Opinion

Vital Office, Not Sinecure

Thinking people anxious to see Centre-State relations function smoothly and develop along healthy lines will need to devote greater attention to the office of the Governor. Interest in the matter has been stimulated by the annual conference of Governors, especially the address of the President, Giani Zail Singh. Significantly, the President spelt out some of his own ideas and spotlighted the special role of Governors.

Among other things, he said the Governors had a special responsibility as Chancellors of Universities and should help achieve “the real purpose” of education, namely, mould character and develop the mind and intellect. The President also stated: “I believe that Governors by virtue of their mature experience and objective perception of events can make valuable contribution to the administration of the State through impartial and sincere advice and counselling.” But the question is: are the Governors today in a position to offer impartial objective and sincere advice and play the role expected of them?

Impartially and objectivity are important at any time for a Governor, who is a link between the State and the Centre. But they are even more so today on two counts. First, Centre-State relations are under strain as never before and there is need to turn our thoughts towards ways and means of ensuring harmonious and cooperative relations.

Second, the President has clarified that the Governor has to exercise his own judgment and discretion in the appointment of a Chief Minister when no single party commands a majority. One Governor, it may be recalled, had sought clear-cut guidelines in the matter, which relates to the most important power exercised by him. Giani Zail Singh said there was no power vested in any authority to issue any directions to the Governor or lay down any codes or rules for his guidance. The Governor, he added, would “have to act according to the provisions of the Constitution and his oath of office in the light of the circumstances obtaining at the time.”

Unfortunately, things today are not what they were originally envisaged by the founding fathers of our Constitution. Many healthy conventions built around the office of the Governor during the Nehru regime have fallen by the wayside. Indeed, few institutions have suffered greater devaluation over the past two decades. Things have come to such a sorry pass that a question mark has even gone up over the term of the Governor. He is no longer supposed to be appointed for five years, as stipulated in the Constitution. Instead, he is now supposed to hold the office only “during the pleasure of the President”, provoking a well-known former Governor to candidly comment: “Governors can now be fired at will. How can you expect anyone to be impartial, objective and sincere under such conditions.”

Consequently, not many eminent persons are inclined any more to accept the high office and give the country the benefit of their experience and knowledge. The present set of Governors, undoubtedly, has some good men. But quite a few incumbents leave much to be desired, to put it politely.

Contrary to a popular impression, the office of Governor is not an ornamental sinecure. Nor is the holder required to be an “inert cipher”, to quote a colourful expression used by the late M.C. Setalvad in his Report of the Study Team on Centre-State relations submitted in September 1967. A Governor has a responsibility both towards the Centre and as the head of State. This task is rendered more difficult as he is required to do this more through influence than by the exercise of power.

If Governors are to fulfill their obligations properly, nothing is as important as the need to ensure that only the right persons are appointed.

As emphasized by the Setalvad Team, a Governor “must be a person who by his ability, character and behavior inspires respect. He must be able to display perception and judgment and an understanding of political and social forces and an insight into human motives. He must possess great reservoirs of tact, initiative and patience. He must have and preferably also experience of the affairs of Government and administration. Above all, he must be impartial”.

Admittedly, these qualities are not easy to find in a single person. Many of those who have filled the posts of Governors have fallen short of the standard or, shall I say, woefully short. But the real reason for this state of affairs is not the paucity of suitable persons but the “lowly place” given to the post of Governor in the minds of those responsible for making these appointments. Much of this is due to what experts describe as the existence of one-party Government at the Centre and in the States and the consequent development of a direct axis between the Centre and a State Chief Minister. Circumstances devalued the post and in the bargain the standard of selection of Governors also fell. Regretfully, the post came to be treated largely as a sinecure for mediocrities or as a consolation prize for “burnt-out” politicians. Most of the persons selected were old men of the ruling party at the Centre. The Janata Party did no better when it ruled at the Centre, barring a couple of exceptions.

There is urgent need to get the Centre to radically change its attitude towards gubernatorial appointments. The posts should not be treated as sinecures. Instead, they must be given due recognition as vital offices in India’s federal polity. Governors should be selected on the basis of merit, not of patronage and politics. In fact, much of this was emphasised by the Setalvad Team which also stated the following: “We cannot believe that enough men of the right calibre cannot be found in this big country… We would recommend that systematic and careful search should be made to locate the best men, and that this should be done not after a vacancy arises but well in advance. We would not go so far as to say that those who have taken part in politics should be totally barred from consideration. But we should suggest that the selection should not be confined to the party in power at the Centre, and that in fact the search for talent should extend not only outside the ruling party but outside the political sphere itself.”

In the past decade and more, there has been an increasing tendency to appoint retired civil servants to these posts. True, many among them possess a wealth of knowledge and have vast administrative experience. They also have talent and acumen in a remarkable degree. Some are even distinguished. However, the impression created in the public mind is that, by reason of their habit and training, they lack the degree of independence and impartiality which would inspire confidence at the State end. The impression persists even when some of them as Governors, including those who currently hold office or retired recently, have acted boldly and impartially. The answer perhaps lies in making two things clear, as much in the interest of the retired civil servants as of public men. First, it should be clarified that a Governor will hold office for a full term of five years except where he is no longer able to shoulder the responsibility or is guilty of any act not in keeping with the honour or dignity of the high office.

Two other conventions need to be established if a Governor is to function impartially and independently not only in relation to the Chief Minister but also to the Centre except where he must enforce central directions issued under the Constitution. As the Setalvad Committee observed, “it would promote independence and impartiality if all occasions were removed for the Governor either to seek support of his Chief Minister for the extension of his term or to curry favour with the Centre to obtain an extension or an appointment in another State.” The end in view could be achieved if a convention is adopted that a Governor’s term of office shall in no case be extended beyond five years. (The Constitution prescribes that a Governor shall hold office till his successor arrives.) Secondly, no person who is appointed Governor should take part in politics after his appointment — and, what is more, after he has relinquished office.

One question remains: should a Chief Minister be consulted by the Centre before the selection of a Governor is finalized. Not a few argue that the convention set up during Nehru’s time for prior consultation with the Chief Minister should be done away with. There is no constitutional obligation, they assert, for such consultation as the Governor is to be appointed by the President. Moreover, they put forward two other points. First, a powerful Chief Minister tends under the arrangement to get a Governor for himself who is suitably pliable. Second, consultation with a Chief Minister does not have much meaning in a situation in which Chief Ministers come and go according to changing political fortunes. Nevertheless, experts are agreed that there is merit in consulting the Chief Minister beforehand, as strongly advocated by Alladi Krishnaswamy in the Constituent Assembly. Such a procedure, he said, would help establish “a close link” between the Centre and the “provinces”, as the States were then called, and avert the possibility of clashes.

Alas, the positive role of the Governor and his dual responsibility under the Constitution is still not understood. Much of the trouble in regard to the office of Governor has arisen because of the widely held but erroneous belief that the Governor is essentially a representative of the President in the State — and is, therefore, subservient to the authorities at the Centre. Matters have been made worse by many of the Governors acting under this belief. (Instances are not unknown when Governors were provided drafts of reports which they then formally sent to New Delhi.) This erroneous belief has expectedly caused distrust in the States, especially those not ruled by the party in power at the Centre.

The Governor undoubtedly has a responsibility towards the President, as reflected in the fortnightly reports which Nehru got them to send in accordance with a decision taken in June 1948. (Curiously, the Governors now send only monthly reports!) But the Governor also has special responsibility as the head of State. All in all, the Governor must be enabled to function impartially without fear or favour in the best interest of our federal Republic. — INFA

 

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