In the first weeks of December, I travelled through four states of the Union. In each state, I discussed the local political situation with a cross-section of the citizenry. We spoke of the work of ministers and chief ministers, and, as it happens, of governors. In one place, I heard the complaint that the governor’s son was transacting his private business from the Raj Bhavan; in a second, that the governor was playing host to builders and mining dons; in a third, that he was unwilling to make himself available for public functions; in a fourth, that he spent more time in his home state than in the state where he was posted by the President.
One state I did not visit was Andhra Pradesh. I believe that in golf courses around the country, there has been admiring talk of the virility of the octogenarian pleasure-seeker whose activities in the Hyderabad Raj Bhavan the television cameras purport to have captured. In less-elevated circles, the incident should instead provoke the questions — how do we choose our governors, and how must we choose them?
The first question is easily answered. A vast majority of governors are appointed on the basis of loyalty rather than competence. Between 1998 and 2004, preference was given to members of the BJP or the RSS, whose services to party or sect were rewarded by a stint in a Raj Bhavan. Since 2004, the appointees have been made chiefly on the basis of loyalty to the Congress party and its leaders. In appointing governors, both the Congress and the BJP rarely investigate the suitability of the candidate for the state to which he or she is being posted. Little wonder that many governors treat their posting either as extended holidays paid for by someone else or as opportunities for helping friends and kin.
To be sure, there are exceptions. My home state, Karnataka, was fortunate in having the scholar-administrator T.N. Chaturvedi serve a full term as governor. Although appointed by a BJP government, Chaturvedi behaved with scrupulous impartiality during a very testing time, marked by fractured election mandates and unstable coalition governments. He also took a keen interest in literature and the arts. One of his last initiatives was to have a train from Chennai to Mysore renamed the Malgudi Express, in homage to R.K. Narayan, who lived in both cities and whose novels were set in a fictional village of that name. (The proposal was stalled by a philistine railway ministry — but perhaps it can be revived yet.)
Another recent governor with an exemplary record was Gopalkrishna Gandhi. West Bengal has been exceptionally fortunate in this regard — since Independence, it has had such outstanding governors as C. Rajagopalachari, H.C. Mookerjee, Padmaja Naidu, and Nurul Hasan. In the opinion of Bengalis with long memories, Gopalkrishna Gandhi was better than them all. When appointed, he was considered close to the Left; yet through his conduct in the Nandigram and Singur episodes he showed that his first and last commitment was to the Constitution of India.
I am told that the love for Gopalkrishna Gandhi was so great that he could win an election from any constituency in West Bengal. The admiration was mutual. The governor travelled extensively in the state, getting to remote hamlets not visited even by elected politicians. He did a great deal to restore heritage sites, and to try and revive the once great university at Santiniketan. His empathy with his adopted state was such that by the end of his tenure he could speak and read Bengali fluently.
Chaturvedi and Gandhi shared some things in common — namely, intelligence, integrity, and a close understanding of the Constitution deriving from many decades in the civil service. It may be that non-political governors are generally more able and effective, but sometimes party men can do a decent job too. Thus the current Governor of Maharashtra, S.C. Jamir, is trying hard to infuse energy into the mostly moribund universities of the state. In the past, vice-chancellors were appointed chiefly according to caste considerations or closeness to ruling party politicians. Knowing this, Jamir has sought, in his capacity as chancellor of the state universities, to staff selection committees with independent-minded scholars.
Like the office of President, the office of governor has many ceremonial functions attached to it — such as opening and closing legislatures, receiving and sending off state visitors, laying foundation stones and cutting ribbons for all kinds of schemes and projects. But, like the President again, the governors can sometimes play an active role in shaping society, by acting impartially in times of political crisis, and by identifying with and promoting the best cultural and intellectual traditions of the state in which they have come to serve.
We live in troubled and corrupt times, with most states riven by sectarian discord of one kind or another, and most public institutions in atrophy or decay. A carelessly chosen governor can hasten the slide in the state to which he is sent; a well chosen one, do something to arrest it. The scandal in the Hyderabad Raj Bhavan would have served its purpose if the Government of India can henceforth ensure that administrative competence shall take precedence over party loyalty in the appointment of governors to the 28 states that make our Union.
Ramachandra Guha is the author of India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy
The views expressed by the author are personal