The Madhya Pradesh high court’s judgement invalidating the dismissal of the state government is obviously a shot in the arm for the Bharatiya Janata Party and an embarrassment for the Union government and the Congress. But, above all, it is a landmark in the country’s judicial history and should be discussed as such in a non-partisan spirit.
Article 356, it may be recalled, was inserted into the Constitution for the specific purpose of ensuring the country’s integrity through constitutional means. Indeed, it was a response to the earlier moves by the British to vest sovereignty in the provinces and to emasculate the Centre. In the post-independence period, their fears might have been exaggerated but they were, by no means, misplaced, as became evident in the Dravid Munnetra Kazhagam’s demand for the right of secession.
This draconian provision, meant for emergencies, was first abused in 1959 when the Union government dismissed the Communist party government in Kerala. The Union home minister, Pandit Govind Ballabh Pant, was opposed to the move and the Prime Minister, Pandit Nehru, was lukewarm.
But Pandit Nehru allowed himself to be pushed by Mrs Indira Gandhi who was then president of the Congress party. The decision set a dangerous precedent.
Since then, there have been 90 cases of use and misuse of this Article, the most flagrant ones of abuse being the dismissal of all Congress governments in the states by the Janata party government in New Delhi in 1977 and a similar dismissal of Janata governments by Mrs Indira Gandhi in 1980. The recent dismissal of the BJP government in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Himachal Pradesh belongs to the same category of flagrant misuse of authority.
It does not speak too well for us in the media that some of us have supported the dismissals on all these occasions on one plea or another. In 1977 and 1980, the plea was that the state governments in question had lost the confidence of the people because the party they belonged to had suffered defeat in the elections to the Lok Sabha. This time, it has been a replay of 1959 with only a change of name. In 1959, the argument was that the CPI government could not be depended upon to honour the Constitution.
This time around, the plea has been that the BJP governments in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Himachal Pradesh could not be expected to enforce the Centre’s ban on the RSS. The ban itself could not stand dispassionate scrutiny. But that is another matter.
It so happens that I have opposed New Delhi’s decisions to dismiss state governments on all three occasions – that is in 1977, 1980 and 1992 – despite my preference for a strong Centre and opposition to larger autonomy for the states. But it is not in a spirit of self-congratulation that I underscore the perils of a Press which is strong on self-righteousness and weak on perception and foresight.
I am appalled that erstwhile admirers of mass murderers such as Stalin and Mao Zedong among media persons are able to pass off as guardians of democracy.
To return to the Madhya Pradesh high court’s judgement, it once again highlights how governors allow themselves to be manipulated by New Delhi without, of course, saying so in so many words. The incumbent in Bhopal sent three reports to New Delhi, apparently at its instance, which spoke of “acts of omission and commission’ on the part of the state government without specifying those acts.
Similarly, he reported on the law and order situation in Bhopal and two other towns in the wake of the demolition of the Babri structure in Ayodhya and failed to draw a distinction between a temporary difficulty and breakdown of the constitutional machinery, which is the sole proper reason for invoking Article 356.
This is, however, an old story which need not detain us. We know the kind of individuals who are generally chosen to occupy the gilded cages known as Raj Bhawans and we know how well they generally repeat the master’s tune. Of greater interest is the performance of the office of the President himself.
I am not sure whether or not President Shankar Dayal Sharma favoured the demand for the dismissal of the BJP governments on ideological grounds.
The alacrity with which he issued a public statement on the demolition of the Babri structure virtually indicting the Prime Minister admits of an interpretation which would suggest that he too was inclined that way. But we cannot go by inference. We need to know the fact, which we do not.
If he was indeed so inclined, he would not have needed to be satisfied that there was a case for the dismissals. If, however, he was not, the material placed before him could not possibly have satisfied him.
As the Madhya Pradesh high court judgement recalls, the law and order situation in Congress-ruled Maharashtra and Gujarat was much worse than in Madhya Pradesh and in Himachal Pradesh there had been no communal violence at all.
The Constitution, of course, provides that the President is to be guided by the advice of the council of ministers as tendered to him by the Prime Minister.
But, as amended in 1977, in the light of the experience of the manner in which the emergency was proclaimed in 1975, it enables him to ask the council to reconsider its decision. It is not known that he sent the proposal back to the council for a review. This raises some awkward questions.
Just because Giani Zail Singh claimed to possess extraordinary powers as president of the Republic, including the right to dismiss the Prime Minister, it does not follow that his successors should hesitate to use such authority as the Constitution unequivocally invests in them.
It is not possible to anticipate the outcome of the appeal the Union government is to make to the Supreme Court. Though the sceptics are sure that it will certainly overturn the High Court’s judgement, it is difficult to see how it can do so. The government has just no case which can be presented even before a panchayat or munsif court. Needless to add, an adverse judgement by the Supreme Court will divest the government of legitimacy in terms of the Constitution, though it can hang on. Some wage this of the politics of opportunism.
Mr Arjun Singh is doubtless principally responsible for this problem. He pushed the Prime Minister into this disastrous course of action; it may be recalled that he started clamouring for the dismissal of the Madhya Pradesh government a year in advance of the demolition in Ayodhya and the subsequent ban on the RSS.
But Mr P V Narasimha Rao cannot avoid his share of responsibility. There the buck stops. He cannot pass it on.
The Observer of Business and Politics, 6 April 1993