Anyone who has been missing the almost daily edition of the public display of acrimony between West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and former State Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar (who has since been elevated to the post of the Vice-President of India), can turn to a similar soap opera playing out in Kerala between Governor Arif Mohammad Khan and Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan.
Relations between Khan and the CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) government in Kerala have, of course, been prickly ever since the former moved into the Raj Bhavan in 2019.
The conflict has mostly been over the appointment of Vice Chancellors (VCs) of state universities — a function which the Governor, as the ex-officio chancellor, is supposed to perform on the recommendation of the government. But hostilities hit something of a crescendo recently when Khan shot off letters to nine VCs, ordering them to resign from their post.
Governor, Opp Govt Tiff Intensifies Over VC Appointment
Khan’s peremptory directive came after the Supreme Court on 21 October, set aside the appointment of the vice-chancellor of APJ Abdul Kalam Technological University in Thiruvananthapuram on the ground that it had not been in accordance with the norms laid down by the University Grants Commission(UGC).
Khan felt that the appointment of nine other VCs was similarly dodgy and, hence, they too, deserved to be booted out at once. And when they sat tight — with the state government backing them to the hilt and maintaining that the Governor did not have the power to sack them — Khan slapped them with a show-cause notice as well.
While the matter is now in the Kerala High Court, the daily drama and war of words between Khan and the state government continues. The chief minister has called the Governor a “tool of the RSS” — not the first time that he has furnished Khan with the sobriquet.
Emerging Trend of Governor vs State CM Duels
The Governor too is busy upping the ante. He has accused the chief minister of double standards, and has written to him, seeking the dismissal of Finance Minister KN Balagopal for sedition, because Balagopal had remarked that those who were familiar with universities in north India, did not understand the ways of those in the south. “He has ceased to enjoy my pleasure,” the Governor declared grandly.
The sedition charge is preposterous, of course, and, unsurprisingly, Vijayan has rejected Khan’s demand that Balagopal be sacked. Clearly, the CM does not seem to be particularly exercised over the fact that his finance minister has ceased to be blessed with the Governor’s “pleasure”.
As things stand, it’s Vijayan 2; Arif Mohammad Khan 0.
But it’s not just the Kerala Governor who has made it his business to be a thorn in the side of the state government. It has now become something of a tradition among Governors of Opposition-ruled states to embark on a path of conflict with their respective governments.
The potential for such conflict is, of course, inherent in the way the Governor’s post is constitutionally ordained. Appointed by the Centre, the Governor is supposed to be the apolitical constitutional head of the state. But in reality, and increasingly so in recent times, they make their political allegiance to the Centre blazingly obvious in states ruled by the Opposition parties by engaging in constant hostilities with the government.
A similar situation exists in Delhi, where the centrally-appointed Lieutenant Governor has been on a perennial warpath with Aam Aadmi Party(AAP) chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal.
Are Governors Doubling As BJP Mouthpieces?
Khan and former Bengal Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar have been accused by their chief ministers of constitutional overreach and of trying to put vexatious impediments in the functioning of the state government. Dhankhar and Mamata sparred regularly — the chief minister calling him a stooge of the Centre and Dhankhar blaming her government for all manner of evils — from the breakdown of law and order, to violence by her party cadres, to motivated appointments in higher education, to demeaning the office of the Governor himself.
Critics could say that his efforts paid off. In August this year, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) named Dhankhar its candidate for the post of Vice-President and he was elected to that high office without a hitch.
Is Khan, who is a veteran politician and has changed his political stripes many times — from Janata Party to Congress to Janata Dal to BSP and finally to the BJP — duelling with the Kerala government to please the central government, as Vijayan claims?
‘Governors Should Not Appoint VCs’
Whether that is true or not, what is indisputable is that their role as the ex-officio chancellor of state universities, is the most commonly used stick that Governors employ to beat Opposition-ruled governments with. Khan has been doing the same. In December 2021, he alleged that the appointment of the VC of Kannur University was a political one.
Unfortunately, even if such contentions have merit, they will always be vitiated by the fact that the Governor himself or herself is a political appointee of the Centre, and increasingly, not deemed to be without bias when they occupy office in a state governed by an Opposition party.
The Justice Punchhi Commission set up by the Centre in 2007 to examine Centre-State relations had recommended that “the Governor should not be vested with the rights to appoint VCs, which has not been provided by the Constitution,” and said that there would be a “clash of functions and powers”.
Subsequently, several states have passed laws to strip the Governor of the power to appoint vice-chancellors. In June this year, the West Bengal legislative Assembly passed a bill making the chief minister the chancellor of all state universities. Tamil Nadu passed two laws in April to empower the state government to appoint VCs, instead of the Governor. Maharashtra, too, has taken a similar step. In 2013, Gujarat, where Narendra Modi was chief minister at the time, also took away the Governor’s role as the one who has the last word on the appointment of VCs.
The Kerala government is looking at a similar legislative route to make the appointment of vice-chancellors independent of the office of the Governor. The reality is that vice-chancellors of state universities and other officials in higher education have always been selected and appointed by the government in power.
Hence, imperfections and nepotism and vested interests are built into the system. But the way to purge the flaws within the system must come from within the political administration, or the judiciary once these matters are consistently challenged in court.
It does not behove the largely ceremonial office of the Governor to engage in ugly daily skirmishes with state governments. They achieve nothing except a few transient headlines.
(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.)