The war of words between West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and the state’s governor, Keshari Nath Tripathi, is an indication of how a constitutional office meant to rise above the political melee has become mired in controversy. After communal tensions broke out in North-24 Parganas, Banerjee accused the governor of “insulting and threatening” her and acting like a “BJP block president”, while Tripathi has denied the allegations. But the unseemly stand-off between the two high offices is neither the first of its kind in West Bengal nor limited to the state.
Examples abound of governors appointed by regimes led by the Congress earlier and the BJP now going beyond their constitutionally mandated — and circumscribed — role. Even so, the current rash of controversies involving Raj Bhavans is striking. Tripura Governor Tathagata Ray has tweeted statements that could be called communally polarising: In June, he quoted Hindu Mahasabha leader Syama Prasad Mookerjee as saying that the “Hindu-Muslim problem” can be solved only by “civil war” and then, asked the Hindus of West Bengal to “polarise” or “prepare to be annihilated”.
In Puducherry, in June, Lt Governor Kiran Bedi — once the BJP candidate for Delhi CM — reportedly by-passed the Union Territory’s elected government by giving direct instructions to officers. The legislature, in a symbolic action, passed a resolution giving absolute powers to the government. This week, Bedi administered the oath of office to three MLAs appointed by the Centre — a function usually carried out by the assembly Speaker. Perhaps the most high-profile governor-government conflict was played out in Delhi between Arvind Kejriwal and former LG Najeeb Jung (a UPA appointee), ranging from the functioning of the city-state’s Anti-Corruption Bureau to the appointment of bureaucrats and even during an outbreak of vector-borne diseases in the capital last year. The discretionary powers of governors — in the appointment of a government after an unclear or fragmented mandate — have also routinely courted controversy, as after the Goa and Manipur elections earlier this year.
Over time, the Raj Bhavan has become a retirement home for ageing politicians or a reward for political fellow travellers. Successive Union governments have transformed a position of moral authority to one of a political agent. An oft-heard — and unpersuasive — response from the BJP to this criticism has been to cite instances of similar partisanship in the past. The NDA government must realise that the actions of its appointees diminish the office they have taken an oath to uphold.