In the theatre of Pakistani politics, last week’s election has unfolded as a perplexing drama, leaving citizens and global observers questioning the trajectory of the country’s democratic journey.
Jokes about Raj Bhawans/ Raj Niwases being ‘old age homes’ for political geriatrics are passé. In an era of openly “XYZ-mukt” politics (read, opposition free), where the only sliver of hope to defend the federal spirit, contrarian perspective and therefore the opposition governments linger, these very Raj Bhawans/Raj Niwases are duly invoked. The role and relevance of gubernatorial appointees is sadly and increasingly more partisan than constitutional, especially in opposition-ruled states.
But to suggest that this is a completely new phenomenon would be equally partisan. The reality is all governments irrespective of their ideological persuasion have been guilty of misusing the apolitical and constitutional offices. Indeed, the infamous Article 356 that allows the Governor to call for President’s Rule has been imposed 132 times, and mostly by those on opposition benches today. However, the stated belief of the Governor that there has been a “failure of constitutional machinery in the state” is thankfully given to extra rigour, necessities, and consideration by the landmark case of Bommai vs Union of India (1994), which insists on, before her/his individual opinion amongst other measures, the passing of a No-Confidence Motion in the State Assembly. With the arbitrariness of the process withdrawn to a great extent, the frequency of abusing the provisions have largely stalled. Also, Indian democracy has matured to take disdain to such brazen disruptions of democracy.
But perhaps the more abiding reason for lesser misuse of the constitutional post by the ‘first citizen’ of a State/Union Territory was owing to the personal commitment to democratic moorings and federal spirit by the politically disparate likes of IK Gujral, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and Manmohan Singh ~ none of them sought any variation of “XYZ-mukt” era.
They were given to a certain genteelness, political refinement and personal dignity that abhorred the illiberal and authoritarian streak that had peaked with the proclamation of Emergency in 1975. Each of them fought the opposition hard, but fair and square.
In that era of relatively empowered institutions, freer media and more independent offices of constitutional posts, it was not uncommon to see the President of India “return the file for reconsideration” (constitutionally polite, but effective way of conveying disagreement at the Government’s suggestion ~ many of which entailed ‘recommendations’ by Governors).
The constitutional system of checks-and-balances was in place and working effectively. Despite original partisan affiliations, those like the brilliant President KR Narayanan cut short Governor Romesh Bhandari’s wily attempt to pull the rug from under the Kalyan Singh Government in Uttar Pradesh. Then Prime Minister IK Gujral had quietly acquiesced, without innuendoes, theatrics or aspersions. In many ways, the restrained ways of the national executive and its political leadership influenced the tenor of the office of the Governors as these too reflected the overarching political sensibilities of the times.
Recent years have birthed a decidedly more ‘muscular’ and ‘winner-takes-it-all’ sort of political environment that seemingly encourages all to shun the restraint, rectitude and sobriety of the recent past and partake in more visible aggression. Sadly, many supposedly (though never really so) apolitical institutions and even constitutional offices are increasingly seen to be eerily silent, accommodating and even championing partisan causes. Healthy dissent is again, almost gone.
Expectations of the sort of template for the ideal gubernatorial appointee were inadvertently framed when a particularly ‘active’ and ‘engaged’ appointee who had the most inelegant, indecorous and vituperative run-ins with his Chief Minister (who undoubtedly was at her combative and fiery self), was soon promoted to the second-highest constitutional post of India. The cue was taken and soon the Raj Bhawans/Raj Niwases from Delhi, Chandigarh, Thiruvananthapuram, Chennai et al were at the forefront of what seemed to be partisan tilts. Again, to reiterate, even prior to current times one can confirm from personal experience that many times one had to confront ‘requests’ from clearly partisan ranks on the assumption that one would heed to the same owing to ‘assumed co-partisanship’.
I clearly remember taking up some of these jarring instances with the then Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh himself and I clearly recollect his reassuring message to stay focused on Relief and Rehabilitation work (Andaman & Nicobar Island had been hit by a devastating Tsunami and Dr Singh had tasked me with very specific deliverables) and not worry about such distractions at all. I had never enrolled in any political party before joining the constitutional post (nor after relieving the same) and yet to his credit, Dr Singh had retained my tenure for over six years and added yet another Union Territory, later.
My non-party card holding status was not held against me. It wasn’t necessarily about the party in power then, as much as it was about the political leadership at a given time, much like the equally liberal and democratic spirit of the dispensation and personal preferences of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, prior to Manmohan Singh era. But now the environment is again sullied with unprecedentedly fractious and bitter exchanges between the gubernatorial appointees and the opposition-ruled States.
While dismissing Governments may no longer be the deployed medium, the refusal to provide assent to various bills and constant bickering and one-upmanship that sounds and looks like petty partisan disagreements (as opposed to constitutional concerns) seems to be the norm. Again, it is not to suggest that the elected Chief Ministers are necessarily measured in their approach or speech (but politicians have never been so) ~ but the Governors as the conscience keeper of the Constitution are expected to be the bigger people in the argument with far more dignity, as opposed to out-slanging the politicians.
Today, the Supreme Court (perhaps the last bastion of contrarian views) had to intervene and pull up a State Governor for “indefinitely sitting over” bills passed in the State Assembly and warning that “you are playing with fire”! Ironically, a resolution that was tellingly titled ‘Centre’s assault on the federal structure of the Indian Union’ that was passed by the current ruling party’s National Executive in 2010 (when it was in the opposition, then) had quoted Sarkaria Commission, “The Commission had also made some specific recommendations about the role of Governors and also proposed that active politicians should not be appointed to that post.
However, Governors in several states are flouting these norms, obviously at the Centre’s instigation.” Today, only the tables have turned as those in opposition then are in power now and the same flouting of spirit, propriety and constitutional morality continues unabated, only perhaps shriller than ever before. There is clearly no ‘party with a difference’ ~ perhaps only ‘individuals with a difference’ who can frankly come up from either of the main ideological alternatives e.g., Manmohan Singh or an Atal Bihari Vajpayee
(The writer is Lt Gen PVSM, AVSM (Retd), and former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Puducherry)