The score is two for two, right now. In a democratic republic where the governor represents the President -- and is meant to play the role of friend, philosopher and guide to the state government -- two have been chastised by the Supreme Court over attempts to overthrow those very governments.
“In both Uttarakhand and Arunachal Pradesh, the governors overstepped their bounds,” says Jagdeep Chhokar, founding member of the Association for Democratic Reforms and former dean and director of IIM-Ahmedabad. “This is not the first time this has happened either. The governor has been used as a tool to topple Opposition-run state governments when the Congress was at the Centre too.”
On July 13, the SC dismissed as “illegal” Arunachal Pradesh governor JP Rajkhowa’s decision to invoke President’s rule in the state, reinstating the Congress government.
President’s rule was also invoked in Uttarakhand, in March, a day before Congress chief minister Harish Rawat was to take a floor test. Three months later, in the country’s first ever Supreme Court-monitored floor test, Rawat proved his majority and took charge as CM.
“Governors have limited powers, which should be used in a fair manner, so that democracy survives,” a five-judge bench of the SC observed on February 9.
Overall, President’s rule has been invoked more than 100 times in India’s 69 years of independence. Too often, the declaration has been driven by manipulation and ideology, rather than Constitutional basis.
Accusing the BJP of destabilising its governments, Congress leader Mallikarjun Kharge said in the ongoing monsoon session of Parliament that the BJP has “decided to execute its ‘Congress-mukt’ (Congress-free) slogan by any means”.
The Congress alone has invoked President’s rule “about 105 times”, home minister and BJP leader Rajnath Singh has responded.
“India can be Congress-mukt. India can be BJP-mukt. But India cannot be samvidhan-mukt [India can be Congress-free. India can be BJP-free. But India cannot be Constitution-free],” says psephologist and political analyst, Uday Nirgudkar. “There has been a long-standing debate on the role of governors in misusing Article 356, irrespective of which government has been in power.”
So who or what will govern the governors, keep them from becoming agents of political agendas?
The answer to that lies in a five-year tenure meaning a five-year tenure -- and in having greater transparency in appointment.
As things stand, a governor can be hounded out and replaced fairly easily, and this typically happens every time power changes hands at the Centre. If a governor is not willing to go quietly, they may be humiliated at state functions, their speeches cut short, sometimes sloganeering and demonstrations organised against them. Over time, the process has become troublingly silent and smooth.
It still takes the assent of the President, on the advice of the prime minister and his cabinet, but there is usually minimal fuss involved.
Since 2014, for instance, five governors have been replaced.
MK Narayanan of West Bengal was replaced by Keshari Nath Tripathi, a BJP worker who served as head of the party’s Uttar Pradesh unit in 2004; current Congress MP Ashwani Kumar, former governor of Nagaland, was replaced by former Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad activist PB Acharya; BL Joshi of Uttar Pradesh was dropped in favour of Ram Naik, a former BJP cabinet minister during AB Vajpayee’s time as PM; senior BJP leader and former deputy CM of Punjab Balram Das Tandon was chosen to replace Shekhar Dutt in Chhattisgarh. Former Congress minister Kamla Beniwal was actually replaced twice, first when she was moved from Gujarat to Mizoram, and senior BJP leader OP Kohli took her place, and then when she was replaced as governor of Mizoram by Lt Gen Nirbhay Sharma.
If you look at the list again, you’ll see that the governors who were replaced all have something else in common -- they were all either members of or were known for their closeness to the Congress-led UPA administration.
“Too often, through the decades, it has been a case of small people being given big posts,” says Chhokar.
Given the pivotal position of the governor, given that he or she appoints the advocate general and can be consulted in the appointment of judges, there is a pressing need to take the appointment more seriously.
“A governor is not supposed to be a mere figurehead,” says Chhokar. “And his constitutional duty is supposed to be to the state government more than the Centre.”
The five-year term should mean five years and there should be no second terms tempting governors to oblige to the Centre’s calls, says former chief election commissioner SY Quraishi. “Why should a governor be removed every time there’s a new PM?”
The process of appointment needs revision too.
“Instead of being selected by the PM and his cabinet, selections should be made by a collegium comprising the president, vice-president and Chief Justice of India,” says Vir Sanghvi, journalist and author of Mandate: Will of the People. “This has been repeatedly suggested but never accepted. Because when it comes to power, every political party wants to use the governor as an agent of the Centre.”
THROUGH THE YEARS: INDIA’S MOST CONTROVERSIAL GOVERNORS
* In 1984, Andhra Pradesh chief minister NT Rama Rao -- founder and chief of the Telugu Desam Party chief -- left the country to go to the US for surgery. In his absence, governor Ram Lal dissolved the state government. NTR responded with a campaign calling for the ‘restoration of democracy’. He was reinstated as chief minister later the same year.
* During UPA rule, in 2005, the Bihar Assembly was dissolved by governor Buta Singh. The SC minced no words in quashing this imposition of President’s rule. “The drastic and extreme action... cannot be justified on... whims and fancies of the governor... The Council of Ministers should have verified the facts stated in the report of the governor before hurriedly accepting it as gospel truth. Clearly the governor has misled the Council of Ministers,” it stated.
* President APJ Abdul Kalam contemplated resigning, following the SC’s remarks. In his book, Turning Points, Kalam said: “As soon as the verdict was known, I wrote a letter of resignation, signed it and kept it ready” but on PM Manmohan Singh’s urging, decided to reconsider.
* “That night I did not sleep,” Kalam writes. “I was asking myself whether my conscience is important or my country. Next day, I did my early morning namaz as usual. Then I took the decision to withdraw my resignation and not disturb the government.”