June 29, 2014

The “Role” Governors Play


EVER since the Congress’ monopoly of power ended, first in the states and then at the centre, the governor’s post has been mired in controversies. It began with the first breach in the Congress’ monopoly of power in 1957, when in Kerala the then undivided Communist Party of India won the elections. The Communist Legislature Party, which included five independent MLAs, elected EMS Namboodiripad as their leader, who in turn staked claim to form the government. Governor Ramakrishna Rao, refused to accept the claim. Only after interviewing the five independent MLAs separately and discovering that they were firm in their support did he accept EMS’s claim. However, even before Namboodiripad was sworn in, the governor nominated a Congressman to fill the Anglo-Indian seat. EMS objected to this on the ground that “once the election of the Assembly was over and the ministry was going to be formed, the governor has no role in relation to the Legislature; the nomination should be made after the new ministry was sworn in and on its advice”. This nomination saw the strength of the opposition raised to 62 as against the Communists, who with the support of independents had 65. Two years later, Rao again misused the powers vested in his office to dismiss the democratically elected government. It was the first time that Article 356 of the constitution was used. The ruse was the “liberation struggle” conducted under the leadership of the Congress party against the Agrarian Relations Bill and Education Bill. Six years later, in the 1965 assembly elections no single party could get a clear majority. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) was the single largest party and was assured support of some other parties in government formation. However, 29 of the CPI(M)’s elected MLAs were in jail, detained without trial under the Defence of India Rules. Their “crime” was their advocacy of the resolution of the border dispute between India and China through peaceful means. EMS Namboodiripad who was elected the leader of the CPI(M) legislative party approached Governor Ajit Prasad Jain to release the 29 elected MLAs so that a government could be formed. The governor instead dissolved the legislature and extended President’s rule in the state, which continued till 1967. These precedents set in Kerala have been repeated ad nauseam. In West Bengal in 1967, some MLAs belonging to the United Front of which the CP(M) was part had withdrawn support to the government on November 4, 1967, as part of a larger conspiracy to destabilise the UF government. Jyoti Basu in his memoirs notes that “The party secretary, Pramode Dasgupta, made a statement that mid-term elections were the only way out…We were adamant that the Congress should not be allowed to form the government since the people had already rejected that party. …..But the governor was not willing to hear such words.” Governor Dharma Vira dismissed the UF government on November 21, 1967. A government supported by the Congress was installed. But in the face of the massive protests, it did not last long. The second United Front ministry formed in 1969 was also dismissed. Though the CPI(M) was the single largest party, Ajoy Ghosh of the Bangla Congress was made the chief minister, on that party’s insistence. When Ajoy Ghosh resigned due to various political factors, Jyoti Basu met the governor and staked claim to form the government and assured to prove majority on the floor of the house. Governor Santiswarup Dhawan did not accept the claim and recommended President’s rule, which was imposed on March 29, 1970. In Tripura too the role played by Governors Romesh Bhandari and Gen. KV Krishna Rao have been controversial. As in the other cases cited above, they too acted in a partisan manner against the Left Front at the behest of the Congress party which was ruling at the centre. Others who faced dismissal included the governments of the DMK in Tamil Nadu, the Akali Dal in Punjab, TDP in Andhra Pradesh, National Conference in Jammu & Kashmir – all at the behest of the Congress which was in power at the centre. In 1982, Haryana Governor GD Tapase invited Bhajan Lal of the Congress to form the government, despite Devilal having the majority. P Venkatasubbbaiah, Governor of Karnataka dismissed the SR Bommai government of the Janata Dal and did not allow him to prove his majority on the floor of the house. It is in this context that the statement adopted at the Srinagar Conclave of 15 opposition parties held in October 1983 assumed importance. The statement said that “The record proves beyond a shadow of doubt that, in most cases, the Governors have used their office to serve the interests of the ruling party at the centre. It is unlikely that they would have acted thus except at the instance of the ruling party. The clear intent of the framers of the Constitution and, indeed, its letter and spirit have been violated in all significant respects. These are: the appointment of the Governor in consultation with and the consent of the state’s Chief Minister; the caliber and stature of the Governors; the security of tenure to which a Governor is entitled; the imposition of President’s Rule and the Governor’s right and duty freely to discharge his functions without being instructed or dictated by the Centre, especially with regard to the appointment of the Chief Minister and the dissolution of the Legislature.” EMS Namboodiripad in his submission to the Justice Sarkaria Commission that had been constituted to look into the issue of centre-state relations had submitted that “the functions and powers of the governor (if that office is to continue) should be re-examined with a view to avoiding all possibilities of that office being used as a fifth wheel in the constitutional set-up of the state” The Sarkaria Commission had noted that “The burden of the complaints against the behaviour of Governors, in general, is that they are unable to shed their political inclinations, predilections and prejudices while dealing with different political parties within the State. As a result, sometimes the decisions they take in their discretion appear as partisan and intended to promote the interests of the ruling party in the Union Government….” The commission had recommended that a person who is to be appointed as a governor “It is desirable that a politician from the ruling party at the Union is not appointed as Governor of a state which is being run by some other party or a combination of other parties.” The commission had called for amending Article 155 of the constitution to prescribe a procedure for consultation with the state governments in this regard. It had also said that “The Governor’s tenure of office of five years in a state should not be disturbed except very rarely and that too, for some extremely compelling reason.” That no party or combination of parties that have come to power at the centre have paid heed to these recommendations need no reiteration. In the Bommai case, the Supreme Court had held that "The assessment of the strength of the Ministry is not a matter of private opinion of any individual be he the Governor or the President….Whenever a doubt arises whether the Council of Ministers has lost the confidence of the House, the only way of testing it is on the floor of the House" The precedent for changing governors after a change of guard at the centre was first set by Morarji Desai in 1977 when in the wake of a crushing defeat suffered by the Congress Party post-emergency, the Janata Party government sacked all those appointed by the outgoing Indira Gandhi government. The Modi government is but treading the same beaten track. While holding no brief for the incumbent governors, may we ask, what is the “extremely compelling reason”?