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Anshul is a Political Science and Law graduate from the University of Delhi. He is interested in political, legal and policy developments and frequently writes on related themes. You can contact him on anshulkumarpandey [at] gmail [dot] com.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Crisis of Federalism in India: Center on a Warpath

After vowing to promote and strengthen "cooperative federalism" in the country, the much maligned Narendra Modi government at the center has taken another U-turn and has decided to go on a warpath with regards to the states in view of its nosediving popularity day by day and thin chances of getting elected with a majority in the forthcoming assembly elections in Assam and West Bengal.

President's Rule in Uttarakhand

The Center imposed President's rule in Uttarakhand a day before Chief Minister Harish Rawat was to prove his majority on the floor of the house. The decision to impose President's rule was taken by an emergency cabinet meeting chaired by the Prime Minister himself, who cut short his tour to Assam to fly back to Delhi.

Earlier, 9 Congress MLAs had rebelled from the ruling party, sparking the crises in the state. The rebellion occurred when the MLAs demanded vote division on the Appropriation Bill on the floor of the house in writing on March 18. The Speaker rejected their demand and announced the appropriation bill as passed. The decision of the Speaker is final with regards to proceedings in the house and the only way to dismiss the government in the state, as prescribed by the Constitution, is by passing a vote of no-confidence against it. CM Harish Rawat, as duly instructed by the Governor, was to face this no-confidence motion on March 28. The opposition BJP, unable to cobble up a majority of its own, sent SOS signals to the center, which imposed President's Rule on March 27.

Earlier, Center's Rule in Arunachal Pradesh

A similar script played out in Arunachal Pradesh in January when 21 Congress MLAs rebelled against the Chief Minister and were supported by the BJP and Independent MLAs to form their own government after the Center imposed President's Rule.

The role of the Governor was questioned when he allowed the rebel legislators as well as the BJP and independent MLAs to hold an assembly session a month before it was scheduled to take place, that too without consulting the Chief Minister and also implored the assembly to consider a motion for removing the speaker! The Governor also cited cow slaughter, 'threats' and misbehaviour among the reasons for recommending president's rule in the state while forwarding his report to the center.

The Supreme Court lashed out at the decision of the governor to allow the assembly session to be convened outside the assembly premises but expressed its inability to scrutinize the report sent by the Governor recommending president's rule as he enjoyed constitutional immunity. It was only able to fume that it "cannot be a mute spectator while democracy was slaughtered" as the Parliament approved the imposition of Central rule in the state. 

Flagrant Violation of Supreme Court Directives

The exercise of emergency powers under Art 356 of the constitution to remove inconvenient state governments was almost a routine with post-Independence central governments until the landmark case of S. R. Bommai vs. Union of India in 1994 screeched halt on that practice. In that case, briefly, the Supreme Court laid down the following directives, which have been brilliantly summarized by Praveen Swami in a Frontline article here:

1) In all cases where the support of the Ministry is claimed to have been withdrawn by some legislators the proper course for testing the strength of the Ministry is holding the test on the floor of the House.

2) 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.

3) Whenever a doubt arises whether the Council of Ministers has lost the confidence of the House, the only way of testing it is on the floor of the House. The sole exception to this will be a situation of all-pervasive violence where the Governor comes to the conclusion - and records the same in his report - that for the reasons mentioned by him, a free vote is not possible.

4) It is not each and every non-compliance with a particular provision of the Constitution that calls for the exercise of the power under Article 356(1). The majority in Bommai sanctioned dismissal of a State government only under the most extreme circumstances.

5) Situations which can be remedied or do not create an impasse or do not disable or interfere with the governance of the State according to the Constitution would not merit the issuance of the proclamation under the Article.

None of the five directives were followed by the Central government while imposing President's rule in Uttarakhand and Arunachal Pradesh, thus violating the constitutional right of the democratically elected governments of these states to continue in office.

It is quite well known that the Prime Minister and his colleagues harbor a dream of Congress Mukt Bharat. It seems that they will let neither the Supreme Court, nor the relentless criticism from the Media or the Civil Society come in the way of achieving this long cherished ambition of theirs.

Himachal Pradesh and Manipur: Next in Line?

Eminent Constitutional and Legal experts have slammed the decision of the Central Government to impose President's Rule in these two states without following the guidelines laid down by the Supreme Court. However, The Congress High Command is in no mood of taking chances and has sounded high alert to its governments in Himachal Pradesh and Manipur, fearing a similar revolt will be manufactured by the Center in order to justify the imposition of President's Rule in the two states.

One chuckles to recall that the same BJP, when it was in the opposition, used to raise such a hue and cry in the name of "preserving the federal structure" of the country. Sushma Swaraj, as leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha and Arun Jaitley as leader of opposition in the Rajya Sabha, had targeted the government many times, accusing it of weakening the federal structure. In fact, it was none other than the current Prime Minister Mr. Narendra Modi himself who moved the resolution slamming the UPA government for "destabilizing the federal structure" of the country and launching an "attack on federalism" in the BJP National Executive meeting in Lucknow in 2011. The resolution also said that the centre, through its “insidious and colorable attacks on the states”, was usurping their law making powers and was “poaching” on their domain.

Today, Mr. Prime Minister is proactively toppling democratically elected governments, Sushma Swaraj is silent and complicit in the exercise and Mr. Jaitley, known for his legal acumen, is masterfully pretending to have forgotten even the basics of the Constitutional scheme for the center and the states. How far have we come from the halcyon days of "attack on federal structure" to total annihilation of federal structure! 

It is clear that massive opposition from the intelligentsia, counter mobilization across various university campuses, vehement criticism in the press and one failure after another on the policy front have unsettled the nerves of the Prime Minister and his advisors, and they have now become desperate to capture total power in all states in order to quell dissent and to pave the way towards recapturing of power in 2019. The dream of a Congress Free India is not turning out to be so easily achievable as before. The charm of "Modi wave" seems to be fast eroding for the BJP leadership as tides turn against it slowly and steadily. The only option, it seems at the moment, is to wait and watch with baited breath for the next course of events to play themselves out.

P.S: Shortly after this blog was written, the Nainital High Court stayed the President's Rule imposed in Uttarakhand by the Center and ordered Harish Rawat to face the floor test in the assembly on 31st March in the presence of all the MLAs.