The Uttarakhand high court’s verdict quashing the President’s rule in the state comes as a major embarrassment for the NDA government that rushed to the Supreme Court for succour.
Quashing the March 27 proclamation, a division bench headed by Uttarakhand HC Chief Justice, KM Joseph said the imposition of the President’s rule under Art 356 of the Constitution was contrary to the law laid down by the Supreme Court. Instead it ordered the ousted chief minister to prove his government’s majority on the floor of the assembly on April 29.
The high court’s verdict is unprecedented given that a state government was reinstated after being dismissed by the Centre. Previous judicial orders only set aside the President’s rule and eschewed from reviving dismissed governments, mainly because the delayed verdict hardly left any scope for such relief.
In the SR Bommai case, a nine-judge bench of the Supreme Court in 1994 ruled that if the court strikes down the proclamation imposing President’s rule, it has the power to restore the dismissed government to office and reactivate the legislative assembly.
But the top court could not revive the assemblies in Karnataka, Meghalaya and Nagaland as fresh elections had already been held.
Even in the infamous Bihar case (Rameshwar Prasad v Union of India), the Supreme Court in January 2006 chose to exercise restraint and stopped at quashing the notification imposing President’s rule.
A five-judge bench headed by then-Chief Justice of India, YK Sabharwal, had taken note of the fact that fresh elections had already been notified in the state.
The SC declared the imposition of president’s rule in Bihar unconstitutional. But having regard to the facts and circumstances of the case, the SC said it was not a case where the status quo ante deserved to be restored and the legislative assembly revived.
The Uttarakhand high court’s verdict is a landmark also for the fact that it was delivered in the quickest possible time. In most cases, courts have dealt with legal challenges related to the imposition of President’s rule in a rather relaxed manner, invariably giving ample time to political parties to manipulate and cobble together a majority in the House.
Imposition of President’s rule has been a controversial issue and successive governments – irrespective of their political ideology – have used and missed it. But the Supreme Court’s verdict in the SR Bommai case restricted the scope for misuse of Article 356 to a great extent.
While holding that courts can’t question the Union cabinet’s advice to the President, the SC said they can question the grounds on which conclusion regarding a breakdown of constitutional machinery is reached.
It also said that the use of Article 356 was justified only when there was a breakdown of constitutional machinery and not that of administrative machinery.
The Supreme Court further narrowed down the scope for misuse of President’s rule in January 2006 when it declared the dissolution of the Bihar assembly as null and void. It held that the Governor’s report could not be taken at face value – “gospel truth” as they had referred to it – and must be verified by the council of ministers before being used as the basis for imposing President’s rule. It had severly criticised governor Buta Singh as well.
On Friday, the SC stayed the Uttarakhand High Court’s order until April 27. But it’s certainly a historic verdict for it pushes the boundary and expands the scope of judicial review of Article 356, further limiting its misuse.