The Constitutional Puppet on a String

Do we really need governors if they abdicate their constitutional obligations and mortgage their souls to the ruling party in power?

The last few days were a real circus in Maharashtra, with many ringmasters putting legislators through the hoops.

It was tragicomic. The sordid political drama appeared to be heading toward a nail-biting denouement after the Supreme Court intervened and ordered a floor test on November 27 but ended anti-climatically with both Ajit Pawar, the renegade political leader from NCP, and Devendra Fadnavis, the erstwhile BJP CM, resigning a day before in quick succession.

The governor did little to cover himself with glory. Governors hold office under the pleasure of the president – who acts on the advice of the PM and his cabinet while appointing or removing them –and are expected to act in accordance with the constitution which s/he swears upon while taking the oath of office. Did the present governor of Maharashtra do that? Did he, as the opposition has accused him, act as an ‘agent’ of the BJP?

Let’s rewind the events a little. In February 2014 when UPA-II was in power at the Centre, during his first brief tenure as chief minister of Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal, called the then (LG) Lieutenant Governor of Delhi Nawab Jung “a Congress agent” when the latter checkmated Kejriwal by impeding his administrative functioning at every step of the way.

Kejriwal, fresh from his first electoral victory in 2013 and not one to be browbeaten, was known for making political attacks with irreverence and hyperboles. But this epithet had credibility. It was common knowledge that governors never exercised their own discretion bound by the framework of the constitution. They were known to have an overarching fidelity to the party in power over everything else.

Those who had written the constitution neither foresaw coalition politics nor imagined rampant defections on the scale witnessed nowadays. They could not have dreamt that ruling parties would one day abuse their powers and destroy the federal structure of the state, the very foundation of our democracy. Until the time of Jawaharlal Nehru, there was restraint and respect for the letter and spirit of the constitution.

Also Read: President’s Rule in Maharashtra: How Constitutional were Governor Koshyari’s Actions?

Governors acting in unseemly haste and at the behest of the Centre to subvert duly elected governments were rare. It was during the reign of Indira Gandhi that propriety, decency, decorum and respect for the rule of law were altogether dispensed with. Indira Gandhi and her minions showed scant regard for the autonomous functioning of governors – as envisaged by those who framed the constitution.

Governors were treated like lackeys to do her government’s bidding. She dismissed duly elected state governments peremptorily when opportunities presented themselves, without any scruples, to consolidate her power and authority. She accomplished this by giving specific directions to the governor. If governors showed any reluctance to defer to her wishes or hesitated, she wasted no time in sacking them unceremoniously.

Former Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi. Photo: PTI

Governors didn’t cross swords with her. After all, they knew their role when they accepted such sinecures. They were, as Kejriwal uncharitably but aptly described, agents of the ruling party in the widest sense of that word. All prime ministers after Indira Gandhi, whether in the majority or in coalition partnerships, did no better. Morarji Desai, VP Singh, Chandra Shekhar, Rajiv Gandhi, Atal Behari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh – all trampled on democracy in varying degrees without any qualms. None of them covered themselves with glory when it came to misusing the office of governors.

Power corrupts but also intoxicates. And absolute power stimulates grandiose delusions of immortality not only in potentates but also in modern-day politicians when they rise to power. Congress politicians thought they would be in power for forever. It never occurred to them, in their inebriated state while they ruled, that power is evanescent. Empires crumble. Wheels of fortune forever turn and one day they may be caught beneath its inexorable roll.

Also read: From Goa to Manipur, Modi’s Governors Have Sabotaged Democracy

Regional satraps heading states who behave like tinpot dictators, riding roughshod over critical journalists, dissenters and political opponents are surprised and aghast when paid back in the same coin by the governors, who bending over backwards, carry out the instructions of the ruling party and readily facilitate, through chicanery and subterfuge, destabilisation of the elected state government.

So when you see the once-mighty worthies of NCP, and Congress strut about in panic and despair crying foul, unable to seize the day and prop up their newfound ally Udhav Thackeray, the Shiva Sena supremo, as their CM, you do not know whether to laugh or cry. It is a tragic comedy of the nation state.

An eminent galaxy of Congress party lawyers, with a straight face, is at pains to explain to the media and prove to the Supreme Court that Modi and Shah have brazenly interfered, through the governor, to undermine the constitutional process and violate the Supreme Court guidelines. They are accusing the governor of being a stooge of the Centre and are suggesting that even the president had been co-opted in this unholy task. When one hears these phoney and hollow laments by the Congress, which was a master in this very game, one can not help but be amused.

Having said that, one must, nevertheless, question the BJP and hold it accountable. The sins of the predecessor governments can neither absolve nor justify the present ruling dispensation’s questionable moves. The revocation of president’s rule at an ungodly hour with a pliant governor sending an invitation to Devendra Fadnavis pronto and his hurried private swearing-in at 7:30 in the morning with a rebel NCP leader Ajit Pawar, who had turned rogue overnight, almost resembled a hush-hush marriage ceremony of eloped lovers blessed by a priest in a remote temple.

Also read: BJP’s Indira-like Tactics of Using Article 356 Will No Longer Work

There was no press nor public in attendance. Can such clandestine move of oath-taking lend legitimacy in the eyes of the public? Can the ruling party come out smelling like roses after all this? What of its claims that it was a ‘party with a difference.’? Is there really any difference now between the parties?

Maharashtra Governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari flanked by Devendra Fadnavis and Ajit Pawar, during an oath-taking ceremony, in Mumbai, on Saturday. Photo: PTI

The Maharashtra crisis raises serious and fundamental questions about the way our democracy functions. Do we really need governors if they abdicate their constitutional obligations and mortgage their souls to the ruling party in power? Can’t they be dispensed with if every party cries itself hoarse while in opposition but acts and behaves in a worse fashion when it comes to power? If the harsh reality is that the home minister, in consultation with the PM of the day, will rule through proxy after bypassing the governor and appointing a team of advisors – usually a team of loyal bureaucrats – to run the state through a puppet governor, then it may be better to dispense with that constitutional post all together.

It’s a vestige of the British Raj, an anachronism, a white elephant of avoidable pomp and glory and, at least, this will save huge costs to the exchequer. It serves little purpose to have the post of a governor except to be used to rehabilitate troublesome or dead wood loyal politicians of the party or reward retired bureaucrats who served the party above the interests of the state.

But if the post of the governor is to be continued and if governors have to fulfil the role of upholding the constitution and not the petty interests of the ruling party, then it is prudent to review the role of governors in the modern state with coalition politics and instability being the reality of the day.

Also read: Why Imposition of President’s Rule in Maharashtra Was Unconstitutional

If it’s found that the governor is a necessary adjunct to the current political situation, then the very first step should be to make his/her selection, appointment, transfer, and removal transparent and independent of the ruling party and modelled along the lines of the appointments for the Lokpal.

Recent events have been depressing. They’ve brought to mind a famous remark by former President of the US Ronald Reagan: “It has been said that politics is the second oldest profession. I have learned that it bears a striking resemblance to the first.”

More than two hundred years after US Independence, we can still take cheer from Reagan’s words that we are still a young democracy compared to the US and this is all a part of growing up!

Captain G.R. Gopinath is an author, politician and entrepreneur who founded Air Deccan.