The Union home ministry’s attempt to nudge state governors, appointed by the former UPA government, to resign has set the stage for an unbecoming constitutional wrangle. Among the Raj Bhavan residents in various state capitals are several senior Congress leaders like Sheila Dikshit, JB Patnaik, Kamla Beniwal, HR Bhardwaj, Margaret Alva and K Sankaranarayanan. A sprinkling of ex-government officials — former National Security Advisor MK Narayanan, former CBI director Ashwani Kumar and former SPG chief BV Wanchoo —considered close to the Congress bring up the rear. The BJP has justified its eagerness to pack off these incumbents citing the UPA terminating the services of four NDA appointees in 2004 on coming to power. The Congress has responded going further back in history to 1977 when power first changed hands and the Janata Party unseated several governors as a precursor to dismissing Congress governments. The Congress has also cited the Supreme Court Constitutional Bench’s 2010 judgment which ruled that a governor could not be removed merely because the incumbent’s political views were “out of sync with the policies and ideologies” of the party in power at the Centre.
Other than accommodating a handful of veterans who lost out in the generational shift that accompanied the BJP’s return to power, there appears to be no bona fide reason to justify the home ministry’s pressing hurry. With a settled polity and stable governments in most states, there is little that a governor can do to influence the course of events in the Centre’s or in the BJP’s favour. As a constitutional figurehead, appointed by the Centre and not elected by the legislature unlike the President of India, most governors have had quiet tenures in Raj Bhavans, carrying little heft with citizens, or with state Chief Ministers who prefer to deal directly with the Centre. There have been rare exceptions, like when former UP governor TV Rajeswar regularly rapped the previous Mulayam and Mayawati administrations for poor governance, former West Bengal governor Gopalkrishna Gandhi’s public stances built pressure on the Left government in the aftermath of the Nandigram massacre, and Gujarat governor Kamla Beniwal used her discretion to appoint a Lokayukta in Gujarat after the post lay vacant for long.
With the Supreme Court limiting the scope for arbitrary action under Article 356 to dismiss state governments, governors have been reduced to filing periodic reports during crisis situations. In Badaun where a gruesome gang-rape and murder shocked the country, the Centre could only watch helplessly despite the UP governor opting to personally meet the Union home minister instead of sending the customary report. The controversy triggered by the effort to unseat the UPA appointees is needless considering that the 2010 judgment clearly states that without bona fide reasons for recalling a governor, the decision becomes open for judicial review. By appointing governors as a means to dole out patronage, the Centre does great disservice to the Constitution’s federal scheme, which already suffers the infirmity of being suspicious of provincial actions. The nervousness of post-Independence India where a central hand closely monitoring the state’s political affairs was thought necessary is no more the case except in border states fighting insurgencies. The option of appointing governors with the approval of the state government, or through an election process, or a rethink on the role of the governor has never entered the political discourse; the present controversy is an occasion for a larger debate, but amid such partisanship reforms are always the first casualty.