As Basavaraj Bommai rises, how his father changed the course of Indian politics
The elevation of Basavaraj Bommai as the Bharatiya Janata Party’s chief minister (CM) in Karnataka is an occasion to commemorate his late father and predecessor in the office, SR Bommai, who was ousted in 1989 on being denied a fair chance to prove his majority in the assembly.
President’s rule was imposed in the state when governor P Venkatasubbaiah refused the senior Bommai a floor test. Pressing home the discretion then available to the Centre’s agent, the governor also rejected a resolution of the Janata Dal legislature party in the CM’s support. To claim a majority, the party communiqué accounted for the return of several legislators who had earlier defected.
Justice was delivered five years later, not as much to Bommai, who couldn’t be retrospectively rehabilitated to the position from which he was ejected, but for succeeding generations of democratically elected CMs and their dispensations. The law enumerated by a nine-judge Constitution bench of the Supreme Court (SC) has since stood in the name of the new Karnataka CM’s father.
Often referred to as the (SR) Bommai case, it makes floor tests mandatory in disputes over numbers commanded by an existing regime; the process is as much applicable when elections throw up a hung House. The court’s simultaneous decree that the President’s powers in the matter weren’t absolute, made proclamations under Article 356 justiciable.
The loss of a majority or the numbers flaunted by rival claimants to power couldn’t be decided any more in the confines of Raj Bhawans. The proof of the pudding, so to speak, was in democracy’s kitchen, which is the legislature. It was that judicial recipe which had Basavaraj’s benefactor and the outgoing CM, BS Yediyurappa first lose, and then wrest power, vis a vis the post-poll Janata Dal (Secular)-Congress alliance on May 19, 2018 and July 24, 2019 respectively.
In the first instance, the SC intervened when a friendly governor, Vajubhai Vala gave Yediyurappa a partisan 15-day window to prove his majority despite clear signs of the numbers stacked against him in the House with an effective strength of 221. Asked to prove his majority the next day, the CM resigned rather than take the trust vote, leading to the fall of his three-day-old BJP government.
The roles were reversed a year later when a clutch of legislators from the JD (S) and the Congress switched loyalty to the Lingayat strongman.
Senior Bommai was twice unlucky
Forever a gentleman politician, the senior Bommai was a follower of MN Roy. He had strong views on the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh ideology.
A couple of years after winning the historic court battle, he was close to becoming the prime minister when the Congress withdrew support in 1997 to the United Front regime of a fellow Kannadiga, HD Deve Gowda. Amid the search for a substitute, Bihar’s Lalu Prasad Yadav acked Bommai’s candidature when the influential Marxist leader, HS Surjeet, pitched for Uttar Pradesh’s Mualayam Singh Yadav. In the end, the Yadav chieftains cancelled each other out, paving the way for Inder Gujral. Bommai for his part continued as human resource development minister in both short-lived United Front governments.
It was some happy coincidence for Bommai and Lalu Prasad when the Rabri Devi government of Rashtriya Janata Dal was reinstated on March 8, 1999 after being dismissed in February the same year by the AB Vajpayee-led Centre. The salvation lay in the SC’s Bommai case judgement which, while holding that the President’s powers weren’t absolute, made a regime’s dismissal contingent on its approval by both Houses of Parliament. As the ruling National Democratic Alliance lacked a majority in the Rajya Sabha, the Congress stepped in to revive the Rabri regime in Bihar.
Judgement put Centre-State relations on even keel
That Rabri government’s resurrection was the first proof, if one was required, of the judgement being a milestone in Centre-State relations that constitute the core of the Constitution’s federal features.
The March 11, 1994 Bommai verdict had laid down a framework of restrictions for sending a state government packing. The judgment counted the number of times regime-dismissals were triggered between 1950-91 through proclamations under article 356 of the constitution and section 51 of the government of union territories act, 1963.
The 41 years of the Republic, it noted, saw President’s rule being imposed on 95 occasions in states and UTs. Out of these, the assemblies were dissolved 23 times on the CM’s advice/resignation and, on 18 occasions, the suspended houses were revived.
“We may hasten to add that the proclamations were made on different occasions on the advice of the council of ministers of the central government belonging to different political complexions,” wrote Justice Ratnavel Pandian in a separate but concurring judgement. He said some of the states (where assemblies were) dissolved “valiantly fought, honourably bled and pathetically lost their legal battle”.
The case thus made out was that powers under 356 should be used “very sparingly” and only when the President was “fully satisfied” that a situation has arisen when a state cannot be run in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution. “Otherwise, the frequent use of this power and its exercise are likely to disturb the constitutional balance leaving the CM of every state in the perpetual fear of the axe of proclamation falling on him.”
In a separate judgment, Justice AM Ahmadi referred to the Constituent Assembly debates in which parallels were drawn between the emergency powers of the British governor General and governors under the colonial era Government of India Act, 1935 and those vested in the Republic’s President under Article 356 of the Indian Constitution.
BR Ambedkar’s response to these apprehensions was that while he shared the sentiments, the “proper thing we ought to expect is that such articles will never be called into operation and that they would remain a dead letter. I hope the President who is endowed with all these powers, will take proper precaution before actually suspending the administration of the provinces.“
Against this backdrop and the fact of Article 356 having been invoked over 90 times, Justice Ahmadi concluded that Ambedkar’s hope (that in rarest of rare cases only there will be an occasion to invoke the emergency provisions) stood belied. “What was therefore expected to be a dead letter has in fact become an oft-invoked provision,” he wrote while desisting from inquiring into the circumstance that led to frequent resort to the use of emergency powers by the President.
The law was interpreted therefore to suit a polity divided on party lines. It has broadly served the purpose but a lot more needs to be done, by way of political consensus or judicial diktat, to keep the sanctity of popular mandates. The Constitution’s unitary plinth must not cloud its federal visage.