In the midst of a putative, unfurling constitutional crisis in Karnataka, still playing out at the time of filing, one is of the mind to revisit past episodes in Westminster constitutional history which speak to the ambiguity of the role of the governor general (or governor, as the case may be). In the present situation in Karnataka, the dispute is whether the governor is duty bound to invite the single largest party to form a government and face a test on the floor of the assembly, or whether it is within his power to invite the would-be largest bloc in the assembly, formed, for example, through a post-election alliance, as has occurred in some other states in the recent past. The choice is not trivial, since the order in which the governor selects two rival blocs to form the government may have a material impact on the outcome: such is the power of incumbency, even of an incumbent yet to prove its majority.
What are some other examples of similar crises, with competing claims on the duties, and authority, of the governor (general), within the context of our inherited Westminster system? Canadian history offers one particularly pungent case study, an episode known as the “King-Byng affair" of 1926. (There is a concise history in the Canadian Encyclopaedia, upon which, along with other publicly available sources, I draw on for the facts presented below.) The protagonists were incumbent Canadian prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King and the British-appointed Canadian governor general, Lord Byng of Vimy, a military hero of World War I.
What triggered the crisis was the 29 October 1925 general election, in which King’s Liberal party came second with 101 seats, falling short of the Conservatives under Arthur Meighen, who captured 116 seats — thus becoming the single largest party, although short of a majority. King, the incumbent prime minister, refused to resign, and instead continued to govern with the outside support of the Progressive and Labour parties and assorted independents, who held 28 seats. After a protracted corruption scandal involving bribes paid to customs officials, King lost a confidence vote in the House of Commons on 25 June 1926.
The now defeated King could not continue as prime minister, and he sought Byng’s permission to dissolve Parliament and call a fresh election. The crisis broke when the governor general refused, instead calling on the leader of the single largest party, Meighen, to form a government. On 29 June, Meighen became prime minister, leading his Conservatives in a minority government. From the point of view of King and other would-be nationalists, this was seen as an imposition on Canadian autonomy by a British- appointed head of state, and would become a rallying cry for his Liberal party.
In another twist, in those days in Canada, when a member of Parliament was appointed to the cabinet, he or she was required to resign their seat and contest in a by-election. Had Meighen appointed a cabinet, therefore, his numbers would have been seriously depleted as his cabinet ministers awaited by-elections. Meighen devised an ingenious workaround which would make any contemporary Indian politician envious: He resigned his own seat, but appointed his cabinet members as “acting" ministers without portfolio, thus circumventing the need to contest by-elections. King’s Liberals cried foul, but Byng supported the arrangement. Meighen’s government survived only for a few months, losing a general election on 14 September which swept King back into power with a majority. Resigning on 25 September, Meighen’s second tenure as prime minister (he had previously served out the remaining term of a previous Conservative leader, Robert Borden, in 1920-21) was one of the shortest and least distinguished in Canadian history, except that it had made constitutional history.
The King-Byng affair had ramifications throughout the British Commonwealth, and was one factor shaping future constitutional reform. The eventual result was the Statute of Westminster of 11 December 1931, which made unambiguous the full legal autonomy of dominions of the Commonwealth (at that time, Australia, Canada, South Africa and New Zealand). Indeed, it was this statute which governed India when we were a dominion with a governor general as head of state, from 15 August 1947 to 26 January 1950.
Another offspring of the King-Byng affair was the “Lascelles principles", a British constitutional convention which lasted from 1950 to 2011, and which spelt out the conditions under which the sovereign could refuse a prime minister’s request to dissolve Parliament: (i) if the exiting Parliament was capable of functioning; (ii) if a general election would be detrimental to the economy; and (iii) if the sovereign could find another prime minister who could govern with a workable majority for a reasonable period of time. By these criteria, codified later, Byng would be considered to be in the right in having refused King’s request for dissolution of Parliament.
While sufficiently remote from the drama in Karnataka to not be of much direct salience, the King-Byng affair nonetheless reminds us that the position of the constitutional head of state in our Westminster system has been, and to some extent remains, protean, and that, in classical incremental fashion, precise rights and responsibilities are carved over time by precedent rather than by writ.
What, if any, will our Lascelles principles be coming out of the Karnataka crisis?
Vivek Dehejia is a Mint columnist and resident senior fellow at the IDFC Institute, Mumbai. Read Vivek’s Mint columns at Livemint.com/vivekdehejia.
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