By Kesava Menon
Arif Mohammed Khan, Governor of Kerala, does not seem to be aware that the people of the State never voted him to power. There can hardly be another explanation for his attempts to set himself up as an authority superior to an elected government, trampling on the most fundamental democratic principles in the process.
During the course of his months-long confrontation with the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government, Khan has made some astounding assertions about the amplitude of gubernatorial prerogatives. On one occasion, he theorised that since Ministers held office “at the pleasure of the Governor”, those members of the State Cabinet who had earned his displeasure should remit office, or be made to do so. As is well known, the pleasure that is material to the appointment or dismissal of Ministers is that of the people, as reflected by their elected representatives. Ministers do not hold office at the personal pleasure of a nominated Governor. It is a well established constitutional doctrine that the nominal head of a government cannot act on his own in this and most other matters.
He went further. Finance Minister K.N. Balagopal, in a speech on an unrelated subject, suggested that a person familiar only with the political and academic culture of Uttar Pradesh might not be able to appreciate how universities functioned in Kerala. Khan interpreted this as an assault on national unity and claimed that Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s government was “initiating a breakdown of the constitutional machinery”. To the people of a State that was the first to experience the impact of the invocation of this ominous phrase, the implication could not have been clearer.
The Governor did not refrain from tossing insults either. When Industries Minister P. Rajeev, whose parliamentary performances have won accolades, made an innocuous comment about the Cabinet tracking the Governor’s doings, he was labelled an ignoramus. When the people accepted Ministers of such poor calibre, it did not say much for their judgment, was the Governor’s assessment. Perhaps all intelligent Malayalis had gone abroad, he added. He soon modified his stance. Perhaps the comments were indeed made in the heat of the moment, but the loss of balance was unbecoming to say the least.
Khan also shelved his “displeasure” theory. While he did assail Balagopal again, at two separate press conferences in New Delhi he discounted the danger of the constitutional machinery collapsing. An attempt was also made to gloss over his insults of Malayalis in general.
By the middle of November, Khan was acknowledging that the one sphere in which he had discretion to take action was the appointment/dismissal of university Vice Chancellors. On other points of difference with the State government, he would play the role of a spokesman for civic society.
Lead up to the impasse
How did things come to such a pass? Khan was no die-hard opposition baiter in the mould of other Governors appointed by the BJP government. He was, after all, a star of the National Front government that ruled in Delhi with the outside support of the Left Front from 1989 to 1991. Even his gradual passage to the saffron end of the spectrum had not led to complete alienation from the anti-BJP political tendencies in Kerala. It would indeed be fair to say that he was initially taken as a worthy successor to retired Chief Justice P. Sadasivam, his predecessor in the Thiruvananthapuram Raj Bhavan, who set a fair example of constitutional propriety.
Khan came across as a supportive figure during the triple crises that hit the first Pinarayi government between 2016 and 2021—the 2018 and 2019 floods and the pandemic that followed. On occasion, he even served as the State’s brand ambassador, highlighting its globally acknowledged pandemic management. He was perhaps the first to tell the people of his native Uttar Pradesh that Kerala was one State where migrants were referred to as “guest workers” and treated on par with local people in the provision of relief.
There would always have been potential for friction—instances as well—between a Governor appointed by a BJP-ruled Centre and a State Cabinet composed of its staunchest ideological opponents. But from remarks made by Khan, open conflict appears to have been stoked by a controversy over the grant of a second tenure to the Vice Chancellor of Kannur University. While the opposition United Democratic Front fired the first salvos on the methodology of the extension, Khan took up the cause.
When this confrontation was at its peak, Khan was heckled (at the minimum) by youth allegedly affiliated to the Students Federation of India while presiding over a function at the Kannur University campus. Subsequently, the Governor claimed that an assault with murderous intent had been mounted against him, which was foiled only fortuitously. While this episode might have added an element of spite to the face-off, its causes and ramifications are wider.
Part of an agenda
In the LDF’s view, Khan started intruding into administrative affairs in order to promote the agenda of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh. That a few active members of Sangh Parivar organisations have been included in the Raj Bhavan staff is among the proof adduced in support of this assertion. Khan’s raking up of the “diplomatic bag gold smuggling case”, which the LDF claims is a Central agency fabrication, is also cited as evidence of such collusion. His partisan spotlighting of material thrown up in the course of the thus-far inconclusive investigation (including appreciating unsubstantiated allegations made by one of the accused) added weight to the Left’s assertions. Neutral observers could not fail to note that the BJP’s State unit was the only outfit that gave unstinted and vociferous support to the Governor.
After testing several lines of attack against the LDF government, Khan seems to have settled on the administration of universities as the issue he would focus on. His campaign got a boost when the Supreme Court on October 21 annulled the appointment of M.S. Rajashree, Vice Chancellor of the A.P.J. Abdul Kalam Technological University. The court ruled that the appointment could not stand as it was in violation of University Grants Commission guidelines. Hers had been the only name proposed by a search and selection committee while UGC guidelines stipulate that a panel of three nominees should be forwarded to the Governor.
Khan seized on that ruling and ordered the Vice Chancellors of nine other universities in the State to submit their resignation by 10 a.m. the next morning. Two more VCs were added to the list in quick order. Soon afterwards, probably on legal advice, he converted the peremptory order into a notice asking the VCs to show cause why their appointments should not be considered void ab initio. The VCs approached the Kerala High Court, which ruled that they could continue in office until the Chancellor/Governor had considered their responses and made a ruling. By way of initial response, some VCs pointed out that it was the same Governor/Chancellor who had signed their appointment letters in the first place. Indications are that a legal challenge could be mounted through review petitions in the Supreme Court in which it could be asserted that UGC regulations (which are subordinate legislation) cannot over-ride University Acts.
Shot in the arm
Even as the responses and challenges were being prepared, Khan got a boost when the Kerala High Court annulled another VC appointment on the same grounds. Khan reiterated his stance that on matters relating to universities, he had certain obligations that he was determined to fulfil.
Those obligations, or prerogatives, will be extinguished if the State government successfully passes a Bill depriving the Governor of the Chancellor post. Other States, including Gujarat, are understood to have enacted such laws and these are currently being studied. Apparently, the idea is to appoint eminent academics or other personalities of stature as Chancellors.
Higher education has been identified by the LDF as an area in which it needs to focus a lot of attention. Given Kerala’s paucity of mineral resources and other constraining factors, one route to economic development is through industries based on cutting-edge technologies. At present, the State’s labour pool is not up to contributing to this sector in either quality or quantity. From the fact that tens of thousands of young Malayalis are studying in prestigious educational institutions in other States and abroad, it is obvious that talent is available. No government has succeeded in harnessing that talent so far. An exhaustive study has been prepared and the Pinarayi Vijayan government is toying with several ideas, including the grant of permission to establish private universities. The whole programme is in an embryonic stage, if that, and controversies over university administration are something the government does not need.
The United Democratic Front (UDF) claims these plans are pipe dreams because the government is not serious about implementing policy but only in giving sinecures to cadres. There have been numerous questionable decisions and actions by the LDF Ministry and talk of “cell rule” (that party units at various levels dominate decision-making) is not uncommon. The opposition is fully entitled, and has the duty, to raise such issues, and even the State Secretariat of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) has seen the need to look into it.
Given that the opposition, the judiciary and the media are active in their functions as corrective mechanisms, the question is whether the Governor has any role to play in this regard. Presumably, he is entitled to advise the Ministry but his claim to perform the role of “first watchdog” is problematic. After all, even in the most dire of circumstances—the breakdown of the constitutional machinery—he can only report to the President. So how does he presume to be the whistleblower in any other situation?
By R.K. Radhakrishnan
In just over a year that R.N. Ravi has occupied the Raj Bhavan in Chennai, the ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) has demanded his removal twice—once when its parliamentary party leader T.R. Baalu spoke in the Lok Sabha and later, in November, when a DMK delegation handed over a letter to President Droupadi Murmu’s office.
The latest tussle between the Governor and the State government was over a car blast in Coimbatore on October 23. On October 26, Chief Minister M.K. Stalin announced that the probe into the incident will be handed over to the National Investigation Agency (NIA) because of the possible “international and inter-State” connections.
In a public statement, Ravi, at a function in a private educational institution in Coimbatore on October 28, accused the State government of “delaying” the transfer of the terror case to the NIA, much to the surprise of serving and retired Tamil Nadu police officials.
One official, who did not want to be named, said that the Governor’s act did two things: One, it created fear in the minds of the local communities because of the wide publicity given to the issue by the media. Two, a few officers that this correspondent spoke to, felt that Ravi, a former Indian Police Service officer, should have known better than to cast aspersions on the process of how the government went about its job.
“He had commended the police. But how can you separate the government and the police? The transfer of the case to the NIA was based on the findings of the police!” he added. Ravi, like most Governors in opposition-ruled States across India, was only following the same playbook used by his gubernatorial peers.
The DMK listed its complaints against the Governor in the letter to the President. The memorandum did not mince words: “R.N.Ravi has violated the oath he took under Article 159 to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution and the law and to devote himself to the service and well being of the people of Tamil Nadu. Far from it, he has been instigating communal hatred, and is a threat to peace and tranquillity of the State.”
Making the point that the Governor was unelected but the government had the mandate of the people , the memorandum stated that the Governor was openly contradicting the government on many issues. “The framers of the Constitution would never have imagined a situation where a Governor openly contradicts the policy of the elected State government or impedes the legislation passed by the legislature by indefinitely delaying assent or acts against secularism. Such a situation can only be described as autocracy. Yet, such a situation prevails in Tamil Nadu,” it said.
The memorandum was specifically referring to the Governor’s public stand on the New Education Policy (NEP) and NEET. With regard to the NEP, both the DMK government, which came to power in May 2021, and the previous AIADMK government, had rejected it, but the Governor had been asking Vice Chancellors of universities to implement the NEP. On NEET, the Governor, who did not realise the powers that he could wield, had sent back a resolution unanimously passed by the Assembly demanding its ban. But the Assembly passed it again on February 8, and sent it back to the Governor.
DMK leaders say that apart from falsifying history, Ravi has impeded governance at every level—by refusing to sign as many as 20 Bills passed by the Tamil Nadu Assembly, and behaving as if he were an alternative centre of power. Chief Minister Stalin, speaking in the Assembly on the occasion of readopting the NEET Bill, described him as a “postman” and demanded that he forward the Bills to the President, as demanded by the Assembly.
On his part, Ravi insists that he is not a rubber stamp. Speaking at a function on the Lok Ayukta in Thiruvananthapuram on November 15, he said: “Governors are not rubber stamps. There are debates. People make noise on what the Governor should do and should not do. The noise does not matter. What matters is the Constitution of India. The supreme authority is the Constitution of India. The meaning of the Constitution of India is not what I say, and not what you say.”
Ever since Ravi was appointed Governor of Tamil Nadu in September 2021, he has offered to the people his own version of history, not borne by recorded facts, while not campaigning for the schemes being implemented by the party which gave him several posts after retirement, the Bharatiya Janata Party.
Ravi’s version of events and history fits in neatly with former U.S. President Donald Trump’s campaign manager Kellyanne Conway’s famous term “alternative facts”, which is a euphemism for invented reality. He has an alternative fact for many long-proven facts: for instance, he claimed that “Aryan” and “Dravidian” are geographic expressions given by the British to divide the people of India. He propounded something to the same effect at the 54th annual convocation of the Madurai Kamaraj University too. Ravi claimed that the British wanted to sustain their empire by weakening the unity of India and destroying its economy, and that this was recorded by the Europeans themselves.
There are many such examples. The latest is from November 23, when he unveiled a statue of Lal Bahadur Shastri. Parroting the narrative that the right wing had been propagating for decades, he claimed that it was Shastri who ended the humiliation that Indians suffered since independence.
Blame it on Nehru
Blaming Jawaharlal Nehru is a favourite pastime for even Ministers in the Union government, and people like Ravi too. Conveniently sidestepping the giant strides made by India during the initial years, Ravi claimed that it was Shastri’s ‘Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan’ which brought about a paradigm shift in the way India looked at defence forces, The Hindu reported.
Ravi has been an uncritical amplifier of most of the acts of the Government of India, while making sure to praise Prime Minister Narendra Modi at every turn. A tweet on November 21 from the Raj Bhavan said: “PM @narendramodi conceived Kashi Tamil Sangamam because his heart beats for Bharat.” He has batted for the Agnipath scheme, terming it “a revolutionary and transformative policy”, and urged the youth not to be misled by “hostile elements”.
The ruling DMK is in no mood to back down. Though the Governor versus State government “war” in Tamil Nadu is not a street battle as it had become in Bengal, it has the makings of a long-drawn intriguing fight, where there could be no winners largely because the BJP does not see the need to oblige the DMK by appointing a Governor who would confine himself or herself to the rule book.
Time is ticking for the Chief Minister
By R.K. Radhakrishnan
Puducherry Chief Minister N. Rangaswamy is in a bind even as he sees his party, NR Congress, melt away and join the all-gobbling BJP: if he acts in haste, he could lose his chair right away, and if he delays he will lose his chair anyway.
When the results of the 2021 Assembly election were announced, 10 NR Congress candidates had won. The BJP won six as part of an alliance with Rangaswamy’s party. Without consulting Rangaswamy, the BJP appointed three nominated MLAs in a jiffy using the powers of the L-G.
Right now, according to one politician who is aware of the behind-the-scenes deals, Rangaswamy cannot count on the support of more than six MLAs. The BJP can unseat him at any time. The local BJP leaders–largely those who changed colours under duress or inducement–are clamouring to unseat him.
The Chief Minister is barely as active as he used to be during his earlier stints. Lieutenant Governor Tamilisai Soundararajan, formerly the BJP State president in Tamil Nadu, routinely conducts review meetings with officials and makes it a point to visit the General Hospital at least once a week. Soundararajan has two roles, L-G in Puducherry, and full-fledged Governor in Telangana.
Soundararajan was given additional charge of Puducherry after the abrupt sacking of Kiran Bedi a month ahead of the 2021 Assembly election. Kiran Bedi was constantly at loggerheads with the then Chief Minister V. Narayanasamy, and had resorted to running a parallel administration, even as Narayanasamy repeatedly reminded her that he headed the elected government. Bedi claimed that she had the same powers as the Delhi L-G and continued to disrupt the functioning of the government. In the case of Soundararajan, she is doing a Kiran Bedi, minus the resistance from the Chief Minister.
BJP targeted Puducherry, an administrative region where the unelected representative from New Delhi, the L-G, wields more power than the elected politicians because of a provision in the Constitution. The BJP’s logic was that if the L-G calls the shots, then it is easy to supplant the entire machinery and the legislative set up with its own people, or encourage local politicians to join it.
The logic was aided by the fact that in Puducherry politicians were businessmen, traders, or contractors, with malleable ideology. The BJP employed the Goa-North East formula and attracted MLAs and influential businessmen into its fold. It was, hence, relatively easy for the saffron party to topple the Congress government just ahead of the 2021 Assembly election.
Soon after the election, there was a time lag of over a month for Ministry formation because Rangaswamy, who was sworn in as Chief Minister, decided to put his foot down. He could not hold out for too long because he was made aware of the ‘stick’ in the BJP armoury, routinely employed against opposition politicians. The ‘carrot’ was the Chief Ministership. Despite all his political shrewdness and experience, Rangaswany was a lame-duck Chief Minister from day one.
He continues to be so today. It might not continue for too long. The outer limit is the 2024 Lok Sabha election.
Battle of wits
By Ayesha Minhaz
Searching for a timeline or origin of the distrust and confrontations between Governor Tamilisai Soundararajan and Chief Minister K. Chandrashekar Rao’s Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) government would be a futile exercise. Her nomination itself was enough to cause unease given the fact that she was Tamil Nadu State President of the BJP from August 2014 until a week before she became Governor in September 2019.
The conflicts between the Governor and the Chief Minister seem to have begun early but got masked by the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. In an interaction on a Telugu television show earlier this year, the Governor said her initiatives during the pandemic should have been taken in the “right spirit”. As strained as it could have been, a decorum was maintained for a year or more. Or, rather, the public was not made aware of the various conflicts in as much detail as in recent times.
“I leave it to the people of Telangana to decide,” said Soundararajan in an interview to an English news channel on November 25. This is not the first time the Governor chose to air her disappointments with the ruling dispensation in front of the media this year.
Since 2022, Soundararajan has been imploring the people of Telangana to judge the manner in which she was being treated by the Chief Minister and his party members.
The allegations against the Chief Minister and other leaders include repeated protocol violations, denial of the opportunity to unfurl the national flag at Parade Grounds on Republic Day, and Chandrashekar Rao not calling upon the Governor as frequently as he used to when E.S.L. Narasimhan was the Governor.
The allegations are also that she is being ”disrespected” and ”insulted” because she is a woman. Soundararajan’s most recent allegation is that she suspects the TRS government of tapping her telephone.
Indeed, some of these allegations, such as protocol violations, are true. However, some claims are so absurd that several senior TRS leaders no longer wish to comment about them. Most people from the party feel that the Governor is perpetually looking for conflict where there is none. The primary allegation against Soundararajan is that her allegiance continues to lie with the BJP.
Unlike Puducherry, where she is the Lt. Governor, the ruling party of Telangana has had a stable regime since the formation of the State. Senior leaders of the TRS believe that in Telangana the only way to subvertthe elected government is by stalling decisions, one at a time.
The first decision stalled by the Governor was the nomination of Padi Kaushik Reddy for the MLC seat under the Governor’s quota. In 2021, Kaushik Reddy had defected to the TRS from the Congress ahead of the Huzurabad byelection. The Governor kept the decision pending for nearly three months on the grounds that Kaushik Reddy did not meet the quota requirement. He was eventually nominated again under the MLA quota. This was the beginning of the end of the facade of a cordial relationship.
Today, eight Bills in Telangana are pending with the Governor. The most contentious is the delay in approving the Telangana Universities Common Recruitment Board Bill, 2022. The delay has impacted recruitment for over 1,000 posts, and the government wants to fill the posts soon. Clarifications were sought by the Governor and provided by the Education Minister, but the clearance is yet to come.
Addressing the conflict and delay in approving the pending Bills, Municipal Administration Minister K.T. Rama Rao had said in September that the institution of the Governor itself is a “colonial hangover” which should be done away with. Rama Rao, on another occasion, had stated that the Governor should behave like one if she wants to be treated like one.
Speaking to Frontline, Telangana State Planning Board Vice Chairman and former Member of Parliament B. Vinod Kumar said that in non-BJP ruled States, Governors behave as if they are the agents of the BJP government.
Vinod Kumar has written to Law Commission Chairman Justice Ritu Raj Awasthi seeking an amendment to the term “as soon as possible” in Article 200 of the Constitution, which accords the power to the Governor to either give assent to a Bill or reject it.
“I have requested that Article 200 mention a stipulated time so that Bills don’t get stalled endlessly. This change will bring some accountability,” Vinod Kumar said.
Speaking to Frontline about the stalled Bills, former Advocate-General of Telangana, K. Ramakrishna Reddy, said, “The holding up of Bills by the Governor is not unprecedented. However, it is not proper and is unfair to do so. In my experience as A-G, when E.S.L Narasimhan got Bills and needed clarifications, he used to call me, or the Attorney General, or the Solicitor General.”
If this continues, the Telangana government may represent to the President that the Governor’s action is unwarranted and arbitrary, Ramakrishna Reddy said. “The fact here is that the Governor represents the State government. Orders are issued in the name of the Governor. It is her government. She cannot be making allegations against her own government.” Ramakrishna Reddy said.
Over to Bose
By Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay
A recent political incident spoke volumes on a subject that has been a hot topic of political debate in West Bengal for decades—the relationship between the State government and the Governor, and the role of the Governor in a State. On November 14, a group of BJP legislators led by Leader of the Opposition Suvendu Adhikari marched to the Raj Bhavan in the hope of meeting the acting Governor La. Ganesan and requesting him to take action against an MLA of the ruling Trinamool Congress for making disparaging comments about President Droupadi Murmu.
However, not only was Ganesan not present at that time, but he also did not seem to be in any hurry to take up the issue at a later date. This was a marked departure from the red carpet treatment that the saffron party, the State’s main opposition, was used to when the previous Governor, Jagdeep Dhankhar (now Vice President of India), was in office until July this year. A perceptibly disappointed BJP made no secret of the fact that it “missed” Dhankhar, and thus once again raised questions on the neutrality of the Governor’s role, particularly in States where the BJP is in the opposition.
Within days of the development, C.V. Ananda Bose was announced as the new Governor of West Bengal. Reacting to the announcement, Suvendu Adhikari said: “From what we have heard about him, we are very optimistic that he will do whatever former Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar used to do to change the prevalent situation in the State and uplift the rule of the Constitution.”
Adhikari’s statement reinforced the longstanding allegation of the Trinamool that Dhankhar’s tenure best served the interest of the saffron party. “He was like our guardian,” said Agnimitra Paul, president of the West Bengal unit of BJP Mahila Morcha and MLA from Asansol South. From the moment La. Ganesan, the Governor of Manipur, took over additional charge of West Bengal, the State BJP was ill at ease with the apparent bonhomie between Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and Ganesan. While the latter attended Kali Puja celebrations at Mamata’s residence in Kalighat, the Chief Minister, at Ganesan’s request, went to Chennai to take part in a family function at his residence. This was in stark contrast to the acrimony between Mamata and Dhankhar.
Worst conflict ever
According to many political observers, never in the country’s recent history had relations between a Governor and a government hit such a low as it had between Dhankhar and Mamata’s government. Biswanath Chakraborty, psephologist and professor of political science at Rabindra Bharati University, told Frontline: “This country has never seen such a breakdown of relationship between the State government and the Governor. Neither Dhankhar nor the State government was able to exercise restraint while going about their duties. In many cases, the State government had overstepped its boundaries; but, at the same time, there were many occasions when the Governor also assumed an extraconstitutional position. The framers of the Constitution could never have imagined that relations between a Governor and a State government could get so messy.”
Right from the beginning of his tenure (July 20, 2019), Dhankhar had been relentless and unsparing in his criticism of Mamata’s government. Be it on the subject of declining law and order, the government’s handling of COVID, the issue of political violence, Mamata’s stand against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), or the issue of corruption while distributing relief after the Amphan cyclone, Dhankhar was successful in putting the government on the back foot and forcing it to react and explain itself.
He gave statements daily through incessant posts on social media and press conferences; he repeatedly summoned top bureaucrats and police officers, and publicly lashed out at the administration for being “politicised”. In fact, at times Dhankhar was seen to be more vocal and hard hitting in his criticism of the government than the opposition parties themselves. The ruling party even alleged that he delayed legislation and slowed down the government’s work by withholding his assent to certain Bills and files. Trinamool MPs had written to the then President of India, Ram Nath Kovind: “Hon’ble Shri Dhankhar has also not spared the State Legislature. He is sitting tight and refuses to sign a number of Bills passed by the West Bengal Legislative Assembly. Not only is he not signing the Bills, he is even asking for ‘explanations’ from the Hon’ble Speaker. This is a direct insult and attack on the sovereignty of the State Legislature.”
Timing of the appointment
It is interesting to note the timing of Dhankhar’s appointment and his subsequent actions. In May 2019, Mamata suffered her biggest electoral setback since coming to power in 2011. In the Lok Sabha election, she lost 14 seats to the BJP, which won a total of 18 out of 42 seats and secured an unprecedented 40.25 per cent of the votes. She had to also deal with huge discontent in the countryside in the form of “cut money protests”. People from rural Bengal were rising up against the local Trinamool leaders’ practice of extorting money for implementing basic government-funded welfare projects and services.
With Assembly elections just two years away and leaders and workers deserting the Trinamool in droves to join the BJP, the saffron party was certain that the State was theirs for the taking in the coming days. Dhankhar’s actions as Governor not only served to expose the Trinamool’s weaknesses and the government’s lapses, but also give further impetus to the BJP, which still did not have enough manpower and organisational strength to take on the Trinamool at the electoral booth level. The Trinamool was not alone in thinking that perhaps the Dhankhar had come as Governor with an agenda.
Trinamool’s counter attack
A cornered Trinamool did not take Dhankhar’s attacks lying down and what ensued was an ugly conflict, with allegations flying back and forth and attacks often veering to the deeply personal. Mamata on one occasion publicly referred to Dhankhar as a “corrupted man” and alleged that he had been charge-sheeted in the Jain hawala case. On another occasion, the two bitterly wrangled over the constitutional functions and positions of the Governor and the Chief Minister. In one of the exchanges, Mamata tried to remind Dhankhar of the position and powers of the Governor vis a vis that of the Chief Minister: “You appear to have forgotten that I am an elected Chief Minister of a proud Indian State. You also seem to have forgotten that you are a nominated Governor… at least you should not ignore the wise words of Babasaheb Ambedkar in the Constituent Assembly on 31/5/1949. ‘We felt that the powers of the Governor were so limited, so nominal, his position so ornamental that probably very few would come forward to stand for election’.”
A section of the leaders of the Trinamool were not averse to referring to the Governor in public in mocking tones and giving him cheeky nicknames like “uncle ji” or “Dadu” (grandfather). Mamata had once even announced that she had “blocked” Dhankhar in her Twitter account. “I have been forced to block Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar on Twitter. I am sorry for this. Every day he was issuing tweets targeting and threatening me and other government officials as if we are his bonded labourers,” she had said.
The State government had also written several times to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, requesting him to remove Dhankhar as Governor. Dhankhar, for his part, never launched into any personal attack on any Trinamool leader and insisted that he was going by the book and the Constitution. Dhankhar had told Frontline in an interview: “I have even been accused of running a parallel government by none other than the Chief Minister.... I have been under constant attack by Ministers of the State government, yet I have never made any personal attack against anyone here. The only script I follow is the Indian Constitution” (“The only script I follow is the Constitution”, Frontline, March 13, 2020).
Yet, even after so much acrimony, the Trinamool abstained from voting in the vice presidential election, thereby indirectly allowing Dhankhar a smooth passage to the prestigious post.
A new governor
On November 23, Bengal’s new Governor C.V. Ananda Bose was sworn in. Bose, a former top bureaucrat, a former Vice Chancellor of a university and an author, may not come from a political background like Dhankhar, but he is unlikely to be a pushover. He had even paid a visit to Bengal during the time of the infamous post-poll violence after the Trinamool assumed power for the third consecutive term in 2021. Prior to taking oath, Bose reportedly made it clear that his job was to “ensure that the government functions within the framework of the Constitution”. Trinamool MP Saugata Roy, in response, said: “If he [Bose] works within the Constitution’s limits, the people of the State will welcome him.”
However, according to Biswanath Chakraborty, the path to conflict is already set. “The new Governor has already stated that he would like to work with the State government and that he expects the State government to work within the constitutional framework. However, experience has shown that the present State government is quite prone to transgress some of the principles of the Constitution from time to time.”
All over a lease
By Anando Bhakto
In Jharkhand, the showdown between the Raj Bhavan and Chief Minister Hemant Soren has left people reliving the State’s many brushes with political turbulence since its separation from the undivided Bihar in November 2000. The controversy has its roots in a mining lease that Soren awarded himself last year, which the opposition BJP alleges was in violation of Section 9(A) of the Representation of the People Act, 1951.
Raghubar Das, BJP leader and the State’s former Chief Minister, alleged that Soren, who is also the Minister for the mining and environment departments, misused his office by granting himself a lease to mine stone chips in Ranchi’s Angara block. According to the BJP, before the district mining office in Ranchi approved Soren’s application in July 2021, the lease had been pending for 13 years. This led to an intense political wrangling between the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) and the BJP. The BJP has been raising the pitch for Soren’s resignation.
Further, Governor Ramesh Bais’ innuendos over the controversy have fuelled guessing games in the media, and among the people in general, on the fate of Soren’s government even as political commentators examine the more vital question of how an asymmetric power play involving the executive and the constitutional head could be potentially restrictive to democracy.
Under Section 9(A) of the Representation of the People Act, “a person shall be disqualified if, and for so long as, there subsists a contract entered into by him in the course of his trade or business with the appropriate government for the supply of goods to, or for the execution of any works undertaken by, that government”. The BJP says the fact that the district mining office reports to the State mines department, helmed by the Chief Minister, makes for a water-tight case against Soren.
The JMM makes light of these allegations. According to its spokespersons, the mine under question was inoperative and was also surrendered in February 2022 and there were no financial dealings.
However, the political slug fest refuses to subside as PILs against Soren, a trust vote in the Assembly, undisclosed communications between the Governor and the Election Commission (EC), and Soren’s date with the Enforcement Directorate followed in quick succession. The Governor’s role, particularly the question of his neutrality, came under the scanner over his unwillingness to disclose the exchanges he had had with the EC. After the BJP complained to the Governor on February 11 about Soren’s alleged violation of Section 9(A) of the Representation of the People Act, 1951, Bais had sought the EC’s opinion in the matter. On August 25, the EC apparently sent its reply to Bais, though the Raj Bhavan has maintained secrecy in the matter.
Mockery of federal structure
Former External Affairs Minister Yashwant Sinha, who was an MP from Jharkhand’s Hazaribagh for a decade and a half, described the Governor’s attitude as “shocking”. Speaking to Frontline from Hazaribagh over the phone, Sinha said: “It is highly suspicious that the Governor received a communication from the EC months ago and he has not taken the Chief Minister into confidence. In the Narendra Modi regime, nothing happens without a forethought, hence, apprehension about what they [Governor and the BJP] have in mind is valid.... This is a mockery of our federal structure.”
With speculation mounting that the EC has recommended Soren’s disqualification from office, the JMM accused Bais of vendetta politics to destabilise the government. The Governor’s own conduct in the public domain did little to assuage these apprehensions. “...Bursting crackers is banned in Delhi but not in Jharkhand. Maybe one atom bomb could explode there,” Bais said on October 27 when asked by mediapersons whether any major announcement was in the offing.
On October 15, Soren questioned the Governor’s reluctance to clear the air on the EC’s recommendation. Speaking to reporters, he said: “I am the first Chief Minister of the entire country who is going from the door of the Election Commission to the Governor, urging them to say if I have committed any crime, [and if yes] then what punishment has been given to me for it?” Bais dismisses any element of bias, arguing that he has sought a second opinion in the matter.
In the politically fractious State, the office of the Governor has often been at the cross-roads with the State government. There have been 10 Governors in just 22 years, with the tenures of Bais and Syed Sibte Razi counted as the most controversial ones. In 2005, when the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government was in power at the Centre, Syed Sibte Razi stirred a hornet’s nest by administering oath to Shibu Soren as Chief Minister even though the BJP was the single largest party. Subsequently, Soren failed the floor test and the BJP’s Arjun Munda was sworn in as Chief Minister.
But Manindra Thakur, a political commentator, said that there was little equivalence between the obstructive roles played by Governors in the past and what is being witnessed now. “Except during a part of Indira Gandhi’s regime, Governors have not interfered with the day-to-day functioning of governments. At crucial times, they may have taken a partisan stand to give an advantage to the ruling party at the Centre, but now that bias is visible all the time,” Thakur told Frontline. He is among those who have an apprehension that there is a larger design to weaken if not demolish the federal structure.
Before Hemant Soren appeared before the Enforcement Directorate on November 17, the ruling coalition—the JMM, Congress and the Rashtriya Janata Dal—hit the streets accusing the BJP of misusing Central agencies to upstage non-BJP governments. While no one has an answer to the question whether Hemant Soren’s government would survive, this is not the first time the Governor’s disposition towards it is becoming a focal point of debate. In February, the Governor returned the manual on the formation of the Tribal Advisory Council, saying that the rules made by the government in June 2021 were contrary to the constitutional provisions and an encroachment on the powers of the Governor. The impasse continues. Bais also returned the Prevention of Mob Violence and Mob Lyncing Bill, 2021. He cited two objections: one, there was a mismatch between the Hindi and English versions of the legislation, and two, there were ambiguities over the definition of a ‘mob’.
On November 22, Bais returned the Jharkhand Excise (Amendment) Bill, 2022, stating that the revisions were “an attempt to protect officers of any criminal or unconstitutional activities”.
- Arif Mohammed Khan, Governor of Kerala, does not seem to be aware that the people of the State never voted him to power. There can hardly be another explanation for his attempts to set himself up as an authority superior to an elected government, trampling on the most fundamental democratic principles in the process.
- In just over a year that R.N. Ravi has occupied the Raj Bhavan in Chennai, the ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) has demanded his removal twice.
- In Puducherry, the Chief Minister is barely as active as he used to be during his earlier stints. Lieutenant Governor Tamilisai Soundararajan, formerly the BJP State president in Tamil Nadu, routinely conducts review meetings with officials.
- In Telangana, the conflicts between the Governor and the Chief Minister seem to have begun early but got masked by the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.
- According to many political observers, never in the country’s recent history had relations between a Governor and a government hit such a low as it had between Dhankhar and Mamata Banerjee’s government.
- In Jharkhand, the showdown between the Raj Bhavan and Chief Minister Hemant Soren has left people reliving the State’s many brushes with political turbulence since its separation from the undivided Bihar in November 2000.