Mamata-Dhankhar Feud: Time for India to Abolish the Post of Governor?
The State recently passed a Bill to make the CM the chancellor of all state universities, replacing Dhankhar.
Spats between West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and Jagdeep Dhankhar, the Governor of the state, have been so numerous in the three years since he has been in the post that a fresh flashpoint does not evoke any surprise. Yet, the latest episode in the ongoing Mamata-Dhankhar feud has wider repercussions for Centre-state relations, especially in states that are ruled by Opposition parties.
On Monday, the West Bengal Assembly passed a Bill to make the Chief Minister the chancellor of all state universities, replacing Dhankhar. Needless to say, this has sparked howls of protest from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the main Opposition in the state, and allegations that the Trinamool Congress (TMC) chief is acting in an authoritarian manner and arrogating to herself powers that are not hers to exercise.
On Monday, the West Bengal Assembly passed a Bill to make the Chief Minister the chancellor of all state universities, replacing Dhankhar.
In April this year, the DMK government of Tamil Nadu passed a Bill, giving the state government the right to appoint V-Cs and diminishing the powers of the Governor in the process.
The clash between state governments and their Governors over the appointment of heads of higher education lies at the heart of the debate over Centre-state relations, and to what extent the role of the Governor affects them.
If the post is merely a decorous one, why continue to waste taxpayers’ money on it?
If the post has come down to only being used by the Centre as an instrument to needle and chastise states ruled by Opposition parties, it is tailor-made for doing mischief.
Why Dhankhar's Charges are Ironic
The West Bengal University Laws (Amendment) Bill, seeking the Governor’s ouster as chancellor (and the appointment of the Chief Minister in his stead) will, of course, go to Dhankhar for approval, and one doesn’t need to be a seer to foretell that he will stall it. Reportedly, in that case, the state will take the ordinance route to pass the amendment.
As the ex-officio chancellor of state universities, Dhankhar has been at pains to exercise his authority in matters such as the selection of vice-chancellors (V-Cs), and has alleged that the state has recruited V-Cs without his approval.
While he has tried to project himself as the supreme commander of the state’s institutions of higher education, Mamata has repeatedly made it clear that his role is no more than ceremonial, and that he would be unceremoniously snubbed if he aspired to be anything more than that. For example, in December last year, when Dhankhar invited a group of 11 V-Cs for a meeting at the Raj Bhavan in Kolkata, they simply did not turn up. The Dhankhar camp says that they stayed away at the behest of the government.
Dhankhar’s frequent charge that the appointment of V-Cs in the state universities was politically motivated is ironic, considering that in every state, including those ruled by the BJP, the candidates for such posts are, and have always been, handpicked by the incumbent regime. The same is the case for central universities such as the Jawaharlal Nehru University or institutions such as the National Film and Television Institute of India.
A Barrage of Slights & Insults
To be sure, the relationship between Mamata and Dhankhar has been remarkably bitter and fractious. Since his appointment as Governor in July 2019, Dhankhar seems to have made up his mind that whenever possible, he would oppose the actions of the state government, drawing the counter allegation from the TMC that he is just a stooge of the BJP, the ruling party at the Centre, and has been sent to the state with the express purpose of creating roadblocks in the exercise of governance and administration.
Starting from his loud protestations in early 2000 that Mamata’s opposition to the Citizenship (Amendment) Act-National Register of Citizens (NRC) bills was “unconstitutional”, to his many charges of atrocities by TMC workers post the state elections in 2021, to his alleged stonewalling of bills that the state government wished to pass, Dhankhar appears to have made it his mission to be a persistent thorn in Mamata’s side.
In response, there has been a barrage of slights and insults from the state government, but Dhankhar, a lawyer by profession, has remained unfazed. Displaying an impressively thick skin and an aptitude for melodrama (he has shed copious tears on television), he has carried on waging his low-grade war against the elected Chief Minister of the state.
Tamil Nadu Following the Same Model
However, though the bickering between Mamata and Dhankhar has been spectacular to behold, the Bengal government is not alone in making the move to take away the Governor’s power to have a say in the appointment of vice-chancellors. In April this year, the DMK government of Tamil Nadu passed a Bill, giving the state government the right to appoint V-Cs and diminishing the powers of the Governor in the process.
In his speech before the Bill’s passage, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin said, “A government elected by the people being unable to appoint a vice-chancellor to a university run by it creates a lot of issues in the overall varsity administration.” He added that lately, the Governor had been acting as if the appointments were his “exclusive right” and that he was not respecting the fact that it was the state government that was responsible for providing higher education.
The Kerala government, too, has faced off with Governor Arif Mohammed Khan over the issue of the appointment of V-Cs. In December last year, Khan declared that instead of him, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan should become the chancellor of the universities as then, no one would have a problem with the political appointments being done there.
Several other states such as Telangana, Karnataka and Gujarat have also passed laws that empower the state to appoint V-Cs. Last year, the Shiv Sena-Congress-led coalition of Maharashtra, too, initiated a similar move to give the state the power to select V-Cs.
Is the Governor's Post Really Necessary?
No matter how the latest iteration of the Mamata-Dhankhar battle unfolds, the fact is that the clash between state governments and their respective Governors over the appointment of heads of higher education lies at the heart of the debate over Centre-state relations, and to what extent the role of the Governor enhances or vitiates them.
The Justice Punchhi Commission constituted by the Centre in 2007 to examine the relationship between the Union government and states had recommended that “the Governor should not be vested with the rights to appoint V-Cs, which has not been provided by the Constitution,” citing that there would be a “clash of functions and powers”.
In this context, Bengal and the other states seem to have taken a step in the right direction. But going beyond the tussle over the appointment of V-Cs, perhaps it is also time to question the raison d’être of the post of the Governor itself.
If the post is merely a decorous one, why continue to waste taxpayers’ money on it? And if it has come down to only being used by the Centre as an instrument to needle and chastise states ruled by Opposition parties, it is tailor-made for doing mischief and souring the prospect of any harmony between the Centre and states ruled by strong regional parties.
Abolishing the post of the Governor is an idea whose time has probably come.
(Shuma Raha is a journalist and author. She tweets @ShumaRaha. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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