Article 356 of the Indian Constitution empowers the President to take necessary action, including dismissing a state government and imposing President’s rule, if he believes that the governance in a state is not happening according to the provisions of the Constitution. While it was frequently invoked in the early years of the Republic, its usage has declined since the mid-1990s.
- S.R. Bommai vs. Union of India (1994): This landmark judgment by the Supreme Court had profound implications for the use of Article 356. The court ruled that the power of the President to dismiss a state government is not absolute. The decision to impose President’s rule is subject to judicial review, especially regarding the material facts behind such a decision. This acted as a significant deterrent for the Centre to indiscriminately use this provision.
- Clear Guidelines: The Bommai case also laid down clear guidelines for the use of Article 356, such as no one-party rule, the issue of hung assemblies, internal disturbances not amounting to external aggression, and more.
- Protection of State Rights: The judiciary, over the years, has leaned towards a more federal structure, ensuring that states’ rights are protected, and any arbitrary use of power by the Centre is checked.
- Coalition Politics: The rise of coalition politics, especially with the formation of coalition governments like the United Front (1996-1998) and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), meant that national parties had to be more accommodative of regional aspirations. The arbitrary use of Article 356 could antagonize regional partners.
- Regional Parties’ Ascendance: Post-1990s, regional parties began to play a pivotal role in national politics. They not only formed governments in states but also had significant representations in the Parliament. The dominance of regional parties in states made it politically challenging for the Centre to misuse Article 356.
- Democratic Maturation: As Indian democracy matured, there was a growing consensus against the misuse of constitutional provisions. Public opinion, media scrutiny, and civil society began playing an active role in discouraging the arbitrary imposition of President’s rule.
- Lesser Interference by the Centre: As the political landscape evolved, there was a recognition that constantly interfering in states’ affairs, especially when there was no genuine constitutional crisis, was not in the best interest of national politics or governance.
The reduced frequency of using Article 356 since the mid-1990s is a testament to the evolving nature of Indian federalism and the system of checks and balances embedded within the Constitution. While the judiciary has played a crucial role in setting legal limits, the political dynamics and maturation of Indian democracy have ensured that this provision is not misused as a tool of political vendetta.