A political firestorm was unleashed in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu when its governor, R.N. Ravi, “dismissed” a sitting minister on June 29, a move dubbed by critics as “unconstitutional” and smacking of executive overreach.
The embattled minister in question – V. Senthil Balaji – faces corruption charges in a cash-for-jobs scam and was arrested by the Enforcement Directorate earlier this month. In a press release, Ravi claimed that Balaji had been “influencing the investigation and abusing the due process of law and justice.”
However, hours later, with public pressure mounting, Ravi kept Balaji’s dismissal in “abeyance,” saying he had been advised to do so. Meanwhile, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.K. Stalin said that Ravi had “no power to dismiss my minister.”
Analysts say that Ravi’s action of dismissing a minister without consulting the chief minister of the state – under whom such powers are vested – strengthened perceptions that he was infringing on the state’s domain. An editorial in The Hindu dubbed his action as a “constitutional misadventure,” saying that Ravi “appears to be on a mission to demonstrate his tenuous grasp of the Constitution.” The Deccan Chronicle slammed Ravi’s behavior as “one of the worst displays of gubernatorial excesses in Independent India.”
At the heart of the controversy is the fact that the chief ministers of Indian states are elected by the public, while governors are appointed by the center.
The Indian Constitution establishes a clear framework where governors have limited discretion and role in the government, High Court lawyer Minakshi Agarwal told The Diplomat. “The governor of a state is appointed by the president under Article 153 of the Constitution and holds office at the behest of the president. As an independent and bipartisan authority, he needs to discharge his duties impartially, irrespective of his political affiliations,” she said.
The lawyer added that the Indian Constitution is very clear on the matter. “The governor under the Constitution has no functions which he can discharge by himself; no functions at all,” Agarwal emphasized. “The point was clarified most recently by the Constitution Bench headed by the chief justice of India, Dr D.Y. Chandrachud, which reiterated that the LG [lieutenant governor] can exercise power only in three areas, i.e., public order, police, and land.”
Despite this provision of law, however, governors have increasingly been mired in needles controversies, mostly self-created. Several such episodes have come to light of late in different states including in Kerala, West Bengal, Maharashtra, Delhi, and now in Tamil Nadu. The chief minister-versus-governor face-offs have also resuscitated the debate on the latter’s role in India’s parliamentary democracy, leading the Supreme Court to question their powers.
Earlier this year, in another episode of constitutional impropriety, Ravi had skipped reading parts of his address to the state legislature, which outlines the state’s policies and is approved by the state cabinet. The matter was resolved with the court’s intervention.
Similarly, in the northern state of Punjab, a constitutional crisis erupted over Governor Banwari Lal Purohit’s refusal to summon the budget session of the assembly from March 3. Matters were resolved only when the Supreme Court then pointed out that the governor was “duty-bound to follow the advice of the state cabinet on the issue.”
In Maharashtra too, the court objected last year when Governor B.S. Koshyari asked erstwhile Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray to face a floor test to prove his majority, calling for a trust vote when there were no sufficient grounds to do so. The Supreme Court admonished him, saying that calling for a trust vote merely on the ground of differences between legislators of a ruling party could destabilize an elected government.
Thackeray, however, resigned in the face of imminent defeat, paving the way for the appointment of the current chief minister, Eknath Shinde.
These disruptive and frequent face-offs, while souring relations between two high offices, waste the court’s time, point out critics. They have also triggered a larger question: Does India really need governors?
Opinion is divided on the matter. Parliamentarians point out that under the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – which has been in power at the center since 2014 – there has been a qualitative change in the way the governors are appointed.
“They seem to be serving political interests more than the interests of the state. They also function more as political agents than an independent authority exercising his own judgment as mandated by law,” argued Mahua Moitra, a senior leader for the Trinamool Congress, in a TV debate.
“The brief to governors from the ruling party seems to be to keep the opposition chief ministers in check while obstructing the chief minister’s discharge of duty.”
Bolstering Moitra’s argument, opposition-ruled states like Kerala, Telangana, West Bengal, and Punjab, have faced political wrangling between chief minister and governor, but there are no examples of similar tensions in states governed by the BJP.
However, BJP officials deny such allegations. “The opposition is looking to sully our reputation even when we have no role in CM-governor conflicts,” said a BJP spokesperson. “As the ruling party, we’ve always supported state governments and will continue to do, be they our own or the opposition parties.”
Be that as it may, there’s increasing support for the view that a governor’s post is largely ceremonial and the chief ministers have enough powers to tackle challenges where the governor’s intervention maybe required.
“The governor’s post in India was established under British rule. It smacks of colonial baggage and is redundant for modern governance,” argued Prakash Mukhi, a Congress functionary from Uttar Pradesh. “Rather than focusing on mutual cooperation and discharging their duties as spelt out in India’s founding document, governor-CMs seem to be at loggerheads frequently. Such conflicts erode the federal fabric.”
Mukhi also noted “the perception that governors in opposition-ruled states act in ways that infringe on the domain of the state government.”
Doing away with the governor post will also save the Indian government considerable expenditure, some point out. According to a Right To Information disclosure, the establishment and maintenance of governors’ residences cost the state exchequer about $20 million annually. At a time when state and central budgets are already under a fiscal strain, the saved money could help improve governance standards.