Opinion: In India's State Vs Governor Battles, Let Dignity Win

Once again, the tussle between governors and governments in opposition-ruled states has intensified as the role of governors across several states-namely, Tamil Nadu, Telangana and Kerala-comes under scrutiny. The tussle involves not just the returning of bills by governors, verbal charges and allegations, but also legal challenges now. 

The unceasing row in Tamil Nadu recently saw the governor, unsatisfied with his speech prepared by the state government, declining to read it in the assembly. In 2022, the ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) had gone as far as submitting a memorandum to the President seeking the removal of the governor. Similarly, in Kerala, the  Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M)-led government voted to bring in an ordinance or a special order to remove the governor as the chancellor of universities. State governments claim the governors in their respective states are furthering the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) political agenda. In March 2023, opposition parties even wrote a letter to the Prime Minister Narendra Modi complaining about the Centre 'misusing' the gubernatorial office.

The events raise questions about the governor's role not being in line with provisions of the Indian Constitution.

Constitutional Provisions vs Reality

The post of governor as the titular head representing the President was conceived by the framers of the Constitution with the aim of promoting Centre-State relationship, As per Article 153 of the Constitution, each state must have a governor appointed by the President. Though the governor is the constitutional head of the state, he/she is expected to act on the advice of the council of ministers of the state. This arrangement worked well in the 1950s and the '60s, when the same party was in power at the Centre and in the states.

But as different political dispensations reached the Centre and assumed power in various states in the later years, the governor-state confrontations became apparent. A common notion among states was that the governors were more aligned to the central government than the state government. Various incidents of the imposition of President's rule in states during the Congress reign at the Centre also contributed to these fraught relations, well into the 1990s. In 1994, however, the Bommai judgment curtailed the Centre's powers to arbitrarily dismiss state governments.

Aparajita Singh, senior advocate, Supreme Court, says, "The law on the role of governor is well settled. The governor is ordinarily bound by the advice of the state's council of ministers. As held by the SC recently in the Punjab case, the governor, as an unelected head of the state, is entrusted with certain constitutional powers. However, this power cannot be used to thwart the normal course of law-making by the state legislatures," adds Ms Singh.

Recent Flashpoints

The most recent faceoff occurred when Tamil Nadu Governor R.N. Ravi earlier this week refused to read out a speech prepared for him by the government for his inaugural address in the state assembly. Ravi was not happy with the address, which highlighted the achievements of the state government and was critical of the Centre with regard to the Good and Services Tax (GST) rules. The speech also urged the Centre to release various funds for the state. Last year, Ravi had come under criticism from the DMK government for not acting on 12 bills sent by the state government. He acted on the bills only later, after the SC's judgment in a similar case in Punjab.

Since her appointment in 2019, Telangana Governor Tamilisai Soundararajan had also been in a running battle with the previous Bharat Rashtra Samithi (BRS) government in Telangana headed by K. Chandrashekhar Rao. The relationship between the governor's office and the state government went sour after Soundararajan in September last year rejected the latter's recommendation to nominate a politician to the Legislative Council. Earlier this week, the Telangana HC said it will look into the question of whether a governor has the authority under Article 171(5) of the Constitution to reject names given by the government. "This provision does not give her such independent powers. She has to act in consonance with the aid and advice of the council of ministers," the bench said.

Last year in November, the Supreme Court had advised Kerala Governor Arif Mohammed Khan to go through its judgment in the case relating to the Punjab Governor's inaction on bills. The apex court was reacting to the Kerala government's plea seeking appropriate orders from the court on inaction on the part of the governor on as many as eight bills passed by the state legislature and presented to the Governor for his consent.

Aditya Bharat Manubarwala, a Supreme Court advocate, argues, "In ordinary course, the governor acts as per the advice of the chief minister. However, Article 200 of the Constitution grants the governor of the state absolute power and discretion to refer a bill to the President of India for reconsideration. The fact that this power was not curtailed by the Chief Justice of India-led bench in the recent ruling (State of Punjab Vs. Governor of Punjab) further cements this position."

Resolving The Tussle

The SC in its judgment in the Punjab case on November 10 last year had urged the Governor to take a decision on the bills passed by the assembly. The apex court clearly explained the limits applicable to action by governors when a bill passed by the state Assembly is sent for their assent. The SC observed that governors are titular heads of states, and thus, they don't have the power to veto legislative actions of elected governments or sit indefinitely on bills duly passed by the legislature.

The Sarkaria Commission in 1988 and the National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution have in the past recommended ways to prevent such conflicts between governors and state governments. The Sarkaria Commission had echoed the prevailing view that some governors' offices were being misused by the Centre "for its own political ends".

Don't Dismiss The Governor's Post

In the current saga, given frequent charges against governors for behaving in a partisan manner and the amount of taxpayer money used to maintain the paraphernalia of a titular head, a common question being asked is whether the office of the governor is relevant today. "The governor acts as a bridge between the Union and state government, bringing in a much-needed congruity in administration to an otherwise diverse and vast nation," says Manubarwala. "Governors, through countless Supreme Court judgments, have got guidelines in exercising their powers. The state governments have also been shown that in Indian federalism, they always remain second amongst equals with regard to the Union of India." 

On one hand, there are conflicts between governors and state governments, while on the other, there is also visible bonhomie, as seen recently during the wedding of Karnataka Governor Thawar Chand Gehlot's grandson, wherein Chief Minister, Deputy Chief Minister D.K. Shivakumar and several cabinet ministers of the state flew down to Indore to bless the newlywed couple. While some friction is understandable given the political affiliations of the incumbents, ultimately, it's crucial that dignity and decorum is maintained.

(Bharti Mishra Nath is a senior journalist)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author