[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 second in a three-part 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 Anmol Jain.]
Recently, the Supreme Court delivered a reasoned order affirming its directions dated March 19, 2020, where it had directed the convening of a session of the Madhya Pradesh Legislative Assembly for deliberation on a single agenda: ‘whether the government of the incumbent Chief Minister continues to enjoy the confidence of the House.’
To summarize the backdrop of the judgment in a very brief manner: on March 14, 2020, the Governor addressed a letter to the Chief Minister, directing the holding of a trust vote on the floor of the assembly on March 16 immediately after his speech. When the assembly convened on the 16th, the trust vote did not take place and the assembly was adjourned till March 26 on account of COVID-19 outbreak. The Chief Minister justified this by stating that first, the directions issued by the Governor fell under the exclusive domain of the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly; and second, any message of the Governor to the Legislative Assembly must abide by Article 163 of the Constitution, which mandates the Governor to act under the aid and advice of the Council of Ministers. The Governor responded with no change in his stance and directed the Chief Minister to conduct a floor test on March 17.
In this light, the prime question before the Supreme Court was whether the Governor is empowered to issue a direction to the Chief Minister to hold a floor test and prove trust in his government. The Supreme Court responded in affirmative and found the discretionary powers under Article 163 of the Constitution to be the source. The Court also relied upon the decisions in S.R. Bommai and Nabam Rebia to reach its conclusions. In this post, I shall argue against the Supreme Court’s interpretation of Article 163, and show that its reliance on precedent was misplaced.
The Correct Reading of Article 163’s Discretionary Powers
To begin with, Article 163 reads as follows:
(1) 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 …
After examining various speeches of the Constituent Assembly Debates – and the final wording of the Article – the Court concluded that ‘[t]he Constituent Assembly thus decided to vest the office of the Governor with certain discretionary powers under the Constitution’, without highlighting the limits of such discretion. This allowed the Court to observe that the scope of the discretion included the power to direct the government to hold a floor test when the Governor was satisfied that the government did not enjoy the confidence of the House. The Court based this upon the collective responsibility of the Council of Ministers to the House, and the obligation to ensure that the House fulfils its function to observe oversight over the affairs of the State:
In envisioning the role of the Governor as a constitutional statesman, care must be taken in course of interpretation to ensure that the balance of power which was envisaged by the Constitution between the executive and the legislature is maintained by the gubernatorial office.
While I shall comment later on the whether the Office of the Governor is apt for participating in the oversight function of the Government by directing a trust vote, the focus here is whether the Court was correct in its reading of the discretionary powers of the Governor. I suggest that it was not.
When the discussion on Article 143 (now 163) of the Draft Constitution was in place, Mr. H.V. Kamath moved an amendment to discard the clause conferring discretionary powers upon the Governor. He justified this amendment on two grounds: first, that the similarly envisaged Office of the President did not have such discretionary powers; and second, that after it was decided that the Office of the Governor would be a nominated post and not an elected one, then ‘it would be wrong in principle and contrary to the tenets and principles of Constitutional Government’ to have such discretionary powers. Mr. Kamath, as well as other members like Rohini Kumar Chaudhury, were here fearful of the past incidents where the Governors had utilized their powers to unsettle democratically elected governments.
The Court relied upon the fact that Mr. Kamath’s amendment was not accepted in an up-down vote to hold that there was no specific limitation of the Governor’s discretion that flowed from the text of Article 163. However, in the Constituent Assembly itself, T.T. Krishnamachari immediately clarified the true scope and meaning of the clause and his statement must be quoted in full for the necessary understanding of Article 163:
Sir, it is no doubt true, that certain words from this Article may be removed, namely, those which refer to the exercise by the Governor of his functions where he has to use his discretion irrespective of the advice tendered by his Ministers. Actually, I think this is more by way of a safeguard, because there are specific provisions in this Draft Constitution which occur subsequently where the Governor is empowered to act in his discretion irrespective of the advice tendered by his Council of Ministers. There are two ways of formulating the idea underlying it. One is to make a mention of this exception in this Article 143 and enumerating the specific power of the Governor where he can exercise his discretion in the Articles that occur subsequently, or to leave out any mention of this power here and only state it in the appropriate Article. The former method has been followed. Here the general proposition is stated that the Governor has normally to act on the advice of his Ministers except in so far as the exercise of his discretions covered by those Articles in the Constitution in which he is specifically empowered to act in his discretion. So long as there are Articles occurring subsequently in the Constitution where he is asked to act in his discretion, which completely cover all cases of departure from the normal practice to which I see my honourable Friend Mr. Kamath has no objection, I may refer to Article 188, I see no harm in the provision in this Article being as it is. It happens that this House decides that in all the subsequent Articles, the discretionary power should not be there, as it may conceivably do, this particular provision will be of no use and will fall into desuetude.
This was not the view of a single member of the Assembly, but was supported by various other members such as B.M. Gupta, Alladi Krishnaswami Ayyar and Shibban Lal Saxena. Therefore, the mention of discretionary powers was merely to indicate those provisions of the Constitution wherein the Governor was explicitly vested with discretionary powers to act and Article 163 (or 143 of the Draft Constitution) could never be utilized by the Governor to justify any other action performed without the aid and advice of the government, including the direction to call for a trust vote on the floor of the assembly. The statement by Dr B.R. Ambedkar shall support this claim beyond any doubt:
“Except in so far as he is by or under this Constitution,” those are the words. If the words were “except whenever he thinks that he should exercise this power of discretion against the wishes or against the advice of the ministers”, then I think the criticism made by my honourable Friend Pandit Kunzru would have been valid. The clause is a very limited clause; it says: “except in so far as he is by or under this Constitution”. Therefore, Article 143 will have to be read in conjunction with such other Articles which specifically reserve the power to the Governor. It is not a general clause giving the Governor power to disregard the advice of his ministers in any matter in which he finds he ought to disregard. There, I think, lies the fallacy of the argument of my honourable Friend, Pandit Kunzru.”
Thus, it becomes clear that the Governor cannot invoke his authority under Article 163 to direct the Chief Minister to prove the trust of the legislative assembly in his Government. But in view of the interpretation provided by the Supreme Court, it seems that Mr. H.N. Kunzru was prophetic when he argued in support of Mr. Kamath’s amendment by stating that retention of the clause granting discretionary powers may give rise to misapprehensions regarding the true scope of Governor’s powers.
The Misplaced Reliance on Bommai and Nabam Rebia
The Court placed huge reliance on two precedents while coming to its conclusions, both of which, I argue, are wrongly read. The court first referred to the decision in Bommai, where the Governor the State of Karnataka, after being satisfied that the incumbent state government had lost its majority in the House, sent a report to the President recommending for the imposition of President’s rule. At the time, the Supreme Court had held the action of the Governor as unconstitutional by recognizing that even minority governments can hold the trust of the House. It stated that it is not within the Governor’s powers to decide whether the government holds the trust of the House, as that ‘is an objective fact capable of being established on the floor of the House’. The Court opined as follow:
Where the Governor is satisfied by whatever process or means, that the Ministry no longer enjoys majority support, he should ask the Chief Minister to face the Assembly and prove his majority within the shortest time possible.
This was quoted with approval by the Court in the Madhya Pradesh Assembly case to buttress its view that the Governor can order for the floor test in the Assembly. I argue that the Court wrongly construed the opinion in Bommai. First, In Bommai, there were no arguments as to whether it is within the powers of the Governor to direct the Chief Minister to prove hold a trust vote and thus, these observations cannot be deemed as binding ratio. Second, these observations merely tells us that whenever the Governor believes that the government has lost the confidence of the House, he must validate this fact through a trust vote in the assembly and not through his own assessment. It leaves open the question as to the process through which such trust vote must take place.
The reading of the Constituent Assembly debates proves that the Governor cannot direct the trust vote to take place unless he acts with the aid and advice of the Council of Ministers while issuing such directions. The other mechanism, as also argued by counsel representing the incumbents of the MP Assembly, is the moving of a no-confidence motion in the House. Unless such motion is moved – which was indeed not moved, as recorded by the Court – the government must be under no obligation to face the trust vote.
One might here argue that allowing the trust vote to take place only after a no-confidence motion is moved would lead to certain constitutionally unwarranted consequences, such as stay of the government for a long time in Office even when it has lost the confidence of the House (for instance, when the House is not in session, effectively disallowing the opposition to move a no-confidence motion). In such scenarios, the observation of the Supreme Court in Nabam Rebia becomes relevant, where it had stated that:
The Chief Minister and his Council of Ministers lose their right to aid and advise the Governor, to summon or prorogue or dissolve the House, when the issue of the Government’s support by a majority of the Members of the House, has been rendered debatable. … And in such a situation, if there is a non-confidence motion against the Chief Minister, who instead of facing the Assembly, advises the Governor to prorogue or dissolve the Assembly, the Governor need not accept such advice.
Therefore, when the Assembly is in session, then the process of holding a trust vote must begin with a no-confidence motion, and when the assembly is not in session, then still, the 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.
However, the Court underplayed the significance of no-confidence motion and relied on another excerpt from Nabam Rebia, where it was stated that ‘[i]n a situation where the Governor has reasons to believe that the Chief Minister and his Council of Ministers have lost the confidence of the House, it is open to the Governor, to require the Chief Minister and his Council of Ministers to prove their majority in the House, by a floor test.’ This allowed the Court to conclude that whenever the Governor has reasons to believe that the government has lost confidence of the House, ‘constitutional propriety requires that the issue be resolved by calling for a floor test.’ This, I argue, is an unjustifiable position.
Governor as a check on the Council of Ministers?
The role of the Governor is envisaged as a de jure head of the executive government, which functions on the aid and advice of the de facto head of the executive government, the Chief Minister, and his Council of Ministers. It is merely a titular position, with very limited authority to act independently. Therefore, the argument of the Court that this gubernatorial office helps in ensuring that necessary checks and balances remain in place is, though to some extent is correct – but not in the manner in which it was interpreted by the Court. The Court noted, at para 44, that ‘the Constitution recognises that the Governor does possess a power inhering in the office to monitor that the elected government continues to possess the confidence of the Legislative Assembly.’ I believe that the it is proper for the legislature to exercise the checks and balances functions, with the scope of the Governor’s powers to be merely facilitating the legislature. Given the fact that the position of the Governor is nominated, enhancing the powers of the Governor then necessarily leads to increased political disruptions in the working of democratically elected governments. Thus, I believe that the Court’s attempt to first find the source of Governor’s power in Article 163 and then justify it though the checks and balances argument was contrary to the structure of democracy envisaged in the Constitution.