Sheila Dikshit's resignation as Governor of Kerala brings to eight the number of UPA-era gubernatorial appointees who have been coerced by the BJP government into demitting office prematurely.
As the MP for Thiruvananthapuram, the state capital, I won't conceal my disappointment at seeing her go. Sheila-ji brought to her office a wealth of political experience and administrative ability, as well as the indefinable qualities of style and grace. Her tenure as Governor lasted barely six months, but it was marked by swift and impressive decision-making in the few areas under her direct authority, as well as a genuine interest in Kerala and its cultural heritage.
Her decision to demand the resignation of the Vice Chancellor of Mahatma Gandhi University, against whom charges had been pending on her predecessor's desk for nearly a year, was one of several examples of the former. Her active involvement in the promotion of the arts, and her regular attendance at performances of Kerala dance and music, including at the Raj Bhavan, confirmed the latter. She adorned her office, and will be missed.
But 'The Sad Case of Sheila Dikshit' need not be the title of a tragic opera if we use the situation her case epitomizes to review the entire problem of Governors, their appointment and what one may, not entirely jocularly, call their dis-appointment.
As I pointed out in an earlier column on the subject on ndtv.com, the practice of turfing out Governors appointed by the defeated Government started in 1977, when the victorious Janata Party defenestrated a number of Indira Gandhi appointees. It has continued pretty much ever since, and is a practice of which all governments, and therefore all parties, are guilty.
Isn't it time we developed an all-party consensus on a code of conduct regarding Governors, so that we can put an end to the unseemly and unedifying spectacle we have all been forced to witness in recent weeks -- the slow-motion assassinations of some of the highest constitutional authorities of our land?
Some have suggested that the very post of Governor be done away with, but evolving a political consensus on amending the Constitution to achieve that will be far more difficult than reforming the process and criteria by which Governors are appointed.
The Governor represents in each of our States what the President of India does in the country as a whole. The President is universally considered to be above politics; even when a government changes, a President elected under the previous dispensation remains above controversy, and no government has dared suggest that a President should leave office when "his" government loses an election. It doesn't need to; the President clearly understands, both as matter of constitutional principle and political reality, that he may be the nation's First Citizen for protocol purposes, but it's the popularly-elected Government that calls the shots.
Indeed, what is known as the President's Address to parliament is merely the performance of a figurehead reading out a script given to him or her by the elected government of the day. And that, in our parliamentary democracy, is exactly how it should be.
What the Governor, as the President's representative in the State, must be is a carbon copy - just as apolitical as the President, equally subordinate to the elected government (in his case that of the state as well as that of the centre), owing primary allegiance only to the Constitution of India.
Such an institution of Governorship should ideally, like the Presidency it mirrors, be beyond the realm of contention. But we all know it's not: the practice of the last 64 years has sometimes, though not always, dragged the institution into disrepute. Amongst the reasons for the plummeting stature of the office have been: the appointment of political time-servers who conducted themselves in office as agents of their parties; the profusion of decrepit sinecure-seekers long past their use-by dates who brought neither energy not distinction to their posts; the elevation of a number of active politicians who used Raj Bhavans as a rest-stop on their way to resuming their political careers; and the occasional misuse of Governors by a party at the centre at loggerheads with one in the state to dismiss elected governments on spurious (or at least contestable) grounds.
How do we ensure that we get more such men and women to be Governors in the future? There is a crying need for an all-party consensus, to be embodied in law, to achieve this.
The consensus would require agreement on insulating the office of Governor from politicization by adopting these principles, or something very like them:
1. Anyone appointed Governor must:
2. In turn, a Governor shall be immune from
- renounce primary membership of any political party;
- be ineligible for future appointment as office-bearer of any political party;
- be disqualified from election or appointment to any post, bar that of President or Vice-President of India, or Lokpal.
3. A Governor may, of course, be impeached for gross misconduct or dereliction of duty, but only through a procedure akin to that currently governing the impeachment of members of the country's senior judiciary.
- being removed from office till the completion of his or her term;
- being transferred to another state, except by mutual consent;
- receiving instructions from any functionary of the Government other than the President of India.
If such a Code were to be adopted, it would elevate the office of Governor to the status intended by the Founding Fathers, which it no longer enjoys. It would ensure the position attracts men and women of integrity and ability, while simultaneously ending the spectacle of politicians taking a breather in some Raj Bhavan before returning to the electoral fray for their parties, and so conducting themselves in office with an eye on their own political future.
There should be no bar on former politicians becoming Governors, as some are advocating: it would be a pity to lose their political experience in such an office. But these rules would ensure that upon appointment, they cease to be politicians. Their lifelong allegiances would not disappear overnight, but they would be empowered, and expected, to transcend them.
If our new government is serious about reform, and about working with the Opposition, fixing the institution of Governor would be a good place to start. But something tells me that the timeless and irresistible appeal of "jobs for the boys" will ensure that the BJP too, will continue to use Raj Bhavans as retirement homes for their apparatchiks. And therefore, five years from now, we will see the same disgraceful mess all over again, as a new government exacts the resignations of the very Governors being appointed with such shameless glee this week.
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