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The governors and their role, once again at the Centre of things

The Seventies and Eighties saw the en-masse sackings of state governments, particularly by the troubled Indira Gandhi regime, followed by others in retaliation.

Written by Seema Chishti |
February 3, 2016 1:18:12 am

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The governor of a state is a very interesting appointee of our political system. Seen as part of the “checks and balances” the Indian democracy is proud of, the post is also often no more than a vestige of a colonial past, complete with pomp and a big bungalow, the best address in a state capital, that is often able to exercise authority in contravention of an elected government.

Legal experts like A G Noorani trace the ancestry of the governor to Section 93 of the Government of India Act, 1935. As he writes, “The governing words are, ‘a situation has arisen in which the Government of the State cannot be carried on in accordance with the provisions of this Constitution’.”

While the role of the governor is set out in Part VI of the Constitution and Article 153 states clearly that there will be a governor for states, misgivings were expressed right at the beginning over whether the powers of the post could be misconstrued.

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At the time the Constitution was being debated, Sardar Patel sought to make it clear that a governor’s “special powers” wouldn’t put him in conflict with the ministry. There would be no “invasion of the field of ministerial responsibility”, he stressed. The “special powers” would be limited to sending a report to the Union President when “a grave emergency arose, threatening menace to peace and tranquillity”.

During the discussion on the emergency powers of the governor though, an amendment moved by K M Munshi was adopted that empowered a governor to take over the administration of a province when there was a threat to peace and tranquillity and the governor felt the elected government could not carry on working in accordance with the advice of his ministers.

At one point there was a discussion that the governor be directly elected by the people in a province, but that did not find favour. Jawaharlal Nehru also stressed that the post could be used to bring academics as well as distinguished people in other fields, who might not have the appetite or skills for winning an election, into public life.

Independent India has seen much water flow under the bridge, and the role of the governor in situations has been a function of the authority the powers that be at the Centre have chosen to exercise and been in a position to exercise.

The Seventies and Eighties saw the en-masse sackings of state governments, particularly by the troubled Indira Gandhi regime, followed by others in retaliation.

The growth of regional parties and coalition politics after this made the Centre careful about the exercise of Article 356, but it by no means stopped the creative use of the governor’s office for political purposes.

In 1994, the landmark Bommai judgment — on a petition by the dismissed Janata Party chief minister in Karnataka S R Bommai — laid down the limitations for gubernatorial authority as it made the decision of dismissing an elected government open to judicial scrutiny.

However, the trend continued. Governors in Bihar, when Lalu Prasad was seen as getting powerful by the NDA, or conversely when Nitish Kumar was emerging by the UPA, were seen to have been used to try and seize the political initiative.

In 1998, Jagdambika Pal took over as chief minister of UP for just a day after Kalyan Singh was sacked and again came to power, with full support of governor Romesh Bhandri. It was the time of the United Front government at the Centre, and its instincts were to help any non-BJP dispensation.

In 2002, Uttar Pradesh was kept under suspended animation for months on end as the result had thrown up a fractured verdict. The governor took very little time to recommend the start of President’s rule.

In 2006, Buta Singh was told off by the Supreme Court for his dissolution of the Assembly as governor in Bihar.

Jagmohan, who recently received with a Padma Vibhushan, is best known for his stint in Jammu and Kashmir when, in 1984, he dismissed the elected government in the state, which set J&K on a course from which it took years to recover. J&K has seen the longest stints under Central rule than any other state.

Other governors, such as Bhisham Narain Singh appointed around the same time, as the governor of Assam, helped political processes initiated by the Centre and aided brokering of peace accords, same as Arjun Singh in Punjab in 1985.

As for the choice of accomplished academics, artistes or distinguished citizens to the posts, that concept has largely gone out of the window. Of the current governors too, Vajubhai Vala, Kalyan Singh and Kesari N Tripathi were in political hot seats till hours before being airlifted into Raj Bhawans. Before this, the Modi government appointed former chief justice P A Sathasivam as governor of Kerala without any mandatory cooling off period post-retirement.

In fact, the Narendra Modi government marks a period yet again of more concentration of power and authority at the Centre after at least 25 years of a more dispersed federal scheme. The row over Arunachal Pradesh comes against that backdrop.

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