The ongoing political drama in Tamil Nadu once again focuses the spotlight on the role of the Governor of a state. The Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu sent in his resignation letter to the Governor on the first Sunday of February, 2017. The Governor, who was holding additional charge of the state of Tamil Nadu, was, on that day, ensconced in the salubrious climes of Tamil Nadu’s premier hill station, Ooty. What he did subsequently defies comprehension. Instead of moving immediately to Chennai to ascertain who in the ruling party enjoyed the confidence of its legislators, he chose to decamp from the state, apparently reaching Mumbai via Delhi a day later. Meanwhile, the outgoing Chief Minister, after communing with the spirit of his mentor, decided that he would rather continue as Chief Minister. The subsequent Mahabharata saw the s**t hit the ceiling, with the current Chief Minister and his likely successor, a long-time confidant of the deceased Chief Minister, trading ugly charges of conspiracy that would have done credit to a William Shakespeare play.
More to the point, what ought to concern us is not the Tamil Nadu drama, which has all the makings of a successful Tamil movie, but the way in which, once again, the institution of the Governor has taken a beating. Governors have come (and gone) in all shapes, sizes and political hues, contributing more than their share of controversy to the wonder that is India. We have seen Governors pressurising administrations of Universities to alter marks of politically influential students, indulging in unbecoming behaviour in Raj Bhavans and, recently, leaving after allegations of sexual harassment. More par for the course have been the efforts of Governors to interfere with the constitutional process for government formation in the states (especially opposition ruled ones), generally at the behest of the political masters who appointed them. Arunachal Pradesh is still fresh in our memory, with the death of one Chief Minister and the overthrow of another following gubernatorial actions; ditto for Uttarakhand, where it needed the Supreme Court to reestablish constitutional norms. Any government coming to power in Delhi exercises its divine right to sack existing incumbents and appoint its chosen favourites as Governors. Out of work or inconvenient politicians are generally the first choices, though the list often extends to bureaucrats, police officers and army officers who have established good equations with the ruling dispensation. There being nothing like a free lunch, especially in statecraft, favours have to be returned by the appointees, mostly through political meddling and (in case of opposition ruled states) making life difficult for the government of the day. Rare, or nonexistent, would be the Governor who takes any decision of consequence without the prior nod of the political bosses in Delhi. A more recent bad habit of the central government has been its propensity to not appoint a full-time Governor for a state but to give additional charge to another Governor. A major state like Tamil Nadu, which has had more than its share of political turmoil and natural calamities in recent months, has been among the victims of this cavalier approach of the Delhi Sultanate.
It would, of course, be unfair to tar all Governors with the same brush. There have been outstanding personalities like Surjit Singh Barnala and Gopalkrishna Gandhi, who have not only displayed qualities of independence from the Delhi Darbar but have also rendered sage counsel to their state governments. In my own karmabhumi of Maharashtra, I remember the quiet dignity of C. Subramaniam, the political father of India’s green revolution and the dedication of P. C. Alexander to removing the developmental backlog of the Vidarbha, Marathwada and Konkan regions of the state. Despite being close to both Indira and Rajiv Gandhi and being appointed Governor by a Congress government in 1993, Dr. Alexander enjoyed a close rapport with the Shiv Sena-BJP government in Maharashtra and, paradoxically, was supported by these parties for elevation to the post of President of India, though not by the Congress Party, proving that a Governor can endear himself to all shades of political opinion through a professional, nonpartisan approach.
However, since such Governors are the exception rather than the rule, there is need, in a situation where, increasingly, the centre and states are ruled by parties with different ideologies and political beliefs, for the Governors of states to be selected by an independent process. I suggest that Governors should be selected by a collegium comprising the Vice President of India, the Prime Minister, the Chief Justices of the Supreme Court and the concerned State High Court and the Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha. This would ensure that a totally incompetent political apparatchik is not foisted on an unwilling state government. It also gives scope for a reasoned choice where a state faces major challenges like insurgency, political instability or law and order breakdown.
Nonpartisan choices of competent public figures for the post of Governor are the need of the hour in a scenario where the professional politician in power in the states is increasingly pandering to the urges of the lowest common multiple in the electorate and is concerned only with hanging on to power at all costs, consequences be damned. More disturbingly, political flunkies who, as Governors, act neither as per convention nor in accordance with the Constitution damage the credibility of the democratic process. A misstep in a state like Tamil Nadu with a history of strong local sentiment could well have consequences that endanger the federal consensus that is the bulwark of a republican democracy. The sooner the political elite of Lutyens’ Delhi realise this, the better it will be for the health of the Indian polity.