Case Summary

S.R. BOMMAI v. UNION OF INDIA 1994 (3) SCC 1, AIR 2017 SC 2734

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This Case Summary is written by Ankush Talwar & Kamaksshee Khajuria, students of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar National Law University,  Sonepat, Haryana

SYNOPSIS

S.R. Bommai v. Union of India’ is a historical landmark judgment given by the Supreme Court, which talks about the Presidential Proclamation under Article 356 of the Constitution of India. It acts as a guide for all the issues arising out of the Centre-state relations and misuse of Article 356. Under this Article, ‘the Central government can take control over a State government, in a situation wherein the State legislative machinery cannot function in accordance with the Constitutional provisions and that’s why the matters pertaining to this Article may involve controversy.’ So, to restrict such unconstitutional removal of the State governments by the Centre, the court firmly held that the General Assembly will have the authority to decide the imposition of a valid proclamation and not the Central government.

BACKGROUND 

This case mainly focuses upon Article 356 of the Indian Constitution, which deals with the emergency provision for imposing Presidential Proclamation upon a State. However, this Article was regarded as a “dead letter” of the Constitution by Dr B.R. Ambedkar due to its misuse as a political tool. Under this Article, the elected state government is dismissed and the Governor of the state, who is a functionary of the federal government, directly becomes in charge of the overall state’s administration. But this power was being repeatedly misused by the Centre to dismiss the state governments of opposite political parties, even without any genuine reasons, which violated the federal character of the Indian political system and the doctrine of popular sovereignty. Thus, to stop this unconstitutional removal of the state governments and to solve the scuffle between the Centre and the States, this judgment was passed.

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FACTS OF THE CASE

S.R. Bommai was the 11th Chief Minister of Karnataka, who was representing the Janata Dal Government during the year 1989. On 21st April, his government was dissolved due to the lack of majority support and the President’s Rule was imposed under Article 356(1) of the Constitution. Bommai recommended the Governor to summon the Assembly to conduct a floor test and review the party’s majority, but his idea was rejected and after the approval of the Parliament under Article 356(3), his government was finally dismissed. A writ petition was filed by Bommai in the Karnataka High Court challenging the validity of the Presidential Proclamation, but his petition was dismissed stating that “under Article 356(1), the extent of judicial review is limited and the President’s satisfaction is a valid prerequisite for a legitimate proclamation.” Unsatisfied with the High Court’s decision, Bommai then appealed in the Supreme Court of India stating that the dismissal of his government was merely a ‘political act’ and the imposition of the President’s rule was mala fide, as there were no genuine reasons. Moreover, neither a chance was given to him to prove his party’s majority nor the facts were disclosed by the Central Government upon which the satisfaction was derived, as a part of their duty under Article 74(2). Similar kinds of proclamations were also made in the states like Meghalaya, Nagaland, etc, and thus all these cases were then collectively heard by the Supreme Court to stop the further abuse of Article 356.

PERTINENT ISSUES 

Some important issues raised in the instant case were:- 

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  1. What is the Constitutional validity of Presidential Proclamation under Article 356 of the Indian Constitution?
  2. Whether the president has unfettered powers under Article 356(1)?
  3. Whether the imposition of the President’s rule is challengeable and amenable to judicial review? If yes, then to what extent?  
  4. What does the expression in Article 356(1) stating that “a situation has arisen wherein the state legislative functions cannot be in cooperation with constitutional provisions” mean?

CONTENTIONS 

Various Contentions made by both the Petitioner and Respondents are as follows:- 

PETITIONER

  1. The major contention of the petitioner was that he was not given a single chance to prove his party’s majority. Moreover, neither a floor test was conducted nor the Assembly was summoned even after the suggestions had been made to the Governor for the same.
  2. Further, it was contended that the imposition of the President’s Rule was completely mala fide and it is solely a political act since the mere fact of disturbance, torching and looting in the area is no ground for enforcing presidential proclamation, citing that the party is incompetent and must be dissolved. The true motive behind such imposition was to consolidate the power with the centre and put the representatives of the state in a socially unenforceable and inequitable position.
  3. Petitioner also contended that no material facts were presented upon which the president had derived the satisfaction to impose the emergency and dismiss the government. Under Article 74(2), it is the duty of the Union government to reveal all the material facts to both the State’s legislative members as well as the Court on behalf of which such proclamation was imposed and such a duty shouldn’t be ignored.
  4. Lastly, the petitioner made the contention that whether a president can dismiss a state legislature without the approval of both the Houses of the Parliament, and it was also contended that since Secularism is a basic feature of the Constitution, so whether a state government can be dissolved if it is found guilty for administering non-secular acts?
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RESPONDENT

  1. The counsel of respondents contended that there is a distinction between the extent and nature of judicial review in constitutional law and administrative law. In administrative law, the court may expand its jurisdiction w.r.t the issues regarding the legislative powers of a governmental body but it doesn’t constitute the same authority in the field of constitutional law. The court can merely declare the actions as an abuse of discretion i.e., ultra vires. It was also contested that the courts don’t have the authority to decide the validity of the conditions for imposing a presidential proclamation. 
  2. Further, it was argued that a Presidential Proclamation would be issued by the President as per Article 356 (1) with the advice of the cabinet ministers as stated in Article 74 (1), but an inquiry into the question regarding whether or not if any advice is given to the President by the cabinet and the judicial review of the reasons on behalf of which the proclamation is made, is strictly ‘prohibited’ as per Clause 2 of the said Article.
  3. Respondents also contended that when the acts of the State Government are non-secular, then it can be dissolved under the contention of Secularism.

RATIO DECIDENDI

The Supreme Court on the basis of appropriate facts, findings and reasons gave the following judgement:- 

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  • Interpretation of Article 356 and Judicial Review – It was held that under Article 356 (1), the President’s power to impose emergency is subject to judicial review, but to the extent of scrutinizing, whether the conditions relating to the issuance of the rule have been fulfilled or not. It was also reiterated that a president cannot dissolve a Legislative Assembly until his proclamation is approved by both the houses of the Parliament under Article 356 (3). However, he can adjourn the assembly under Article 356 (1)(c). It was also evaluated that the courts can reinstate the dissolved assembly (status quo) by overruling the proclamation as done in the case of “State of  Rajasthan v. Union of India, AIR 1977”. Justice Sawant and Justice Kuldip Singh interpreted that the use of Article 356 should be the last resort, and it should be imposed only when a state’s governance is unable to be carried out in conformity with the Constitutional provisions. The Jury also relied upon the reports of the Sarkaria Commission for stating different situations, where a President’s rule will be considered justifiable, like in case of failure of state machinery, political crisis, etc. It was also held that if a state government loses its majority or resigns, then the Governor cannot advise the President for imposing President’s rule until adequate measures had been taken to establish a substitute Government. 
  • Concept of Secularism and Federalism – The court observed that Secularism is an essential feature of the Indian Constitution and thus, if a state government administers any kind of unsecular policies or acts in opposition to the Constitution, then it may subject to a proclamation under Article 356. This case also talked about the concept of Federalism in contrast to the Presidential Proclamation, which had conflicting views. Justice Reddy held that “the states are not the projections of Centre and Centre doesn’t possess any power to interfere in State’s machinery unless it is critical”, while Justice Verma, Justice Ahmadi and Justice Dayal were of the view that “it is a part of basic structure of the constitution and that the politics cannot be mixed with religion by political parties.” However, despite the conflicting views, both secularism and federalism were unanimously accepted as the basic features of the Indian Constitution and nobody has the right to violate them. 

Therefore, the Court decreed in favour of the plaintiff by overruling the judgment of the Karnataka High Court and restored the dismissed state government of Janata Dal Party led by S.R. Bommai in Karnataka. Also, similar proclamations imposed in the states like Nagaland and Meghalaya were declared unconstitutional. In addition to this, the Court also gave proper directives w.r.t such proclamations being issued under Article 356 in future.

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SIGNIFICANCE AND IMPACT

This landmark verdict had a huge impact on centre-state relations and thus, carries a great significance in Indian politics as it restored the federal character by stopping the arbitrary removal of State governments by the Centre to achieve political gains. It preserved the constitutional sanctity of the state government by limiting the use of Article 356. Although no question of constitutional amendment arose in this case, still the basic structure doctrine was implemented here. The judgment also ruled that a party’s majority will only be determined by a floor test and the approval by both the Houses of Parliament must be there for a valid proclamation, otherwise the dismissed government may be reinstated. The very first impact of this verdict can be seen during the year 1999 when the Vajpayee government was forced to reinstate the government it dissolved. It was also clarified that the Presidential Proclamation is subject to judicial review and even the policies of a state government which are administered against the basic structure of the Constitution, could be a valid ground for the imposition of President’s Rule under Article 356. So, it can be seen that the significance and impact of the S.R. Bommai Case have great relevance in India’s political history.

CRITICAL ANALYSIS 

This Case mainly deals with Article 356 which is an essential provision of the Indian Constitution as it functions to maintain the federal structure of the country and that is why its usage has increased over time. Since 2016, the Presidential rule has been imposed around 115 times in India and during the year 1991-1992 alone, it was imposed 9 times which was the highest till date. Thus, we can see that Article 356 was being used as a political tool, however after the passing of this judgment and formation of the ‘Sarkaria Commission’, its misuse has steadily declined. Although, there is a positive impact but the alarming concern was that even though the frequency has reduced yet the power was highly misused as only around 60 proclamations can be justified, while the remaining are controversial, which depicts that in more than a half of the cases, the power has been grossly misused. So with this alarming discovery, a very important question that arose was “whether this Article should be omitted or not?”, but keeping in view the significance of this Article in maintaining the balance of power between the Centre and the States, deleting it will not be a wise choice as it may lead to a negative impact upon the Centre-State relationship. So instead of deleting it, proper amendments should be made to avoid its misuse in future.    

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Now when we look upon the interpretation of Judicial review in the instant case, we can see that even when it isn’t possible to establish a uniform law across all the cases, the judgment of this case established that the Judiciary is the ultimate interpreter and guardian of the Indian Constitution by any necessary means. It was the first time in case of “State of Rajasthan v. Union of India, AIR 1977”, where the notion of judicial review regarding the satisfaction of the President to impose president’s rule came before the Court even after the presence of bar under Article 74 (2) and Article 356 (5), which states that “the Presidential Satisfaction as mentioned in Clause 1 shall be final and conclusive and cannot be challenged in any court on any ground.” However, by omitting the said clause through the 44th Amendment Act, 1978 this exclusion was removed and after the Bommai case, it was concluded that Article 356 doesn’t enjoy transactional immunity. A similar kind of event took place in the case of “C.R. Das v. Union of India, AIR 1999”, where the Governor issued a report mentioning the breakdown of the constitutional machinery in the state, which however was refused by the president stating that ‘bad governance doesn’t amount to breakdown’.

In another case of “Rameshwar Prasad v. Union of India, AIR 2005”, the court said that “the emergency Proclamation cannot be imposed upon the will of Governor, rather it must be made on real and cogent grounds.” However, the interim stay order was not issued and the fresh elections were organised in the above case, which signifies that the principles laid down by the Bommai case were not followed. Though, there were also cases like “Union of India v. Harish Chandra Singh Rawat, AIR 2016”, where the court in order to protect the democratic and federal spirit of the constitution went a step further to execute the floor test by removing the presidential rule for 2 hours. So, preventing the misuse of Article 356 was not always as simple and had its ups and downs.

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Therefore, in short, we can say that the court has taken a bold step by making an exemplary effort to restrict the misuse of Article 356 by creating a distinction between the powers of the Centre to interfere in the governance of the State legislature.

CONCLUSION 

S.R. Bommai v. Union of India is a landmark case which not only deals with the basic structure of the Constitution but also strengthens the federal structure of Indian Politics by restricting the interference of the Centre in the State’s administration. Its main objective was to restrain the misuse of Article 356 by ending the practice of arbitrary removal of state governments and it also specified the scope of Judicial review even under the Presidential Proclamation. Besides this, the judgment also highlighted the concept of secularism and federalism as an important part of the basic structure of the constitution. So, it has undoubtedly played an important role in the development of constitutional law and due to its complex nature and conflicting opinions of the judges, it has gained much significance in history and even today. Therefore, it can be concluded that Article 356 is an essential provision of the Constitution of India.

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