BY: Gopalkrishna Gandhi
Strange as it may seem, Gandhi quite regularly called on British governors when he toured the provinces. Change was in the air when he called on Bengal’s last British governor, Sir Frederick Burrows, on October 30, 1946. The Clement Attlee-appointee asked Gandhi, “What would you like me to do?” The question was remarkable. Here was a British governor, on his way out, asking the father of the new nation for instructions. The three-word answer Burrows received was terse. “Nothing, Your Excellency.”
Did Gandhi mean governors should be “doing nothing” and be mere figureheads? Not so. He meant now that India was free, elected chief ministers, not governors were in charge of running the government. The Constituent Assembly, meeting around the time, had discussed the role of governors in free India, amid suggestions for doing away with the office altogether, vesting its powers in the chief minister.
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Gandhi wrote in the Harijan of December 21, 1947, on these discussions: “much as I would like to spare every paise [sic] of the public treasury, it would be bad economy to do away with provincial governors and regard chief ministers as a perfect equivalent. Whilst I would resent much power of interference to be given to governors, I do not think that they should be mere figureheads.
They should have enough power enabling them to influence ministerial policy for the better. In their detached position, they would be able to see things in their proper perspective and thus prevent mistakes by their cabinets. Theirs must be an all-pervasive moral influence in their provinces.”
One of the early governors’ conferences, on May 8, 1949, was addressed by Governor General C. Rajagopalachari, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Deputy Prime Minister Sardar Patel. Rajaji said to the governors: “You should not imagine that you are just figureheads and can do nothing… Our prime minister and deputy prime minister do not hold that view. They want you to develop your influence for good and they expect you to find means for achieving it without friction and without prejudice to the march of democracy.”
The “key phrases” on governors from Gandhi and Rajaji are: all-pervasive moral influence, detached position, proper perspective, influence for good, without prejudice to the march of democracy.
Unfortunately, one detour of the “march” has become a pilgrimage to political preferment. The Congress and parties opposed to it, which have come to power, have encouraged the detour.
During the first decade and a half into independence, men and women of great eminence and equal probity were appointed to the office. Rajaji himself was the first governor of West Bengal. Sarojini Naidu, Homi Bhabha, K.M. Munshi, Asaf Ali, Sri Prakasa, Sardar Ujjal Singh, M.S. Aney, Maharaj Bhavsinhji of Bhavnagar, Haren Mukherjee, P.V. Cherian, were among figures of exceptional stature to occupy our Raj Bhavans. The credit for that has to go to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. In fact, there was not one governor appointed during his leadership who may be said to have been less than worthy of his or her appointment. Not one.
But that cannot be said of his daughter’s term. Indira Gandhi made “loyalty”, by which was meant loyalty to her leadership, a determining factor in governors’ appointments. This meant that many flatterers and worse could and did become governors during her and her successors’ tenures.
By rule of thumb, politicians who were pliant but in some trouble or another in their home states were good governor material. Bureaucrats known to be supine and in need of reward were good governor material. There were some exceptions that proved the rule. Among politicians, the Indira Gandhi-appointee Governor M.L. Sukhadia in Madras was exceptional in every way. As were, among former civil servants, Governors Dharma Vira and A.L. Dias in Calcutta, B.K. Nehru and L.P. Singh in Shillong.
In later years, among politicians, Governors Nurul Hasan and K. Raghunatha Reddy stood out, but the chief ministers of West Bengal, not the prime ministers of the day, have to be thanked for that. Likewise, among non-politicians, Karnataka Governor T.N. Chaturvedi and an under-acknowledged lieutenant governor of the Andamans, Ramchandra Kapse stood tall. But these are truly exceptions.
Whenever a change of government occured at the Centre, the very loyalty that made the undeserving governors, unmade them. The pattern has continued down the years. The Rajiv Gandhi era saw many unedifying appointments to that office which Vishwanath Pratap Singh promptly upturned. In subsequent years, both the Congress and NDA have unerringly followed the practice.
Today, many governors have their boxes packed and ready, anticipating “the call of recall” from the ministry of home affairs. “Attachment”, not “detachment”, having been a key factor in their appointment, they can expect to be de-attached, which is a thousand pities. But the plight of most governors today is to be sympathised with. They are not victims of a “change of government”. They are victims of the unchanging loyalty test.
I believe incumbent governors would have done themselves proud and their offices a service if they had all, over May 16 and 17, written to the president offering to demit their office. And on their doing so, the prime minister would have shown himself to be above “loyalty” politics by advising the president that the governors not be disturbed. The country would have appreciated governors offering to go and being told “Aap baney rahiye”.
I mentioned Governor Sukhadia. He was the governor of Tamil Nadu during the Emergency and ran it under President’s Rule, an unpopular thing to do. But the moment the ticker brought him the news that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had been defeated, he asked his staff to pack his bags and left for Delhi. That gesture was appreciated even by those who had disliked the Emergency and President’s Rule viscerally.
Though appointed by the president and meant to hold their office “at the president’s pleasure”, governors are men and women the prime minister of the day has identified with or without help from his party or from chief ministers and others. So, it follows that governors should enjoy the prime minister’s trust, which is completely different from basking in his favour.
That being the case, a governor appointed by a government that has been displaced by another one should hold his or her office under the new one, only if that incumbency is formally and wholeheartedly re-endorsed. Otherwise, they are overstaying their welcome — a sad thing for their high office.
No governor should overstay, no governor should be undermined. A paradox?
Yes, but one that can be resolved if the next set of governors being appointed opens a new page, a new chapter, bringing to Raj Bhavans a set of outstanding men and women who are politically unbiased, honest and in some field or another, eminent.
Do such people exist?
Of course they do. But then, they are above or below the political radar.
The writer, senior fellow, Centre for Public Affairs and Critical Theory, Shiv Nadar University, was governor of West Bengal, 2004-2009 and officiated as governor of Bihar in 2006.