Tamil Nadu governor R.N. Ravi’s decision to summarily dismiss V. Senthil Balaji, a state minister without portfolio, was an undeniable instance of gubernatorial excess. hereafter, he eventually kept the order in abeyance, on the advice of Union home minister Amit Shah, who told him to consult the attorney-general of India on the matter. Although the BJP is likely to cite this counsel to absolve itself of any responsibility over the blatant intrusion into the powers of the elected chief minister, the party cannot evade the accusation that it is not practicing what it preached when in Opposition on the appointment and functioning of governors.
Sample these unambiguous pledges made by the BJP in its election manifestos in the 1980s and 1990s, the period when it transformed from being a marginal Opposition party to one of governance:
*(We shall) appoint state governors in consultation with state governments, support and strengthen state governments and not
destabilise and topple them. (BJP Election Manifesto, 1984).
*Misuse of Raj Bhavans as extension counters of the ruling party at the Centre have defiled the sanctity of the country’s Constitution... (We promise to) consult state governments before appointing governors and (will) consider ways and means of preventing misuse of Raj Bhavans for political purposes. (BJP Election Manifesto, 1998).
These lines are referred to as the party fought its first parliamentary election in 1984 after its formation in 1980. The manifesto of 1998 is important because that year the party formed a coalition government after cobbling together the National Democratic Alliance.
Consultations with state governments remained a common cornerstone in 1980 and 1998, underscoring consistency in its pledges, but not carried out. Clearly, the BJP has acted no differently from other parties, the Congress chiefly, that governed at the Centre previously.
It would serve to recall the professional background of the residents of Raj Bhavans in order to affix political responsibility of the governor’s action on the BJP. After all, this was not a one-off crossing of the Rubicon. Instead, it was part of a series of instances when Mr Ravi clearly stretched his constitutional powers beyond permissible limits.
Importantly, the Patna-born Ravindra Narayan Ravi has been a governor from August 2019, a crucial marker on the calendar because that month marked the beginning of the BJP fulfilling one of its most ideologically driven promises -- the “total integration” of Jammu and Kashmir into the rest of India by first abrogating Article 370 of the Constitution. He first was the resident of Raj Bhavan in Kohima, also holding dual charge as governor of Meghalaya for a brief one-month period. Mr Ravi moved to Tamil Nadu in September 2021 after being charged by the NSCN(I-M) of sabotaging the peace talks while the Centre’s interlocutor. In Tamil Nadu too, there were accusations from almost his first day in office that he rose roughshod over the state government and chief minister M.K. Stalin, besides not clearing bills which had been passed by the state Assembly. Prior to his appointment as the Centre’s pointsman in August 2014 in the crucial Naga peace talks and thereafter as governor, Mr Ravi had a decades-long career in the Indian Police Service during which he served in the CBI, among other departments. His track record is
testimony to being adept at the functioning of state systems. Quite clearly, the BJP appointed him to this position because he fulfilled the task, first as interlocutor and thereafter as Nagaland governor. In Tamil Nadu, Mr Ravi acted as check mechanism on Mr Stalin and his DMK colleagues.
From day one, the BJP appointed two different types of governors. In the first category were those in BJP-ruled states, while the others were the individuals in Opposition-ruled states. The ones in the states ruled by BJP governments were benign and did not obstruct the state governments, but those in the states where Opposition parties were in power, the governors acted as virtual political agents of the Centre and ruling party. Shortly after Prime Minister Narendra Modi assumed office in May 2014, the BJP made it abundantly clear that it would be little different from other parties when it came to appointing governors. The Raj Bhavans became the veritable “parking lot” of leaders who had to be put in offices where they could not wield much power. Even today, former BJP leaders dominate the list of current governors.
The move which attracted the maximum criticism was in September 2014 when Justice Palanisamy Sathasivam became the first former Chief Justice of India appointed as governor. His posting to Opposition-ruled Kerala state was indicative of the BJP’s intentions. What further raised eyebrows was that in 2012-13 Justice Sathasivam was a part of the Supreme Court bench that heard the Tulsiram Prajapati false encounter Case, in which Union home minister Amit Shah was an accused. The court eventually cleared Mr Shah of the charges. Significantly, Justice Sathasivam demitted the CJI’s office in April 2014 and he was appointed Kerala governor in less than five months. Allegations of quid pro quo rent the air again in February this year when Justice S. Abdul Nazeer was appointed governor of Andhra Pradesh. The allegations were not unexpected as he was part of the bench that delivered the November 2019 Ayodhya verdict and the demonetisation case later. The appointment of these two judges is in contrast to the views of the late Union minister Arun Jaitley, who said that judges of the Supreme Court and high courts “must not be eligible for jobs in the government after retirement”.
But more than appointment, what is particularly condemnable is the way that governors have locked horns with duly-elected governments in the states governed by Opposition parties and the way in which they have been encouraged by the Centre. Most striking of these was the conflict between vice-president Jagdeep Dhankhar, when he was West Bengal governor, and the state government led by Mamata Banerjee. His “promotion” from Raj Bhavan to the vice-presidency was as direct a message as could be, that he had played true to the role in Kolkata.
In the past nine years, it has become commonplace for governors to block legislation passed by state Assemblies. All this squarely adds up to the conclusion that this government pays scant respect to the federal principle despite the Prime Minister’s initial clarion call of the idea of cooperative federalism. The list of instances when BJP-appointed governors went way beyond constitutionally mandated power vested in their office is long. Little purpose would be served by holding Mr Ravi only as guilty. He and other Governors get the green signal to function autocratically from the proverbial high command.