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The Rediff Special/Amberish K Diwanji

March 15, 2005

With no party able to form the state government, Bihar is under President's rule. Here's what it really means.

What is President's rule?

Article 356 of the Constitution of India deals with the failure of the Constitutional machinery of India.

In layman's language, this means when the government in a state is not able to function as per the Constitution, the state comes under the direct control of the central government, exercised through the governor.

With Bihar under President's rule, Governor Buta Singh will assume all political power, since the state will have no chief minister or cabinet.

What happens to the legislative assembly?

When President's rule is imposed, the assembly is either dissolved or kept in suspended animation. In Bihar, the latter is in force, implying the legislators remain members of the House, though no sessions will be held.

Why was it necessary to impose President's rule?

In Bihar, the February 2005 election were fought by three formations. No single formation cobbled sufficient seats to take oath as government.

In a House of 243, a simple majority means 122; and the two largest parties/formations fell short of that mark.

Ram Vilas Paswan's Lok Janshakti Party, with 29 elected members, held the key and had it supported either formation, it would have been possible to find a way out of the political stalemate.

In such a situation, Governor Buta Singh recommended President's rule to the central government.

How is President's rule imposed?

After Governor Singh recommended President's rule, the decision was taken by the central government. The United Progressive Alliance government in New Delhi, in turn, needed the President's assent on imposing President's rule.

President A P J Abdul Kalam okayed it late on March 7 evening, placing the state under the governor.

Could Buta Singh have not invited a party or alliance to form government and prove its majority in the assembly?

There was a reason why President's rule had to be imposed by March 8, 2005.

The Constitution says there should not be a gap of more than six months between the end of the last session of the assembly and the start of the new one.

This six-month gap ended on March 7, which meant that the new assembly had to be held by March 8.

With no alliance/party able to show written support of the minimum 122 legislators -- or even close to that figure -- Buta Singh did the next best thing: recommend President's rule.

Will Parliament approve President's rule?

Parliament needs to approve President's rule, which is for a six-month period and can be extended, again subject to Parliament approval.

In the case of Bihar, with both the Congress and BJP, the two largest parties in the Lok Sabha, quite keen to approve President's rule, Parliamentary approval should not be a problem.

Why are the Congress and BJP likely to back President's rule?

For the BJP, which in alliance with the Janata Dal-United had promised to end the rule of Rabri Devi and the RJD, President's rule will ensure that promise and also give the party a chance to build itself. It will also give the BJP-JD-U a chance to woo Paswan's LJP.

For the Congress, which is weaker than the BJP in Bihar, President's rule means its rule by proxy. Buta Singh is an old Congress hand.

Finally, Lalu Prasad Yadav and his wife Rabri Devi have ruled Bihar for 15 years and both parties feel should he return to power, he would do more harm to them (the Congress and BJP) than a stint of President's rule.

Have there been similar instances in the past where President's rule was imposed in the absence of a majority?

Yes, the most wellknown in recent times being the case in Uttar Pradesh, where after the February 2002 election, no party had a sufficient majority and President's rule was imposed.

But it came to an end two months later, after the Bahujan Samaj Party and the BJP tied up to form the government, with support from Independent MLAs and others, and Mayawati became chief minister.

After the Mayawati government fell in August 2003 (over the Taj corridor case), Mulayam Singh Yadav became chief minister after claiming he had the majority.

Interestingly, Mulayam did not submit any list of supporters, insisting he would prove his majority only in the assembly, which he did.

Does politics play a part in imposing President's rule?

It sure does.

In fact, to many observers, it is usually a case more of politics and less of Constitutional crises.

To be fair, in many situations such imposition is necessary.

Few would have objected to President's rule imposed in Jammu and Kashmir [Images] or in Punjab at the height of terrorist activities.

Then again, in the case of Bihar, with no party able to muster a majority, Buta Singh really had no choice.

The complaint against President's rule is that the words 'constitutional crisis' have often been interpreted to suit the interests of the ruling party at the Centre, especially if the parties in power at the Centre and in the state were different.

When then prime minister Indira Gandhi [Images] was in power dismissing state governments run by non-Congress parties almost became government policy.

The Justice R S Sarkaria Commission, set up to look into Centre-state relations, had recommended that President's rule be imposed only as a last resort.

And if recent years have seen a decline in the once common trend of dismissing state governments, it is because regional parties have become powerful at the Centre and thus, national parties can no longer ignore their sentiments.

What is the Bommai judgment all about?

The judgment, delivered by the Supreme Court on May 11, 1994, defined the use of Article 356 and imposition of President's rule. When the then Congress government at the Centre dismissed the S R Bommai government in Karnataka in 1993, Bommai challenged the dismissal.

In a landmark verdict, the Supreme Court held that a state government could be dismissed only under extenuating circumstances, and laid down guidelines for such a dismissal.

Though political parties have flouted the Supreme Court norms, the Bommai case has made dismissing state governments and imposing President's rule a little more difficult.

How long will President's rule continue in Bihar?

President's rule is for six months, but can be extended, subject to Parliament's approval. The length of President's rule in Bihar depends on the political situation. If any party/alliance can show it has a majority or is in striking distance of such majority, then Buta Singh can invite the party/alliance to form the government and prove its majority, thus ending President's rule in the state.

If no party/alliance can cobble together majority within the next six months, then the central government will have no choice but to extend President's rule for another six months and get Parliament's approval for the same.

Will elections in Bihar be called again?

If that were to happen, it would be an unprecedented step -- that between two elections, no government took office.

Even under what seemed terrible circumstances, bitter rivals like the BSP and BJP did get together to form a government, at least for a few months.

If in Bihar, no government is formed simply because no party/alliance can get 122 members on its side, it will have a deep impact on the polity of India.

Constitutionally, if the stalemate cannot be resolved, then there might be no option but to call a fresh election and hope at least one party/alliance gets the necessary numbers.

Is there any chance of a government forming in Bihar?

Many believe the sheer fear of facing the voters again too soon could prompt Bihar politicians to work out some sort of a deal and form a government, at least for the short-term.

Image: Uttam Ghosh

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