Indian Governors & BJP: Can the Party Practice What It Preaches & Respect Power?

In the non-BJP ruled states, governors act as the Centre’s handmaidens instead of constitutional authorities.

7 min read

Bharatiya Janata Party's(BJP) Election Manifesto in the year 1984 and 1998 listed these following electoral pledges and observations at a time when it used to be in the Opposition:

  • Appointment of State Governors in consultation with state governments, support and strengthen them instead of destablising and toppling them.

  • Prevent misuse of Raj Bhavans as extension counters of the ruling party at the Centre that have defiled the sanctity of the country’s Constitution.

  • A promise to consult state Governments before appointing Governors and considering ways and means of preventing misuse of Raj Bhavans for political purposes.

But one desultory glance at the instances of conflicts between individuals the ruling party once termed “genuine agents” of the ruling party of that time, and the non-BJP state governments since 2014, underscores that either the party made false promises on its way to power, or it has strayed from its principled position.

Either way, given the electoral hegemony of the party since 2014, it is not happy augury for the country, ironically in a period being billed as "Amrit Kaal", or the two and a half decade long run-up to the centenary of India’s independence.

Kinds Of Governors & their Roles 

Currently, there are two categories of governors in the states: Those holding office in BJP-ruled states and the ones in non-BJP-governed states. In the first category are those who are completely in sync with the state governments, annoy the Opposition, but do not subvert any constitutional process or politically abuse the offices they hold. The second category has those who act virtually as the Centre’s handmaidens and not as constitutional authorities that their positions make them.

In recent times, an instance of the governor being accused by the Opposition of not being non-partisan was during Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s visit few days ago to Mumbai to scout for investments in Uttar Pradesh.

The Maha Vikas Aghadi(MVA) lashed out at Chief Minister Eknath Shinde and his colleague Deputy Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis as well as Governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari. The reasons were not difficult to comprehend. While the first two were instrumental in rolling out the administrative red-carpet for Adityanath, the Governor hosted him warmly for an interaction.

The MVA accusation secured traction in the state because Adityanath’s visit was close on the heels of Maharashtra losing crucial projects to Gujarat on the eve of assembly polls in that state. No one in the state would like a repeat show.

As in the case of Maharashtra, governors in the states governed by the BJP play a complimentary role to the state governments and have not stirred controversies that made it to the headlines. Prominent among these are Anandiben Patel (Uttar Pradesh) who performed 'Bhoomi Pujan' at Ayodhya in August 2020 alongside Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Adityanath.

Others in this category include Thawarchand Gehlot (Karnataka), Mangubhai Patel (Madhya Pradesh) and Jagdish Mukhi (Assam).


Chronicles Of BJP-appointed Governors

Back in 2014, when the BJP secured a surprising majority on its own, it soon became clear that the Narendra Modi government would be no different from the previous ones when it came to nominating political appointees as governors.

Ram Naik and Keshari Nath Tripathi (who passed away recently) were among the first batch of active BJP leaders to be appointed to the gubernatorial post in 2014. This was after it became clear that it was the end of the road for politicians appointed as governors by the UPA government.

However, the disquieting appointment was that of former Chief Justice of India P Sathasivam to the office in Kerala. Not only was he the first-ever former Chief Justice of India to be appointed a Governor but he also had retired from the judiciary barely a few months prior to his nomination.

Moreover, among the cases that he had heard was the one pertaining to the case against Union Home Minister Amit Shah, in a fake encounter case. Shah was pardoned and naturally allegations of a quid pro quo arrangement were levelled by the Congress especially as the retired CJI after demitting his office indicated his willingness to accept a position if offered.

The BJP’s duplicitous ways were further underscored when several recalled that Arun Jaitley, the BJP’s legal hawk, Union Minister and Modi’s adviser while handling 2002 riots allegations against him, had written a blog earlier which among other points, argued:

“Judges of the Supreme Court and the High Courts must not be eligible for jobs in the Government after retirement. In some cases, the pre-retirement judicial conduct of a judge is influenced by the desire to get a post-retirement assignment.”

Although allegations of prior arrangement between the former CJI and the BJP remained unproven, it became evident that the Modi government would not be true to its past promises. Among the BJP leaders appointed Governors, Tathagata Roy (Tripura) earned notoriety for making extreme Hindutva statements.

When Governor’s Code of Conduct Breach Affect State Governance

A different matter arose over Arunachal Pradesh Governor Jyoti Prasad Rajkhowa’s biased instructions to the legislature which led to his decision to recommend imposition of the President’s Rule, eventually withdrawn by Modi government within weeks to avoid further embarrassment.

A completely dissimilar controversy was created by the conduct of Meghalaya governor V Shanmuganathan who resigned on 26 January 2017 amid allegations of sexual harassment.

While the aforesaid instances were uncalled for, the more serious issue was that of political misuse of the Governor’s position and creating hurdles in the way of elected governments. The long tussle between the current Vice President Jagdeep Dhankhar in his previous capacity as West Bengal Governor and and Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is well known.

In the case of Dhankar, his lack of respect for constitutional norms has been underscored once again by his attacks on the judiciary, especially the Supreme Court. He has attacked its past judgements on the National Judicial Appointments Commission and in the Kesavananda Bharti case, in which the Basic Structure Doctrine of the Constitution was judicially laid out.

More importantly, while as Governor Dhankhar trampled on the rights of the state assembly and the state government which has the people’s mandate, he has now raised the matter of sovereignty of Parliament vis-a-vis the Supreme Court.

While Dhankhar questioned during a certain period almost every decision of the West Bengal government even though a Governor holds little executive powers, he has now argued that the laws passed by the Parliament cannot be scrutinised by anyone, even the highest court of the land.

Governor and Government Locking Horns: A Routine Affair in These State

Currently, conflicts rage most prominently between the elected governments and governors in Tamil Nadu, Delhi, Kerala, Telengana and Punjab and in each case, the appointees are either former political leaders or like Delhi’s LG VK Saxena have a long-standing connect with the most powerful political leader of the land.

The matter has turned fairly serious in Delhi where the character of the constitutional structure has been disputed between the Centre’s nominee (Governor) and the Aam Aadmi Party from 2015 onwards after Arvind Kejriwal swept into office.

After having gone through various levels of the courts, the matter has reached a potential another round of 'Executive versus Judiciary' fracas with the Supreme Court orally asking sternly, “what is the purpose of having an elected government in Delhi at all? If administration is by central government only why bother with a government.”

Solicitor General Tushar Mehta who was asked this question, may not be able to state the truth even though he too would be knowing it: The purpose is little but political. The fact of the matter is, it suits the BJP and the union government to rile the state governments and the governors.

Arif Mohammed Khan, N Ravi, Banwarilal Purohit (Punjab), Tamilisai Soundararajan (Telangana)and Saxena among others are further encouraged by the ‘reward’ to Dhankhar for having virtually acted like a ruling party ‘agent’.

TIFF Can Be Traced Back to the Pre-Independence Era

The office of the governor and its misuse for undercutting democratically elected governments has been a constant in Indian politics from even before independence as the office was first established under the Government of India Act, 1935.

Post-independence, the role of the Governor dates back to 1953 when the Patiala and East Punjab States Union (PEPSU) was prematurely dissolved. The act was repeated more infamously in Kerala in 1959 when communist stalwart EMS Namboodripad’s government was dismissed.

Despite having a long promissory tradition ending this unconstitutional practise, in its previous avatar as Jana Sangh too, the BJP has been misusing the office of the Governor with consistency.

The BJP’s actions stand in contrast to a few instances during tenures of previous regimes, which although not being saints themselves and not averse to prodding Governors to tackle troublesome state regimes, drew lines that were sacrosanct and could not be crossed. Of these the most conspicuous was the one involving one of the BJP’s bête noire’s – Gopalkrishna Gandhi.

As West Bengal Governor (the coincidence is noteworthy),Gandhi rubbed New Delhi the wrong way with the use of the expression of ‘cold horror’ over the violence in Nandigram over land acquisition by the Left Front government.

Raj Bhavan As BJP’s Branch Office

But the BJP government’s continued misuse of the gubernatorial position must be viewed in the context of the Modi government using various constitutional offices and institutions and investigative agencies to pulverise individual leaders, political parties and state governments into submission.

Like the President, the Governor is a mere constitutional head with no executive powers. But under the BJP, the Raj Bhavans remain what they were for most of the period after independence: Branch office of the ruling party.

Much is flawed in India when it comes to Centre-State relations and the excessive use of the Governor’s position is just the entry point into a dark alleyway of dwindled federalism in the country. Like promises on ending political abuse of the Governor’s position, lofty promises of co-operative federalism too have been tossed aside.

Will anyone within the regime now that this too was a jumla? ####

(The writer is a NCR-based author and journalist. His latest book is The Demolition and the Verdict: Ayodhya and the Project to Reconfigure India. He has also written The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right and Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times. He tweets at @NilanjanUdwin)

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