The BJP led NDA government’s very public message nudging all political appointees of the previous government to gracefully relinquish their respective offices, obviously to make way for the new government’s own appointees, exposes another embarrassing fact of the Indian Constitution. This is particularly true when it pertains to the matter of high Constitutional posts of Governors of the states and indeed the President of India. The NDA government is not alone to blame for this. They have only made public what was common knowledge all the while, but seldom said aloud out of a false deference. The fact is, though the President of India and Governors of the states are constitutional heads, and deemed to be at the apex of the power structure of the Indian State, they are so only by proxy. That is, they act on the advice of respective cabinets, the Union cabinet in the case of the President of India, and the state cabinets in the case of the Governors of the states. The Indian Constitution’s profile of the institution of the state Governors is even more intriguing. The Governor’s post is tenured and is for a fixed term of five years at a time. Yet, Article 156 of the Constitution ensures the “Governor shall hold office during the pleasure of the President”. The President in turn acts on the advice of the Union Cabinet. In other words, the Governor remains in office as long as he or she enjoys the pleasure of the ruling party at the Centre.
The Constitution therefore leaves ample rooms for these Constitutional heads to be political nominees, as indeed they are, nominated as well as dispensed at the sweet will of the political powers that be at the Centre. The current development, it goes without saying, must be extremely humiliating for all Governors appointed by the previous Congress led UPA government. Though the President of India, Pranab Mukherjee, a former very senior leader of the Congress party, is unlikely to be shown the door similarly, his job at this juncture probably would rank as one of the most unenviable, having to tow the lines of a ruling party which was and still is the arch rival of his own parent party. When critics of Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, parodied Modi’s response to the Presidential address to the first session of the Parliament last month after the UPA government was installed as Modi reacting to Modi, alluding to the fact that the Presidential address was as per tradition, prepared and preapproved by the government, it cannot have missed Mukherjee that ultimately, the joke was on him.
The situation is pitiable, as the UPA government’s message to these political appointees to gracefully resign must have amounted to putting the incumbents on the rack, leaving many of them unsure of what step to take next. Surely there would be many observers who share the opinion that the more graceful thing to do for the BJP government would have been to allow the incumbents to bear out the remainder of their tenures in silence and obscurity. The meanness involved in humiliating these ceremonial heads may serve the ends of political vendetta but it also in equal measures, threatens to demean the public esteem of these venerated Constitutional institutions. These institutions would have been best left as above politics and personal profits as Article 158 indicates. It is clear the Constitution envisioned these men and women of acknowledged eminence in the varied fields of the arts, sciences, literature, culture… as above the quotidian realities of salaried jobs, therefore Governors do not even have a salary and instead draws only emoluments, allowances and privileges. As it is, the UPA had no longer to worry about the misuse of power conferred to the Governors under Article 365 to destabilize state governments, as the provision of President’s Rule have been effectively checked. Invocations of Article 356 now have been made open to judicial reviews following the landmark S. R. Bhommai versus Union of India case, 1994.
The Governors of the states have another function which was once deemed very important to the nascent modern Indian State, as Constitutional expert Fali S. Nariman points out in his latest book “The State of the Nation”. Apart from being the Constitutional head in the states, his role is also to be the eye and the ear of the Centre. The Governors are to send regular reports of the political situation in the states to the President of India, which actually means the Union Cabinet of which the Prime Minister is the head. This Constitutional provision betrays an inherent existential suspicion of the states by the Centre, and in the beginning understandably too considering modern India was formed by yoking together 560 princely States, many of whom were unwilling to join India. At the time the Constitution was being written, the country had still not recovered from the cataclysmic trauma of Partition, and there was the real threat of it further disintegrating too. But those days are long gone and India is a radically different country today from what it was six and a half decades ago. It needs no longer suffer from the insecure hangover of its birth pangs, for the ‘original intents’ of most of these clauses of the Constitution have in the time that has passed by become anachronistic and redundant. Nariman has a recommendation. Since changing the Constitution’s basic features has become virtually impossible after a post-Emergency remedial amendment, these now redundant features of the Constitution should be allowed to remain only in theory, but never to be put into practice again. The renowned legal luminary’s emotional appeal to the “brooding spirit” of the law needs to be listened to attentively to save further eroding of the public esteem of the Constitution.
Leader writer: Pradip Phanjoubam