February 27, 2022

Reform in Appointment and Role of Governors

THE Kerala government has written to the central government proposing amendments to the constitution to give powers to the state governments in the appointment or recall of governors.  This has been done in response to the recommendations made by the Justice Punchhi Commission on reforms in centre-state relations.  The stand taken by the Kerala government reflects the longstanding need felt for change in the role of the governor who, at present, is appointed by the centre and hence acts as an agent of the central government. 

The Kerala government has also asked for an amendment to Article 156 of the constitution to empower the legislative assembly of the state to recommend recall of the governor, if he is found violating the principles of the constitution while discharging his constitutional and statutory functions.

In the recent years, with the Modi government coming to office in 2014, the appointment of governors has been done in a brazen fashion to serve the needs of the ruling party at the centre.  Some of the governors have an RSS background and others are politicians who are all the more compliant to the centre’s wishes in order to be in the good books of the ruling party. 

In Kerala, the governor Arif Mohammad Khan has been taking egregious positions which do not conform to the constitutional norms.  During the opening of the current budget session, the governor had initially refused to sign on to the address to the legislative assembly.  He, however, relented at the last stage and delivered the address in full as he was bound to.  On the appointment of university vice chancellors too, his role as the chancellor of the state universities has been controversial.  The reappointment of the vice chancellor of the Kannur University, an order he had signed and later expressed some misgivings about, has now been cleared by the Kerala High Court as valid.

Governors in other non-BJP ruled states are also acting brazenly and in a partisan fashion.  The governor of West Bengal, Jagdeep Dhankhar, takes to tweeting regularly against the chief minister and the state government. He has sought to give directions to officials over the heads of the elected state government. In Maharashtra, the governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari has sat over the recommendations for twelve nominees to the state legislative council proposed by the state government.  He has sought to deal with the vice chancellors of the universities of his own accord utilising his status of chancellor. 

Such interference by the governor has led the Maharashtra state government to get a legislation adopted in the assembly in December 2021 amending the Maharashtra Public Universities Act. The amendments provide for the appointment of the minister for higher and technical education as pro-chancellor and make changes in the process of the appointment of vice chancellors. By this amendment, it limits the role of the governor in selecting a name from the panel of two names proposed by the state government, within 30 days. 

In Tamilnadu, the governor R N Ravi has also been directly dealing with the vice chancellors of the universities and had returned the legislation on NEET passed unanimously by the legislative assembly. 

The question is not some misstep by a particular governor or another.  There is a deeper malaise.  The present constitutional provision regarding appointment of the governor makes that person a nominee of the central government.  This inevitably makes the post of the governor purely as a representative of the centre. 

As long as the appointing authority is the central government, the various proposals to select governors who have an eminent record in public service, or, non-politicians etc have no meaning.  In fact, experience shows that having a non-politician like a retired bureaucrat, in many cases, has been worse since a retired bureaucrat is totally beholden to the centre for his sinecure. 

That is why the Srinagar conclave of opposition parties on centre-state relations held in 1983 had, in its statement, suggested that the governor should be appointed by the president on the basis of the panel forwarded by the state government concerned. 

The CPI(M), in its submission to the Justice Sarkaria Commission and the Punchhi Commission had made the same proposal. In October 2008, the Central Committee of the CPI(M) had adopted an ‘Approach Paper on Restructuring of Centre-State Relations’. In this comprehensive paper, it was stated that: “The provision for centrally appointed governors for the states has remained as an anachronism, which is not in keeping with a federal democratic polity. If the post of governor has to be retained, then the governor should be appointed by the president from a list of three eminent persons suggested by the chief minister, satisfying the criteria mentioned by the Sarkaria Commission”. 

There is no scope under the present dispensation at the centre for any reform in the process of appointment of the governor and the functions of this constitutional authority. What can be done is for the opposition state governments to be vigilant in checking any encroachment on the rights of the elected state government and the legislature. Along with that, the state legislatures can amend if required the concerned laws and statutes, like the University Acts, to ensure that the governor does not exceed the norms laid out. 

(February 23, 2022)