The recent resignation of the Uttar Pradesh Governor BL Joshi and the Chhattisgarh Governor Shekar Dutt has ignited a public debate over the role of the Governor in Indian polity. These resignations come in the wake of an alleged attempt by the Government to replace UPA-nominated governors.

Many state governors, including the Kerala Governor Sheila Dikshit, seem reluctant to demit office. This has raised some perturbing ethical questions: Can the Central government dismiss governors merely because they were appointed by another political dispensation? Is it constitutional to dismiss governors before they complete their tenure?

The Constitution does not offer a clear answer. Article 156 (1) merely states that a Governor of a state shall hold office at the pleasure of the President. What can we infer from the term ‘pleasure of the President’? Does it imply that, under the parliamentary system, the President merely reflects the will of the Cabinet?

The Supreme Court judgment in BP Singhal vs Union of India can shed some light on this dilemma. In 2004, when the UPA-I government dismissed NDA-appointed governors, a retired police officer, BP Singhal, filed a writ petition challenging this move. The Supreme Court ruled that even though the President could dismiss a Governor without having to provide reasons for doing so, this power could not be exercised in an “arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable manner”.

Some clarity

Most of the dismissals seem to resonate with the observations of the apex court, in that they are often high-handed. The difficulty in resolving this issue stems not merely from the legal questions but also from the rather unique history that surrounds the post of governorship in India.

The watershed year would be 1967, when numerous non-Congress governments were elected to power in the states. The Congress, displaying a measure of political immaturity and sadly a lot of guile, chose to appoint party loyalists as governors, whose only brief seemed to be the destabilisation of state governments. Soon, in contravention of all constitutional norms, the Governor became an ‘agent’ of the Central government.

In this context, the observation made by the noted constitutional expert Subhash C Kashyap that a Governor is definitely the “agent” of the Union but “should never be the agent of the Central government” is important to remember.

There have been numerous instances of the powers vested in the Governor being misused. One of the more famous examples was the dismissal of the SR Bommai (Janata Dal) government in Karnataka in 1989. The then Governor refused to allow the democratically elected chief minister to prove his majority on the floor of the Assembly.

The same partisan attitude was displayed by the governors of Andhra Pradesh and Goa, who dismissed the governments led by NT Rama Rao and Wilfred D’Souza respectively. The actions of Uttar Pradesh Governor Romesh Bhandari were so blatantly partisan that he had to endure the ignominy of being censured by the Supreme Court.

Litany of abuse

The track record of some governors leaves much to be desired. Favoured bureaucrats and loyal political retainers were appointed to gubernatorial posts as a reward for their services.

This was something the report of the Sarkaria Commission on Centre-State Relations (1988) had explicitly warned against. The Commission had stressed that the honour and prestige of the office of Governor could be maintained only when “eminent” individuals from outside the state with no “vested” interests, were appointed to the post.

There also seems to exist a deep public resentment against the office of Governor. For many Indians, it is still a symbol of extravagance that harks back to the Raj era. Many view the maintenance of the ornate lifestyle associated with most Raj Bhavans as a wasteful indulgence the public exchequer can ill afford.

It is imperative that apolitical persons with exemplary professional records be considered for this post. There needs to be a selection committee comprising the Prime Minister, the Home Minister, the leader of the Opposition, the Chief Justice of India and the Chief Minister of the state concerned. This committee must also be legally mandated to consult eminent jurists and public intellectuals,persons who will take ethical decisions irrespective of the pressures they may be subject to. Only this will ensure that Centre-State relations are free of acrimony and mistrust.

The writer is a faculty member of the School of Law, Christ University, Bangalore

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