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Gubernatorial gambit

Publication Date : 08-07-2014


The Narendra Modi government has advised the United Progressive Alliance (UPA)-appointed governors to resign. Amidst mixed reactions,  four governors - those of West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Nagaland and Chhattisgarh - have put in their papers. 

Initially, some had questioned the propriety of the Home Ministry’s move, but gradually there appears to be general compliance. A constitutional office has over time acquired a political character. Gubernatorial partisanship surfaced in 1952, when the Madras governor, Sri Prakasa, swore in C Rajagopalachari  as chief minister. The dismissal of the Communist government in Kerala in May 1959 was manipulated by the Congress, but the governor was not wholly above board.

Politics in the aftermath of the fourth general election in 1967 was marked by increased politicisation of the governor’s office. This was reflected in as many as 123 instances of the imposition of Article 356 since the enactment of the Constitution, with some blatant cases of over-reach. 

The  Supreme Court ruling in Bommai case (1988) adding a caveat to the use of Article 356 has defined the status of the governor in the Constitution.  The court observed: “The governor is like a person wearing two hats. With one, he is the head of the state government and with the other; he is a representative of the President. He is not a mere agent of the President.”

The root of the decline of this office lies in the constitutional design, which determined not only the powers and privileges of governors, but also the location of states in the Indian Union. The governor’s office was adapted in the Constitution from diarchy (1919) and the provincial autonomy (1935) models of British India to suit the parliamentary government in the Indian states.

The post-partition fears expressed in the Constituent Assembly regarding integrity in the face of  centrifugal tendencies and correspondingly regarding the powers and functions of governors, also reflect ambiguity among the members about the exact location of this office in India’s politico-constitutional system.

The official amendment,  endorsed by Dr Ambedkar, to draft Article 131 (Article 155 of the Constitution) moved by Brajeshwar Prasad  (Bihar), with extensive endorsement by several members, had the explicit logic that “in the interest of all-India unity, and with a view to encouraging centripetal tendencies, it is necessary that the authority of the Government of India should be maintained intact over the provinces”. In fact, they were against any influence of the state legislators over the appointment of governors and any restriction on the presidential choice by pinning him to an existing panel.

An elected governor was perceived as potentially partisan, with the prospect of a conflict of interest with a  Chief Minister.  Though T.T.  Krishnamachari disclaimed that  “we in the House want the future governor who is to be nominated by the President to be in any sense an agent of the central government”, Article 156(1) made the governor’s tenure dependent on the ‘pleasure of the President’, who functioned on the advice of Council of Ministers. This sowed the seeds of partisanship. The general view of the Congress was that healthy conventions would neutralise political bias in the evolution of the gubernatorial office as the constitutional practices take root.

In the 1967 elections, the Congress was unseated in eight states, resulting in unstable coalition governments. Raj Bhavans were used to destabilise non-Congress coalitions. The tendency became pronounced after Indira Gandhi returned to power in 1971. Prime Minister Morarji Desai’s logic behind dismissing state governments and holding fresh polls in 1977 in 10 states reflected a Congress mindset. Mrs Gandhi had paid back in the same coin in 1980 and the governors readily complied.

In 1983, efforts were made to dismiss the Ramkrishna Hegde government in Karnataka and Governor AN Banerjee appeared to be a willing accomplice. The attempt failed. In July 1984, the Farooq Abdullah government was dismissed in Jammu and Kashmir after engineering a split in the party. Governor Jagmohan was alleged to have acted at the behest of New Delhi. 

The most bizarre instance was the dismissal of the NTR government in Andhra Pradesh (1984). The governor had acted with rare alacrity. The  drama of parading the MLAs before President Zail Singh, and then keeping them in ‘safe custody’ in Bangalore, Mysore and Nandi Hills followed.  NTR was back in power, and Ram Lal had to quit following a  nationwide outcry.  However, the dismissal of the SR Bommai government in Karnataka by Governor P Venkatasubbaiah on 20 April 1989 led to a landmark judgment on Article 356, defining the role of the governor.

That did not stop the party ruling at the Centre from misusing the office as the 1990s witnessed more indiscretions. Romesh Bhandari’s arbitrary dismissal of the Kalyan Singh government to install the Jagdambika Pal-led rump government in October/ November 1997 invited President KR Narayanan’s reprimand for acting ‘in a partisan manner’.

Another milestone judgment by the Supreme Court reinstalled the government, asking Kalyan Singh to prove his majority in the Legislative Assembly. Yet the UPA government in 2004 had asked the NDA-appointed governors to quit. Governors Buta Singh (Bihar), Syed Sibte Hasan Rizvi (Jharkhand), HR Bharadwaj (Karnataka) and Kamla Beniwal (Gujarat) have not added to the dignity of the office in recent years.

VP Singh, PV Narasimha Rao, HD Deve Gowda, Inder Gujral and Atal Behari Vajpayee merely followed the trend set by the Congress.  Selection, appointment and removal of
governors continued to be based on politics rather than healthy constitutional conventions.

A PIL filed by the BJP leader BP Singhal on 2 May 2004, challenging the removal of the governors of Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Haryana and Goa, elicited a ruling by a five-judge Constitution Bench headed by the then Chief Justice of India, KG Balakrishnan. The Bench observed: “Change in the government at the Centre is not a ground for removal of governors holding office to make way for others favoured by the new government.”

This, however, did not lead to the institutionalisation of the process of appointment of governors and the stance of the BJP government only indicates the continuation of existing unhealthy practices. However, the Modi government which is promising to right historical wrongs in Indian politics must realise that the governor’s office needs to be insulated from inappropriate handling and intense politicisation.

The BJP’s anxiety increases as governors over the years have been appointed from amongst politicians, retired civil servants and army generals, by and large close to the ruling dispensation. Though the Congress has ruled at the centre 54 of the 67 years since independence, other parties and formations did not consider establishing a non-partisan procedure, though the Bommai case, protest at Kalyan Singh’s dismissal and the judgment on the PIL by Singhal against the UPA appointments indicated their unease. 

There was no motivation for constructive initiative. It is imperative to prepare a panel of names to ensure non-partisanship in the discharge of duties.

The committee should  comprise the  Prime Minister, Speaker of the Lok Sabha, the Deputy Chair of the Rajya Sabha and the Attorney General. The appointment of the governor should be made in consultation with the Chief Minister of the state for a fixed five-year period, which could be curtailed only by impeachment.

(The writer is honorary director, Centre for Public Affairs, Noida)


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