Having led the Congress party to a comfortable victory in the general election, Manmohan Singh must ensure that his party respects the autonomy of the governor. Governors have been severely misused and made to act in the interests of the party ruling at the Centre for several decades, and the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) continued this unfortunate trend in its first term.
B.R. Ambedkar, chairman of the drafting committee of the Constitution, said the role of a governor was similar to the role of the President. The governor was expected to be the constitutional head of the state, a vital link between the Union government and the state government and, above all, impartial and independent. The position of the governor was not contentious the first 20 years after Independence, mainly because of the monopoly of the Congress. This changed once opposition parties started growing in strength. During the 1970s, governments were dismissed on the whims of governors, and parties without requisite representation were invited to form the government. Article 164 (1) of the Constitution states that “the Chief Minister shall be appointed by the Governor and the other Ministers shall be appointed by the Governor on the advice of the Chief Minister, and the Ministers shall hold office during the pleasure of the Governor”. Governors were able to act in biased ways and when taken to court, the judiciary ruled in favour of the governors as they paid attention to the literal words in the Constitution (“pleasure of the governor”), not its spirit.
In response to such complaints, justice Rajinder Singh Sarkaria was asked to head the Sarkaria Commission, which was appointed in 1983 to examine the relationship between the Union and state governments and suggest changes within the framework of the Constitution. He suggested that the combination of parties which command the widest support in the legislative assembly should be called by the governor to form the government. His other notable suggestion was that the governor should be given to a person of eminence not too involved in politics.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
The UPA government has been guilty of using governors for its own benefit on several occasions. It has made loyal Congressmen governors and sought to use them whenever necessary.
In 2005, the Manohar Parrikar-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in Goa was believed to have lost its majority after four legislators resigned as MLAs. The speaker controversially prevented an independent MLA from voting to save the government, and governor S.C. Jamir dismissed the Parrikar government and imposed President’s rule, which cannot be criticized. However, two years later, when speaker Pratapsingh Rane controversially prevented three MLAs from voting to save the Congress government, Jamir failed to act. Jamir’s differing actions in situations that were the same beg the question whether he was being impartial. Instead of recalling the governor, the UPA was silent witness to this murder of democracy.
The state worst affected by such constitutional misuse has been Jharkhand. The February 2005 elections saw the BJP-Janata Dal (United) alliance finish five seats short of a majority, and the parties promptly gathered the required support from independents. The governor inexplicably invited the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha-Congress alliance to form the government. A messy few years followed with defections and resignations resulting in the BJP-led government’s demise. The state was placed under President’s rule and the assembly was placed under a state of suspended animation. The BJP performed well in Jharkhand in April’s Lok Sabha elections and the Congress was routed. Instead of dissolving the assembly and holding fresh elections along with the elections in Maharashtra, Haryana and Arunachal Pradesh, the Congress and the governor have shamefully connived to delay them. Madhu Koda and a few other unpopular independent legislators have been indicted for money laundering; 100,000 Naxalite-related cases against tribals will be dropped and other populist measures are expected, strengthening the Congress before the elections are held. The spirit of the Constitution is being violated if elections are held when the party at the Centre is the strongest.
Apart from their role in government formation, governors have not acted impartially under the UPA. The Rajasthan governor’s decision to delay the passing of the Gujjar Reservation Bill till after the assembly and Lok Sabha elections smacks of political partisanship. The Karnataka governor feels the need to question the law and order situation in his BJP-run state and the induction of tainted ministers, but governors in Congress-run states do not.
The controversial S.C. Jamir, now the Maharashtra governor, is likely to face a test when the election results are announced. With the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), the Third Front and a large number of rebels in the fray, a hung assembly is likely. If the saffron alliance should get more seats than the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party, the governor should ensure that it is given the first chance to form the government, unless the Congress can get assurances of support to reach a majority before a chief minister is installed.
The Congress has been given an overwhelming mandate to govern and, with the opposition in disarray, it can realistically envision an absolute majority in 2014. Manmohan Singh’s government should try not to politicize the position of the governor and should lay down a law indicating how governors should act in the event of a hung assembly. The Congress would be foolish to destroy goodwill by using governors to manipulate the people’s verdict. It should remember the lesson Indira Gandhi was taught in 1977.
Karan Shah is a writer based in the US. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org