An unprecedented stand-off between the Punjab governor and the elected state government has, once again, outlined the stress India’s federal structure is undergoing, and the dangers to the country’s democratic backbone if all sides don’t take a step back and act more judiciously. The controversy began on Friday last week, when governor Banwarilal Purohit wrote to chief minister (CM) Bhagwant Mann, asking the latter to respond to his letters or face the prospect of President’s Rule. In the four-page letter, Mr Purohit also sought a report from the state government on the action taken with regard to the rampant availability and abuse of drugs in Punjab. “Before I am going to take a final decision regarding sending a report to the President of India under Article 356 about the failure of the constitutional mechanism and decide about initiating criminal proceedings under Section 124 (assaulting governor with intent to compel or restrain the exercise of any lawful power) of the IPC, I ask you to send me the requisite information….” he wrote.
A day later, the state government shot back with Mr Mann lashing out at the governor and asking him to not test the patience and emotions of the 35 million people of Punjab. At a press conference, Mr Mann struck a defiant tone, accusing Mr Purohit of deliberately threatening the people of the state and undermining the electoral mandate. Repeating an allegation levelled by other Opposition parties, the CM alleged the governor was acting at the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) behest.
This by no means is the first time such a confrontation has happened. Mr Mann and Mr Purohit have been at loggerheads for almost a year, including over the appointment of vice-chancellors, the convening of special assembly sessions, and absence from official functions. In other states too, such as West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala, the state government and Raj Bhavan have publicly clashed over a gamut of issues.
Yet, the shrill pitch of the Punjab face-off is concerning as is the invocation of Article 356, a singularly controversial provision that was used by earlier prime ministers, Indira Gandhi in particular, to dismiss unfriendly state governments. Such actions in the past disrespected the popular mandate in the states, and hurt India’s democracy. Article 356 should only be reserved as a last resort in cases of a grave constitutional breakdown. It has no place in everyday communication. Constitutional offices should respect the boundaries drawn by India’s founding document and elected offices should be more respectful of other authorities. Both sides should consider taking a step back. It’ll help protect democracy.
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