DC Edit | SC rebuke of governors should be a dire warning
The comments of a Constitution bench of the Supreme Court that the action of a state governor calling for a floor test merely on the ground of dissension within the party in power can topple an elected government, and the apex court’s decision to hear a petition by the Telangana government against the state governor withholding assent to bills passed by the state Assembly should trigger a serious discussion on the role of the gubernatorial position in our constitutional scheme of things.
The apex court’s observations came while hearing a petition by the Uddhav Thackeray-led Shiv Sena to rescind the order of the then Maharashtra governor to conduct a floor test and have a historical context. Article 356, which empowers the Union government to dismiss a state government, notwithstanding the hope expressed by Dr B.R. Ambedkar that it will remain a ‘dead letter’, is one of the most misused provisions in the Constitution. Governors have made use of the disquiet in parties opposed to the one in power at the Centre and dismissed state governments using this Article. And on most occasions, the governors decided by themselves whether a chief minister enjoyed the support of the majority of the legislators.
The Supreme Court ended this fraud on the Constitution by delivering an impactful verdict in the S.R. Bommai case and ruled that the floor of the Assembly is the place where the decision whether a chief minister enjoyed the majority support of MLAs is taken.
The SC intervention has now resulted in governors ordering floor tests if they smell a chance to unseat governments opposed to the Centre. Despite the passage of the anti-defection law, several states saw this politics of manipulation in the form of mass resignations of MLAs to undermine popular verdicts. In fact, this is one of the legacies of the BJP in the last eight years when it has been in power at the Centre. Then there are occasions when parties and coalition partners, who faced elections together, fighting among themselves and felling and forming governments, using new permutations and combinations. Given that we follow a parliamentary system of governance, such actions cannot be called illegal or unconstitutional even when they went against the popular will.
The Supreme Court now raises the paramount question as to whether or not a governor should order a floor test that precipitates the fall of a government. That then Maharashtra governor had ordered a floor test based on a letter given by the Leader of Opposition has been taken note of by the court.
The other significant step the Supreme Court has taken with respect to the powers of the governor is its decision to hear the petition against governors sitting on bills passed by the Assembly. Article 200 of the Constitution does indeed give the governor the power to withhold assent, and has not prescribed a time frame for it. Governors in several states, mostly ruled by parties opposed to the BJP, use this gray area in the Constitution to hold back bills. It is time the apex court intervened and interpreted the legislative intent of the Constitution and decided whether the governor has the power to sit on bills infinitely and indefinitely and thereby effectively nullify the law-making powers of legislative Assemblies.