The political turmoil in Rajasthan has, once again, shone unflattering light on the office of the governor. On Monday, Governor Kalraj Mishra stalled the Ashok Gehlot government’s recommendation for an assembly session. A few days ago, he vetoed the state government’s proposal for a floor test. The governor has said that “the Raj Bhavan has no intention of not calling an assembly session” and asked the state government to submit a fresh proposal. But his repeated queries and the delay in convening the assembly — citing the COVID situation, among other reasons — invite questions about his commitment to play by the book in a scenario in which neither of the leading players seems to be playing with a straight bat. By all accounts, the chief minister himself has vacillated in the last few days on the question of the floor test.
Articles 163 and 174 of the Constitution deal with the governor’s role in convening an assembly session. The latter gives Raj Bhavan the power to summon, “the House or each house of Legislature to meet at such time and place as he thinks fit”. However, the Supreme Court has removed any confusion that might arise over the governor’s discretion in the matter. In 2016, in Nabam Rebia and Bamang Felix vs Deputy Speaker, the Court referred to discussions in the Constituent Assembly and noted that the framers of the Constitution, “decided not to vest discretion with the Governor, in the matter of summoning and dissolving the House, or Houses of the State Legislature.” Observing that the governor was a nominee of the president, the SC said that “such a nominee cannot have overriding powers over the representatives of the people who constitute the House or Houses of the State Legislature and/or even the executive government functioning under the Council of Ministers with the Chief Minister as its head”.
Accusations of political partisanship, or failure to abide by the letter and spirit of the Constitution, have for long dogged the governor’s office. But it was in the 1980s and 1990s, when it became common for individuals still in active politics to be ensconced in Raj Bhavans, that charges of blatant politicisation of the gubernatorial office became more frequent. In 1994, the SC’s landmark Bommai judgment sought to curb the misuse of Article 356 to unseat state governments led by parties opposed to the ruling party at the Centre, and laid down clear limits of the governor’s authority. However, the trend of governors exceeding their brief in the formation and bringing down of governments has persisted. The governor’s role has been questioned at least six times after the Narendra Modi government assumed office — the Supreme Court has been called to intervene on three occasions. These interventions have meant that however politically murky Rajasthan’s crisis might be, its legal and constitutional aspects are lucid. Against this backdrop, the Rajasthan Governor’s procrastination in convening the assembly session only confirms the widely held impression that the high office may be taking its cues from the Centre, not the Constitution.