Constitutional Propriety: Remember the oath, Governor

Democracy is not majoritarianism, and ensuring that crucial distinction between the two suppositions is the invaluable role of the Governor
Last Updated 18 November 2020, 23:53 IST

Globally, the layered idea of ‘democracy’ has been in retreat, with simplistic questions abounding the procedures and subtilities that beset its functioning. Rise of uber-nationalistic politics has unleashed restlessness, impatience and aversion to the systemic checks and balances that accompany and often nuance the discourse to curb unconstitutional activism under the garb of speed and efficiency. The deliberate diminishment and enfeeblement of various restorative constitutional institutions is a byproduct of that misplaced enthusiasm that invariably weakens democracy and encourages authoritarian tendencies.

India prides itself as the world’s largest democracy, but it is also recognised as a ‘flawed democracy’, as the Economist Intelligence Unit, under its Democracy Index ratings, puts it. Worse, India’s ratings have slipped a further 10 ranks in 2020 to a dismal 51st rank globally. Even the once model democratic culture of politics in the US has suffered due to the intolerant and dismissive era of the Trump tenure, which ensured that the US, too, got demoted from the status of ‘full democracy’ to a ‘flawed democracy’. Filling supposedly apolitical posts with incorrigibly and unapologetically partisan individuals has been the hallmark style of compromising democracy. While a certain degree of partisanship is natural, given the nomination process to constitutional bodies, yet the decay to overt-politicisation of domains like constitutional posts, judiciary, investigative agencies, etc., has been unprecedented in its brazenness.

In the Indian experiment in democracy, the optics surrounding the role of Governors/Lt Governors of states and Union Territories has brought up similar concerns. All political parties have misused the gubernatorial offices by appointing loyalists who often insisted on retaining their partisan slant whilst in office and invoked convenient precedents or made controversial decisions, especially in the formation or dismal of state governments.

The first gubernatorial dissonance occurred way back in 1957, when Governor Ramakrishna Rao locked horns with the Communist leader EMS Namboodiripad in Kerala and set the template for Delhi’s footprint in the states. History was to repeat itself ingloriously with some questionable decisions made by some gubernatorial appointees, but many more upheld the constitutional restraint. The essential veneer of apolitical civility and anchorage was broadly maintained, at least in the day-to-day functioning that essentially necessitated the maintenance of formal procedures, postures and language. Sadly, today, even those basics have surrendered to a competitive bid by some gubernatorial appointees to ingratiate themselves to ‘Delhi’. The political obsequiousness of some appointees has degenerated to unbelievable lows that openly manifests in the daily run-ins with the state governments and in the shockingly political diatribe. The silence of ‘Delhi’ in this melee of constitutional regression can be construed as tacit acceptance or even encouragement.

Namoodiripad had then warned against the “office being used as a fifth-wheel in the constitutional set-up.” The Sarkaria Commission had acknowledged that some Governors were “unable to shed their political inclinations, predilections and prejudices while dealing with different political parties within the state. As a result, sometimes, the decisions they take in their discretion appear as partisan and intended to promote the interests of the ruling party in the Union government.” But today’s regression of gubernatorial politicisation is much deeper, with Centre-state disagreements predicated on dangerously creative interpretations of constitutional restraints that routinely sully the constitutional dignity and propriety of the office of the ‘conscience keeper.’

One recently demitted appointee from a North-Eastern state has made or supported provocative tweets like “boycott everything Kashmiri,” or on getting questioned about the “fighting spirit” of Hindus had incredulously stated, “one exception was Gujarat, 2002. I’m glad you appreciate what Hindus did then?” Today, his twitter handle bears the descriptor, “Unabashedly Right-wing Hindu socio-political activist, thinker, writer, ideologue. Former Governor.”

But, perhaps, the most significant indiscretion of constitutional restraint was the mocking of ‘secularism’ by a Governor who asked the state’s Chief Minister if he had, “turned secular”? Beyond the violation of oath under Article 159 mandating that the Governor protects, preserves and defends the Constitution of India (irrespective of ideological difference of opinion with any of its elements), the cavalier way of expressing that violation in the form of a public letter suggests the impunity with which the morass of overt politicisation has set in. That the said ‘conscience keeper’ of a state should choose to express his angst by casually invoking the sacred, reconciliatory and reassuring tenet of ‘secularism’ is highly regrettable.

Already, the gubernatorial post is lazily attributed the notions of ‘rubber stamp’ appointees, ‘geriatric retirement homes’ and the refuge of ‘political has-beens’. However, given the tenuous federal relationships, socio-political polarisation and constitutional laxities, the role of the ‘conscience keeper’ cannot be overstated.

The real issue today is not of too many ‘roadblocks’ to daily governance, but of inadequate checks and balances to ensure no abuse of electoral numbers. Democracy is not majoritarianism, and ensuring that crucial distinction between the two suppositions is the invaluable role of the Governor. As the world awakens to the debilitating after-effects of tinkering with democratic and constitutional traditions, a seemingly new dawn of restorative democratic sobriety is on the horizon from New Zealand to, now, even in the United States! Indian citizenry, too, must introspect and insist that those who hold such constitutional posts behave in a manner befitting constitutional correctness and restraint.

The shining example of the late Somnath Chatterjee, the former Speaker of Lok Sabha, who chose to uphold the apolitical mandate of his constitutional post, illustrates the practical challenges. The lifelong Communist had refused to toe his party line on the UPA government’s trust vote and was, sadly, expelled.

Presciently, Chatterjee later suggested that all future Speakers should be required to resign from principal party membership to ensure non-partisan behaviour. Unfortunately, no such move was initiated, and many subsequent constitutional appointees failed to match up to the exacting standards of Chatterjee’s constitutionality. As the ‘first citizen’ of constitutional expectations, gubernatorial appointees, above all, must remain sensitive and restrained in expression and conduct.

(Published 18 November 2020, 21:48 IST)

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