Democracy At Bay – Centre-State Relations Reflect The Crisis Of Constitutional Provisions In Quasi-Federal India

Days after the incumbent Trinamool Congress returned to power, it received a rude shock as the Central Bureau of Investigation, one of India’s premier investigating agencies, arrested some of the party’s influential leaders. The post-poll violence that ensued in the state of West Bengal saw the BJP-ruled Centre blaming the state government for unleashing a reign of violence, local goons allegedly indulging in ransacking properties and assaulting women who supported the opposition, and the state’s Chief Minister, accompanied by a wave of supporters protesting against the arrests, daring the CBI to arrest her as well. In the frenzy, the Tamil Nadu based Indic Collective Trust filed a Public Interest Litigation in India’s apex court, seeking the imposition of the President’s rule in the State of West Bengal under Article 356 of the Indian Constitution. Prominent political scientists and legal analysts feared that the arrest of the leaders was only a catalyst to bolster the ongoing violence, which could then become a prelude to the imposition of Article 356, a constitutional provision which has an infamous history of widespread abuse.

Article 356 [constitutional emergency arising out of the breakdown of constitutional machinery in a state] empowers the President of India to withdraw from the Union, the executive and legislative powers of any state ‘if he is satisfied that a situation has arisen in which the government of the state cannot be carried on in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution.’ The state assembly is immediately dissolved, and the state comes under the direct rule of the President. In effect, the President’s rule is virtually the rule of the Prime Minister and his Cabinet. If passed by both the houses of the Union Parliament, the emergency can remain for a period of six months, extendable for another three months. The two companions of Article 356 which precedes and succeeds it in the Constitution have a comparatively less unimpressive trajectory of misuse. Article 352, declarable on grounds of a national emergency, has been proclaimed only thrice. Till date, Article 360, which can be implemented on grounds of financial emergency, has never been in force.

Since the adoption of the Constitution, Article 356 has been declared more than a hundred times, with the most recent cases being in the states of Jammu and Kashmir, Andhra Pradesh and Delhi. Disregarding popular mandate, the provision has been used in a number of instances by the central government to prevent the formation of the government in a state, by a party other than itself or its allies. From the founders of the Indian Constitution to the post-independence Sarkaria Commission on Centre-State relations, Article 356 garnered massive criticisms. To curb the blatant manipulation of Article 356, the Supreme Court, in the case of S.R. Bommai versus the Union of India, ruled that the proclamation of the President’s rule in a state was not immune to judicial review. The court was also empowered to call upon the President to disclose the material which had enabled him to be ‘satisfied’ that there had been a breakdown of constitutional machinery. The verdict came in the wake of certain concerns that the grounds of satisfaction were often based on biased reports of state governors, who acted as an extended arm of the Centre. Further, the proclamation was to be based on the failure of ‘constitutional machinery,’ and not ‘administrative machinery.’ The court ruled that the provision should be used only as a last resort.

Thanks to judicial competence, the misuse of Article 356 has significantly reduced. Nevertheless, it still remains a stooge in the hands of the Centre to control dissenting state governments. In the case of the 2021 post-poll anarchy in West Bengal, the arrest of the TMC politicians came at the behest of the CBI’s sudden pro-active inquiry of a bribery case, which had caused a significant stir before the West Bengal assembly elections of 2016. The Narada sting operation was carried out by Mathew Samuel, known for his magazine’s investigative journalism and sting operations. The Narada operation exposed a number of politicians and a high-ranked police officer accepting cash bribes in exchange for providing unofficial favors to Impex Consultancy Solutions, a fictitious company floated by Samuel himself. Despite a lull in the processing of the case, which had been lingering for five years, its sudden revival in the aftermath of the election results, is being seen by many as a desperate and strategic move to weaken the state administration. It could potentially force the state into a constitutional crisis, enabling the Centre to intervene in the state’s affairs.

With bail bonds of INR 2 lakhs each, the Calcutta High Court initially placed the four accused under house arrest. In a subsequent decision, the accused were granted an interim bail. If proven, it is hardly tenable to justify such acts of corruption. However, the incident has once again brought to the fore of the complexities of Centre-State relations in a quasi-federal India. If the respective parties at the Centre and the states are nearly at an inimical showdown, with ideological differences, the misuse of constitutional provisions and the deterioration of administrative relationships can reach catastrophic heights. Disagreements among the political elites often have violent repercussions, with political supporters, at the lower echelons, bearing the brunt of vandalism and destruction. Amidst political turmoil, the population is terrorized and peace becomes a far-fetched dream. It is imperative for political groups to show a considerable amount of maturity, as they set for themselves the task of governing the world’s largest democracy.

Sucharita Sen