India has a parliamentary democracy. Ordinarily, laws are enacted by Parliament. But India’s Constitution also provides for an exception; namely, Article 123. It says that the President may promulgate ‘ordinances’ if at least one House of Parliament is not in session and ‘he is satisfied that circumstances exist which render it necessary for him to take immediate action’.
Five things about this exception are worth noting. In keeping with India’s Westminster credentials, the power to promulgate ordinances is exercised by the Council of Ministers; the latter decide if ordinances are necessary. Presidents formally promulgate them. They enjoy some discretion, the precise scope of which still remains unclear. Second, ordinances may be promulgated ‘except when both Houses of Parliament are in session’. That is, it may be done even if either the Lower House or the Upper House of Parliament is still in session. Third, ordinances are limited to circumstances when it is necessary to take ‘immediate action’. They are predicated on some form of legislative urgency and, unlike parliamentary legislation, require additional justifications. They cannot be promulgated merely because the Council of Ministers so desire. Fourth, and most importantly, ordinances are like parliamentary legislation; they have the ‘same force and effect’. They are not rules, orders, by-laws or delegated legislation of some kind. Rather, they are legislation proper. Consequently, there are no substantive limitations. Presidents are competent to do through ordinances all those things Parliament may achieve through Acts. Fifth, ordinances are not permanent. Unless converted into Acts through the usual legislative procedure, they ‘ceases to operate’ six weeks from the day parliamentary sessions resume.
This vesting of original legislative power on the executive is perhaps anomalous, but not necessarily radical. Under Article 123, Parliament, after all, retains final authority. It may approve ordinances or reject them. But that is a mistaken view. After nearly 65 years of use and abuse, interpretations and amendments, Article 123 stands transformed. It effectively functions like a second, or an alternative Parliament in India.
Take the first two conditions, i.e. the conditions that must be satisfied before Presidents may take recourse to ordinances. At least one House of Parliament should not be in session. But who decides whether Parliament is in session, or should be in session? India’s Supreme Court has taken the view that parliamentary calendar is outside the scope of judicial review. Minsters along with the Speaker and the Opposition must decide when and how frequently Parliament should convene. If both Houses are in session, can the Government simply prorogue one House to make an ordinance possible? The Supreme Court has said yes. Consequently, the executive is the sole judge of when the Houses of Parliament are in session, or when they should be in session. The Court will not review this matter. The second condition has attracted a similar fate. Presidents must be satisfied that ‘immediate action’ is necessary. In 1970, the Supreme Court held that Governments are the sole judge of ‘necessity’; the courts will not get into this question. In other words, when a President on the advice of Ministers concludes that an ordinance is necessary, legally speaking, that is the end of the matter. He or she may promulgate an ordinance for any reason whatsoever, and that is valid. The two pre-conditions, therefore, are not really conditions in any meaningful sense of the term.
What happens when Parliament resumes? An ordinance may become an Act of Parliament. That is the best case scenario for the Ministers. But it may also be voted down. Ministers are also authorised to withdraw ordinances before they are voted in Parliament. Finally, ordinances may lapse; they may ‘cease to operate’ because Parliament takes no action on a given ordinance. Now say that an ordinance is presented before Parliament and it is voted down. Can the executive re-promulgate the same ordinance? In 1987, the Supreme Court answered in the affirmative. While re-promulgation is generally invalid, it may be constitutional under certain – mostly unspecified – circumstances. That judgment effectively makes a Parliamentary vote on ordinances redundant. Irrespective of whether Parliament wants that law or not, the executive can keep the ordinance in force simply by re-promulgating it.
Finally, what happens if Ministers stop re-promulgating a failed ordinance, and allow it to lapse? Like I mentioned earlier, it ‘ceases to operate’. But what does that mean? Imagine a situation where an ordinance was in effect for, say, six months. During that period many actions would have been taken under the ordinance. What happens to all those actions? Do they also ‘cease to operate’? In 1964, the Supreme Court said no; the actions do not get wiped out. All actions initiated or completed during the time an ordinance is validly in force remain permanently valid. What this means is that even if an ordinance fails, it can produce permanent legal effects. Consider an ordinance that repeals an Act, and then ‘ceases to operate’. If the Supreme Court is correct, it implies that the repeal by the Ministers shall become permanent. That is, by any definition, a radical outcome.
Taken together, these decisions imply that the President, acting on the advice of the Council of Ministers, may promulgate ordinances at any time for any reason. More importantly, such ordinances can produce permanent changes in the law even if they fail. Article 123, as a result, has morphed into a second Parliament, and more importantly, renders India’s ‘normal’ Parliament nearly redundant. Compared to the ‘cumbersome’ method of making laws through Parliament, ordinances are easier and quicker; they require neither debates nor votes. It should therefore come as little surprise that 11 ordinances have been promulgated on average every year since 1950. Article 123 is a handy legislative tool for the President, and has been abused more than it has been properly used.