The role of Governors

Political tool

Print edition :

Karnataka Governor Vajubhai Vala (right) appointed B.S. Yeddyurappa as Chief Minister at Raj Bhavan in Bengaluru on May 17 and gave him 15 days to prove his majority. Photo: V. Sreenivasa Murthy

In Goa, Manipur, Meghalaya and Bihar, the BJP brazenly used the Governor’s office to further its political interests. The machinations of the Governors in Arunachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Karnataka to help the BJP, however, did not succeed.

IN its hurry to capture power by hook or by crook across States, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government has turned the Governor’s office into a political tool to subvert democratic processes. The brazenness with which it has regularly undermined the Constitution since 2014 to pursue its political interests is alarming. The ongoing turf war in Delhi is one in a long list of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) unsavoury political manipulations that began soon after Narendra Modi assumed charge as Prime Minister in 2014.

The first display of the NDA government’s political arm-twisting was seen in Arunachal Pradesh in 2015, where it attempted to use Governor J.P. Rajkhowa to carry out its agenda. The Governor advanced the Assembly session, dismissed an elected Congress government and installed a government headed by a Congress dissident. The Supreme Court intervened and overturned the Governor’s orders.

Governor of Arunachal Pradesh J.P. Rajakhowa.

Around the same time, Uttarakhand witnessed muscle-flexing by its Governor. In this case, too, the Supreme Court intervened to restore the democratic process. But not learning any lessons in constitutional propriety, in March 2017, the Governors of Goa and Manipur were seen to be working as New Delhi’s agents by installing BJP-led governments in these States although the Congress had emerged as the single largest party in the Assembly elections. A similar situation arose in Meghalaya in March and then again in Karnataka after the May Assembly elections there, when, in contrast to the positions taken by the Governors of Goa, Manipur and Meghalaya, the Governor invited the BJP, the single largest party, to form the government, overlooking the claims of the Congress-Janata Dal (Secular) alliance. In this case, too, the Supreme Court’s intervention led to the restoration of the democratic process.

Governor of Bihar Kesri Nath Tripathi.   -  PTI

In July 2017, the Bihar Governor played a political game. The Governor’s office, headed by veteran BJP leader Kesri Nath Tripathi, ignored the claims of the single largest party and appointed a Janata Dal (United)-BJP government after Chief Minister and JD(U) leader Nitish Kumar severed ties with the Lalu Prasad-led Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Congress. In all these cases, the Governor interpreted the people’s mandate to suit the BJP’s political interests, adopting contradictory positions to benefit the party.

The Arunachal Pradesh case, while being the first in the series of decisions that ignored constitutional norms, was also a case in which the Supreme Court set unambiguous restrictions on political manoeuvring by Governors. In fact, the court ruling should have been the guidebook for Governors in other States, but the Modi government refused to learn any lessons.

In Arunachal Pradesh, Rajkhowa used the rebellion in the Congress to help install a government of 14 rebel Congress MLAs, who had the outside support of the BJP and a couple of independent MLAs. These Congress MLAs who had rebelled against the Nobam Tuki government had been disqualified by the Speaker. Led by the late Khaliko Pul, they approached Rajkhowa, demanding impeachment of the Speaker. The Governor, acting without the advice of the Council of Ministers, advanced the Assembly session from January 14, 2016, to December 16, 2015, to decide on the Speaker’s impeachment. In a bizarre turn of events, the Assembly session was held in a hotel in Itanagar and Pul was hoisted as the Chief Minister with help from the BJP and two independent MLAs. The Congress then approached the Supreme Court. A Constitution bench, headed by the then Chief Justice J.S. Khehar, heard the matter and came out with a stinging verdict on the role of the Governor, indicting him and overturning his decisions.

The apex court ruled that no matter how murky the political developments were in a State, the Governor had no business to get involved in them. The bench, which also comprised Justices Dipak Misra, Madan B. Lokur, P.C. Ghose and N.V. Ramana, ruled unequivocally that “the Governor is not the conscience-keeper of the Legislative Assembly” and that he had to stay away from the business of the Assembly besides steering clear of “political horse-trading”.

Goa Governor Mridula Sinha.   -  B. Jothi Ramalingam

Emphasising that “the exercise of executive power by the Governor, is by and large notional”, the court said that the Constitution did not assign any role to a Governor to interfere in the activities of the Assembly and, therefore, it would be outside the domain of his powers to fix a date for an Assembly session or to decide how the Assembly functioned. The bench also rejected Rajkhowa’s arguments that he had to take note of the political turmoil and a spate of disqualification petitions filed by all sides—the Congress, the BJP and the breakaway faction of the Congress.

“It needs to be asserted as a constitutional determination that it is not within the realm of the Governor to embroil himself in any political thicket. The Governor must remain aloof from any disagreement, discord, disharmony, discontent or dissension within individual political parties,” it said.

The court made it clear that the activities within a political party and unrest within its ranks were beyond the concern of the Governor. “The Governor must keep clear of any political horse-trading, and even unsavoury political manipulations, irrespective of the degree of their ethical repulsiveness. Who should or should not be a leader of a political party is a political question to be dealt with and resolved privately by the political party itself. The Governor cannot make such issues a matter of his concern,” the court said.

It further said that the Constitution did not enjoin upon the Governor the authority to resolve disputes within a political party or between rival political parties.

“The State legislature does not function under the Governor. In sum and substance, the Governor just cannot act as the ombudsman of the State legislature. The Governor cannot be seen to have such powers and functions, as would assign to him a dominating position, over the State executive and the State legislature,” the bench said.

With such a clear-cut definition of the Governor’s role, any future misadventures by any Governor should have been avoided, but that was not to be.

Uttarakhand Governor K.K. Paul with Chief Minister Harish Rawat at Raj Bhavan in Dehradun on January 8, 2015.   -  PTI

In Uttarakhand in March 2016, nine Congress MLAs, led by former Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna, rebelled against the Harish Rawat government, which Governor K.K. Paul recommended for dismissal. President Pranab Mukherjee promptly obliged and the Rawat government was dismissed. This was challenged by Rawat in the High Court, which overturned the Centre’s decision. The matter then reached the Supreme Court, which ruled that the status of an elected government should be decided on the floor of the House. The Rawat government went on to prove its majority and was reinstated.

These misadventures did not prevent the NDA from continuing with its dirty tricks. The next round of Assembly elections in March 2017 once again witnessed the Governors of Goa and Manipur indulging in political machinations, disregarding previously defined political processes. Both these States saw hung Assemblies, with the Congress emerging as the single largest party. In Goa, the Congress won 17 seats in the 40-member Assembly as opposed to the BJP’s 13. In such a situation, the normal procedure should have been for the Governor to invite the single largest party to explore government formation possibilities. But the Goa Governor, Mridula Sinha, instead invited the BJP which, she later explained, approached her with letters of support from smaller parties and independent MLAs.

Justifying her decision, she said in an interview later that since nobody from the Congress had approached her, she invited the BJP, whose leader Manohar Parrikar, she said, was a smart and experienced man and who, she was confident, would be able to provide a stable government. Parrikar was then Union Defence Minister. Going by the rule book, there was nothing wrong in her position because it was a fact that the Congress did not take any initiative for government formation then. The Congress went to the Supreme Court but the court refused to give it any relief, saying that instead of coming to court the party should have gone to the Governor in time or else taken to democratic processes.

Manipur experience

Another instance of the politically motivated proactive role of the Governor was seen in Manipur. The Congress had emerged as the single largest party by winning 28 seats in the 60-member Assembly. The BJP won 21 but it quickly cobbled up a majority by aligning itself with regional parties such as the National People’s Party and the Naga People’s Front, which had won four seats each, and by taking the Lokjanshakti Party and the Trinamool Congress, which had won one seat each, on board. One independent member also supported the combine. Governor Najma Heptullah, a former Congress leader who shifted her loyalties to the BJP, made no secret of her dislike for the Congress. She said the verdict was anti-Congress.

In both Goa and Manipur, setting aside the widely accepted formula of inviting the single largest party, the Governors chose to give priority to post-election alliances to benefit the BJP. The Congress, which was still trying to find its feet after the 2014 electoral setback, accepted it as a fait accompli.

The post-election situation in Meghalaya a year later saw a repeat of the Goa and Manipur experience. The happenings in Meghalaya were even more bizarre. The Congress had won 21 seats in the 60-member House and the BJP had only two, and the BJP formed the government with the help of regional parties. It quickly moved into action and brought the National People’s Party on board, which had won 19 seats, by promising chief ministership to its leader Conrad Sangma. Other regional parties, such as the United Democratic Party, which had won six seats, the People’s Democratic Front and the Hill State People’s Democratic Party, which had won two seats each, also came on board.

The most recent case of Karnataka, however, saw the Congress take the bull by its horns. When Karnataka threw up a hung Assembly, Governor Vajubhai R. Vala invited the BJP, which had emerged as the single largest party with 104 seats, to form the government. Although the Congress, which won 78 seats, lost no time in stitching up an alliance with the JD(S), which had won 37 seats, their claim was ignored by the Governor, who not only invited the BJP but gave its leader, B.S. Yeddyurappa, 15 days’ time to prove his majority. Protesting against the BJP’s stand that the single largest party should be given the opportunity to form the government, the Congress demanded that either the same criteria be adopted in all previous cases of government formation in the event of a hung verdict be adopted or the governments thus formed (in Manipur, Goa and Meghalaya) be dismissed and the single-largest party formula be applied in those States as well. The party also went to the Supreme Court which, this time did not overrule the Governor’s decision but asked Yeddyurappa to prove his majority within 24 hours. Yeddyurappa resigned before the floor test and the Congress-JD(S) subsequently formed the government with JD(S) leader H.D. Kumaraswamy as the Chief Minister.

The Governor’s flip-flop on the formula for government formation, brought into focus the role of Bihar Governor Kesri Nath Tripathi. In July last year, he ignored the single largest party formula to swear in the JD(U)-BJP government after Nitish Kumar broke away from the grand alliance with the RJD and the Congress. The JD(U)-BJP alliance with 71 and 58 seats respectively, formed the government, but the RJD, with 80 seats, was still the single largest party in a House of 243 members. The Governor should have first asked the RJD leader, Tejaswi Yadav, to explore government formation possibilities instead of straight away inviting the JD(U)-BJP alliance to form the government.

Criticising the role of Governors, RJD spokesman Manoj Jha had then said: “Political morality cannot be episodic in nature. The BJP is known for destroying institutions and, in this case, it is destroying the institution of the Governor’s office. It will prove dangerous for the country in the long run.”

Congress general secretary Ashok Gehlot said the misuse of the Governor’s office by the BJP not only undermined the dignity of this office, but it was unconstitutional. “This dangerous precedent strikes at the very root of India’s democracy and portends grave consequences for all forthcoming elections,” he said in a note after the Karnataka Assembly elections.