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Governing body

The dust raised by Buta Singh in May 2005 has still not settled.

india Updated: Jan 29, 2006 02:39 IST

The dust raised by Buta Singh in May 2005 has still not settled. The Supreme Court’s recent indictment of the now-ex-Bihar Governor seems to have given the Opposition enough arsenal, which it is vociferously using to demand the Prime Minister’s resignation. But amidst the inevitable political hullabaloo, it is clear that there are some vital questions that still need to be answered.

Do we need Governors?

Congress senior leader, Devendra Nath Dwivedi, who is also a constitutional expert, believes that if were to ask the question, ‘Do we need Governors?’, we will also have to ask: ‘Do we need a Constitution?’ He says, “The Governor plays a dual role. He is the constitutional head of a state and also plays a pivotal role in the definition of the Centre-State relationship.”

Unlike the US, that follows a federal structure, the constitutional system in India is quasi-federal. Rather than domestic policies being formulated by individual states, the Central government in this country has a greater control over its states and Union Territories. “If we are to continue with this current system, the need for Governors is an obvious one,” says Bhanu Pratap Mehta, president of the Centre for Policy Research.

B. N. Singh, who has been Governor of Assam and Tamil Nadu, says, “For nation building in a multi-cultural, multi-lingual and multi-ethnic society like ours, it is important to preserve our model of federalism. That’s what makes us tick and that’s what a Governor is supposed to do.” An obvious question then is: what is a Governor required to do?

Functions of a Governor

“The formation of a state government is not only the Governor’s prerogative, but is also his constitutional obligation,” says D. N. Dwivedi. In the event that a single political party or alliance emerges from an election with a clear majority, the role of the Governor is purely a ceremonial one. The Raj Bhavan doors are opened for the victorious chief ministerial candidate and his council of ministers to take their oaths.

It is only when a state is faced with a hung assembly, does the Governor need to use his powers of discretion. “Where there isn’t a clear majority, whosoever in the judgement of the Governor, holds promise for commanding a majority support in the Assembly should be called upon and it is then left to him or her to prove on the floor of the house, if their claim to power can stand the test of numbers,” says D. N. Dwivedi, adding, “While a stable government is in place, the Governor does not exercise any power but like the President, he is a reserve gear who kicks in when there is an abuse or breakdown of the constitutional machinery.”

Buta’s legacy

Let us review what transpired in Bihar in April-May last year. As the Opposition claims, Buta Singh should have called upon Nitish Kumar and the NDA to form the government. In the May 21 report that Singh had supplied to the Centre, he wrote that he recommends a dissolution of the Assembly because no single political party or alliance had staked a claim to form the government and more controversially, that he suspected that 12 LJP MLAs were engaged in horse-trading, tantamounting to defection and an abuse of the Constitution.

In its verdict on Buta Singh, the SC stated that “there is no restriction under Article 174(2)(B) of the Constitution stipulating that the power to dissolve the legislative Assembly can be exercised (by the Governor) only after its first meeting.” But in its indictment of Singh, the SC also said that the May 21 report was based on a “mere suspicion, whims and fancies of the governor” and that his action, prevented Nitish Kumar from staking claim to form a government. Importantly however, the SC came to the conclusion that “adjudication of defection is not within the domain of a Governor”.

Bhanu Pratap Mehta believes that though this conclusion seems to diminish the Governor’s office, it also helps clearly define his role. “The argument of horse-trading is a red herring,” he says. “If someone is being offered a cabinet berth in exchange of his support, such a negotiation is not only expected but is also desirable.” The fact that money was offered or accepted is a serious charge and the Governor should have had enough evidence to substantiate his claim. Mehta feels that in the aftermath of this verdict, “the Governor will have to provide evidence that lives up to higher cannons... the sanctity of the Constitution has been protected and regional parties and state governments can breathe easy because state Assemblies from now on will not be arbitrarily dissolved.”

Who should be a Governor?

The fact that Buta Singh was a born-again Congressman, allows the NDA to claim that his acts were politically motivated. D. Raja, national secretary of the CPI, believes that the BJP itself does not have that clean a record. He says, “The BJP, as well as the Congress, have used the office of Governors to rehabilitate people who lose power and need to be accommodated somewhere in the political system. You cannot accuse any one political party.”

Raja believes that there is need for a debate on the national level that will not only help define the exact functions of a Governor but will also make us arrive at a sound mechanism for his or her appointment. He says, “To begin and form a basis for this debate, we must go back to the Sarkaria Commission report that clearly indicates that a Governor should be a person with some integrity and constitutional expertise. He or she should be someone who is not from the state and is eminent in some walk of life. To be able to perform in a detached manner, the person should not have a turbulent and recent political record.”

B. N. Singh feels that rather than bureaucrats, politicians should be the obvious choice. He says, “A bureaucrat doesn’t understand the fine political issues of a state’s polity. A politician on the other hand understands politics and treads the thin line with comfort. But a person with unblemished record is most suitable. The office of the governor is sensitive in the sense that if it is percieved to be biased, things go haywire.” Bhanu Pratap Mehta opines, “It is impossible to find the perfect candidate on each occasion, who would unanimously be expected to act in a non-partisan manner, rising above party politics. We need the Government and the Opposition to arrive at a consensus so that there are no accusations of malpractice in the future.”

Jawaharlal Nehru had once said, “The office of the President and the office of the Governor are offices of great authority and dignity.” If the latter is to be thus preserved, we must give some heed to D. Raja’s intended solution. He says, “The President is an elected head and if we are to give the office of the Governor equal importance, we must devise a solution that allows us to somehow elect him or her as well.”

(With inputs by Mayank Tewari)