INDIA’S constitution sought to establish a democratic polity. But parliamentary democracy does not exist in the states of India. This is because the central government appoints the governors formally through the president, who acts on the centre’s advice. They are reduced to what a chief minister of Karnataka called “glorified servants” of the centre.
In February 1991, Bihar governor Mohammed Yunus Saleem was dismissed from his office by the president. He revealed that he was asked insistently to resign by a government secretary, and that he refused ministerial pressure, including by the prime minister, to give a report against the Lalu Prasad Yadav government.
No prime minister has the right to instruct a governor as to how he should exercise his discretion as head of a state, least of all on a matter in which the governor is bound by the chief minister’s advice. Of what avail is the Indian supreme court’s famous judgement in the case of Raghukul Tilak, governor of Rajasthan, to governors like Yunus Saleem?
The court laid down the law clearly in May 1979: “It is no doubt true that the governor is appointed by the president, which means in effect and substance the government of India, but that is only a mode of appointment and it does not make the governor an employee or servant of the government of India. Every person appointed by the president is not necessarily an employee of the government of India. So also it is not material that the governor holds the office during the pleasure of the president: it is a constitutional provision for determination of the term of office of the governor and it does not make the government of India an employer of the governor. …
No PM should instruct a governor on how to exercise his discretion.
“His office is not subordinate or subsequent to the government of India. He is not amenable to directions of the government of India, nor is he accountable to them for the manner in which he carries out his functions and duties.”
Dr B.R. Ambedkar, who chaired the drafting committee of the constituent assembly, gave an authoritative exposition of the federal character of the polity in August 1949, when the provisions for president’s rule in the states came up for discussion.
He said: “I think it is agreed that our constitution … is a federal constitution and when we say that … it means … that the provinces are as sovereign in their field which is left to them by the constitution as the centre is in the field which is assigned to them.”
In 1983, prime minister Indira Gandhi set up an inquiry commission on centre-state relations but without consulting the states on its composition. Its members were stooges. Even so, this commission recommended: “It is desirable that a politician from the ruling party at the union is not appointed as governor of state which is run by some other party.” Within a short time of submission of this feeble, anodyne document, Indira Gandhi flouted it. So have her successors.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s appointees as governor have been blatantly partisan. Non-BJP states have invariably received governors who are BJP loyalists. They have debased a high constitutional office further. They publicly, repeatedly attack the state government, which is practically unheard of in any parliamentary government. They deliberately withhold consent to appointments to the Upper House of the legislature or to public posts and, worse, their assent to bills passed by the legislature.
The draftsman of the constitution rejected suggestions for elected governors. They would behave as rival centres of power.
Jawaharlal Nehru adopted a wise position. In May 1949, he said: “I think it would be infinitely better if [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. We do not rule it out. But on the whole, it probably would be desirable to have people … who have not taken too great a part in politics. 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 … would 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.”
Unfortunately, he himself departed from this ideal. Successive prime ministers did worse. Indian democracy in the states is in a shambles.
The writer is an author and a lawyer based in Mumbai.
Published in Dawn, June 25th, 2022