State Governors often over-step their constitutional limits to carry out the political agenda of the party ruling the Center

By P.K.Balachandran

Although the Indian constitution states that a State Governor shall act on the advice of the State’s Council of Ministers and that the Governor may exercise discretion only in specified cases, the Governors of Indian States have frequently over-stepped their constitutional limits to fulfil the political agendas of their appointee, the Central government in New Delhi.

This is partly because the Indian constitution is not absolutely clear that it is federal in nature. Though India is described as a Union of States, it is not a voluntary union of States, unlike the United States of America. The Indian constitution, which was formally adopted in 1950 after intense debates in an elected Constituent Assembly, was basically modelled on the British-era Government of Act of 1935. The 1935 Act centralized British rule though there were Provinces with elected legislatures. The Governors were the Central government’s appointees.

This system continued under independent India’s constitution. Though there was a State legislative list and a Union legislative list, there was a Concurrent list, in the Indian constitution. Many subjects, including Education, were on the Concurrent List laying the ground for conflicts.

There were reasons for adopting a constitution which was tilted towards centralism. At independence in 1947,  India was torn by Hindu-Muslim riots. There were demands for a separate Dravidian in Madras State. Additionally, Jawaharlal Nehru, the leader of the largest party, the Congress, wanted a Soviet-style centralized system to carry out rapid economic development through centralized planning.

Under such an ideological canopy, the Center and its Governors had de facto, if not de-jure, powers to override the elected State Governors. Subsequently, central hegemony becomes a fetish, irrespective of the party in power.

In fact, Nehru, the universally hailed “democrat” was the first to dismiss an elected State government. The Patiala and East Punjab States Union (PEPSU) Assembly was the first to be dismissed. That was in 1953. The first-ever elected Communist government in India, in the State of Kerala, was sacked in 1959. In both cases, Art 356 of the Constitution was used.

Whenever a political party wins the parliamentary elections, Assemblies of States ruled by the opposition parties would be dissolved on the specious ground they had “lost the mandate” of the people. It was as if only Delhi mattered.

Indian States had to wait until 1994 when the Supreme Court put strict conditions for the use of Art 356.

However, the Centre took to using other methods to get the same result. It began to use executive powers and political manipulation to subjugate the States. In this, the Governors were the agents of the Center. A constitutional and non-political office became exceedingly political. The appointees were ruling party politicians who never bothered to look neutral.  

Under the BJP government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Governors posted in opposition-ruled  States became aggressive. They regularly assailed the State administration’s decisions, portraying them as anti-people. They encouraged the filing of cases against State ministers which led to investigations by Central agencies like the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and the Enforcement Directorate (ED). Under Modi’s watch, an overwhelming number of investigations by these agencies were against opposition leaders.

In Delhi, which is a quasi-State, Lt. Governor Saxena’s day-to-day interference and obstruction created such an administrative paralysis that the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government took the issue to the Supreme Court. Delhi civil servants would refuse to respond to their own ministers, wrote P. Raman in The Wire.

“West Bengal Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar’s activism prompted the irrepressible Mamata Banerjee to declare that she was not his servant. “He calls my officers daily. From DMs, SPs to the chief secretary, he is threatening everyone,”  Banerjee thundered.

Kerala Governor Arif Mohammad Khan, challenged the State cabinet’s power to appoint Vice Chancellors of State-run universities when Education is on the concurrent list.

Tamil Nadu is in turmoil, due to the interminable clash between Governor R.N. Ravi and Chief Minister M.K. Stalin of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK). Ravi is clearly doing it with the tacit approval of the BJP regime in New Delhi. The idea appears to be to make the DMK government dysfunctional and install a government of defectors.

Presently, the Governor’s and BJP’s  cause celebre in Tamil Nadu is the “jobs for money” scandal involving DMK heavy weight and minister Senthil Balaji.  Many years ago, as Transport Minister in an AIADMK government, Senthil Balaji had allegedly minted money by selling departmental jobs. Money laundering charges have now been added to strengthen the case against him. It is a Central agency, the Enforcement Directorate, that is investigating.

When Senthil Balaji suffered a heart attack during an 18-hour non-stop interrogation by the Enforcement Directorate, the DMK and is allies rose to his defense, accusing the interrogators of merciless torture.

Since Senthil Balaji was in custody and also in hospital undergoing urgent by-pass surgery, Chief Minister Stalin gave his portfolios to two other ministers and made him ‘minister without portfolio’. But the Governor refused to abide by the Chief Minister’s advice saying that a man being investigated for high corruption could not be a minister.

But Stalin shot back saying that as per the constitution, the Governor had to go by the advice of the Council of Ministers on all matters. The Governor then sacked Senthil Balaji. Stalin again retorted saying that Governor could not sack a minister of his own volition and that he had to go by the decision of the Council of Ministers. The Governor relented, but only partially, saying that he was keeping Senthil Balaji’s dismissal “in abeyance”.  

Governor Ravi has been harassing the DMK government by holding up bills sent to him for assent. As of May 22, the Governor had 13 bills pending with him. When asked why he was sitting on bills and not sending them for reconsideration as per the constitution, he blithely said that denial of assent could be taken as rejection.

In January this year, during his address to the State Assembly, the Governor skipped a paragraph containing references to certain national and regional leaders and the term “Dravidian Model of governance”. After the Governor’s speech, Chief Minister Stalin moved a resolution to retain on the record only the printed and approved speech copy.

Slighted, the Governor walked out. No Governor had walked out of the Tamil Nadu Assembly before.

Ravi has been a vocal opponent of the Dravidian movement and has described the “Dravidian model of governance” as a figment of the imagination.  He has publicly stated that the Dravidian model,such as there is, is “outdated and divisive”. He even said that the name of the State should be “Tamilaham” (Home of Tamil language) and not “Tamil Nadu” ( Tamil Country) which smacked of separatism. Madras State was renamed Tamil Nadu after the DMK captured power in the State in 1967.

Ravi said at a recent function to celebrate the founding days of States, that States were re-organized for administrative convenience and not on linguistic bases. He also said that Indians should be united only on the basis of religion and culture not on political grounds.

Rebutting Ravi’s contentions Chief Minister Stalin said that the secular Dravidian movement based on secularism and social justice cannot be grasped by people who are motivated by caste and religious considerations, alluding to Ravi and the BJP.    

The DMK and its allies have decided to fight Ravi and the Center politically. Stalin has stated that the Center’s anti-federal politics, its misuse of the post of Governor and the investigating agencies, will be grist to the DMK’s mill in the run-up to the May 2024 parliamentary elections.

“ We will win all the 40 seats,” he said. Tamil Nadu and  Puducherry have  40 Lok Sabha seats between them.

Meanwhile, the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) led by Vaiko, has carried out a signature campaign calling for the recall of Governor Ravi.