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The politics of governor's office

Rasheeda Bhagat

In the interest of smooth Centre-State relations and in a truly federal structure it is desirable that a chief minister be consulted on the appointment of a Governor.

AS CHIEF Minister, Ms Jayalalithaa has had a few run-ins with Governors. A politician of strong likes and dislikes, she seldom hesitates to make public her feelings, and when beaten at political games, always fights back. But the latest imbroglio over the messy exit of the Tamil Nadu Governor, Mr P. S. Ramamohan Rao, is one of those instances when she is on strong ground. Actually, when the axe fell on the governors of Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Haryana and Goa a few months ago, those of Bihar and Rajasthan escaped, and one wondered how the Tamil Nadu Governor, whose closeness to the Sangh Parivar was well known, had been spared.

It was obvious that sooner than later the DMK, an important constituent of the United Progressive Alliance Government, and one which had delivered 39 crucial Tamil Nadu Lok Sabha seats to the Congress-led alliance, would make a move for Mr Rao's ouster. And it was no secret that the DMK chief, Mr M. Karunanidhi, would make a pitch for Mr Surjit Singh Barnala, for whom he has both respect and affection for refusing to send in a report that was sought so as to dismiss the DMK Government under Article 356 way back in 1990.

But the manner in which the latest operation was carried out reiterates how the gubernatorial office continues to be used and misused for political reasons, raising the question yet again on whether this Constitutional post is required at all.

After messing up in Manipur so badly that the representative organisation of students has made it clear that it would henceforth prefer to deal with the Prime Minister rather than the Home Minister, Mr Shivraj Patil was hardly at his gracious best in ousting Mr Rao from the Chennai Raj Bhavan. Granted, hatchet jobs cannot be accomplished without pain, but the manner in which Mr Patil went about it raises questions on his ability to handle as sensitive a portfolio as Home. To give as flimsy a reason as the failure to host a tea party on Independence Day for ousting the Governor does not quite reveal his political astuteness.

And having to deal with as fiery a chief minister as Ms Jayalalitha, the UPA Government should have been doubly careful. While there can be endless debates on the propriety of a chief minister being consulted before selecting an incumbent of that State's Raj Bhavan, vis--vis the Constitutional obligation for a Central government to do that, in the interest of smooth Centre-State relations and in a truly federal structure it is desirable that a chief minister be consulted on the appointment of a Governor.

But, then, 39 Lok Sabha seats cannot be brushed aside, and so, ironically, we have a situation where the Opposition stalwart of the State, rather than the ruling deity, decides on the Raj Bhavan incumbent.

For the DMK, Mr Barnala will return to the Raj Bhavan as its hero. Returning to his dismissal in 1990, Mr Chandrasekhar was then the Prime Minister and the DMK government was on the block for its alleged links with the LTTE. But when Mr Barnala refused to oblige with a report facilitating the dismissal of the DMK government under Article 356, he was transferred out of Tamil Nadu. Eventually, the DMK government was dismissed, on January 30, 1990, and President's Rule proclaimed.

Mr R. Venkataraman, who was President, wrote in his book My Presidential Years that he had advised the Prime Minister not to go by the allegations of the political parties about the DMK's links with Tamil extremists but to get an independent assessment of the ground situation in Tamil Nadu done by the RAW and IB before taking the final step. Significantly, the Central Government had not taken a report from the Governor before the decision.

Deposing before the Jain Commission on April 26, 1994, Mr Chandrashekhar had said, "It is true that TN Government of DMK was dismissed even without Governor's report. Article 356 does not require Governor's report as a precondition for dismissal of a Government." But while the DMK ministry had to go, Mr Barnala became a bit of a hero in Tamil Nadu, because the popular sentiment then was that the Karunanidhi government's dismissal was unjust, and demanded by the Congress(I) led by Rajiv Gandhi which was cosying up with the AIADMK. But the President's Rule lasted an unusually long period, till mid-1991, and Rajiv Gandhi's assassination on the eve of the elections — the Tamil Nadu Assembly elections were held along with the Lok Sabha elections in May 1991 — swept in the AIADMK-Congress alliance with a brute majority. Since then, the electoral pendulum in Tamil Nadu has been swinging from the DMK to the AIADMK.

In 1995, again the Governor and the Chief Minister were pitched against each other when Dr Chenna Reddy gave his sanction to the Janata Party president, Dr Subramaniam Swamy, to file a case against Ms Jayalalitha in the Tansi land deal of 1992.

However, the Supreme Court stayed the proceedings and referred to the Constitution Bench the question of whether the Governor had the authority to sanction prosecution against a serving Chief Minister.

Should he take the aid and advice of the Cabinet while doing so had to be examined. But following the sanction, charges flew thick and fast between Raj Bhavan and Poes Garden, with the Chief Minister claiming that the Governor had turned Raj Bhavan into a political post. The next point when Ms Jayalalithaa's relationship with the Governor came into focus was when Ms Fatima Beevi, a former Supreme Court judge, took the decision in 2001 to administer the oath of office to Ms Jayalalithaa despite her conviction in one of the cases filed against her by the previous DMK regime. After this came the midnight arrest of Mr Karunanidhi, then a constituent of the ruling NDA Government in Delhi.

In July, Ms Fatima Beevi resigned after the Vajpayee Cabinet decided to dismiss her for having "failed to discharge Constitutional obligations" in the wake of arrest of the former Chief Minister, Mr Karunanidhi, and two Union Ministers — Murasoli Maran and Mr T. R. Baalu — in Chennai. In her report to the NDA Government, she defended the police action against the two Union ministers.

Predictably, the Congress came down heavily against this decision, describing it as "vindictive, hasty, ill-considered and motivated."

The AICC general-secretary, Ms Ambika Soni, said the NDA Government "was waiting to get even with her for administering oath of office to Ms Jayalalithaa against the wishes of the Home Minister." The Left parties too put in their protest. What is intriguing is that even after Ms Fatima Beevi's exit, when it was time for a replacement, the Vajpayee government had toyed with the idea of sending Mr Barnala to Tamil Nadu in November 2001, undoubtedly on the recommendation of Mr Karunanidhi, who was part of the NDA government then.

Senior AIADMK leaders had then hailed this a "mischievous move" on the NDA Government's part and that too at a time when the Tamil Nadu unit of the BJP was close to the AIADMK. Eventually, the DMK walked out of the NDA, along with the MDMK and the PMK, and the BJP-AIADMK alliance came a cropper in the Lok Sabha polls.

Any Governor holds office under Article 156 (1) at the "pleasure of the President" It is not as though the BJP has not played games with Raj Bhavan incumbents during its years in power.

Though Indira Gandhi was the first prime minister to sack a Governor — again it was Tamil Nadu's Prabhudas Patwari to become the first victim of this game in 1980 — the BJP has also bent or twisted the "pleasure of the President" several times.

In 1998, the BJP-led coalition government secured the resignations of the Governors of Gujarat Krishna Pal Singh; Goa's T.R. Satish Chandra; UP's Romesh Bhandari; Mizoram's A. P. Mukherjee and the Lieutenant Governors of the Union Territories of Delhi, Andaman and Nicobar Islands and Pondicherry. In 1991, Ms Fatima Beevi fell prey to the bitter battle between the chiefs of the two Dravidian parties.

In the past suggestions have been made by Mr V. P. Singh and the Left parties that when the government at the Centre changes, all Governors should resign. But this has not become the norm, leaving the gubernatorial office at the mercy or "pleasure" of the ruling entity in Delhi.

In the coming days, Tamil Nadu will see some interesting times. After Ms Jayalalithaa and the UPA government have finished trading charges on whether she did wrong in making public her conversation with Mr Patil where she demanded to be told if he was "consulting" her or "informing" her, all eyes will be on what turn the CM-Governor relationship takes in Chennai. The late Chenna Reddy was a maverick and enjoyed to the hilt playing political games with the miffed AIADMK supremo in the 1990s. But Mr Barnala is a different kettle of fish altogether.

There are bound to be fissures in the Governor-CM relationship, particularly in view of the incumbent's closeness to Mr Karunanidhi, as well as in the State-Centre relationship — a headache that the Manmohan Singh government, already battling several fronts, could well have avoided.

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