A former UPA minister relates a delightful story of an ex-judge who had been identified to head the contentious ‘Snoopgate’ probe. The judge declined the offer but had an alternative proposal in mind: “Why don’t you make me a governor instead!” suggested the venerable judge. The reason was obvious: As head of an inquiry commission that was politically controversial, the judge would be in the line of fire. As a governor, he was seemingly assured of a five-year term and a wonderful sinecure in a cosy Raj Bhavan.
The story is relevant in the context of the ongoing debate on governors sparked by the Narendra Modi government’s attempt to ease out a few Raj Bhavan occupants who are seen as Congress ‘loyalists’. Actually, the Modi government has been a shade more gentle in dealing with the issue than the UPA government, which in 2004 almost overnight obtained the resignation of all governors who had been BJP members. The then home minister, Shivraj Patil, had been rather brusque when justifying the move: “These governors have an ideology which is contrary to that of the ruling party in power,” was the argument.
Then, the acting NDA chairperson, LK Advani, had vigorously protested, calling the move “dangerous” and a “violation of constitutional principles”. Now, exactly the same language is being used by Congress leaders. If Patil in 2004, described the move to remove governors in ideological terms, the BJP today justifies its actions on the basis of “set traditions” and the need to replace “political appointees”.
The truth, of course, is more prosaic. The fact is that the BJP too has its fair share of 70 and 80-year-old gerontocrats who need to be ‘accommodated’, especially as the Modi government has now imposed an unwritten rule of 75 years being a cut-off age for becoming a Cabinet minister. Moreover, when it comes to constitutional propriety, it almost seems as if the only thing that has changed in the last 10 years is the face of the alliance in power: The hand has been replaced by the lotus, but the instincts to ensure that Raj Bhavans are extensions of the political authority at the Centre remain the same.
One thing has changed in the interim though: A Supreme Court order of 2010 in the BP Singhal vs Union of India case where the apex court made it clear that though the President can remove a governor at any time without assigning any reason in public, the Constitution guarantees that this power cannot be exercised in an “arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable manner”. Gleeful Congressmen have latched on to this verdict to suggest that governors cannot be removed simply with a change in government.
But the attempt to seek refuge in law is misconceived. If the removal of a governor should not be arbitrary, then neither should the appointment. And the fact is, over the last four decades, stretching back to the 1970s, that is precisely what has happened. Mrs Indira Gandhi started the practice by ensuring that Raj Bhavans were packed with ‘committed’ civil servants and politicians. Almost the first thing the Janata Party, which came to power in 1977, did was to dismiss all the Indira appointees and anoint their own supporters instead. This rather inglorious tradition has since continued.
Was it really necessary, for example, for the previous UPA government to ‘reward’ its three-time Delhi chief minister, Sheila Dikshit, within days of suffering a massive election defeat, with a convenient resting place in Thiruvananthapuram? When defeated ruling party politicians, be it a Dikshit, Shivraj Patil or a Margaret Alva, are sent to Raj Bhavans, then the implication is obvious: The individuals are being rewarded for ‘services’ to the party and will be expected to be loyal and partisan to their benefactors.
If you have to make a politician a governor, then that individual must be legally made to give up active politics or holding an office of profit for a minimum of 10 years after their tenure. Else you have an SM Krishna-like situation where, after hibernating in the Raj Bhavan in Mumbai, he was suddenly catapulted into the ministry of external affairs. Or a Sushil Kumar Shinde, who did a similar trapeze act from the Raj Bhavan in Hyderabad to the Union Cabinet in Delhi.
There is, of course, a more dramatic solution, which is to simply get rid off the office of governor and, maybe, put the luxurious Raj Bhavans to better use. Frankly, the institution is a colonial relic, a derivative of the pomp and pageantry of the state from another era. The role of the governor is principally ceremonial: Cutting ribbons, attending official functions, delivering banal speeches. How does a governor contribute meaningfully to the democratic institutions of the country?
The only time the governor plays a more crucial interventionist role is if there is a hung assembly and the confidence vote is obtained through engineering splits and defections. And even here, more often than not, the governor’s position is controversial. Recall Romesh Bhandari in Uttar Pradesh in the late 1990s. He had the dubious distinction of swearing in Jagdambika Pal as chief minister for just a day only to have the decision overturned in court. I remember meeting Mr Bhandari at the time and he appeared to relish the political uncertainty. “This is why you have governors,” he told me almost ecstatically, “to make sure all these crazy politicians are not allowed to step out of line.” I did not dare to argue. Governor saab was on his third chota peg!
Post-script: My other favourite story revolves around a former governor of Goa. The gentleman had been a distinguished politician and I asked him whether he found life in the Raj Bhavan a tad boring. “Ah! Boring it can be sometimes,but then just look at the view!” pointing to the spectacular Arabian Sea that the house overlooked.
Rajdeep Sardesai is editor-in-chief, IBN 18 network. The views expressed by the author are personal.