After nearly a month of several impressive initiatives, the NDA government’s attempt to remove governors in some states is a move it might end up regretting. The issue is already developing into a major controversy. Uttar Pradesh Governor BL Joshi resigned immediately after discerning Delhi’s intent but Sheila Dikshit in Kerala and others are not inclined to oblige. The ruling BJP is of the view that it can place nominees in Raj Bhavans and it cites several instances where the Congress shunted governors upon assuming power. That is true; the Congress did replace several governors over the years but a Supreme Court ruling in 2010 makes removal now a lot more complicated. A five-judge Constitution bench ruled then that a change in government “is not a ground for removal of governors holding office to make way for others favoured by the new government.” Governors cannot also be removed on grounds of policy differences with the Union government. The court agreed that governors ruled “during the pleasure of the President”; they could be dismissed under Article 156 (1) without being given reasons or notice, but their removal could not be done in a manner that is “arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable”. Sacked governors can approach the court and if a prima facie case of arbitrariness is established the Union government can be asked to furnish evidence that the governor was removed for “good and compelling reasons”.
It is not clear if any governor will challenge the Centre in court but it could be embarrassing for the government if someone mustered the nerve to. There are legitimate arguments about propriety to consider. Few doubt that the governors in question are Congress loyalists, but the Centre has not yet made a compelling case for their dismissal. BJP leaders have argued that it is the established ‘tradition’ for governors to go once a new government is in place. There are, however, sometimes good reasons to dispense with tradition, particularly when it comes to restoring the integrity of a constitutional office.
The Narendra Modi government has impressed many with its energy, decisiveness and intent to break with the past. It must strive not to repeat the mistakes of the Congress in this regard and dispel the impression that it is just looking for opportunities to placate figures it could not accommodate in government. The government must privilege persons of eminence when it does get to make new appointments. The post of governor must be taken off the roster of spoils that party political figures get to eye with glee. There is constitutional office, propriety, legal compliance and goodwill for the government at stake here.