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If there were no governors

The current drama must make us ask hard questions about the diminished office of Governors

Prime Minister Narendra Modi. (Source: PTI) Prime Minister Narendra Modi. (Source: PTI)

The little drama surrounding the “voluntary” resignations of some governors demanded by the Centre indicates that we are still unable to determine where constitutionality, democratic norms and political ethics intersect. Even as the Narendra Modi government presses for the resignation of governors appointed by the previous government, it is pointed out that the UPA too had been guilty of similar sins of commission. That everyone else has been doing something cannot, of course, be a robust political justification for doing it. So as the ugly drama unfolds, we need to think of three steps that would move the polity away from one-upmanship and search for the resolution of this issue, and others that involve the distribution of largesse by the executive.

Let us begin with the immediate issue, the resignations of governors. Most governments and all parties view governor appointments as a matter of executive discretion, through which political asylum can be provided for supporters or petty partisan agendas fulfilled by the appointees in the states under their care. So it is only in the fitness of things that we establish a convention where, after every election, all governors offer their resignation. This should have nothing to do with the outcome of the election. The same party may come back to power, but it might want to appoint new faces as governors. So long as our political parties look upon the office of governor as something that can be distributed among supporters or sympathisers, this convention could save bad blood and the unseemly tactic of asking for resignations through under-secretaries.

This is not to say that things should remain as they are. One part of the problem pertains to the appointment procedure. While the Constitution does not have any provisions for the process of appointing the governor, the experience of six decades has taught us that certain constitutional morals might be adopted in making appointments. As we know, practically anyone can become a governor. But defeated or temporarily sidelined politicians and retired officers seem to have a greater propensity to being appointed as governors. Let us assume that when there are political appointments, the ruling party will tend to choose more from among its supporters and sympathisers. There is no need to wince at this obvious fallout of democratic politics. However, a shade of propriety can be injected into it. Instead of merely moralising that appointees should be persons of integrity and experience, a simple convention can be adopted by all parties.

They can appoint anyone as governor when they come to power, with only one restriction —  a cooling-off period. An individual should not be appointed if they have held any electoral, party or government office in the two years immediately preceding the appointment. Will the current government have the courage to adopt such a convention? Of course, it would be hard to expect this gesture from a government that already includes an army general who is barely two years into his retirement.

But if a new beginning is to be made —  and if such initiatives are to become consensus, they must be unilateral and unconditional to begin with —  then there is one simple thing the Modi government can do: desist from appointing anyone who has held any office (including a party office) in the past two years. This would at least ensure that in accommodating its supporters as governors, the government does not bring ridicule to the already corroded institutional prestige of a constitutional office. Also, not being involved in active politics or governance in the immediate past would help incumbents take a less stridently political stance while discharging their duties.

This, of course, can be only an intermediate step. The real problem does not lie in the appointment of governors; it is in the nature of the office itself. The provisions regarding the governor’s office are among the more complicated in the Constitution, and they need to be revisited in the light of experience. It is not just because the wrong persons have been appointed in the past, or because office holders were wrongly appointed, that the office has become contentious. Here is an office that is entirely non-elective and yet has the dual role of overseeing a democratically elected government in the state and functioning as an agent of the Union government. Moreover, this office holder has “discretionary” powers that even elected office holders ordinarily do not have. This is a recipe for confrontational politics.

To make matters worse, the governor is a key office holder in decisions regarding the removal of the elected state government and the suspension or dissolution of an elected legislature. These are drastic powers, even when vested in an elected and accountable office. They are much more so when vested in an unelected and practically unaccountable office. Rather than looking at this office just as an opportunity to accommodate 30-odd persons in raj bhavans across the country, we need to consider the inherently non-democratic nature of the office.

In the midst of the current media outcry, it is necessary that the opportunity is seized to initiate a larger debate on this clumsy constitutional arrangement. One dramatic starting point for this debate could be to imagine the abolition of the governor’s office altogether. This means that the responsibility of appointing a chief minister in case of a hung assembly would have to be assigned to someone else — with the more or less mechanical condition of a floor test within one week of the CM assuming office. The rest of the governor’s tasks could either be done away with or distributed among other functionaries, such as the chief justices of the high courts.

Alternatively, like the president, governors could be elected by state legislatures. While that may still invite political confrontations, it would at least be within the realm of open democratic politics rather than of backstage intrigue. The office holder will at least be indirectly elected. Halfway measures such as an appointed governor not only lead to unseemly dramas, they also undermine democratic processes. So, having an elected and yet nominally powerful governor or scrapping of the office of the governor could be the two starting points of a debate to ensure that we do not have to go  through the farcical motions of talking about constitutional morality and the non-existent dignity and non-partisanship of the office.

The writer teaches political science at the University of Pune

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