A solution to end conflicts between governors and non-BJP state govts
If the main criterion of Governor appointment is political loyalty to the ruling party at the Centre, we will always have governors haranguing and harassing Opposition governments
The Trinamool Congress government in West Bengal has decided to pass a law replacing the Governor with the Chief Minister as the chancellor of universities. Two months ago, the DMK government in Tamil Nadu also made a similar decision. Why have the two state governments ceased to trust their governors? There are legitimate and compelling reasons.
One can see a distinct pattern in the way governors have been behaving with the governments in states. The governors in BJP-ruled states have a warm, cosy relationship with their governments. In states where Opposition parties friendly to the Modi government are ruling — such as Odisha and Andhra Pradesh — the governors are playing an accommodating and supportive role, going to the extent of publicly praising the governments. Biswa Bhusan Harichandan, the Andhra Pradesh Governor, recently commended the YSRCP government: “Andhra Pradesh is progressing in the right direction.”
However, in the states where other Opposition parties are ruling, the governors have no warmth or words of praise for the governments. They see only darkness there. They see things falling apart. They see murders in daylight of rules and homicides of norms.
More often than not they speak the language of the Opposition (that is, the BJP) there. In Maharashtra, there was an incident of rape and murder. The BJP orchestrated demand for a special session of the Assembly to discuss ‘women’s safety and security’.
Governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari shot off a letter to Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray asking him to convene a two-day special session to discuss the issue. In a characteristic Shiv-Senaesque riposte, Thackeray sent Koshyari a reply requesting him to write a letter to the Union government to convene a four-day special session of Parliament to discuss ‘women’s safety and security’, as it was a “national issue” and “not restricted to any particular state.”
Tamil Nadu Governor RN Ravi, too, has been acting the way the BJP would want him to. Chief Minister MK Stalin has been struggling to get the state exempted from the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) for admission to under-graduate medical seats, because Tamil Nadu has built a robust public healthcare system based on its unique policies of medical admissions and doctors’ recruitments.
However, the BJP, which believes in levelling up and homogenising everything, does not want the state to gain any ‘special status’ with regard to medical admissions. Ravi has been blindly following that line. He sent back the anti-NEET Bill passed by the Assembly with some rhetorical objections. Also, he sat on the amended Bill for a long time and then sent it to the President, where it remains.
The governor-government crossfire in Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu looks like a gentleman’s game compared to what has been going on between Jagdeep Dhankar and Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal. There is shelling every day from both sides. The Governor screams to the world: “West Bengal has become a gas chamber of democracy”, and the West Bengal CM yells back: “We have a raja in the Raj Bhavan. He has a very loose tongue. He speaks like the BJP president.”
And, one of her ministers insinuates he resembles ‘Pagla Jagai’, a crazy character created by the Bengali poet Sukumar Roy.
It’s an old game
Will the Governor-Opposition government conflicts ever stop? The answer is no. Not because the BJP leadership wants the governors to try as much as possible to show the Opposition governments in a poor light. It is not a BJP invention. The Congress, in its heyday, also used governors as its Hanumans. They also did everything to prove that the Opposition states were Lankas ruled by the Ravanas. If the Congress returns to power at the Centre tomorrow, they would return to the same game.
The reason why it will not stop is that the governor of our Republic enjoys the same powers which the governor appointed by the British Crown did. Article 163 of the Constitution, which defines the role of the governor, is a copy of Section 50 of the Government of India Act, 1935, which defined the role of the British governor.
Like the colonial governor, the governor of Independent India, while generally exercising his functions with the aid and advice of the council of ministers, is given room for discretion or individual judgement. The space for such discretion is infinite, for the areas where he can act at his discretion are not precisely defined. And, to crown it all, the validity of anything done by him at his discretion cannot be called into question by the council of ministers or a court of law.
This is the space the governors exploit to create problems for the Opposition governments. They can sit indefinitely over bills passed by the Assembly, as the governors of Tamil Nadu and Jharkhand have been doing. There is no time frame for the governor’s assent. They can send back bills or cabinet decisions to the government with objections and delay the legislation forever.
Amendment is critical
What is the way forward to prevent governors from acting as the Hanumans of the party in power at the Centre? The easiest answer to it will be: Amend Article 163 to take away their discretionary powers. But that would be a solution fraught with dangers and also incompatible with democratic values.
A governor without space for individual judgment will be a rubber stamp of the state government. That would give the state governments absolute freedom to act the way they want. The reason why the fathers of our Constitution gave the republic’s governor space for individual judgement like the colonial governor was to ensure that there was somebody to watch the state government work according to the Constitution. It was to prevent state governments from becoming wayward. The governor was to be a constitutional watchdog.
But what has been happening is that the governors have been obstructing legislations and cabinet decisions of Opposition governments, which are disapproved of by the party in power at the Centre. Instead of functioning as a constitutional watchdog, the governor has been acting like a hound of the Union government.
The solution lies in changing the way the governors are appointed. If the main criterion of appointment is political loyalty to the party in power at the Centre, we will always have governors dressed in constitutional camouflage haranguing and harassing Opposition governments.
Don’t abolish the post of governor. Don’t take away his discretionary powers. Take away the powers of the Union government to appoint governors. Give that power to a committee comprising the Prime Minister, the Leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha, the Chief Minister of the state, a retired chief justice of the Supreme Court, a constitutional lawyer and other independent members. Independent governors and state governments can then work in the best interests of the people, benefiting from mutual advice.
(The writer is an independent journalist and author)
(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Federal)