and the arbitrary President’s rule was put under the purview of judicial review. The developments in all the below cases after Bommai’s judgement is interesting to understand the activist role of the judiciary.
- P. Legislative Assembly – In the case of Jagdambika Pal vs Union of India and ors.[ix] no party got a simple majority to form the government. The largest party was not called to form the government, rather a Presidential rule was re-imposed in the State. This matter was decided by the Supreme Court where it held that the re-imposition of the President’s rule is unconstitutional and further ordered for a composite floor test in the assembly.
- Bihar Legislative Assembly – In the case of Rameshwar Prasad vs Union of India[x] there was a deadlock kind of situation where no party got the complete majority to form the government. The Governor requested to impose the President’s rule till the time parties decide to collaborate and form the government due to the change of parties by MLA’s that were taking place. The Supreme Court found that the intention of the Governor was mala fide, even though he is having immunity under Article 361, then the court can check the constitutionality and legality of such actions of the Governor.
- Arunachal Pradesh Legislative Assembly – In the case of Nabam Rebia vs Deputy Speaker and Others[xi] the Governor of Arunachal Pradesh Locked down the government under Article 356 of the Indian Constitution based on the defection of MLA’s to the other party. The Governor to topple the state government, summoned the assembly early than the scheduled time. The Supreme Court criticized the Governor for “humiliating the government of the day”[xii], and eventually restored the Nabam’s Government.
- Uttarakhand Legislative Assembly – In the case of Union of India vs Harish Chandra Singh Rawat and another[xiii] the President’s rule was imposed right before the commencement of floor test in the State of Uttarakhand’s assembly. The President’s rule was imposed based on allegations against the Chief Minister for bribery with some MLA’s. The Supreme Court ordered to conduct the floor test by removing the President’s rule for a couple of hours. In the floor test, the dismissed government of Uttarakhand was being reinstated.
Finally, we can conclude from the above scenarios that the Bommai case was the guiding force for the four fundamental developments since 1994. In the Bihar assembly case, the parameters of immunity had been laid down by a seven judges bench envisaged by Article 361 of the Constitution. In the case of the Uttarakhand assembly, the presidential rule was lifted for a couple of hours to conduct a floor test, which depicts that the court has moved a step ahead of the Bommai case. The status quo ante was restored in the case of the Arunachal Pradesh assembly, wherein the court referred the case to be a political circus and explicitly spoke about the role of judicial activism that courts need to adopt if they see democracy being murdered. Therefore, the landmark judgement has played a vital role in finding new principles that further helped to prevent the misuse of Article 356 of the Indian Constitution.
Article 356 has been widely misused, where the Governor’s report is sent to the Centre for abolishing a legislative assembly and imposing President’s rule in their respective State. The role of Governor from 1950-1994 while in office has also been controversial, which in turn created a great amount of distrust and dissatisfaction in minds of the States. The Governor is usually appointed by the Central Government and holds the office till the pleasure of the President, but he is not an agent of them. Since independence, situations have arisen where it was found that the Governor was being unfair to the States. Such a situation has been observed in many matters including the recent cases of Uttarakhand and Arunachal Pradesh. The Sarkaria Commission was formed to help rectify the problems with Article 356 in 1988, but the recommendations were not binding. In this case, the Supreme Court used these recommendations and put forward some guidelines and norms in judicial pronouncement. The Constitution grants the Centre more powers vis-à-vis the State, but it doesn’t imply that the State is appendages of the Centre, rather they are also given enormous power that can’t be tampered by the Centre.
Therefore, the judgment was supported a lot as it aimed to strengthen the federal structure by putting an end to arbitrary dismissal of the State Government and build State-Centre ties. Hence, the judgement was considered to be in a positive direction as it created a strong framework for the future. This step of the judiciary was considered to be under the purview of judicial activism rather than judicial overreach. The positivist approach was taken by the judiciary to stop the misuse of Article 356 by the pronouncement of a binding judgement and this article to be used in the rarest of the rare situations as aimed by the Constitutional Drafters. The Post S.R. Bommai era have also witnessed misuse of Article 356 in the case of Jagdambika Pal vs Union of India and ors.,[xiv] Rameshwar Prasad vs Union of India,[xv] Nabam Rebia vs Deputy Speaker and Others[xvi], and Union of India vs Harish Chandra Singh Rawat and another,[xvii] even after pronouncing a decision by nine judges’ bench. This generally happens when a political conflict especially between the Central and the State Government arises, and the Central Government misuses its power under Article 356. But still, the judgment in S.R. Bommai has played a vital role in curbing and shrinking Central Government’s long arm. Even though this landmark judgement has provided guidelines and norms, but still an amendment in Article 356 is today’s need, especially in line with S.R. Bommai’s ruling to stop its misuse.
[i]  SCC (3) 1.
[ii] Shivangi Goel, ‘S.R. Bommai vs. Union of India’ (Law Times Journal, 2 October 2019) <http://lawtimesjournal.in/s-r-bommai-vs-union-of-india/> accessed 15 December 2020.
[iii] The Constitution of India 1950, art 356(1).
[iv] ‘Report of the Sarkaria Commission | ISCS’ <http://interstatecouncil.nic.in/report-of-the-sarkaria-commission/> accessed 15 December 2020.
[v] BN Hosamani and MG Khan, ‘PRESIDENT’S RULE – AN ANALYTICAL STUDY OF THE ROLE OF GOVERNOR IN KARNATAKA’ (2012) 73 The Indian Journal of Political Science 465.
[vi] State of Rajasthan v. Union of India, (1977) 3 SCC 592.
[vii] (1968) 1 All ER 694.
[viii] CWT v. Dr Karan Singh, 1993 Supp (4) SCC 500.
[ix] (1999) 9 SCC 95.
[x] (2006) 2 SCC 1.
[xi] 2016 SCC OnLine SC 694.
[xiv] Jagdambika Pal (n 9).
[xv] Rameshwar Prasad (n 10).
[xvi] Nabam Rebia (n 11).
[xvii] Harish Chandra (n 13).