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On February 5, O. Panneerselvam, who took over as Tamil Nadu chief minister on the night of December 5 within hours of the death of J. Jayalalithaa, resigned. Since then, the political landscape of Tamil Nadu has witnessed many twists and turns.
But, in this seemingly never-ending drama, one among the dramatis personae, Governor C. Vidyasagar Rao, once a BJP leader, has performed the role according to a script that we have all come to expect. Almost as perfectly as the Indian public has come to expect of any political appointee presiding over the many Raj Bhawans in the states — playing the Centre’s eyes and ears, but mostly the hatchet man. Rao’s controversial role (or should one say, the lack of action on his part) that led to a prolonged stalemate in the state has once again brought the focus back on the institution of the governor in India.
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But, first, what could the governor have done differently once Panneerselvam resigned and accused Sasikala and her alleged henchmen of forcing him to resign? Rather than inexplicably wait and allow time for horse-trading, he should have immediately started the exercise of finding out who in the AIADMK enjoyed the support of the MLAs and asked that person to take oath and prove his/her majority on the floor of the House — a test mandated in the Bommai judgment of the Supreme Court.
As Justice P.B. Sawant, one of the judges who decided the Bommai case, suggested, the governor should have given the first chance to Panneerselvam, the interim CM, to prove his majority on the floor of the House. Instead, he allowed both sides — Panneerselvam and Sasikala — to keep making efforts to lure each other’s supporters, while at the same time indicating that he was waiting for the judgment of the Supreme Court in the disproportionate assets case, which finally came on February 14. Finally, Edappadi Palaniswami from the Sasikala camp has been sworn in as the CM, and he will have to prove his majority in the assembly within 15 days.
How did the governor know the judgment would be delivered so soon? Did he check with the Supreme Court Registry? What if the judgment had not been delivered for another few weeks? These are questions that he must answer, especially since there are many who feel that the BJP-led NDA government wasn’t inclined to allow Sasikala to take over as chief minister.
Rao’s actions, and his inactions, give rise to the old charge levied against many others like him: Was he acting as an agent of the party ruling at the Centre and trying to implement its agenda? The Bommai judgement also made it clear that the governor has no business to try and decide on the genuineness or otherwise of letters of support submitted by those claiming to enjoy majority support in the legislature.
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Since Independence, governors have rarely been seen as independent of the Centre and often as going out of their way to do its bidding to destabilise governments in the states ruled by parties in opposition. Many government-appointed commissions, including the Sarkaria Commission, the Venkatachaliah Commission, Punchhi Commission, as well as judgments by the apex court in cases like Bommai’s have underlined the need to have independent-minded governors.
In its report, the Sarkaria Commission noticed that the evidence before it had “a common thread that much of the criticism against the governors could have been avoided if their selection had been made on correct principles to ensure appointment of right type of persons as governors”. More importantly, replying to a questionnaire on the issue put out in the public domain by the commission, a cross-section of the public and politicians which was critical of the quality and standard of some of the persons appointed as governors, pointed out that “discarded and disgruntled politicians from the party in power in the Union, who cannot be accommodated elsewhere, get appointed (as governors)”. “Such persons, while in office, tend to function as agents of the Union government rather than as impartial constitutional functionaries,” the commission was told.
Other important responses, all valid even today, were that the “number of governors who have displayed the qualities of ability, integrity, impartiality and statesmanship has been on the declining side” and that there were “instances of persons who had to resign from office as ministers following judicial strictures, being subsequently appointed as governors”.
Instances of governors who returned to active politics after completing their tenure in the Raj Bhavan were also aplenty. To deal with this issue, the commission recommended a criterion for someone to be appointed a governor. The criteria included the person being “eminent in some walk of life”, “should be a person from outside the state”, “should be a detached figure and not too intimately connected with the local politics of the State”, and, lastly, but most importantly, he should “not have taken too great a part in politics generally and particularly in the recent past”.
One of the key criticisms of governors has been their tendency to (mis)use Article 356 if the Centre so wants. As former Lok Sabha secretary general and Constitution expert Subhash C. Kashyap says, “the governor must not give out the impression that he is acting politically.”