On November 11, 2021, while inaugurating the 51st conference of Governors, Lt Governors and Administrators at Rashtrapati Bhavan, former President of India Ram Nath Kovind exhorted the Governors to play the role of the friend, philosopher and guide in states of their posting. Quite contrastingly, Ravindra Narayana Ravi, the Governor of Tamil Nadu who assumed office on September 18, 2021 has not ticked any of the aforementioned boxes so far. The incident in question pertains to the flouting of an otherwise conventional ceremony in any state’s legislative assembly.
Ravi was due to read out the Governor’s address on January 9, 2023, the content of which was given to him by the Tamil Nadu government, and previously agreed upon by his office. The address was delivered amidst sloganeering by MLAs of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and its allies including the Indian National Congress, Left parties and the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) owing to to his recent remarks about the suitability of Tamizhagam (Abode of Tamils) as against Tamil Nadu (Tamil Country) as the name of the state. The address of the Governor was marked by telling omissions. He chose to refer to the Government of Tamil Nadu as ‘this government’ instead of calling it Tamil Nadu government in an instance. Furthermore, the phrases omitted include social justice, equal rights for women, self respect and Dravidian model. Moreover, he omitted the names of leaders including Periyar E.V. Ramasamy, Babasaheb Ambedkar, K. Kamaraj, C.N. Annadurai and Kalaignar Karunanidhi.
Post this, chief minister M.K. Stalin intervened thanks to relaxation of rule 17 of the TN legislative assembly, and passed a resolution that the customary speech originally prepared by the Tamil Nadu government will go on record. In the midst of the chief minister’s intervention, Ravi walked out, making an interesting spectacle.
India’s federal ethos and the governor: An overture
While parties like the DMK have been considerably skeptical of the position of the Governor, it is worth noting that the constituent assembly debated a number of ways for the selection of a Governor. First method was election by adult suffrage, the second was election by the members of the legislative assembly, third was selection by the President out of a panel prepared by the legislative assembly. The aforesaid means were criticised on the accounts of creation of constitutional crisis, appeasement of the assembly for election as Governor, and possible friction against the person selected from the panel if s/he was not the first option. In response, appointment by the President was finally chosen as the means to appoint the Governor of the state. In effect, the process of appointing governor was arrived at by rejecting the political equivalence with the chief minister.
The inheritance of the position of the Governor from the colonial system was not a welcome move by a significant number of state leaders. Acharya J.B. Kripalani in his 1946 address as the president of the Congress party said that excessive centralisation was inimical to the idea of liberty. Bishwanath Das argued against the emergency provisions that enabled the Union government to subvert state governments. E.M.S. Namboodiripad called the post of a governor, the fifth wheel and more candidly, C.N. Annadurai said, Aatukku thaadium, nattukku goverrnorum thevai illai [neither does a goat need a beard nor does a state need a governor]. Over the years, in response to the excesses of the governors irrespective of the party in power at the Union level, courts have ruled that the governor needs to act on the aid and advice of the council of ministers. The discretionary powers of the governor are very limited and constitutionally backed.
The case of Ravi’s address on January 9 and the concomitant ramifications
The Governor’s address in effect conveys the vision of the government in power. In this context, the omission of the aforesaid phrases and names from a previously agreed address text reeks of deceit. While omitting segments of the speech and walking out, the Governor as the head of the state has flouted a convention and provided official legitimacy and instrumental rationality to a narrative that challenges the constitutionally elected government’s discretion, authority and prerogative to govern people as it deems fit.
The flouting is not an isolated incident. In the past, Ravi had rebuked the Dravidian political offering as an antithesis to the soul of Bharat, and he had delayed the approval of bills passed by the TN legislative assembly. While the latter could be defensible owing to his discretionary powers, the former signals a political agenda against the politics of self-respect, women empowerment and social justice (drawing from his wilful omissions). As the first author argued elsewhere, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is perpetuating a cross-regional populist ideology that seeks to other the aspirational communities i.e., the Dravidian Tamils to help protect ‘pure’ people of the land i.e., the Hindu Tamils. Notably, the ‘pure’ people are not defined at all as it just means anyone who supports the BJP.
For the scheme to work, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), which is the arch nemesis of the DMK needs to be dealt with first. In the backdrop of a subdued AIADMK, the perpetuation is happening with lesser resistance. The newest addition to the fray is not a person per se but a constitutional authority that enjoys considerable judicial immunity. In a broader context, Tamil Nadu is not alone with such an onslaught, Maharashtra has also faced its share in the recent past.
When the governor in his bid to provide a total explanation of Tamil Nadu’s past uses terms like “regressive politics” to explain the present, he comprehensively dismisses not just any contingent reflections of the past, but also states it as an unassailable fact that is absolute on its own and perhaps does not merit any analysis or criticism by the virtue of it being spoken from Raj Bhawan. Combination of forces of aspirations, representation, federalism are dismissed in the name of regionalism or regional nationalism and the recent phrase “regressive politics” to rob it off its layers, to categorise it as lesser politics and ultimately to delegitimise it before even defeating it.
In other words, the tropes like regressive politics or regionalism as against progressive politics or nationalism are a function of elite and social supremacy. Elites would prefer to dismiss the politics of regional parties as some lesser politics than be challenged by its pragmatic radicalism. Unsurprisingly, the chief of the TN’s BJP unit called DMK’s protest a henchmen mentality. The subversion set in motion by the governor makes one wonder if this is an all out attack to polarise the society as against manoeuvring one’s way through the complex and composite sociocultural fabric.
Vignesh Karthik K.R. is a doctoral researcher at King’s India Institute, King’s College London. Saumya Gupta is a Fellow at Centre for Legislative Research and Education FLAME University.