He has been called a ‘cipher’, ‘a purely functional euphemism’, but that is how the office of the governor was envisaged in the Indian Constitution: a titular role with discretionary (and not real) powers. Among the elected representatives of the state, he was to be a nominee of the Union government, the only qualification being that he be a citizen of India and over 35 years of age. What the Constitution-makers hoped for was a nonpolitical, non-partisan incumbent in the role.
The ‘non-partisan’ part was always suspect, but in the past few years, governors have overtly come out as agents of the party in power at the Centre, using their discretionary powers to aid and abet the fall or formation of favourable governments, or locking horns with chief ministers from the opposition parties and hampering the functioning of the state. A litany of brazen battles across the states, openly factional positions on matters of national importance and controversies involving the excesses of governors are ever more frequent now.
Bengal governor Jagdeep Dhankhar has, of late, taken the lead in this. His run-ins with the chief minister, Mamata Banerjee of the Trinamool Congress, are now worthy of a jatra tale of its own. In the latest of his comments, on September 19, Dhankhar said the state had become the “home of illegal bomb-making” and the administration has to answer for the “alarming decline” in law and order. This came after the NIA (National Investigation Agency) said it had arrested nine alleged “Al Qaeda module terrorists” from Bengal and Kerala (seven of them are barely literate daily wage labourers; all of them are from Murshidabad district). Dhankhar has also not shirked from wearing his politics on his sleeve. On August 5, the day of the bhumi pujan for the Ram temple in Ayodhya, he tweeted: ‘At 6.30 PM today at Raj Bhawan ‘ghee ke diye jala kar’ will celebrate historic day—‘Ram Mandir Bhoomi Pujan’… Long wait over—thanks to historic judicial verdict.’ He did not stop at that, taking a dig at the chief minister: ‘Appeasement Silence Stance @MamataOfficial resonates’.
Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh are other glaring examples. Here, the governors were seen playing a supporting role in the attempts to overthrow legitimately elected governments. In July, Rajasthan governor Kalraj Mishra declined Congress chief minister Ashok Gehlot’s request to convene the assembly so that he could prove his majority on the floor of the House after his erstwhile deputy, Sachin Pilot, raised the banner of revolt. “Here, a chief minister wanted to face the legislature at the first opportunity, and the governor was declining, imposing several checks…we complied because we wanted to avoid a confrontation,” says Gehlot. In his defence, the governor said that he hadn’t been given “a specific reason for convening the session at short notice”.
Earlier, in March, a variant of this drama played out in MP, when Jyotiraditya Scindia left the Congress along with 22 MLAs. Here, governor Lalji Tandon (who has since passed away), asked then chief minister Kamal Nath in writing to prove his majority on the floor of the house at the earliest. Nath refused, writing back to say he would do so at the right time. Eventually, the BJP went to the Supreme Court which upheld the governor’s order. Knowing he had lost, Nath tendered his resignation, paving the way for Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s return as chief minister. In both cases, it was the BJP that stood to gain in toppling an elected government.
The governor-chief minister battlelines are clearly drawn in Maharashtra as well. When Uddhav approached B.S. Koshyari for a nomination to the legislative council, it was already April, with just a month left for the May 20 deadline before which he had to get himself elected. When the governor turned down the nomination idea, Thackeray had to appeal to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to intervene. Koshyari then came around and wrote to the Election Commission, clearing Thackeray’s path to get elected with just a week to go for the deadline. Kosh yari played by the book in this instance, but his role was dubious at best earlier in this drama, when he swore in the BJP’s Devendra Fadnavis as chief minister in an early morning ceremony even as the Shiv Sena, NCP and the Congress were working out the finer points of an alliance. Then, he had been called out for the blatant hypocrisy of the move. Almost a year later, on September 11, Koshyari commented on the issue after releasing a coffee table book on his one year in the Raj Bhavan. “It took place in the ‘Ram prahar’ (early morning hours). If someone is sworn in then, why criticise it?” he asked.
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October 05, 2020