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What is Article 356, which Prime Minister Modi says Indira Gandhi misused 50 times?

On Thursday (February 9), Prime Minister Narendra Modi recalled in Rajya Sabha that Congress governments at the Centre had dismissed 90 state governments by “misusing” Article 356 of the Constitution, and that former PM Indira Gandhi had “misused” it 50 times to dismiss elected state governments.

Article 356 of the Indian Constitution contains provisions for the imposition of “President’s Rule” in a state, removing an elected government. While the Constitution intended Article 356 to be used only under extraordinary circumstances, central governments, including the Janata government of which members of the BJP’s predecessor Jana Sangh were part, repeatedly used the provision to settle political scores.

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Modi’s barb against the Congress came at a time when the Opposition has been demanding a Joint Parliamentary Committee probe into the Hindenburg Research allegations, and Rahul Gandhi has accused industrialist Gautam Adani and his companies of having benefited greatly from Adani’s long-standing proximity to the Prime Minister.

What does Article 356 say?

Article 356 empowers the President to withdraw to 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”.

Whether the constitutional machinery has broken down may be determined by the President at any time, either upon receipt of a report from the Governor, or suo motu.

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According to the provisions of Article 356, President’s Rule in a state can be imposed for six months at a time for a maximum duration of three years. Every six months, Parliamentary approval to impose President’s Rule will be required again.

However, in the past, President’s Rule has been extended for significantly longer periods under specific circumstances. For instance, Punjab was under President’s Rule from 1987-1992 due to the growing militancy.

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What are the origins of Article 356?

Article 356 was inspired by Section 93 of the Government of India Act, 1935. This provided that if a Governor of a province was satisfied that a situation had arisen in which the government of the province cannot be carried on in accordance with the provisions of the said Act, he could assume to himself all or any of the powers of the government and discharge those functions in his discretion. The Governor, however, could not encroach upon the powers of the high court.

For the British, this provision allowed for a ‘controlled democracy’ – while providing some autonomy to provincial governments, Section 93 allowed the British authorities to exercise ultimate power when they deemed necessary.

How was the provision used as a political weapon in independent India?

During the decades of Congress’s dominance at the Centre, Article 356 was used against governments of the Left and regional parties in the states.

Until 1959, Jawaharlal Nehru’s government had used the article six times, including to dislodge the first-ever elected communist government in the world, in Kerala in 1959. In the 1960s, it was used 11 times. After Indira came to power in 1966, Article 356 was used seven times between 1967 and 1969 alone.

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The 1970s were more politically turbulent. Between 1970 and 1974, President’s Rule was imposed 19 times. Post Emergency, the Janata Party government used it in 1977 to summarily dismiss nine Congress state governments. When Indira returned to power in 1980, her government too imposed President’s Rule in nine states.

In 1992-93, Prime Minister Narasimha Rao dismissed three BJP governments in the wake of the demolition of Babri Masjid, besides Kalyan Singh’s government in UP.

How was this political misuse of Article 356 curbed?

In 1989, the Centre dismissed the S R Bommai government in Karnataka. In its judgment in the landmark S. R. Bommai v. Union of India case, the Supreme Court discussed the provisions of Article 356 at length.

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A nine-judge Bench in its decision in 1994 noted the specific instances when President’s Rule can be imposed and when it cannot.

The court held that Article 356 can be invoked in situations of the physical breakdown of the government or when there is a ‘hung assembly’, but that it cannot be used without giving the state government a chance to either prove its majority in the House or without instances of a violent breakdown of the constitutional machinery.

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Since the judgment, the arbitrary use of Article 356 has been largely controlled.

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