The Ill-Conceived Office of Governor Is a Threat to India’s Democracy

What is dangerous to our democracy is that the constitution is unclear about governors’ powers. Governors follow the “advice” of the state’s CM. The Supreme Court has repeatedly confirmed this status. But the constitution is silent on key areas.

Clashes between governors and chief ministers of states ruled by India’s opposition parties are becoming commonplace. Conflicts have been reported in Maharashtra, Telangana, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Punjab and Delhi. When a recent tussle between the Punjab governor and chief minister over when to call the assembly into session reached the Supreme Court, the judges chastised both parties by saying their level of discourse was a “race to the bottom.” Last week, eight opposition parties sent a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi accusing the BJP government at the Centre of “misusing” the governor’s office.

Such clashes have been around since the beginning of the republic. During the Nehru years, the 1956 Conference of Governors admitted that in certain circumstances, “the governor can function as an agent of the government of India.” In 1988, the Sarkaria Commission on Centre-State relations found that some governors’ offices were being used by the Centre “for its own political ends.” In 1990, former governor C. Subramaniam categorically announced that the position had “become a party appointment.”

Even while the constitution was being written, it was clear that the governor’s office would be controlled by the party at the Centre. The issue was the first source of conflict between Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel, who wanted governors to be elected by the people. Initially, Patel’s view was favoured. A joint meeting of the two topmost committees run by these men decided that “the Governor should be appointed by the Province, and not by the Central Government.” Patel’s model Provincial Constitution, with the provision that each state’s governor be “elected directly by the people,” was approved by the Constituent Assembly. 

But two years later, in the only major reversal of its kind, the Assembly changed the method of governors’ selection from “election” to “directly appointed by the President.” Nehru himself argued for the reversal, saying that an elected governor would “encourage separatist provincial tendency” and create “some kind of a rival to the government of the province.”

Many members expressed concern that central control over governors posed a risk to India’s democracy. Hriday Nath Kunjru, president of an independent outfit called the Servants of India Society, spoke openly: “If you entrust the Central Executive with power to exercise control over the Provinces… there is the serious danger of the country falling under a dictatorship.”

Even more dangerous to our democracy is that the constitution is unclear about governors’ powers. It obliges governors to follow the “advice” of the state’s CM. The Supreme Court has repeatedly confirmed this status. But in times of heated politics, when the office is needed the most, the constitution is silent in three key areas: who to invite to form government; when to dissolve or call the state assembly into session, and when to approve Bills. The abuses of power in all these areas began as early as 1952, when the Congress party governor in Madras invited his peers to form the government despite Congress holding fewer seats than the opposition. 

B.R. Ambedkar was so agitated by the constitution’s silence on governors’ powers that he denounced the whole document. Just three years after it was adopted, he argued in the Rajya Sabha that it be amended to give governors clear discretion. “We have inherited the idea that the governor must have no power at all, that he must be a rubber stamp,” he said. “That is the kind of conception about democracy which we have developed in this country.” When some members chided Ambedkar that he himself had written the constitution, he blurted out, “I shall be the first person to burn it out. I do not want it. It does not suit anybody.”

Many proposals have been floated over the years to limit the dangers of this type of governor. The BJP itself suggested in the 1980s that governors should be chosen from a panel prepared by the state legislature and after mandatory consultations. The Sarkaria Commission recommended that a governor must be eminent, but from a different state. It also suggested that “a politician of the party governing in New Delhi should not be appointed to a state governed by another party.”

Strong differences of opinion between governors and CMs are bound to continue. Our country’s democracy would be safer if both were elected directly by the people. 

Bhanu Dhamija is the founder and CMD of Divya Himachal media group and author of Why India Needs the Presidential System. Twitter: @BhanuDhamija