AA Edit | Governors must now fall in line with definition of role

Supreme Court's Ruling: Governors Can't Sit Indefinitely on Bills, Upholds Legislative Powers and Democratic Principles

The suggestion made by the Supreme Court to Kerala governor Arif Mohammed Khan to read its judgment in a case filed by the Punjab government seeking its intervention against Mr Banwarilal Purohit who is the governor there delaying signing of bills passed by the state Assembly into law brings a sense of finality to the contentious issue of governors nationwide sitting on bills indefinitely and frustrating the efforts of state legislatures. The Kerala government has also moved court on a similar ground against Mr Khan, and the latter has been told get back to the court when it takes up the case for hearing this week.

In the landmark judgment in the case filed by the Punjab government, a Supreme Court bench headed by Chief Justice of India D.Y. Chandrachud decided that Article 200 of the Constitution gives the governor no luxury to sit on bills presented to them and that if they choose to withhold their assent to a bill, they have to return it to the Assembly “as soon as possible”. In fact, a fair reading of the article would convince anyone that the Constitution which says “the governor may, as soon as possible after the presentation to him of the bill for assent, return the bill …with a message requesting that the House will reconsider [it]” gives the governor no power to hold it forever. However, the absence of an express directive on the course of action in case of withholding the bill in the Article has some of the governors arrogating to themselves the power to condemn bills to death by withholding assent to them.

The Supreme Court has filled that gap and has upheld the lawmaking powers of the legislature and thereby the representative democracy that we follow. It has held in no uncertain terms that “the governor, as an unelected head of the state, is entrusted with certain constitutional powers. However, this power cannot be used to thwart the normal course of lawmaking by the state legislatures”. The court also made it clear that if the governor does not return the bill, then “he would be in a position to virtually veto the functioning of the legislative domain by a duly elected legislature by simply declaring that assent is withheld without any further recourse. Such a course of action would be contrary to fundamental principles of a constitutional democracy based on a parliamentary pattern of governance.”

Now that the Supreme Court has clarified the course of action for the governors, it should move on to decide on the time they can take to decide on giving asset to a bill or returning it to the legislature. The Constitution-makers trusted the elder statesmen who would be governors and left that decision to their wisdom; they would have never envisaged a scenario when party-poopers with little concern for the basic ideas of democracy would ever cross the gates of the Raj Bhavans and sit there to condemn legislative decisions to death.

It must be remembered that it is the right of the citizens to benefit from the laws passed by the legislatures. It is hence incumbent upon the apex court, armed under Article 142 with the discretionary power to “pass such decree or make such order as is necessary for doing complete justice in any cause or matter pending before it” to remove every impediment that stands between the citizen and legislative actions. Fixing a time limit for the governors to decide on giving assent to bills will remove one such impediment.

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