No one could guess that when the S.R. Bommai-led government in Karnataka was dismissed by the President on April 21, 1989, it would lead to one of the most noteworthy decisions of the Supreme Court five years later. Bommai’s government was dismissed on the advice of Karnataka Governor P. Venkatasubbaiah after 19 MLAs had withdrawn their support to Bommai, but events preceding the final order for the imposition of President’s Rule via Article 356 of the Constitution showed that 12 of the 19 MLAs who defected had returned to Bommai’s fold. Thus, Bommai had not lost his majority in the Karnataka Legislative Assembly, but the Congress, which was in power at the Centre, blatantly misused Article 356 to dismiss his elected government.
Bommai went to court against the Governor’s decision to recommend President’s Rule. First he moved the Karnataka High Court, which dismissed his writ petition. Then, with the aggrieved Bommai moving the Supreme Court, a nine-judge Constitution Bench examined the petition. The case took almost five years to see a logical conclusion. On March 11, 1994, a nine-judge Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court delivered its historic verdict on March 11, 1994 (S.R. Bommai v. Union of India).
The key operative part of the judgment stated that the “correct interpretation of the expression in Article 356… is a Constitutional breakdown and impasse. Article 356 cannot be invoked in situations that can be remedied, that do not create an impasse, that do make governance of a State in accordance with the Constitution impossible.”
Basically, the verdict found that the power of the President to dismiss a State government was not absolute. It declared that the President should exercise the power to dismiss only after a proclamation that he or she issues (imposing his/her rule) is approved by both Houses of Parliament. Till then, the Court said, the President can only suspend the Legislative Assembly by suspending the provisions of the Constitution relating to the Legislative Assembly. “The dissolution of Legislative Assembly is not a matter of course. It should be resorted to only where it is found necessary for achieving the purposes of the Proclamation,” the Court said.
The verdict also categorically ruled that the floor of the Assembly is the only forum that should test the majority of the government of the day, and not the subjective opinion of the Governor, who is often referred to as the agent of the Central government.
The case, which would go on to become one of the most cited whenever hung Assemblies were returned and when political parties scrambled to form a government, in a way put an end to the arbitrary dismissal of State governments under Article 356 by spelling out the restrictions that would apply.
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By the time the case began to be heard, elected governments in several other States such as Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Meghalaya had also been dismissed under the provisions of Article 356. All these petitions were clubbed together under the aegis of the S.R. Bommai case. While the Supreme Court upheld the dismissals of the governments of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Himachal Pradesh as it felt that the use of Article 356 was justified in these cases, it invalidated the Union government’s actions in Karnataka, Nagaland, and Meghalaya.
The judgment did not have any immediate substantive impact as all these States had since then elected new governments, but as a long-term consequence, the case put an end to peremptory dismissals of State governments by an antagonistic Centre.