S.R. Bommai v. Union of India

After reading this case analysis you will learn how the 9-judge bench of the Supreme Court decided upon the scope of Presidential Proclamation under Article 356 of the Constitution of India.
CITATION[1994] 2 SCR 644
COURTSupreme Court of India
JUDGES/CORAMJustice Kuldip Singh, Justice P.B. Sawant, Justice K. Ramaswamy, Justice S.C. Agarwal, Justice YogeshwarDayal, Justice B.P. Jeevan Reddy, Justice S.R. Pandian, Justice A.M. Ahmadi and Justice J.S. Verma
DATE OF JUDGEMENT11.03.1994

Introduction

S.R. Bommai was the Chief Minister of the Janata Dal government in Karnataka from 1988 to 1989. This case created constitutional history in its vast verdict that criticized and eventually defining the scope of a Presidential Proclamation under Article 356 of the Constitution declaring a State Emergency. The case was presided over by a nine judge bench and the judgment was cumulatively given by seven judges.

Facts

The facts of the case are as follows: In 1989 Bommai’s government was dismissed under Article 356 of the Constitution on the grounds that they had lost majority due to defections from the party that were manufactured by certain party leaders. The Governor stated that he received 19 letters of defection from ministers withdrawing their support and out of those, 7 ministers complained about misrepresentation in their respective letters and therefore, the Chief Minister and the Law Minister met the Governor to summon the Assembly to prove the confidence of assembly. But on the same day, the Governor sent another report stating that the Chief Minister had lost confidence of the majority of the House and requested for President’s Proclamation under Art 356 which was granted immediately by the President.

Issues

The main issue in the case was: Constitutional validity of Presidential Proclamation under Article 356 of the Constitution of India valid or not?

Summary of court decision and judgment

The broad points that the judgment touched upon are a) the concept of federalism and secularism under the Indian Constitution b) judicial review, interpretation and scope of Article 356.

  1. Federalism –

The structure of federalism in India was discussed at length in this case in connection to the President declaring a State Emergency. There were conflicting opinions with Justice Reddy observing that the States are not appendages to the Centre and the Centre had no authority to tamper with State authority unless absolutely crucial but Justice Verma, Yogeshwar Dayal and Justice Ahmadi held that it was a part of basic structure of the Constitution. The bench unanimously agreed that secularism was part of the basic structure of the Constitution but the judges in their various opinions claimed fundamental rights enshrined in Articles 14 to 30, social pluralism and pluralist democracy, social justice, religious tolerance and fraternity as part of the basic structure as well.

  • Article 356 –

According to Justice Sawant and Kuldip Singh, Article 356 is invoked in situations where a state’s governance cannot be carried out in accordance with the provisions of the constitution. Referring to the case of Ahmad Tariq Rahim v. Federation of Pakistan[1] in the Supreme Court of Pakistan, the power conferred by Article 58(2) (b) of the Pakistan Constitution, which is analogous to Article 356, “is an extreme power to be exercised where there is actual or imminent breakdown of the constitutional machinery, as distinguished from a failure to observe a particular provision of the Constitution”, the minority judgments in Bommai’s case are also of the same opinion.Thus it is clear that resorting to Article 356 should be the last option and only when a situation of impasse has been created with no foreseeable solution.

Also Read  Secretary, O.N.G.C. Ltd. & Anr. v. V.U. Warrier

The Bench depended on the Sakaria Commission Report of 1987 to lay down situations when President’s Rule in a State would be justifiable. The broad classifications are a) political crises b) physical breakdown of state machinery c) noncompliance with the Union Executive’s orders.

Situations that would not be considered as failure of machinery are a) internal disturbances not amount to internal subversion or physical breakdown b) not availing of possibility of installing an alternate government in case of dissolution c) removal of a government which has not been defeated at the floor of the House and has not been given an opportunity to prove its majority.

One of the important subjects that was discussed was that State legislative assembly cannot be dissolved merely upon issue of Presidential proclamation and before Parliamentary approval is accorded as required by Article 356(3). The provision does not expressly state so however it needs to be read into it in order to keep a check on the Centre.

Analysis

This judgment was crucial in drawing a line between Central and State powers and I believe the Court made an excellent effort to restrict the Centre’s power in State governance. However, the let down in this verdict would be the ambiguity of the judgment as a whole even though it is such vast one. Reaching a conclusion as to the ratio of this judgment is quite an impossibility since the judges have given different views on different aspects of the case with no majority view on the essential concepts.  The only unanimous acceptance was that secularism was part of basic structure of the constitution.

Conclusion

An overall agreed judgment from the majority judgment laying down clearer explicit guidelines regarding the restrictions on the Centre would have proved to be an ideal template for further judicial decisions and situations where State governance was threatened.

Also Read  Novartis A.G. v. Union of India

[1] P L D 1992 SC 646.