Modi’s governors

Published January 15, 2022 - Updated January 15, 2022 07:02am
The writer is an author and a lawyer based in Mumbai.
The writer is an author and a lawyer based in Mumbai.

NO sooner did Narendra Modi assume power as prime minister in 2014 than he declared his aim to create a Congress-free India. This could have been achieved legally and constitutionally only by defeating the Congress in elections in every single state assembly of India. Before long, he discovered that the project had failed. His BJP lost in elections in important state assemblies.

He thought of an alternative: destablise Congress ministries in the states by appointing as their governors stooges who would do his bidding to oppose the chief minister and attack the latter publicly. This is a subversion of the constitution. But then, Modi has given every indication of the facts that (a) he is ignorant of the text of the constitution and (b) also of the constitutional conventions on which it is based. He cares not for either.

This is a very dangerous game and its consequences will recoil on him. At some juncture, the president of India might do to him what he wants his governors to do to his political opponents.

Circumstances devalued the post of governor in India.

Initially, the framers of the constitution wanted an elected governor but then realised that this would result in two centres of power each claiming a popular mandate through elections. They opted for appointment by the president on the advice of the prime minister. This is the procedure which was adopted in the constitution.

Just like the president is the constitutional head of state, the governor would be the head of state and follow the same parliamentary conventions. Dr B.R. Ambedkar made clear in 1948: “Under a parliamentary system of government, there are only two prerogatives which the king or the head of the state may exercise: one is the appointment of the prime minister and the other is the dissolution of parliament.

“With regard to the prime minister, it is not possible to avoid vesting the discretion in the president. The only other way by which we could provide for the appointment of the prime minister without vesting the authority or the discretion in the president, is to require that it is the House which shall … choose its leader, and then on the choice being made … the president should proceed to appoint the prime minister.”

Jawaharlal Nehru asserted later that “it would be infinitely better if he [the governor] was not so intimately connected with the local politics of the province, with the factions in the provinces. And … would it not be better to have a more detached figure, obviously a figure that is acceptable to the province, otherwise he could not function there? He must be acceptable to the province, he must be acceptable to the government of the province and yet he must not be known to be a part of the party machine of that province.

“He may be sometimes, possibly, a man from that province itself. ... But on the whole it probably would be desirable to have people from outside eminent people … Politicians would probably like a more active domain for their activities but there may be an eminent educationist or persons eminent in other walks of life, who would naturally while cooperating fully with the government … nevertheless represent before the public someone slightly above the party and thereby in fact, help that government more than if he was considered as part of the party machine.”

The concept of the impartiality and independence of the governor, despite his nomination by the president, could not have been more strongly emphasised by the architects of the constitution. Those who intervened in the debate recognised that the consent of the state’s chief minister is a prerequisite to the appointment of the governor by the president. Thus the provision for the appointment of the governor by the president was adopted by the constituent assembly.

In 1979, the Indian supreme court said: “He [the governor] … is an independent constitutional office which is not subject to the control of the government of India.”

Circumstances devalued the post, and with that there was a logical fall in the standard of selection of governors. An administrative reforms study team noted: “The post came to be treated as a sinecure for mediocrities or as a consolation prize for what are sometimes referred to as ‘burnt-out’ politicians.” Most of the persons selected were old men of the ruling party at the centre.

In 1983, Indira Gandhi appointed a commission on centre-state relations headed by a supreme court judge R.S. Sarkaria, who fully lived up to his name. Two other members were bureaucrats. The opposition was not consulted.

Its report said: “It is desirable that a politician from the ruling party at the [centre] is not appointed as governor of a state which is being run by some other party or a combination of parties.” A fortnight after the report was published, governors were appointed in five states, violating the commission’s recommendations. The system is a wreck in 2022.

The writer is an author and a lawyer based in Mumbai.

Published in Dawn, January 15th, 2022

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