Days after the Assembly election results were declared, Prime Minister Narendra Modi called up the Governor of West Bengal, Jagdeep Dhankhar, to discuss the political violence that came in its wake. He chose not to speak to Mamata Banerjee, under whose leadership the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was handed a crushing defeat.
Since Modi assumed office in May 2014, the relationship between him and Banerjee has worsened, with the former believing that his party was on the threshold of wresting power in the state. Aggressive political tactics, coupled with rude vocabulary, added to frequent run-ins with the state government that stemmed from the Centre’s unwarranted intrusion into state government’s domains.
Once the results came in, Modi should have upheld the tradition of cordial Centre-State ties and spoken directly to the chief minister. Instead, Modi opted to take up the matter with the Governor.
Taking a cue, Dhankhar, that too on live TV, sent a sharp message to Banerjee. And, this was done moments after she was sworn in as Chief Minister for the third time in a row.
Despite calling her ‘younger sister’, Dhankhar was not the protective elder sibling he seemed to be and instead sermonised her. “Our first priority is to bring an end to the senseless, horrendous post-poll violence. You have to rise above partisan interests,” he advised her, suggesting that the violence was fuelled solely by her party cadre and that she was driven by political motives.
The Governor was gravely partisan in flagging these incidents of violence because these had occurred when the state’s law and order machinery was still in the charge of the Centre. Banerjee regained control of the police machinery only after taking oath; yet this issue of violence was used by the Centre to score brownie points.
Dhankhar followed this with a couple of tweets the following day, tagging the Chief Minister, expressing shame at ‘anarchy and lawlessness.
Running a vindictive machinery is one of the hallmarks of the Centre and, in fewer than 24 hours of Banerjee assuming office once again, it deputed a team of officials to visit West Bengal. This was followed by Central ministers accusing the Chief Minister of inciting violence, giving scant thought to the fact that doing so would, in fact, be counter-productive for the Trinamool Congress leader politically, given her ambitions outside the state.
Point of discord
The issue of bypassing or belittling state governments has been a major point of discord for decades since Independence, and has been repeatedly acknowledged by several commissions, most notably the one headed by retired Supreme Court judge, Justice RS Sarkaria.
Significantly, this Commission was appointed by the much-vilified Indira Gandhi in 1983 to examine ‘the working of the existing arrangements between the Centre and the States and recommend such changes in the said arrangements as might be appropriate within the present constitutional framework’. It was not the first such effort, as Union-state relations were scrutinised by the Administrative Reforms Commission in 1966-70.
Amid the COVID pandemic, the Centre commands over-arching powers under the Disaster Management Act, 2005. Directions issued by the Centre and the National Disaster Management Authority (the Prime Minister is its Chairperson) for tackling the pandemic have to be necessarily followed by state governments, among other institutions.
But in most other issues, the authority of the state government remains sacrosanct. The Prime Minister’s direct communication with the Governor, and he, in turn, advising the Chief Minister in public in full media glare, violates the essence of recommendations contained in the Sarkaria Commission report.
Sarkaria Commission report
For at least two decades or more after the report was submitted to the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, on October 27, 1987, the Sarkaria Commission report was constantly part of the political discourse. Paradoxically, barring the period between 1998 and 2004, when the BJP headed the coalition government at the Centre, the party was one of the constant advocates of accepting the Commission’s recommendations on the issue that jeopardised Centre-state relations constantly: appointment and conduct of Governors.
Even Modi, as Chief Minister of Gujarat, was an advocate of states being given greater autonomy and critical of the Centre’s intrusion into states’ domain. Yet, after forming the government at the Centre in 2014, his regime has ignored the report completely as well as erased the party’s past active support for the norms suggested. The Centre has also not convened a meeting of the Inter-State Council since 2017.
The Sarkaria Commission, noted in its report, that the Constitution has laid the ground for a two-tiered government, at the Centre and states. Consequently, the country witnessed constant ‘interplay of centrifugal and centripetal forces (as they) constantly strive to adjust between unity and diversity.’
While examining this constant tussle, especially when a state was governed by a party different from one that ruled the Centre, the Commission found that the Governor consistently acted as the centripetal force while the Chief Minister and state governments as the centrifugal force. This triggered political acrimony and hampered governance in states and took away focus from growth and development that would benefit citizens.
Role of Governor
The present regime’s record of using the office of the Governor as an instrument of the Centre is no different from the previous governments. Significantly, the Constituent Assembly had given considerable thought to the office of the Governor in independent India.
Two options were weighed. One, if the office should be occupied by an elected person. The second issue related to the extent of discretionary powers that were to be allowed to the Governor.
The Assembly members concluded that the coexistence of an elected Governor and a Chief Minister would cause friction and weaken administration. In his intervention during the debate in the Assembly, Jawaharlal Nehru observed: “An elected Governor would to some extent encourage separatist provincial tendency more than otherwise. There will be far fewer common links with the Centre.”
The actions of Dhankhar suggest his office being propped up with the belief that it wields greater power than constitutionally granted.
Certainly, Nehru was of the opinion that keeping the Governor under reins was better for the territorial integrity of India.
The Sarkaria Commission made several recommendations regarding selection of Governors, most important of these being that a politician from the ruling party at the Union should not be appointed. Yet this suggestion has been followed by every government since 1987 in violation. The Commission had also suggested consultations with the Chief Minister — another advice that remains in cold storage.
A major recommendation of Justice Sarkaria and his fellow members, that the ‘Governor should not risk determining the issue of majority support, on his own, outside the Assembly’, was later incorporated in the judicial pronouncement by the Supreme Court in the SR Bommai case. Thereafter, there is unanimity that the majority of a government can be tested only on the floor of the House. Yet, Governors have continued abusing the discretionary power vested with them and numerous court verdicts have pointed this out.
Ironically, when he was Chief Minister, Modi was a frequent critic of the UPA government’s ’anti-federal mindset’. He also asked for regular meetings of the Inter-State Council while simultaneously demanding immediate implementation of the Sarkaria Commission report and Justice Madan Mohan Punchhi’s report on Centre-state financial relations.
As Prime Minister, Modi has chosen to forget his words even while floating the lofty concept of Cooperative Federalism, while seeing little cooperation with the states. Instead, post-2014, India has seen a return to the dominant single-party phase of federalism, as witnessed between 1952 and 1967, when the Congress was the dominant party.
The issues flagged by the Sarkaria Commission, the Punchhi Committee and the Justice Manepalli Narayana Rao Venkatachaliah Commission appointed by the Vajpayee government to review the Constitution, need immediate resurrection in the political discourse as a federal form of governance becomes further crucial in managing the pandemic.
The period, since 2014, has seen the political trend of the BJP either co-opting regional parties by forming alliances or replacing them as the dominant party in the state. Debating issues flagged by the Sarkaria Commission and others is essential to ensure that federalism takes a more ‘genuinely’ cooperative and accommodative turn, and not coercive.
(The writer is an NCR-based author and journalist. His books include ‘The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right’ and ‘Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times’. He tweets at @NilanjanUdwin)