[Editor’s Note: Justice is an indivisible concept. We cannot, therefore, discuss contemporary Supreme Court judgments without also acknowledging the Court’s failure – at an institutional level – to do justice in the case involving sexual harassment allegations against a former Chief Justice. This editorial caveat will remain in place for all future posts on this blog dealing with the Supreme Court, until there is a material change in circumstances.]
[This is the fourth post in the series examining the Supreme Court’s judgment in Shivraj Singh Chouhan v Speaker, Legislative Assembly of Madhya Pradesh and Ors. This is a guest post by Nivedhitha K.]
In this essay, I respond to Anmol Jain’s post on the recently delivered judgment in Shivraj Singh Chouhan & Ors. v. Speaker, Madhya Pradesh Legislative Assembly & Ors. The facts of the case were summarised in the previous post. The crux of the case was: whether the 14th March 2020 communication of the Governor directing a floor test on 16th March was constitutional. Thus, the question that needed to be answered was whether the Governor had the power under the Constitution to direct a floor test to be conducted.
I will divide the post into two sections. In the first section, I will rebut the argument that the discretionary power of the Governor under Article 163 can only be exercised concerning those functions that are expressly within his discretion, under the Constitution. I will argue, invoking the doctrine of necessary implications, that the Governor can exercise his discretionary powers even when such powers have not been expressly conferred under the Constitution. In the second section, I will argue that the submission of the author that the bench’s reliance on Bommai and Rebia is misplaced is erroneous. I will argue that Bommai is a precedent for the exercise of guided discretion by the Governor, when he is met with a situation of political uncertainty such as in this case. I will then argue that in the subsequent reliance on Rebia, the author in contravention to his earlier stand, admits an exception for the exercise of discretionary power when the situation is unworkable. I will conclude by referring to the observation in Shivraj on the importance of the due process of no-confidence motion, as opposed to conducting a floor test through the direction of the Court/Governor.
Power to Direct a Floor Test under Article 174 r/w 175(2)
Anmol’s preliminary point of argument is that the Court holds that the power to direct a floor test falls under Article 163 of the Indian Constitution. I rebut this point. The Governor’s power to direct a floor test is inherent under Article 174 r/w 175(2) and not Article 163.
An excerpt from the communication of the Governor to the Chief Minister is below:
“………, it is necessary for you to gain the trust vote in Vidhan Sabha immediately after my speech on 16.03.2020. In this regard, I by exercising the powers conferred by Article 174 r/w 175(2) of the Constitution and other Constitutional powers vested in me…..”
When the Court held that the communication of the Governor was not ultra vires the Constitution, it accepted the plea that Article 174 r/w 175(2) is the repository of power to direct a floor test.
Article 174 gives the Governor the power to summon, prorogue, or dissolve the Assembly. He used this power to direct that the ‘Session of Madhya Pradesh Vidhan Sabha will begin on 16th March 2020 w.e.f. 11 a.m. in the morning.’ Article 175(2) states that the Governor may send messages to the Assembly with ‘respect to a Bill then pending in the Legislature or otherwise and the house shall with all convenient dispatch consider any matter required by the message to be taken into consideration.’ The Governor relied on this provision to direct that ‘after my speech, only one work will be done i.e. trust vote.’
My argument is that the Governor has the power to direct a floor test under Article 174 r/w 175(2) and that Article 163 does not provide the power to the Governor but merely guides the exercise of power. Article 163(1) states that “There shall be a Council of Ministers with the Chief Minister at the head to aid and advise the Governor in the exercise of his functions, except in so far as he is by or under this Constitution required to exercise his functions or any of them in his discretion.” A plain reading of Article 163 is sufficient to conclude that the Governor must exercise his power usually at the aid and advice of the Council of Ministers unless ‘he is by or under this Constitution required to exercise his functions ….in his discretion’. Therefore, aid and advice is the rule and discretionary exercise of power is the exception. To identify the ambit of discretionary exercise of power, it is necessary to interpret the words ‘except in so far as he is by or under this Constitution required to exercise his functions or any of them in his discretion.’
The Drafting History of Article 163
Anmol refers to the Constituent Assembly debates where the members observed that the Governor shall exercise discretion only when specific functions are expressly stated to be exercised through discretion. Indeed, an amendment was introduced by Mr. Kamath to remove ‘except in so far as he is by or under this Constitution required to exercise his functions or any of them in his discretion’ from Article 163 (Article 143 in the draft Constitution). Mr. Krishnamachari, Mr. Alladi Krishnaswamy Iyer, and Dr. Ambedkar argued that it was only a question of drafting and that Article 163 was a general provision for the exercise of discretionary powers by the Governor which have been specifically provided under other provisions of the Constitution. Alladi Krishnaswamy Iyer observed:
Sir, there is really no difference between those who oppose and those who approve the Amendment. In the first place, the general principle is laid down in Article 143 namely, the principle of ministerial responsibility that the Governor in the various spheres of executive activity should act on the advice of his ministers. Then the Article goes on to provide: ‘except in so far as he is by or under this Constitution required to exercise his functions or any of them in his discretion.’ So long as there are Articles in the Constitution which enable the Governor to act in his discretion and in certain circumstances, it may be, to over-ride the cabinet or to refer to the President, this Article as it is framed is perfectly in order.
In this context, there was repeated reference to Articles 175 and 188 of the draft Constitution. Dr. Ambedkar stated that if the House decided to divest the Governor of his discretionary power when provisions that specifically provided discretionary power to the Governor with regard to certain functions such as Articles 175 and 188 were taken up for debate, the general discretionary clause under Article 143 (now Article 163) could be deleted:
I personally myself would be quite willing to amend the last portion of clause (1) of Article 143 if I knew at this stage what are the provisions that this Constituent Assembly proposes to make with regard to the vesting of the Governor with discretionary power. My difficulty is that we have not yet come either to Article 175 or 188 nor have we exhausted all the possibilities of other provisions being made, vesting the Governor with discretionary power. If I knew, I would very readily agree to amend Article 143 and to mention the specific Article, but cannot be done now.
The proviso to Article 175 of the draft Constitution (now Article 200) stated that the ‘Governor may, in his discretion, return the Bill together with a message requesting that the House will reconsider the Bill or any specified provisions thereof … and that if the Bill is passed again with or without the amendment, the bill will have to be assented to by the Governor.’ Dr. Ambedkar introduced an amendment to remove the phrase ‘discretion’ from the provision. Commenting on the introduction of the amendment, he stated that ‘in a responsible government there can be no room for the Governor acting on discretion’. The amendment was accepted, and it led to the present form of Article 200 without the phrase ‘discretion’. Similarly, Article 188 specifically provided the Governor with the discretionary power to exercise his functions without the aid and advice of the Council of Ministers for two weeks if a grave emergency that threatened the peace and tranquillity of the State had arisen. Then, the President might – if he was satisfied – assume to himself the functions of the State. Dr. Ambedkar moved an amendment to delete Article 188 of the draft Constitution. He was of the view that the discretionary power for a short period was ‘futile’ if the President was going to take over after two weeks. This amendment was also accepted. The Governor was also – earlier – expressly provided discretion in the appointment and dismissal of his ministers (Art 144(6)), summoning and dissolution of the legislature (Art 153), the appointment of the Provincial Auditor –in- chief (Art 210) and members of the Public Service Commission (Art 285). Discretionary clauses in all these provisions were deleted.
Mr. Kamath brought to the notice of the House the reassurances of Dr. Ambedkar that Article 163 would be appropriately amended if the specific discretionary powers in the subsequent provisions were removed. However, Article 163 was intact in its entirety in the final text of the Constitution. The only matter in which the Governor was expressly required to act in his discretion was with regard to the administration of tribal areas in Assam for a transitional period. Therefore, the final text of the Constitution provided for complete ministerial responsibility. It is thus clear that the debates and the final text of Article 163 have no nexus between them.
The interpretation of the phrase ‘by or under the Constitution’ solely relying on the Constituent Assembly debates is erroneous for the following reasons. Firstly, though through a period, the Constituent Assembly debates have been accepted as an aid for interpretation, it cannot override the text of the Constitution. In this case, the debates on Article 163 and the final text of the provision share no nexus. And secondly, an interpretation that makes the Constitution workable will have to be used. If Anmol’s interpretation is accepted, it would render the clause providing general discretionary power in Article 163 redundant since the unamended Constitution did not specifically provide for discretionary exercise of power concerning any of the Governor’s functions.
Reports of Sarkaria Commission and Punchhi Commission
The Sarkaria Commission had interpreted the discretion exercisable by the Governor by the Constitution to include two classifications: (1) through express provisions; (2) through necessary implication. According to the Commission, the phrase under the Constitution means the discretion exercisable by virtue of the rules made under the Constitution. By the amended Constitution, the Governors have been required to expressly act in their discretion with respect to the administration of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Sikkim. The Commission, echoing the words of Pandit Das Bhargava in the Constituent Assembly, observed that there might be situations in which it would not be possible or practicable for the Governor to receive the advice of the Council of Ministers. In such cases, the Governor’s discretionary power can be interpreted through necessary implication. A few of the examples mentioned in the Commission’s report are the appointment of the Chief Minister after an election under Article 164(1), submission of report under Article 356 on the breakdown of the constitutional machinery in the State, and recommendation of a bill for the consideration of the President under Article 200. These views have been accepted by the Punchhi Commission as well.
Power to Exercise Discretion through Necessary Implication
Let us now look at the text of the Constitution independent of the Commission’s report to ascertain as to whether the discretionary power exercisable by the Governor can be read through necessary implications. Article 163(2) states that ‘if any question arises whether any matter is or is not a matter as respects which the Governor is by or under this Constitution required to act in his discretion, the decision of the Governor in his discretion shall be final, and the validity of anything done by the Governor shall not be called in question on the ground that he ought or ought not to have acted in his discretion.’ If the discretion was only purported to be restricted to express discretionary provisions, the question of the ambiguity of exercisable discretion itself would not arise.
Let us examine two factual situations to identify if excluding the reading of the discretionary power of the Governor through necessary implication would lead to an unworkable Constitution. For the first situation, let us take the example of the latest political crisis in Maharashtra in December 2019. None of the parties had the majority to form the Government, and the coalition among the parties was in the nascent stage in the first week after the election. In that case, there was no council of ministers to aid and advise the Governor on whether there was a breakdown of the Constitutional machinery for him to send a report to the President under Article 356 of the Indian Constitution. For the second situation, let us take the example of the political crisis in Madhya Pradesh in March, 2020. It seemed that the Government no more exercised a majority after twenty-two MLAs submitted their resignations, of which only six were accepted. The numbers were enough for the Governor to form a prima facie objective opinion that the Government might not be enjoying a majority. Let us assume that the Assembly was not in session for another month – unlike the instant case where the Assembly was already summoned for 16 March 2020. In that case, if interpreted to mean only expressly provided discretionary power, the Governor would not hold the power to summon the House unless he was advised by the Council of Ministers – which might be too far-fetched to expect, since it was their majority that would have to be tested in the house. Pandit Das Bhargava brought these contingent situations to the knowledge of the House when he observed: ‘It is quite right that so far as our conception of a constitutional Governor goes he will have to accept the advice of his ministers in many matters but there are many other matters in which the advice will neither be available nor will he be bound to accept that advice.’
The majority in Rebia recognised the fallacy of restricting the discretionary power of the Governor to express provisions and observed that there might arise a situation when the Chief Minister no more enjoyed the majority in the House. If the Governor could arrive at an objective opinion that a doubt was cast on the numbers of the ruling party, the Council of Ministers would lose their legitimacy to advice the Governor. In this context, it was observed:
The above position (of aid and advice) would stand altered if the Government in power has lost the confidence of the House. …….. However, where there is reason to believe, that the Government in power no longer enjoys majority support, it is open to the Governor, to take steps to determine the issue of majority by a floor test……….. We find no justification in taking a different view, than the one expressed by the Justice Sarkaria Commission report, conclusions whereof were reiterated by the Justice M.M. Punchhi Commission report. We endorse and adopt the same, as a correct expression of the constitutional interpretation, insofar as the present issue is concerned.
Reliance on Bommai and Rebia
Anmol argues that reliance on Bommai and Rebia by the Court was misplaced. With regard to Bommai, he argues that it is not a precedent for the direction of the floor test by the Governor. He argues that the decision leaves open the question of the process through which the Chief Minister is to prove his majority. Even if assuming for the sake of argument that Bommai did not support a Governor-directed floor test as the only means of testing if the Chief Minister enjoyed the confidence of the House, Bommai would not be immaterial for the adjudication of a factual situation such as Shivraj. According to Bommai, the Governor through his discretionary power could send a report to the President under Article 356 only after he fulfilled his duty of summoning the House and calling the Chief Minister to prove his majority- except when he was faced with a violent situation in the House. Therefore, in Bommai it was observed that the Governor could summon the house even without the aid and advice of the Council of Ministers. If anything, Bommai is a validation of interpreting the discretionary power of the Governor through necessary implications.
No-confidence Motion and Floor Test
Anmol argues – based on Rebia – that even when the Assembly is not in session, ‘no-confidence motion remains significant for initiating the process, and based on this motion, the Governor is empowered to act even against the aid and advice of the Council of Ministers.’ His argument here is two-fold: one, the initiation of the process to prove the confidence of the House must only be through the no-confidence motion, both when the Assembly is in session and is not in session. Second, when the Assembly is not in session, the initiation of the process should be through a no-confidence motion, but the Governor can act against the aid and advice of the Council of Ministers, if through the advice, the Council of Ministers attempts to by-pass proving the majority. In this argument, the author concedes that there may arise situations in which the advice of the Council of Ministers cannot be accepted. Accepting the advice in these situations would abrogate the principle of ministerial responsibility. Therefore, the author has himself carved out an exception for exercise of discretionary power if the situation is unworkable. This is the basis of deducing discretionary power through necessary implications.
His argument that even if the Assembly is not in session, the process of proving the majority has to be initiated through a no-confidence motion is erroneous. According to Rule 143 of the MP Assembly Rules, to introduce a no-confidence motion a member shall seek leave from the Speaker to introduce the motion and on the very same day give a written notice to the Secretary General. For grant of leave for motion, atleast 1/10th of the total number of members must vote in favour of the motion. On grant of leave, the Speaker shall allot a date within 10 days from the date on which the leave is sought. Therefore, it is evident that the no-confidence motion can be initiated only when the Assembly is in session. Thus, if there is a surge of political uncertainty when the Assembly is not in session, the first step is not to initiate a no-confidence motion but rather to summon the Assembly. If the interpretation of the author on the express discretionary power of the Governor is accepted, then neither can a no-confidence motion be initiated by the member nor can a floor test be directed by the Governor.
The bench in Shivraj seemed to be wary of the possible misuse of the discretionary power of the Governor to direct a floor test. It stated that the usual mode of proving the majority is only through a no-confidence motion:
In exercising the constitutional authority to demand a trust vote, the Governor must do so with circumspection in a manner that ensures that the authority of the House to determine the existence or loss of confidence in the government is not undermined. Absent exigent and compelling circumstances, there is no reason for the Governor to prevent the ordinary legislative process of a no confidence motion from running its due course. (paragraph 45)
However, the bench did not expound the meaning of the phrase ‘exigent and compelling circumstance’. It was ultimately held that the communication of the Governor was intra vires the Constitution. Therefore, it can be presumed that the Court regarded the instant factual situation to fall within the ambit of ‘exigent and compelling circumstance’. If the Governor had not directed for a floor test, then by virtue of the procedure under the MP Assembly Rules, even if leave was granted for no-confidence motion (since the session was in anyway to begin on 16th March), a 10 day cap for the no-confidence motion would be too long a period for the Assembly to function during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the instant case, the Assembly was also adjourned on 16th May, preventing the possibility of granting a leave for no confidence motion. Though there is no such reasoning in the judgment that the ‘exigent circumstance’ in the instant case was the surge of the COVID-19 pandemic, one can merely presume that these were the factors that guided the court.
[Disclaimer: The author is an intern in the office of Dr. DY Chandrachud J. Views are personal, and she did not substantially assist in the case.]