Explained: Governor’s powers, friction with states, and why this happens often

Last week, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee blocked Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar on Twitter. She said she was “forced” to do so because of his “unethical and unconstitutional” statements and accused him of treating government officials like “his servants”. Dhankhar responded with a series of tweets on the “essence and spirit of democracy” and saying the CM’s move was “against constitutional norms”.

Days earlier, the Tamil Nadu government had taken exception to Governor R N Ravi’s Republic Day speech articulating the benefits of NEET, the medical entrance exam. Tamil Nadu has passed a Bill to exempt the state from NEET; Ravi has sent it back to the state.

These are two of many examples of bitterness between states and Governors.

What is the law on Governor-state relations?

Although envisaged as an apolitical head who must act on the advice of the council of ministers, the Governor enjoys certain powers granted under the Constitution, such as giving or withholding assent to a Bill passed by the state legislature, or determining the time needed for a party to prove its majority, or which party must be called first do so, generally after a hung verdict in an election.

There are, however, no provisions laid down for the manner in which the Governor and the state must engage publicly when there is a difference of opinion. The management of differences has traditionally been guided by respect for each other’s boundaries.

Explained: Governor’s powers, friction with states, and why this happens often

What have been the friction points?

In recent years, these have been largely about the selection of the party to form a government, deadline for proving majority, sitting on Bills, and passing negative remarks on the state administration.

In November 2018, then J&K Governor Satyapal Malik dissolved the Assembly amid indications that various parties were coming together to form the government. This paved the way for the Centre to later bifurcate state into two Union territories, by considering the Governor as the government.

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In November 2019, after a hung verdict in Maharashtra, Governor Bhagat Singh Koshiyari quietly invited BJP leader Devendra Fadnavis and administered him oath as CM. This government lasted just 80 hours. Six months later, Koshiyari refused to nominate CM Uddhav Thackeray to the Legislative Council, leading Thackeray to meet PM Narendra Modi to resolve the issue.

In West Bengal, Dhankhar has often commented on law and order and political violence. Ravi, in his previous stint as Nagaland Governor, had criticised affairs of the state and allegedly interfered in administration.

In December 2020, Kerala Governor Arif Mohammed Khan turned down a request to summon a special sitting of the Assembly to debate the three central farm laws.

Following the Karnataka polls in 2018, Governor Vajubhai Vala invited the BJP to form the government and gave B S Yeddyurappa 15 days to prove majority. Challenged by Congress and JDS in the Supreme Court, it was reduced to three days.

Is such friction recent?

Allegations of the Centre using the Governor’s position to destabilise state governments have been made since the 1950s. In 1959, Kerala’s E M S Namboodiripad government was dismissed based on a report by the Governor. Several state governments have been dismissed since then, including 63 through President’s Rule orders issued by Governors between 1971 and 1990. These have include the Birender Singh government in Haryana (1967); Virendra Patil government in Karnataka (1971); M Karunanidhi government in Tamil Nadu (1976); B S Shekhawat government in Rajasthan and SAD government in Punjab (1980); Janata Party governments in UP, Odisha, Gujarat and Bihar (1980); N T Rama Rao government in Andhra in (1984); and Kalyan Singh governments in UP (1992, 1998). These became less frequent during the coalition era at the Centre and the emergence of strong regional parties.

Why does this happen?

“Because Governors have become political appointees,” said NALSAR chancellor and constitutional expert Faizan Mustafa. “The Constituent Assembly envisaged governor to be apolitical. But politicians become Governors and then resign to fight elections.”

Constitutional expert Alok Prasanna of Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy said: “The CM is answerable to the people. But the Governor is answerable to no one except the Centre. You can sugercoat it with ideas of constitutional morality and values, but the truth is there is a fundamental defect in the Constitution.”

There is no provision for impeaching the Governor, who is appointed by the President on the Centre’s advice. While the Governor has 5-year a tenure, he can remain in office only until the pleasure of the President.

In 2001, the National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution, headed by retired CJI M N Venkachaliah and set up by the Atal Behari Vajpayee, said, “… because the Governor owes his appointment and his continuation in the office to the Union Council of Ministers, in matters where the Central Government and the State Government do not see eye to eye, there is the apprehension that he is likely to act in accordance with the instructions, if any, received from the Union Council of Ministers… Indeed, the Governors today are being pejoratively called the ‘agents of the Centre’.”

In the Constitution, there are no guidelines for exercise of the Governor’s powers, including for appointing a CM or dissolving the Assembly. There is no limit set for how long a Governor can withhold assent to a Bill.

What reforms have been suggested?

From the Administrative Reforms Commission of 1968 to Sarkaria Commission of 1988 and the one mentioned above, several panels have recommended reforms, such as selection of the Governor through a panel comprising the PM, Home Minister, Lok Sabha Speaker and the CM, apart from fixing his tenure for five years. Recommendations have also been made for a provision to impeach the Governor by the Assembly

No government has implemented any of these recommendations.

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