The two major Dravidian parties in the state, the AIADMK and the DMK, released their manifestos last week, in the run up to the Lok Sabha elections. Strikingly, the arch rivals agreed on several policy points, word for word in many places. Notably, both parties called for the removal of Article 356 of the Indian Constitution, a law that is absent from other federal systems across the world, they said. “Continuing such a draconian provision brings discredit to India, the largest democracy in the world,” added the DMK manifesto.
So what is Article 356 and why do the two major political parties in Tamil Nadu find it problematic?
Article 356 of the Constitution states that the President of India can take control of a state, if the President is convinced that the state government machinery has broken down and cannot function as is. The emergency provision, also known as the President’s rule, is then imposed.
“...the President may by Proclamation… assume to himself all or any of the functions of the Government of the State and all or any of the powers vested in or exercisable by the Governor or any body or authority in the State other than the Legislature of the State,” states the law. While the President may declare that powers, normally vested with the legislature, be exercised by or under the authority of Parliament, they also have the authority to suspend any provisions of the Constitution relating to agencies or authorities in the state.
Despite the law providing that provisions of the Article will cease to operate within two months, a resolution passed by both Houses of Parliament could extend this. While the Constitution itself allows for a variety of conditions under which the Article may be invoked, both Dravidian majors are opposed to the law which enables the dismissal of elected state governments.
The law has been invoked in Tamil Nadu four times. It was first imposed during the Emergency declared by the then-PM Indira Gandhi’s government, which dismissed then Chief Minister M Karunanidhi’s government on charges of corruption in 1976. Just three years later, when the Indira Gandhi government allied with the DMK in 1980, then-Chief Minister MG Ramachandran's government, too, was dismissed.
Soon after the death of MGR, his wife, Janaki Ramachandran, took over as the leadership of the party as well as the Chief Ministership with a faction of the party's support. After she won what was considered a controversial vote on the floor of the Legislative Assembly, PM Rajiv Gandhi's government invoked Article 356 to dismiss the administration. The President's rule was invoked, once again, against the majority Karunanidhi government in 1991, over allegations that DMK leaders had been associated with the LTTE.
Speaking to TNM, A Saravanan, lawyer and spokesperson of the DMK explains that this is a draconian law, unique to the Indian state. “In any Federal Structure, there is a fixed tenure for an elected government. For example, in the US, there are provisions to impeach a Governor but the elected government cannot be cut short. This is an extraordinary power given to the central government in this country. It is the states that make up the Indian government, the Centre is not omnipotent. In a truly Federal Structure, why should we have this law?” he says.
In 1994, the Supreme Court instituted further stringent safeguards to prevent the widespread use and misuse of the law in the SR Bommai v. Union of India case. However, this does not justify the existence of the law, says Saravanan. “When provided with such a draconian power, the Centre will and has abused it,” he says.