By Raja Murthy
MUMBAI – Political shenanigans in Bangalore are throwing the spotlight on the contentious role of governors in India’s federal democracy – as tumultuous leftovers of British colonial role.
Amid high drama, Karnataka state’s chief minister B S Yeddyurappa is struggling for survival, with defecting party legislators allegedly selling their loyalties for cash. Ongoing High Court hearings have made national headlines for a fortnight.
In steps the state’s governor, former law minister Hans Raj Bharadwaj. Continuing a dubious history of governors, who are seen as political poltergeists, Bharadwaj is expected to be a neutral referee, deciding which party has the majority to rule.
Opposition leaders are calling Bharadwaj a Congress party hatchet man, accusing the governor of engineering Congress party attempts to topple the two-year rule of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the Karnataka and Bangalore, the state capital. The Congress heads the central government in New Delhi, where the BJP leads the opposition.
Delhi-appointed governors suspected of stirring trouble in opposition ruled states have become India’s seriously recurring problem. In British-ruled India, the “Residents” in princely states were lordly watchdogs of the governor-general in Delhi. Modern-day governors appear as imperial hangover.
Their favorite tool of misuse is Article 356 of the constitution that enables the president’s rule to be declared, a theoretical trump card designed to be laid on the table only in the most extreme cases. The origins of Article 356 are a 1935 act passed in the British parliament to ensure the governor-general in Delhi retained control over unruly provinces.
Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar, called the “Father of the Indian constitution”, incorporated Article 356 as a precaution in case of total governmental breakdown in a particular state. “I hope the president, who is endowed with these powers, will take proper precautions before actually suspending the administration of the provinces,” Ambedkar wrote.
Article 356 however has featured in dismissing over 60 elected state governments, sometimes in dangerous constitutional fraud. The “President’s Rule”, as is now being prescribed for Karnataka, ejects the elected state government and hands control to the party that controls the central government.
“The fault is not in Article 356 but in the party dictatorship that India has been having in the name of democracy,” said Professor T Devidas, an expert in constitutional law at the Bangalore-based National Law School of India University. “That is the fundamental problem in crisis in center-state relations.”
By “party dictatorship” Devidas refers to India’s anti-democratic curse of many “family-owned” political parties like the Congress and Dravida Munnetra Kazhlagam. With members of a single family totally dominating the decision-making process, any criticism of the party leader is seen as unforgivable blasphemy.
Devidas told Asia Times Online that successive central governments and the Supreme Court have been ignoring inbuilt constitutional mechanisms to correct errors of governance in states.
“The Indian constitution has wonderfully incorporated human rightsand corrective measures for administrative problems, but the real problem has been in the misuse of the constitution,” Devidas said.
The misuse and “party dictatorship” reached monstrous proportions during the 15 prime ministerial years of Indira Gandhi, mother-in-law of present Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi. Indira Gandhi notoriously dismissed elected state governments 41 times.
It’s a recurring sordid story in the life and times of governors of India’s 28 states, some of the states being bigger than many countries. The southern state of Karnataka, for instance, is nearly the size of Thailand.
The constitution came to life on November 26, 1950, a product of efforts to squeeze the best of American and British constitutions into one. India’s prime minister and state chief ministers are answerable to the electorate, while the president and state governors answer to the people elected by the people.
State governors are provincial equivalent of the president of India, a constitutional rubber stamp to the prime minister. India’s 12 presidents, from Dr Rajendra Prasad (1950-1962) to Pratibha Patil (2007 onwards) have largely escaped controversies due to the president, who is also commander-in-chief of India’s armed forces, always being a ruling party loyalist. Former president Giani Zail Singh (1982-87) famously declared that he would take a broom and sweep the streets of Delhi if his party boss and prime minister Indira Gandhi ordered him to do so.
But sparks invariably fly in governorships such as Bharadwaj’s, serving a state ruled by a party that sits opposition to the central government. In many such cases, the governor and the stategovernment suffer strained relations.
Governor-related problems continue due to successive Indian governments ignoring the 1988 Sarkaria Commission Report, the most prominent among various studies on center-state relations. Retired Supreme Court Justice Rajinder Singh Sarkaria advised that the state governor should not belong to the party in power in Delhi if the state was ruled by a party forming the opposition in parliament.
“The concept that governors are agents of the center [Delhi] in itself strains the federal principle,” wrote Kansas State University Professor Krishna K Tummala in his 1996 book Public Administration in India. “To convert the [governor’s] office into a party functionary destroys not only the federal structure anddemocratic norms but also the intent of the constitution.”
Besides their constitutional liability, the governors live regally in their Raj Bhavans, palatial residences with hectares of sprawling gardens and parks occupying prime real estate in state capitals. Mahatma Gandhi would have condemned these luxurious edifices of pomp and false pride. “Turn them into hospitals or schools,” he may have inevitably instructed.
Applications through the Right to Information Act have revealed Raj Bhavan opulence merrily continuing from British Raj days. Former Punjab governor S F Rodrigues, for instance, had a staff of 130, excluding security. His retinue included six masalchis(masseurs).
The Haryana state Raj Bhavan runs with a staff of 113. The Madhya Pradesh Raj Bhavan includes a presidential suite, a Durban Hall for oath-taking ceremonies, a Enact Hall as a Durban Hall extension, a banquet hall, two guest houses, a post office, bank, library, officers’ quarters, police barracks, servants’ quarters, stores and a “forest area”.
The Maharajas Raj Bhavan in Mumbai, at land’s end in Malaga Hill, has a staff of 147, including a comptroller, aide-de-camp, a “under secretary” for catering, boatmen, head butlers, tennis boys and tailors to attend to the governor’s family and guests.
The 55 lower-ranked labor staff in the Raj Bhavan in Luc know, capital of India’s most populous state Utter Pradesh, curiously includes two “malaria coolies” and eight “mates”.
Some governors have served well with dignity, like former defense minister and Maharajah governor Chidambaram Subramanium. Sarla Grewal as Madhya Pradesh governor even paid her family’s food expenses, leaving only official lunches and dinners in the Raj Bhavan bill.
But the Bharadwaj governor tribe is accused of being only too eager to please their party bosses in the hope of a better personal political future. The post of governors has often been used to kickpoliticians “upstairs”, sometimes as a reward, retirement – or as temporary pegs on which to keep inconvenient senior party functionaries in limbo.
India’s Foreign Minister S M Krishna, for instance, became governor of Maharajah in 2004 after the Congress party found him not competent enough to continue as chief minister of Karnataka. After five years as governor in Mumbai, Krishna was back as one of the senior most cabinet ministers in the central government.
Shivraj Patil was sacked as home minister following the November 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai. But on January 22, 2010 Patil was sworn in as governor of Punjab, one of India’s most important states.