January 13, 2024
Hello and welcome to All Indians Matter. I am Ashraf Engineer.
Over the past decade, India has witnessed the weaponisation of the Governor’s office. State after state not ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party has had Governors sitting on Bills, attempting to overrule state decisions and generally making life difficult for duly elected governments. They have become extensions of the politics of the BJP. In that light, the Supreme Court’s ruling late last year that a Governor cannot sit on Bills passed by legislatures was significant and it reopened the debate on the role of Raj Bhavans across the country.
The role of Governors in tripping up Opposition state governments is neither new nor surprising. What’s different now is how it’s been almost institutionalised.
Maybe it’s time to review whether the office is needed at all or, at least, what Governors can and cannot do because a figurehead position has now turned into perhaps the most contentious Constitutional office.
Appointed by the President on the recommendation of the Central Government, Governors have a term of five years. Till 2014, while controversies over their role did exist, it was never this bad. What we are witnessing now is partisanship directed from the top as well as the appointment of BJP and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh loyalists, skewing the Centre-state relationship and thus threatening our federal structure itself.
In 1994, in what is known as the ‘Bommai Judgment’, the Supreme Court ruled against the overuse or misuse of Article 356 through Governors. This was considered a major safeguard against New Delhi’s intolerance of Opposition state governments. So, the Centre knows that Article 356, through which Central rule can be imposed in a state, can’t be used indiscriminately and has chosen disruption through the Governor’s office instead.
Since 2014, when the Narendra Modi government came to power, Raj Bhavans have acted as foot soldiers of the BJP. One example is that of Vice-President Jagdeep Dhankhar, who, as West Bengal Governor, was controversial to say the least. Former Maharashtra Governor BS Koshyari, Tamil Nadu Governor RN Ravi and Telangana Governor Tamilisai Soundararajan have also been in the spotlight.
So brazen is the interference that their tilt towards the ruling BJP at the Centre is not even sought to be veiled anymore.
Earlier, under the United Progressive Alliance government, too, Governors were accused of keeping Bills passed by Opposition-ruled states pending. At one point, more than 20 Bills passed by BJP-ruled states were pending with either the Governors concerned or the President. However, as I said, it was never as institutionalised as it is now.
As Gujarat Chief Minister, Modi too fought a running battle with Governor Kamla Beniwal between 2009 and 2014. For example, in 2010, Beniwal returned a Bill that sought to make voting mandatory and reserved 50% of the seats for women in local body elections. The stringent Gujarat Control of Terrorism and Organised Crime Bill was another flashpoint, as was the appointment of a Lokayukta. In 2011, Beniwal returned the Gujarat Lokayukta (Amendment) Bill that sought to bring local body office-bearers under the Lokayukta’s ambit. A month later, she bypassed the state government to name Justice (Retd) RA Mehta as the Lokayukta.
In 2013, she refused to sign off on the Gujarat Lokayukta Aayog Bill passed by the Assembly. This Bill curtailed the powers of the Governor and Chief Justice of the high court in the appointment of the Lokayukta.
In recent times, the Kerala government claimed that Governor Arif Mohammed Khan was sitting on eight Bills passed by the Assembly, while the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam government in Tamil Nadu said 12 Bills were pending with Governor Ravi. The Telangana government approached the Supreme Court in April 2023 over the Governor delaying on 10 Bills. In West Bengal, Speaker Biman Banerjee alleged that 22 Bills were pending with the Governor.
With the Supreme Court stepping in, many of the Governors got a move on, but chose to return rather than clear some Bills.
India’s founding fathers were crystal clear on the role of Governors, intending them to be ceremonial figures. Dr BR Ambedkar, referred to the governor’s position in the Constituent Assembly as “ornamental” and said that “he has no functions which he can discharge by himself… Article does not confer power to overrule the Ministry on any particular matter… According to the principles of the new Constitution, he is required to follow the advice of his Ministry in all matters”.
Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru emphasised that the Governor must be a respected public figure and appointed in consultation with the chief minister.
There have been two significant committees who weighed the office, the Rajamannar Committee in 1969 appointed by the Tamil Nadu government and the Punchhi Commission in 2010.
Neither recommended an election to the office because that would be in conflict with that of the chief minister. In case of an overstep or unethical acts, the Punchhi Commission recommended impeachment in a manner similar to that of the President.
On the appointment of the Governor, the Punchhi Commission said “the governor should be a detached person and not too intimately connected with the local politics of the state. Accordingly, the governor must not have participated in active politics at the Centre or State or local level for at least a couple of years before his appointment”.
Since then, there have been various ideas on how the Governor should be appointed. For instance, one idea was for the Inter-state Council to draw up a list of candidates and submit it to a committee comprising the prime minister, the leader of the opposition or of the single largest Opposition party in the Lok Sabha, the speaker of the Lok Sabha, the minister of home affairs and the Chief Justice of India. The committee would make a shortlist of three from the long list and submit it to the President for the final selection.
While there is no move to reconsider the current selection process, it is evident that there needs to be one in which bias and partisanship are cut out as much as possible.
In a political landscape as complex as India’s, there is an immense amount of trust vested in the Governor’s office. It is critical to the concept of cooperative federalism, which Modi harps about. However, what’s happening on the ground suggests the exact opposite intent.
South India, in particular, has been the target because most of it has remained out of reach of the BJP. Disruption through Governors is a way of controlling the state governments and by extension the states themselves. While the southern states and others like West Bengal and Punjab struggle to get assent for their Bills, BJP-ruled states like Gujarat have no problems on this front.
So frustrated was Tamil Nadu with Governor Ravi that it passed a resolution asking the President and Centre to declare a timeline for assent to Bills passed by the Assembly. Several Opposition-ruled states then approached the Supreme Court to direct Governors to clear Bills in a timely manner.
Various commissions in the past have also expressed a need for a timeline for a Bill to be assented to, returned or referred to the President. The Sarkaria Commission recommended a month, the Punchhi and Venkatachaliah Commissions suggested a maximum of six months.
The Governor’s position was provided for after Independence because there was a fear that India’s unity would be in danger in the absence of Delhi-appointed Governors at that time. India has travelled a long way since then and perhaps it’s time to rethink the office. Otherwise, it seems to be turning into a way to bypass election results and the will of the people to be replaced by the will of the BJP.
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