The Modi government came in with the declared ambition of a “Congress-free India”, sweeping away the old ways of governance and forcing its imprint on institutions. That change, it now seems, could extend even to offices that are purportedly non-political, like the constitutional office of governor. UP Governor B.L. Joshi has already sent in his resignation and there is speculation that more resignations may be on the anvil, with Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh unsubtly suggesting that UPA-appointed governors should step down of their own volition. Any move to replace governors appointed by political rivals, with no reason furnished, would be an undermining of the constitutional office. A governor is appointed by the president, and is not an agent of the Centre. Of course, the UPA, in 2004, had also removed governors it considered vestiges of the NDA — and it had invited rebuke. As a constitutional bench of the Supreme Court has underscored, the Union government is obliged to furnish relevant, non-arbitrary, non-whimsical and bona fide reasons for changing a governor.
The office of governor has been used in a partisan manner by all political dispensations, beginning with the Janata government, which in 1977 used governors to dismiss Congress governments in nine states, only to have Indira Gandhi impose president’s rule in states run by the Janata Party after she returned to power. With president’s rule mostly becoming an option in disuse now, there is less scope for such egregious misuse of power. But both the Congress and the BJP have used governorships as retirement homes for battle-scarred political veterans and favoured officials, as reward for services rendered or to delicately remove someone from the fray. This despite the Sarkaria commission, which had recommended that a governor be a person of eminence, not involved in the local politics of the state to which she is sent, and not a politician associated with the ruling party at the Centre, in order to preserve the federal balance.
The Modi government’s signalling on UPA-appointed governors could even be seen to be of a piece with the PMO’s directive to ministers to remove civil servants who have previously worked with the UPA. While ministers do have the discretion to choose civil servants based on their competence and uses, these decisions are meant to be free of vindictiveness and favouritism. By openly suggesting that those who worked in one dispensation are unwelcome in another, the government risks corroding the impartiality of the administration.