Tuesday, January 31, 2023

A look into how Supreme Court dealt with a Maharashtra-like crisis 25 years ago

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The ghost of SR Bommai continues to haunt the Indian political landscape. Recent political crisis in the Maharashtra Legislative Assembly reminds us of a similar situation which arose some 25 years ago. It became a landmark case when the Apex Court finally settled the law of the land with regard to the interpretation of the constitutional provisions in this regard.

The then Karnataka Chief Minister S.R. Bommai faced a similar scenario in 1989. S.R Bommai became the Chief Minister of the State after Janata Dal Party came to power with a majority. A faction of the party led by one MLA–KR Molakery– defected and submitted a letter to Governor P Venkatasubbaiah containing signatures of 18 MLAs saying that they had withdrawn their support to the Bommai government.

The Governor as mandated by the Constitution sent a report to the Centre, then headed by Rajiv Gandhi, informing him that the state government cannot be carried on in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution. The governor in his said letter stated that the Bommai government had lost its majority.

Bommai met the Governor and expressed his willigness and ability to prove that he can still prove his majority on the floor of the House if given a chance. However, the Governor went contrary to his requests and wrote to the government to impose President’s rule in the state, which was subsequently imposed by the PM.

To challenge the unconstitutional dismissal of his government, he approached the Supreme Court for its intervention and to challenge the High Court order dismissing his petition.

The nine-judge bench of the apex court ruled that the only way to realize the mandate of the people is the test-of-strength on the floor of the House. The court further held that the Governor cannot apply his own mind and wisdom, even before according a chance to prove the majority in the Assembly in a stipulated time period. It held that the dismissal of the Bommai government was unconstitutional.

The judgment directed the Governor to accord a chance to the Bommai led government to prove its majority in the Assembly in a stipulated time-frame. The bench, however, deliberately chose not to intervene with the powers of the Speaker that he enjoys in running the affairs of the assembly.

The case deals evaluates the powers and obligations of various constitutional bodies, their correlations, Centre-State relations and controversial role of State Governors in dismissing the constitutionally elected bodies to invite the President’s rule.

One of the most important takeaways from the case was that it established that the center cannot tamper with the powers of the State Government with the help of the Governors. The Governors, though appointed by the Centre cannot exercise its powers on the whim and fancies of the Centre. This judgment is considered to be a historic judgment as it has put an end to the arbitrary dismissal of State Governments under Article 356.

After the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Devendra Fadnavis took oath as the chief minister of Maharashtra, with Nationalist Congress Party’s Ajit Pawar as his deputy on Saturday morning, the NCP-Congress-Shiv Sena appealed against the “arbitrary and malafide” decisions of governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari to invite BJP to form the government.

The Court, while respecting the constitutional obligations of the Governor, had asked for the letter of support upon which he relied to be produced.

During the hearing, petitioners’ lawyers Kapil Sibal and Abhishek Manu Singhvi insisted that the Governor be directed to order a floor test immediately. The three parties had further sought a direction to Governor Koshyari to invite them to form the government, saying they have the support of more than 144 MLAs in the 288-member House.

Koshiyari allowed the ruling dispensation at the centre 48 hours to come up with a manufactured majority and when they failed to stake a claim, he allowed arbitrarily 24 hours to the other three parties to form the government. The Governor having known all the political developments, absence of pre-poll alliance and the ongoing talks between the three political parties–NCP, Shiv Sena and Congress, again invited BJP to form the government without either parading the MLAs or physically verifying the support that is being claimed by Fadnavis and Ajit Pawar.

Courts have, on multiple occasions, held that despite Article 361, courts can still look into the subjective powers of the Governor to see if his action is “malafide or based on wholly extraneous and irrelevant grounds”. “A malafide act is wholly outside the scope of the power and has no existence in the eyes of law,” it had asserted. The court concluded that the powers of the Governors and President are not absolute, but subjected to judicial scrutiny.

It will be interesting to see if the court would stick to the precedence that it has set in many landmark cases–including SR Bommai case– or overrule it to favor the ruling dispensation.



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