Governor VS CM: What is the way out? | Part Two

I Mean What I Say

By Shashi Tharoor

5 min read
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CM Pinarayi Vijayan, Governor Arif Mohammed Khan | Photo: Mathrubhumi

In my previous column, I examined the vexed question of the role of Governors in our constitutional system, and the issue of their politicization. Are Governors meant to serve a political role, or be totally above politics? The controversies that have arisen over Union governments dismissing Governors appointed by previous central regimes, and over state governors clashing with the Opposition party-led state governments they supervise - seen notably in recent months in Kerala and earlier in West Bengal, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu - cry out for resolution.

There are two alternatives. The first is to insulate the office of Governor from politicization altogether, by various measures that I suggest below. The second alternative is the more radical one: to abolish the post of Governor altogether, as a colonial relic that democratic India can dispense with. Except in the increasingly rare resort to President's rule, the Governor has little of substance to do, and his few substantive and mainly ceremonial tasks could easily be divided between the Chief Minister and the Chief Justice of the state. But that would mean depriving the ruling party - any ruling party -- in New Delhi of 29 comfortably-provisioned freebie positions to hand out to its loyal supporters, if Raj Bhavans cease to be useful job placement venues for the ruling party's apparatchiks -- and instruments of their political agenda.

PM Narendra Modi | Photo: PTI

Though the suggestion that the very post of Governor be done away with is tempting, it is going to be far more difficult to evolve a political consensus on amending the Constitution to achieve that, than to reform the process and criteria by which Governors are appointed and serve. So let us go back to the first option. Isn't it time we developed an all-party consensus on a code of conduct regarding Governors, so that we can put an end to the unseemly and unedifying spectacles we have all been forced to witness in recent years?

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The Governor represents in each of our States what the President of India does in the country as a whole. The President is universally considered to be above politics; even when a government changes, a President elected under the previous dispensation remains above controversy, and no government has dared suggest that a President should leave office when 'his' government loses an election. It doesn't need to; the President clearly understands, both as matter of constitutional principle and political reality, that he may be the nation's First Citizen for protocol purposes, but it's the popularly-elected Government that calls the shots. Indeed, what is known as the President's Address to parliament is merely the performance of a figurehead reading out a script given to him or her by the elected government of the day. The same is the case with a Governor's Address. And that, in our parliamentary democracy, is exactly how it should be.

It is true that the President is elected by MPs and MLAs, whereas Governors are appointed. But what the Governor, as the President's representative in the State, must be is a carbon copy of the Rashtrapati - just as apolitical as the President, equally subordinate to the elected government (in his case that of the state as well as that of the Centre), owing primary allegiance only to the Constitution of India.

Such an institution of Governorship should ideally, like the Presidency it mirrors, be beyond the realm of contention. But we all know it's not: the practice of the last 75 years has sometimes, though not always, dragged the institution into disrepute. Amongst the reasons for the plummeting stature of the office have been: the appointment of political time-servers who conducted themselves in office as agents of their parties; the profusion of decrepit sinecure-seekers long past their use-by-dates, who brought neither energy not distinction to their posts; the elevation of a number of active politicians who used Raj Bhavans as a rest-stop on their way to resuming their political careers; and the occasional misuse of Governors by a party at the centre at loggerheads with one in the state to harass and even dismiss elected governments on spurious (or at least contestable) grounds. If all these practices span the range of evident transgressions of the intent of the framers of the Constitution, there have also been men and women of integrity and distinction who served their states, and the country, ably as Governors. That has not prevented them from being caught up in controversies, as currently see in Kerala.

Kerala governor Arif Mohammed Khan and CM Pinarayi Vijayan

How do we ensure that we get more such men and women to be Governors in the future, and at the same time avoid unedifying political controversies about their role? There is a crying need for an all-party consensus, to be embodied in law, to achieve this. The consensus would require agreement on insulating the office of Governor from politicization by adopting these principles, or something very like them:

Anyone appointed Governor must:

  • renounce primary membership of any political party;
  • be ineligible for future appointment as office-bearer of any political party;
  • be disqualified from election or appointment to any post, bar that of President or Vice-President of India, Ambassador abroad, Lokpal or Lokayukta.
In turn, a Governor should be immune from

  • being removed from office till the completion of his or her term;
  • being transferred to another state, except by mutual consent;
  • receiving instructions from any functionary of the Government other than the President of India.
A Governor must follow the directives of the State Government just as the President is obliged to accept the advice of the Union Council of Ministers. He or she may, of course, be impeached for gross misconduct or dereliction of duty, but only through a procedure akin to that currently governing the impeachment of members of the country's senior judiciary. Any disputes involving Governors' role and prerogatives must be resolved expeditiously by the Supreme Court.

If such a Code were to be adopted, it would elevate the office of Governor to the status intended by the Founding Fathers, which it no longer enjoys. It would ensure the position attracts men and women of integrity and ability, while simultaneously ending the spectacle of politicians taking a breather in some Raj Bhavan before returning to the electoral fray for their parties, and so conducting themselves in office with an eye on their own political future.

There should be no bar on former politicians becoming Governors, as some are advocating: it would be a pity to lose their political experience in such an office. But these rules would ensure that upon appointment, they cease to be politicians. Their lifelong allegiances would not disappear overnight, but they would be empowered, and expected, to transcend them.

If our government were serious about reform, and about working with the Opposition, fixing the institution of Governor would be a good place to start.

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