India vs “Governor-itis”, An Epidemic That’s Spreading

India vs "Governor-itis", An Epidemic That's Spreading


Under the present dispensation at the Centre, there has been an unprecedented interference by Governors in matters of policy and governance where non-BJP parties rule the state. States afflicted by what can be better described as “Governor-itis” include Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan, Telengana, Delhi, Puducherry (earlier) and of course Kerala. “Governor-itis” manifests in several ways. Here are some examples: attempts to usurp powers that the Constitution does not sanction such as ordering duly appointed officers of educational institutions governed by specific Acts passed by the legislature to resign within 24 hours; bizarre statements such as “I have withdrawn my pleasure” from such and such minister followed by a direction to a Chief Minister to remove him from office, when even the colonial “doctrine of pleasure” applies at best to civil servants and not elected ministers; to issue a daily dose of public criticism of the elected state government, and disturb the functioning of the government; to delay assent to Bills passed by a state government because “I have full discretion and power”; or making policy declarations like only those who have taken vaccine shots should get government benefits.

But it would be wrong to attribute this affliction of “Governor-itis” undermining the Constitution of India as an individual personality trait. At a personal level, the individual may be a most decent human being. It is a political move in a most calculated way by the central government to unsettle and destabilise elected state governments. The BJP’s Mission 2024 is to swallow up all non-BJP governments through any and all means. We have seen one method through the buying up of MLAs. Since 2014, as many as 12 states have seen such efforts by the BJP, efforts which have been successful except in two cases (of Rajasthan and Jharkhand).

The second method is to use the BJP trishul of the CBI, the Income Tax Department and the Enforcement Directorate to target Opposition leaders who refuse to bend to the wishes of the ruling party. Those who switch to the lotus like the present Chief Minister of Assam, or the galaxy of Trinamool leaders, become the purest of the pure with all earlier charges and cases frozen, as long as they remain good boys. 

The third and more recent effort is to unleash “Governor-itis”.

While destabilisation is a prime goal, there is another fundamental aspect to this method which is the BJP’s agenda of centralisation and its assault on the federal character of the constitution. Education is a prime target through centralisation and bulldozing the autonomy of educational institutions. The BJP has prirotised its agenda of introducing a toxic mix of commercialisation, communalisation and centralisation into the higher education sector in India. For this, it requires its own handpicked men and women to head these institutions. This is what happened in Gujarat when Modi was Chief Minister. Under the Gujarat University Act, it was the state government that appointed the Vice-Chancellor, the Governor had no role. That remains the case even now in Gujarat. But now the canvas for the BJP’s central agenda in education stretches beyond Gujarat to the whole country. For this, the Modi Government is using the University Grants Commission to strengthen the role of Governors in the appointment of Vice Chancellors across India, even if it means over-ruling its own state governments. Recently, in a particular individual case concerning the appointment of a Vice Chancellor in SP University in Gujarat, the Supreme Court in March 2022 struck down the appointment on the grounds that it did not follow the UGC guidelines. This judgement sets a dangerous precedent because it upholds the supremacy of UGC guidelines over that of state laws that govern different universities. This perfectly suits the framework of centralisation. It is significant that the Gujarat government has not yet appealed against this judgement.

It is no coincidence that in almost all non-BJP states, a confrontation has developed in the sphere of higher education between the Governor and the state governments. In at least five states ruled by the Opposition – Bengal in 2019, Maharashtra in December 2021, Tamil Nadu earlier this year, in Telangana recently, and in Kerala, state governments have been forced to protest and to take steps to protect the autonomy of their higher educational institutions against the encroachment by the central government, via Governors, on the legal process of the appointment of Vice Chancellors.

This brings into question the present method of appointment of Governors and their powers. Following the comprehensive recommendations of the Sarkaria Commission on centre-state relations, a second Commission was set up in April 2007 under the former Chief Justice of India MM Punchhi. It gave its report containing 247 recommendations in March 2010. It is worth quoting from that section of the report which deals with the appointment and removal of Governors.

The first and most important recommendation which, if implemented, could save the country from “Governor-itis” is that “The incumbent should stay away from active politics (even at a local level) for at least two years prior to his appointment.” Now if we look at the list of Governors appointed by the BJP, more so in the states mentioned above, every one of them has been in active politics as leading members of the BJP. It was claimed that the Kerala Governor is an exception, but according to published reports of his political career, he joined the BJP in 2004 and fought an election on the party ticket, albeit unsuccessfully, left the BJP in 2007 in protest against the distribution of tickets to “tainted” people, and rejoined it in 2015 after Narendra Modi became Prime Minister.

The oath a Governor takes on his/her appointment is that she will “preserve, protect and defend the constitution” and “devote myself to the service and well being of the people of — (name of the state to which she is appointed Governor).” An active politician appointed as Governor is more likely to serve the interests of the party in the state, and not the people as declared in the pledge. Therefore this recommendation is essential if the pledge is to be honoured. It will mean the removal of almost all Governors appointed by the Modi Government.

The second important recommendation of the Punchhi Commission is that “There should be a say of the State’s Chief Minister while making the Governor’s appointment.” If this had been implemented and the Chief Ministers’ consulted, how much time and energy of those who have the electoral mandate would be saved from the constant sniping they face from the Raj Bhavans.

Third and very relevant to the present discussion is the recommendation that the “convention of appointing governors as chancellors of universities must be ended.” Education is on the concurrent list. The role of state governments in the development of their institutions, including in the appointments of officers, is a constitutional right that must be protected. Opposition parties should come together along with the broader academic community to defend the autonomy of institutions of higher education from the present assault through Governors. It would be shortsighted to see this as a single state or party issue.

Brinda Karat is a Politburo member of the CPI(M) and a former Member of the Rajya Sabha

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.

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