Analysis: When Governors Don The Gloves In Political Boxing Matches

Analysis: When Governors Don The Gloves In Political Boxing Matches

Governors are increasingly, and at times quite wrongly, being accused of being ‘agents’ of the ruling party and not merely of the federal government

Jayanta Roy ChowdhuryUpdated: Sunday, April 14, 2024, 09:51 PM IST
article-image
The AAP in Delhi has taken up cudgels with Governor VK Saxena | File image

Last week Delhi’s Lieutenant Governor V K Saxena’s office shot off an angry missive to the central government complaining that the state’s elected ministers had refused to attend a meeting called by him after Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal was arrested.

The Aam Aadmi Party which runs Delhi was quick to respond, asking the unelected LG to stop interfering in the work of the elected government. Party leaders seemed to suspect that Saxena, by calling what they felt was tantamount to a cabinet meeting, was attempting a constitutional coup of sorts by trying to do the elected chief minister’s job.

This is not the first instance of an accusation of “unwarranted interference” by a supposedly figurehead governor. There was a time in the 1970s and 1980s when Governors were being accused of being agents of the Centre. The criticism stemmed from the way state governments were often toppled or vote of confidence “managed” to suit the ruling party at the centre.

However, now governors are increasingly and at times quite wrongly, being accused of being “agents” of the ruling party and not merely of the federal government. Earlier this month the Governor of West Bengal C V Ananda Bose demanded that a minister in the Trinamool Congress cabinet should be removed after he had held what the governor’s office considered a “political meeting” in a state-run university, after the election code of conduct had been announced. As can be expected this led to vociferous verbal attacks on Bose and accusations that he was acting on behalf of TMC’s rivals in the BJP, just ahead of the Lok Sabha polls.

Bratya Basu, the educationist-turned minister whose scalp Bose had demanded, had earlier been embroiled in verbal duels with the governor over appointment of acting vice chancellors of universities which the governor had been merrily announcing without consulting the state government.

TMC suspects that Bose’s action on the university appointments front were a bid to manufacture “dissent”. The governor on his part argues that he has been acting within the law as he is the chancellor of these universities.

Be that as the case may be, the number of clashes between Governors appointed by a BJP-led central government and Opposition-ruled states has been increasing over the years. And the once “only seen and rarely heard”, titular heads of the states are increasingly vocal in spats with their chief ministers whose “guidance they should act upon.”

In June last year, Tamil Nadu Governor R N Ravi, a former intelligence officer, had “dismissed with immediate effect” a state minister V Senthilbalaji after his arrest by the Enforcement Directorate, only to rescind the order the same night.

In another such instance, Kerala Governor Arif Mohammad Khan had “withdrawn his pleasure” in K N Balagopal, finance minister of the state, after Balagopal obliquely referred to Khan in a speech where he was quoted as having said that those who came from states like Uttar Pradesh may find it difficult to understand the education system of Kerala.

The spat did not end in a constitutional dead-lock as the Governor backed off after chief minister Pinayari Vijayan made it clear that he did not see the speech as something for which the Governor’s pleasure can be withdrawn. The fact is that the Governor is expected to act on the advice of the elected state council of ministers headed by a chief minister. The “aid and advise” clause which limits the governor’s role is taken by most Constitutional experts to mean that he or she is a mere figurehead for the state.

As a symbolic, non-elected head, the governor is required to act in accordance with the advice given by the elected council of ministers. Even his appointment flows from the advice given by the Union council of ministers to the President of the republic.

However, the governor does have discretionary powers. Though these are limited to exceptional cases where the advice of the council of ministers is in violation of principles laid down by the Constitution of India, or where there is an obvious and apparent case of bias or conflict of interests. But such powers are supposed to be wielded in exceptional circumstances and not in routine bureaucratic battles.

Noted parliamentarian H V Kamath had in a crucial debate in the Constituent Assembly in 1949 even objected to the language giving discretionary powers to the Governor. The chairman of the Constitution drafting committee B R Ambedkar however had clarified at that time that, “It is not a general clause giving the Governor power to disregard the advice of his Ministers ...

There have been serious debates since then on the need to keep a figurehead governor in the states, which some have described as an anachronism left behind by the British from an era when European Governor’s had the power of veto over Indian provincial legislatures. Many have pointed out that article 163 of the Indian Constitution which defines and limits the powers of the governor have actually been taken from the Government of India Act 1935, which set up provincial governments in India with limited powers.

The conflict between an “active” governor who chafes at the titular nature of his high office and attempts to find some wriggling space within the confines of his “discretionary powers” and a state government which resents diktats from a Raj Bhavan may be old, but the fact remains that they have increased in frequency over the last ten years or so.

At one time Opposition-ruled West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Punjab and Chhattisgarh had complained loudly over bills being held over inordinately including routine bills creating new municipalities as towns expanded. States even approached the Supreme Court alleging that delays over passage of bills was holding up day-to-day governance.

Tamil Nadu accused Ravi of positioning himself as a “political rival” while a constitutional deadlock over delayed bills brewed. While Kerala spoke of Governor Khan trying to “defeat the rights of the people” by delaying crucial bills. The apex court, concerned by the unprecedented turn of events, in a pronouncement last year termed the delays a matter of “serious concern”.

In the case of a Punjab state government plaint — which also came up last winter — that the state’s governor had held back bills after casting doubts on the validity of a special session of the assembly which passed them, the Supreme Court came up with an unprecedented warning to the governor: “You are playing with fire”.

As India heads for a crucial Parliamentary election in the weeks ahead, the role of both the Governor, and the state governments and their pronouncements against each other will be watched closely by the political parties, members of the permanent executive and the common citizens as events unfold. There is good reason to believe that in the height of the raging election fever, transgressions on either side will be called out as never before. In the court of public opinion, the constitutional validity or invalidity of the respective actions of both sides as also the very need for the continuation of the position of the Governor, will also be careful weighed upon, again and again. Both sides would do well to remember all this does not portend well for the federal polity of this country which binds us together as a nation.

The writer is former head of PTI’s eastern region network

RECENT STORIES

Bihar Lok Sabha Elections 2024: Result On June 4 To Decide BJP-JDU Alliance's Fate

Bihar Lok Sabha Elections 2024: Result On June 4 To Decide BJP-JDU Alliance's Fate

UP Lok Sabha Elections 2024: Modi's Win Margin In Focus Now

UP Lok Sabha Elections 2024: Modi's Win Margin In Focus Now

Bihar Lok Sabha Elections 2024: Misa Locked In Keen Contest With Old Foe

Bihar Lok Sabha Elections 2024: Misa Locked In Keen Contest With Old Foe

Rising Temperatures, Greater Risks To The Food In Your Thaali

Rising Temperatures, Greater Risks To The Food In Your Thaali

The Growing Irrelevance Of Mayawati And Her Party

The Growing Irrelevance Of Mayawati And Her Party