Kerala Governor Arif Mohammad Khan is once again at loggerheads with Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s communist coalition.
Soon after the BJP was wiped out in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls from Kerala, the party brought in a fire-fighter in the form of Arif Mohammad Khan as governor of the populous state. It hopes to replicate the West Bengal model of replacing the communists, who have been steadily losing state elections.
The latest salvo from Khan has been over an ordinance the government sent him last week on the reorganisation of local body wards. Khan refused to sign it, saying he wants clarity on some issues. Khan went on to add that he is not a rubber stamp. The chief minister shot back, saying he doesn’t want a British-era resident in the state.
The ward reorganisation is widely expected to benefit the communists, prompting opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala of the Congress to ask Khan not to sign the ordinance. By taking on the communists, Khan has endeared himself to the Congress, although his stance on the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act has alienated him from most people in the state. While governors of other states kept mum on the CAA, Khan made it a point to express his views and criticise political parties oppose to it.
The latest fracas comes at a time when the governor has been incensed over the decision of the state government to challenge the CAA in the Supreme Court. Khan has been irked that he was not informed of the government decision. He refused to accept the chief secretary’s explanation that there was no need to inform him.
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“They went to the SC without informing me, which is unconstitutional,” Khan said. “So, no explanation can satisfy me.” The Kerala Raj Bhavan had locked horns with the chief minister ever since all political parties in the state, barring the BJP, and most religious groups opposed the CAA as “unconstitutional”.
“The state government is obliged to inform the governor of any decision pertaining to the Centre and state,” Khan said. But state Law Minister AK Balan downplayed that. “The question of informing the governor does not arise as neither the Constitution nor the Rules of Business mandates the state government to do so,” he said.
“The governor has pointed out that the state government should talk to the governor in case of disputes with the Central government. But here, the state government does not have any dispute with the Central government. Our point is that the amendment to the Citizenship Amendment Act is unconstitutional.”
Balan said that the government invoked Article 131 only because the amended legislation violates the fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution. “If the Supreme Court says that the state government should have consulted the governor, we will accept that too.”
Khan’s frequent battles with the chief minister even prompted the CPM Central Committee to demand that the post of governor itself be abolished. Party General Secretary Sitaram Yechury said, “It is a superfluous post, a remnant of colonial era. States are not subjects of the Centre. There is no role for the governor since the Centre-State relations are well defined in the Constitution and other documents.” In turn, Khan wondered if the CPM is in a position to get the post abolished.
Chief Minister Vijayan was more forthright in his criticism. “Residents were appointed by the British rulers to keep a watch on the powerful feudal chieftains in the country. It would be wise to remember that no such residents are needed for our state assembly,” he said.
The frequent run-ins with the Governor are reminiscent of the differences of opinion between the Puducherry chief minister and Lt. Governor Kiran Bedi. Unlike Khan, Bedi has won the hearts of the people with her almost daily visits to government offices to improve efficiency and her open-door policy at the Raj Bhavan, Khan has often had to face protests wherever he goes and has been subject to roasting in the social media over his decisions. He has been frequently portrayed as the president of the state unit of the BJP, a post that has been vacant for months.
The tug of war between the two leaders comes just days before the governor is scheduled to deliver a policy speech at the opening of the legislative session. It would be interesting to see who blinks first. Will Khan read the policy speech prepared by the state or leave out topics that he considers controversial?
It is likely that as the first step, Khan will drag his feet and not sign the ordinance. The government, in turn, could bring it as a bill in the legislature.
(G. Krishnan has written on politics for 40 years in Indian and international publications.)