In January, the President of India accepted the recommendation of the Union Government to invoke Article 356 of the Constitution to declare President’s rule in the state of Arunachal Pradesh. This came about after the central government alleged that there was a “law and order problem” resulting in “constitutional breakdown” in that state.
The imposition of Article 356 one more time has brought into sharp relief how political power is concentrated in the hands of the executive and the complete marginalization of the people.
Article 356 is one among the nine Articles, beginning from Art. 352 and ending with Art. 360, known as Emergency Provisions, enumerated in Chapter XVIII of the Constitution.
Under Article 356, the President can dismiss a State Government or dissolve a State Assembly or keep it under suspended animation in the event of a “failure of the constitutional machinery” in that State. This Article is a colonial legacy. It owes its genesis to Section 93 of the Government of India Act 1935 of the British colonialists, a section which essentially dealt with the "taking over of the Provincial Government by the Governor." The colonial government had introduced this Section with the object of quelling any dissidence by the Provincial Assemblies against colonial rule
When an attempt was made to include this section in the Indian Constitution, a big debate ensued in the Constituent Assembly. Those who were against the introduction of this provision were assuaged by Dr. Ambedkar who said this provision will be applicable “Only when the government is not carried on in consonance with the provisions laid down for the constitutional governance of the Provinces. Whether there is good government or not in the Province is not for the Centre to determine. I am quite clear on the point… I share the sentiments expressed by my honourable friend, Mr. Gupta, yesterday that the proper thing we ought to expect is that such Articles will never be called into operation and that they would remain a dead letter”.
This Article did not remain a dead letter. It was revoked again and again by governments at the centre to quell any dissidence and preserve their rule. In 1983, in response to a severe indictment of this Article, Indira Gandhi appointed a commission headed by Justice R.S. Sarkaria to go into the Centre-State relationship. After five years of deliberations, the Sarkaria Commission gave its report in 1988. This turned to be nothing other than the usual ploy of governments to appoint judicial commissions to calm tempers and pretend to listen to voices of protest. The recommendations of this Commission were never implemented.
The Sarkaria Commission noted that while in the first few years after the Constitution, it was invoked only thrice; between 1975 and ‘79, it was invoked 21 times; and between 1980 and ‘87, 18 times.
This Article has been repeatedly challenged by people in the Supreme Court. In 1994, in the "S.R. Bommai vs. Union of India" case, the Bench gave the verdict that a duly constituted ministry which enjoys the support of the Assembly cannot be dismissed under any pretext. But dismissal of elected governments have continued even after this verdict. This again showed that the impression created that the judiciary is a watchdog ensuring that the executive acts in the interest of the people is just an illusion.
The justifications put forward by the Governor of Arunachal Pradesh for President’s Rule are utterly cynical. The Government of Arunachal Pradesh has been accused of links with secessionist Naga groups, and of inciting communal tensions in the state and of creating a “law and order” problem. The political system and process of the Indian Union is such that the allegations of the Governor cannot be questioned by anyone, including the Supreme Court! This is what the Supreme Court itself has admitted. It can only question the methods used by the Governor in overthrowing the government of Arunachal Pradesh. It will not question the right of the Central government to dismiss the state government.
Thus, on February 1, the Supreme Court recalled an earlier order to the Governor to submit the report which he had sent to the Union government in which he had given the reasons for asking for President’s rule to be imposed, saying it had made a “mistake” by not realising that Governors have “complete immunity” and are “not answerable to courts for acts done in their official capacity”.
While the Supreme Court is busy deciding whether what the governor did in Arunachal Pradesh is “constitutional” or not, what is very clear is that in the existing political system, the power of the central government to interfere in the affairs of the state government, up to and including toppling the government and imposing central rule, as has been done in this case, is perfectly constitutional.
These developments reveal that the supreme decision making power, sovereignty, is not vested in the people, even though the Constitution of India starts with the preamble, “We, the people of India..” It is not the people who make the key decisions affecting the fate of society.
The power to make and implement decisions that affect the course of society is in the hands of the Executive – the President, advised by the Cabinet of the ruling party or coalition of parties. The Legislative power – the parliament and State assemblies – exists only to legitimise what the Executive does. The Executive power is not subordinate to the Legislative power as can be clearly seen in the Arunachal Pradesh controversy. Neither are those selected to the Legislature subordinate to the people who elected them in the first place. They render accounts to their respective parties and follow the party whip when it comes to voting in the legislature. The Judiciary is appointed by the Executive and serves it, while not being accountable or answerable to the people.
The political drama that has unfolded in Arunachal Pradesh has revealed the profound crisis in the way political power is constituted in the country today. More and more people are realising that the system of democracy in place in our country deliberately deprives them of political power. Far from being a “government of the people, by the people, for the people”, Indian democracy is being increasingly exposed for what it is in reality — a democracy that serves a privileged section. It is time that this conception of political power is contested and a new people-centred political put forward as an alternative.
From the LRS President’s Blog