Governors face flak if they are seen as interfering with the work of chief ministers or trying to usurp their roles in normal times. But, what if the issue is about the containment of a pandemic like the coronavirus?
Would the governors be on the wrong if they seek information from their state governments? Should the governors ignore reports about lack of adherence to containment protocols, coordination on relief measures and obstruction to the visit of a central team to check for preventive measures? It was not without purpose that President Ramnath Kovind held two video-conferences in a gap of 10 days with the governors, lieutenant governors and administrators of states and union territories. Kovind specifically asked them to play a very pro-active role in checking the pandemic, supplement the role of the chief ministers.
Soon afterwards, Maharashtra Governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari held a meeting with administrative officials on steps being taken to curb the spread of coronavirus. But the Shiv Sena could not help seeing his act as tantamount to “parallel governance” that will create confusion. In an editorial in its mouthpiece ‘Saamana’, the ruling party even argued there should be a single centre of command to give directives in the prevailing “war-like situation”.
Perhaps, the then ongoing anxiety over the fate of Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray cast shadow on the ruling alliance’s relationship with the governor due to the approaching May 28 deadline for him to get elected to the state legislature. A state cabinet proposal for Thackeray to be nominated to the state legislative council (to obviate the necessity for him to get elected as a MLA or MLC before the May 28 deadline) faced Koshyari’s obduracy. He refused to consider the CM’s case under the “govenor’s nomination quota” on the ground that the duration of nominated vacancy was only a month. Even in case of nomination, the CM would again be rendered without a membership of the legislature though he may gain time for next six months.
The issue has since been sorted out with a phone call from Thackeray to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, followed by the Election Commission agreeing to Koshyari’s request to consider holding a regular election to the nine vacancies, one of which would enable the CM to become MLC before the deadline. The crisis had been triggered in the first place by the postponement of the regular election on account of the lockdown. Nevertheless, when it came to handling the pandemic, the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) constituents felt that there was no reason for the governor to play a role — even if the administrative response was found wanting in some areas.
On the other hand, what about increasing tensions between West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar? Last week, Banerjee shot off a five-page letter to Dhankhar, questioning his role as a governor. She accused him of interfering in her work and even holding a press conference, seeking to undermine her for political reasons. In response, Dhankhar said the allegations were “outrageously factually wrong and constitutionally infirm.”
The controversy rose after State Health Secretary Vivek Kumar’s letter to Union Health Secretary Preeti Sudan on April 30, putting the total number of persons testing positive for COVID-19 at 931. However, the figure given by the state during press briefings and in bulletins added up to only 816. According to the state government’s health bulletin of April 30, 105 people had died, of which the state government attributed only 33 to COVID-19 related deaths and another 72 to co-morbidity. Even these figures showed the mortality percentage in Bengal is the highest in India.
Amid complaints that the state government was not counting all the COVID-19 deaths, the Bengal governor asked the CM to record and share the data in a transparent manner. Interestingly, the governor found support from, among others, CPI(M) leader Sujan Chakraborty, who is leader of the Left legislature party. The BJP also went on to allege that dead bodies are being burnt or buried in the wee hours of the night, quoting local reports.
Some pointers that concerned the governor: Bengal is the only state where an expert panel of doctors determines the cause of death among COVID-19 patients. Also, the state began to share the data related to COVID-19 deaths (attributed to co-morbidity) only after a visiting inter-ministerial central team wrote a letter to the Bengal government on April 22. Also, when the Union Health Ministry marked 10 districts in Bengal as red zones, the Bengal government contended that only four red zones existed in the state.
Ahead of the 2021 assembly elections in Bengal, Banerjee may have reasons to fear that the COVID-19 crisis could dent her popularity. But, should the governor be silent in such a situation? Even if the Bengal case is argued as totally a different kettle of fish, can the governor — as the constitutional representative of the Centre — look askance?
The writer is a former Senior Associate Editor of Hindustan Times and Political Editor of Deccan Herald, New Delhi.