The Central government's power to dissolve a duly elected state government is one of India's biggest constitutional absurdities. It is ludicrous because it makes an unrepresentative power supreme over the states' directly elected representatives. It grants a remote authority greater say than local officials. It takes power away from the people and grants it to an unelected official. And worst of all, it allows a coterie, the Central Cabinet, to take unilateral decisions about a state, in secret. Our Founding Fathers struggled to avoid this undemocratic feature in India's Constitution. But they failed, because, in their version of the parliamentary system, truly autonomous state governments were impracticable.
[I]t allows a coterie, the Central Cabinet, to take unilateral decisions about a state, in secret.
Just how preposterous and undemocratic is this feature of India's Constitution? The recent imposition of President's Rule in Arunachal Pradesh tells the whole story. Soon after coming to power at the Center, the BJP government replaced the state's Governor. Within a year of the new Governor's arrival, there was revolt in the ranks of the Congress party running the state government. The rebellious MLAs were quickly supported by MLAs from the BJP. The Congress government agreed to a showdown on the floor of the Assembly. But rather than wait, the Governor unilaterally called the Assembly into session a month earlier. The state government went to court challenging the Governor's authority to run the legislature. However, before the court could rule, the Central Cabinet announced the dissolution of the state government. To justify this farce, the Governor said that there was a problem with law and order, and that he feared for his life.
This is not the first abuse of President's Rule. It began within a year of the Constitution's adoption. In 1951, Nehru ordered Punjab Chief Minister Gopichand Bhargava to resign despite his having a majority. It was "a far cry from the Constituent Assembly's intentions, growing as it did from an internal Congress dispute," reported Granville Austin, the famous chronicler of India's Constitution. "Nehru had set the country a bad example," he wrote. Indira Gandhi imposed the President's Rule 22 times during 1967-1973. In 1980, the Janata Government imposed the Rule as soon as it came to power, in all Congress ruled states, even though they were in the majority. Governments of all hues have continued the practice, imposing President's Rule some 40 more times since 1980.
Our Founding Fathers struggled to avoid this undemocratic feature in India's Constitution. But they failed...
This misuse has devolved the office of Governor to a shameful level. Governors routinely act as "agents of the Central government, and not as holders of an independent constitutional office," in the words of an ex-Governor himself, L P Singh. As early as the mid-1960s, the Administrative Reforms Commission noted that it was "as likely as not" that a Governor was appointed for considerations other than his ability. Then in the 1980s, the Sarkaria Commission reported that people were dissatisfied by the lack of "impartiality and sagacity" shown by the office, and for its use by central government "for its own political ends." In 1990, another former Governor made it plain once and for all that the office had "become a party appointment," serving the party rather than "the interest of the nation."
Our Founding Fathers knew all this would happen. They grappled with the issue from the very beginning. As early as June 1947, soon after the Union Constitution Committee (under Nehru) and the Provincial Constitution Committee (under Patel) began deliberations, they worried about how to control the state governments. The two committees came up with fundamentally different approaches. While the Union committee thought it was best to have a strong central government, the Provincial committee wanted control provided by the structure of each state government itself.
Governments of all hues have [imposed] President's Rule some 40 more times since 1980. This misuse has devolved the office of Governor to a shameful level.
To reconcile, the two committees decided to have a joint meeting. In this meeting, India's most eminent constitutional experts concluded that it was better to have autonomous state governments. They decided that "a) there should be a Governor at the head of every Province; b) the Governor should be appointed by the Province, and not by the Central Government; c) The Provincial executive should be of the Parliamentary Cabinet type."
This remarkable decision to have a truly federal structure, however, never made it to the final Constitution. Once it even passed the Constituent Assembly's full vote. But in the end it was reversed.
Why did India's Founders go back on their own decision? Mainly because it was impossible to have totally autonomous state governments in a parliamentary setup. This form of government required an ever present repository of power when governments fell or were in the making. In the UK and elsewhere this power was the monarch. India was to have an 'elected monarch', the President. That made it necessary that the ultimate control over state governments resided at the Centre; hence the President's Rule.
However, as Granville Austin pointed out, "No one challenged the compatibility of federalism and the parliamentary system, although some theoreticians outside India had done so."
What makes President's Rule so easy to abuse, however, is another peculiarity of the Indian system. The President's office has been made impotent.
Self-regulating autonomous state governments didn't fit with India's system in another important way. The 'parliamentary cabinet type' government that the Founders chose could only have one top official for the legislature to have control. A legislative body cannot rule over two elected officials, for example a Governor and a CM. This was precisely the reason given in the Assembly when it reversed its decision to have elected Governors.
What makes President's Rule so easy to abuse, however, is another peculiarity of the Indian system. The President's office has been made impotent. Indira Gandhi's Forty-second Constitutional Amendment made the President a mere rubberstamp. This imbalance in our Constitution continues to this day. And so do the abuses of President's Rule.
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