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Saturday, October 29, 2005

Now that some of the dust raised by the Supreme Court judgment on dissolution of Bihar Assembly has settled, the time has come for sober, non-partisan reflection. Clearly, the Court verdict is an indictment of the various institutions whose failure to protect democratic values has been palpable. The Court’s williness to bark and refusal to bite also expose the limitations of judicial review in a rapidly changing situation on matters which are intensely political.

But we need to go beyond the usual blame games. Questions like Mr Buta Singh’s nakedly partisan and perverse application of Governor’s powers, the Cabinet’s indecent haste and ill-considered decision to accept the Governor’s recommendation, the President’s failure to urge caution by returning the proposal for the reconsideration of the Council of Ministers are all relevant. But we need to go beyond the immediate context, and revisit the role of governor and the present political culture. In this context, two questions need to be addressed.

First, can we afford to continue with the colonial practice of the union nominating state governors in a modern, federal democracy? Obviously the imperial government during colonial times found it convenient to control India through the Governor General. This, in turn, meant that the Governor General would appoint and remove Governors, and hold them to account. Such a practice served the needs of a colony. Many states in India are much larger than most countries in the world. The Seventh Schedule clearly demarcates the legislative and executive power of States. There is a unified judiciary to act as a balancing factor if powers are abused. The union has many instruments at its disposal to ensure some measure of restraint and uniformity in policies and programmes. In such a situation, the practice of nominating governors as constitutional, symbolic heads of state at provincial level is archaic and unnecessary. Sarkaria Commission and many scholars have focused largely on the quality of persons to be appointed as governors. Such an approach misses the central point. What purpose does such a nominated governor serve, irrespective of the manner of selection?

In the science of child birth, there is a dictum: a good obstetrician is one who observes watchful expectancy and masterly inactivity. That is what should guide the conduct of a constitutional governor. But once the governor is nominated by the union, such a dispassionate, objective role becomes virtually impossible. There certainly have been highly principled, dignified, non-partisan citizens who became governors. But the sad truth is, at best a nominated governor is a harmless anchronism, and at worst he is a scourge to the elected state government. The powers of delaying assent to legislation or reserving it for the consideration of the president, recommending president’s rule, determining who will form the government, dissolution of Assembly have all been largely abused, and rarely exercised for upholding democratic values or protecting public good. It is no secret that many Raj Bhavans have become beehives of partisan political activity, seriously undermining the elected governments.

It is high time we dispensed with the imperial practice of the union nominating governors. If a formal, symbolic head of state is needed, the most sensible practice would be to elect the governor. The President’s election serves as a good model. The President is elected by an electoral college consisting of the elected members of both Houses of Parliament, and the elected members of State Assemblies. If we continue with the Westminster model of parliamentary executive in states, the best course would be to elect the governor by an electoral college consisting of members of the Assembly (and the Council where it exists), and the elected members of panchayats and municipalities. Uniformity of scale of representation of different local governments, and parity between local governments as a whole and the State legislature can be ensured by a mechanism similar to that prescribed in Article 55 regarding the election of the President.

The second, even more fundamental, question is, should we continue with a formal governor’s institution at all. The travails of Bihar, Jarkhand and Goa in recent months are just fresh reminders of the perils of the executive branch in states surviving at the mercy of shifting loyalties of legislators. Politics has now become big business, and huge sums are invested to get elected as MLAs. Much of this expenditure is not for the legitimate campaigning, but for the illegitimate purposes of buying the vote, hiring hoodlums, and bribing officials. Once elected, most legislators expect a finger in the executive pie in order to derive multiple returns on investment. Transfers and postings of officers, contracts and tendering process in public procurement, and partisan interference in crime investigation have become the main sources of income. A chief minister unwilling to succumb to these pressures will soon be history. As a result, honesty is increasingly incompatible with survival in politics in states. The 97th amendment strengthening anti-defection provisions does not help beyond a point. Dissidence in states is largely linked to dissatisfaction about inadequate official favours, and a government is perpetually on tenterhooks.

Therefore, It is high time we elected a premier as head of government directly in states.  The premier would also be head of state, and there would be no need for a governor, nominated or otherwise.  He can have his own cabinet drawn from outside the legislature.  He will have no power to dissolve the Assembly, and the legislature will have no power to remove him at will, except through the due process of impeachment.  The legislature needs to be strengthened and empowered to exercise effective oversight of the executive.  The premier can seek only one reelection, thus limiting his tenure to two terms.  Such a clear separation of executive from legislature, with both strong and coexisting, each acting as a check against the other, would greatly strengthen democracy, reduce illegitimate election expenditure and corruption, and improve the quality of governance and service delivery.

The time is ripe for major reform, denoting a clear departure from politics of pelf, patronage and private gain. That is the true meaning of the increasing convulsions in many states across the Union.