Bengal governor withdraws assembly speaker’s power to administer oath

The acrimonious relationship between the Bengal government led by Mamata Banerjee and governor Dhankar has been in the news since his appointment in July 2019
Bengal assembly speaker has had differences with governor Jagdeep Dhankhar including over the governor’s request for a live telecast of his speech at the assembly. (HT Photo)
Bengal assembly speaker has had differences with governor Jagdeep Dhankhar including over the governor’s request for a live telecast of his speech at the assembly. (HT Photo)
Updated on Oct 05, 2021 01:37 AM IST
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ByTanmay Chatterjee, Hindustan Times, Kolkata

West Bengal governor Jagdeep Dhankhar has withdrawn assembly speaker Biman Banerjee’s power to administer the oath of office to the members of the state legislature, potentially opening up another front in the long-running battle between the state’s top constitutional authority and the Trinamool Congress (TMC) government.

“A note from Raj Bhawan reached the office of the speaker some days before the assembly bypoll to Kolkata’s Bhabanipur and two seats in Murshidabad district on Sunday. The letter cited Section 188 of the Constitution, which empowers the governor to administer the oath,” said a state assembly official, requesting anonymity. A Raj Bhawan official who asked not to be named confirmed that such a note was sent in mid-September. The by-elections were held on September 30.

To continue as chief minister, TMC president Mamata Banerjee, who won the Bhabanipur seat by a record margin on Sunday, needs to be sworn in as a member of the assembly by November 4. TMC leaders said she wants the formalities to be completed before the Durga Puja festival which is a week away. Banerjee, who was defeated in the March-April assembly polls from Nandigram, was sworn in as chief minister on May 5, giving her six months to be elected to the legislature.

Because of the governor’s decision, the TMC government could not carry out its original plan to hold Banerjee’s oath-taking ceremony on Monday. On October 1, the government wrote to the governor, asking him to authorise the speaker to conduct the programme, but he sought a gazette notification on the Bhabanipur bypoll results.

Bengal’s parliamentary affairs minister Partha Chatterjee and minister Tapas Roy, the assembly’s deputy chief whip, met the speaker on Monday and decided to send a formal request to the governor to come to the assembly on October 7 and administer the oath of office to Mamata Banerjee and the two other legislators, Jakir Hossain and Amirul Islam.

They also decided to issue a gazette notification on the Bhabanipur results.

“We have formally requested the governor to administer the oath before noon on October 7. We hope that once the notification is issued, he will come to the assembly house and administer the oath of office to the chief minister and the two legislators,” Chatterjee said on Monday afternoon.

At 7.30 pm on Monday, the governor issued a statement on Twitter.

Saying that he had gone through the note the government sent to him on October 1, Dhankhar wrote: “The practice and the proceedings at the level of the assembly and the government have apparently emanated under misconception of law. Once in terms of the legal regime applicable, the result of the by-election is gazetted, the matter would, through appropriate channel be brought to my notice where under a call as deemed appropriate under Article 188 of the Constitution would be taken. In this premise, as and when issuance of the gazette notification by the applicable legal regime is effected, a call will be taken as aforestated.”

Former principal of Presidency College and constitutional expert Amal Mukhopadhyay said, “I am surprised. The governor cannot take such a decision. Since 1952, the custom has been that governors authorise assembly speakers to administer the oath of office to legislators. The Constitution also says that the governor will place the budget or entrust someone. But according to convention, none other than the finance minister presents the budget. The same applies to the Union budget.”

The acrimonious relationship between the state government and Dhankar has been in display repeatedly since he took over as the governor in July 2019. TMC leaders said on condition of anonymity that Dhankhar’s latest move may trigger a fresh row -- with CM Banerjee and the speaker.

Speaker Biman Banerjee and the governor recently clashed over the latter’s request for a live telecast of his speech at the assembly. The speaker did not allow this. The speaker has also complained that Dhankhar was interfering in his work. In a strongly worded letter sent to the speaker on September 15, the governor said: “Under Article 176 of the Constitution, I addressed the assembly on February 7, 2020, and July 2, 2021. On both occasions, in an ‘emergency’ kind of situation, the address was blacked out.”

“I would urge you to engage in soul-searching, believe in constitutional essence and spirit, and dictate the actions and conduct duly mindful of constitutional prescriptions and propriety demanded by the office you hold,” he added

The assembly official cited above said the letter from Raj Bhawan noted that it is the governor who is empowered to administer the oath of office to ministers and legislators. “While the governor administers the oath of office to ministers at Raj Bhawan, the speaker acts as the governor’s representative when legislators are sworn in at the assembly. Raj Bhawan has withdrawn that permission,” said the official. “The letter said the Constitution empowers the President of India or his representative to administer the oath of office to members of the Parliament. The letter pointed out that the President delegates this power to the Lok Sabha speaker.”

Article 188 deals with oath or affirmation of lawmakers. “Every member of the Legislative Assembly or the Legislative Council of a State shall, before taking his seat, make and subscribe before the Governor, or some person appointed in that behalf by him, an oath or affirmation according to the form set out for the purpose in the Third Schedule.”

Biman Banerjee refused to comment on the issue. Officials said Mamata Banerjee called up the speaker on Monday and people from her office were in touch with Raj Bhawan regarding her swearing in as a member of the house.

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Saturday, November 27, 2021