The relationship between the legislative and executive branches of government as well as the judiciary’s role in matters where there is a conflict between the two can be learned from the case of Rameshwar Prasad & Ors vs Union of India; which explains ‘unreasonable’ President’s use of authority, that is the executive, over the majority political party, the legislature, as well as the judiciary’s competency to protect the democratic principle by interpreting the constitutional provisions. The matter at present is to determine the legitimacy of the Union’s dismissal of the Bihar State legislative assembly in accordance with the arbitrary proclamation of presidential rule under Article 356 of the Indian Constitution.
Rameshwar Prasad v. Union of India is in no way concerned with the cabinet or ministers; rather, its focus is on the relationship between the executive branch of government and the governing body of the legislature, about the formation of a new government following elections, and this conflict when later resolved in court, demonstrates the judiciary’s competency, as well as their say in these matters.
The facts of the case are as follows: In the year 2005, elections were held in the state of Bihar. After the results were declared, President’s Rule was imposed since no party, either on its own or with its corresponding coalition, was able to pass the threshold for the simple majority before the polls. The top two coalition parties indulged in ethical violations after the enforcement of the President’s Rule, including actions where the MLAs of the parties reportedly offered the LJP MLAs funds and political positions in exchange for their cooperation. These MLAs were influenced by a variety of things, including caste, creed, and religion. The matter was brought to the then-Hon’ble President of India by the former Governor of Bihar, which was not included in the Governor’s first message but was treated seriously when the second message came. Due to this, the emergency government resolved to terminate the Bihar Legislative Assembly at a meeting with the Hon’ble President. The decision to dissolve the Assembly infuriated the political establishment, which argued that it could not be done without even holding a single meeting. A Public Interest Litigation contesting the constitutionality of the President’s order of dissolution was filed in this respect before the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India.
The President under Art. 356 may call for a state emergency on the recommendations of the Union government in such a case where “a situation has arisen in which the government of the State cannot be carried on following the provisions of this Constitution.” Article 356(1) mentions that if, the President is “satisfied” that conditions are worsening, whether referring to a report issued from Governor or otherwise, then he has the authority to make a proclamation as well as take appropriate action.
The current case was the first of sorts. At the outset, the major question before the Court was whether the assembly may be dissolved under Article 356(1) on basis of immorality and accusations of corrupt practices by the party. The legality of the dissolution before the assembly first met after its constitution. While concurring with the arguments, the majority found that the governor had no such authority to report for the president’s rule on such grounds. The democratic norms of majority rule would be violated by such a power. If such authority is given to the governor and/or the president, the results might be disastrous, resulting in a cascade of dissolutions with worrisome and hazardous repercussions. It might also be used to refuse post-election realignments and alignments that would force the state into a new election. It was also decided that the governor had no material, much relevant, with which to propose dissolution, and that the abrupt dissolution action is not feasible to justify only on the basis of ipse dixit., scepticism, or the governor’s whims.
The Punjab and Haryana High court in the Rao Birinder Singh case, ruled that it lacked authority to assess the substance with which the President was “satisfied”. Likewise in the case of the State of Rajasthan v. Union of India, the Supreme Court unanimously dismissed the argument, ruling that the competency to take action under Article 356 was outside the purview of judicial review. The Court continued by emphasizing the broad reach of Article 356, stating the President’s “satisfaction” under Article 356 is extremely subjective, could not be understood in one direction, and therefore cannot be measured by any metric.
The Supreme Court’s jurisdiction over article 356 was later, specifically stated and explained in the historic S.R. Bommai case. Additionally, the court observed and made it clear that the authority conferred by Article 356(1) was subject to review on a number of grounds, which in turn expands the scope of judicial review. The Court also marked, that use of the authority may be contested based on “mala fide satisfaction” or based on “wholly extraneous and immaterial considerations,” impliedly which would show that there was no satisfaction.
The court in Rameshwar Prasad just significantly expanded the Bommai holding. In terms of judicial scrutiny in Rameshwar Prasad case, Sabharwal CJ reverberated S.R. Bommai’s, holding that “while the sufficiency or otherwise of the material cannot be questioned, the legitimacy of inference drawn from the material is certainly open to judicial review; it is open to the Court… to examine the question whether the Governor’s report is relevant; whether it is made bona fide; and whether the facts have been duly verified.”
The Court applied the whole spectrum of administrative law while giving the reasons for reviewing the presidential conduct concerning Article 356, and further holding as it had not been considered a prerogative authority. Furthermore, it stated that such pronouncements would be subjected to basic structural scrutiny to ensure that they do not undermine or harm the Constitution’s core qualities. It further elaborated by stating that, “…as long as a state was working following the Constitution, there is no need to proclaim Article 356(1) merely because the Union Government is represented by a different political party.”
This case serves as a well-established illustration of the overreach of power and demonstrates the court’s authority to broaden the scope of the constitution if it deems that anything breaches a state’s democratic values. Using the above-discussed metrics, the court declared the proclamations made under Article 356(1) unconstitutional. Following this, the Court limited its power to reconstitute the dissolved assembly.
To summarize, the Supreme Court declared the presidential order unlawful since the reasons for the emergency were ambiguous and arbitrary. Following as well as expanding the provision announced in the SR Bommai judgment, the Supreme Court came to this decision. The case of Rameshwar demonstrated the interrelationship between the executive and legislative branches of government, as well as the power of the court to expand the scope of the constitution if it finds it to violate a party’s or state’s democratic principles.
Author(s) Name: Srishti Choudhary (National Law University, Odisha)