The role of governors is in the news again. Their actions across several states — Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, West Bengal — have been questioned. Recently, the Supreme Court had to hear a case where the governor of Punjab did not summon the assembly after the cabinet’s recommendation. Tamil Nadu governor R N Ravi is also in the news after he returned a Bill that bans online gambling for reconsideration (the Constitution provides him with this power). He had earlier skipped reading parts of the Governor’s Address (which is passed by the state cabinet as the government’s policy plan). These incidents raise the question on the governor’s role as per the Indian Constitution.
The Constituent Assembly had discussed the position of the governor in great detail. The Provincial Constitution Committee (chaired by Patel) agreed with the Union Constitution Committee (chaired by Nehru) that a parliamentary form of government was suitable for the country, and that the governor be directly elected by adult franchise. The draft Constitution incorporated this provision. However, while debating this provision, the Constituent Assembly changed this process to a direct appointment by the President. Many members felt that an elected governor would undermine the authority of the chief minister. They also reasoned that an impartial individual needed to be nominated to the post, instead of a person elected on a party ticket.
The other question was the role of the governor in relation to the chief minister. The final formulation (Article 163) reads: “There shall be a Council of Ministers with the chief minister at the head to aid and advise the Governor in the exercise of his functions, except in so far as he is by or under this Constitution required to exercise his functions or any of them in his discretion”. The Governor has discretion only in cases where it was provided in other Articles of the Constitution (such as the Sixth Schedule related to tribal areas of Assam). Indeed, Ambedkar clarified, “The Governor under the Constitution has no functions which he can discharge by himself; no functions at all”.
Over the last 70 years, two questions have kept cropping up. Are individuals appointed by the central government able to maintain their independence from the political preference of the central government? What is the level of discretion that governors have in their decision-making powers?
The Constitution provides the governor full discretion for certain actions such as special powers in some states in the North-East. There are some other areas where the governor needs to exercise judgement. For example, after an election, the governor will have to decide whom to invite to form government whenever a single party or coalition does not have a clear majority. The decision to dissolve the assembly also has to be made if no one is able to demonstrate majority support in the legislative assembly.
The governor also has to act in certain circumstances when the unity of the nation is at stake. The governor has full discretion to recommend the dismissal of the chief minister and imposition of President’s rule. Clearly, no chief minister is likely to recommend such an action, and this decision has to be made by the governor.
Indeed, the frequency of imposition of President’s rule indicates the type of relationship between the centre and states across the last 70 years. Until 1966, when the centre and most states were mostly governed by the same party, the number of states that had President’s rule was 1.1 per year on average. This number rose to 6 between 1967 (when the Congress party lost several state elections) and 1993. In 1994, the Bommai judgment curtailed the use of this power, and the number has fallen to 1.5 since then. However, the last few years has seen the tension rising again with governors delaying Bills and taking other steps contrary to the decisions of the state cabinet.
Six high-level committees and commissions have looked into the issue. These include three in the 1969-71 period, the Sarkaria Commission in the 1980s, the National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution and the Punchhi Commission in the 2000s. These commissions suggested that the governor should be an individual from a different state who was not recently involved in politics, and that the chief minister should be consulted before appointment. They recommended security of tenure and term limits to ensure independence. They also said that President’s Rule should be a last resort, and that the confidence in a government should be tested only on the floor of the House.
Most of these recommendations — except the confidence-test rule which has been mandated by the Supreme Court — have been ignored. And we continue to see tensions in the relationship between the governor and the state government.