We have seen that the Indian democracy is federal in nature, though it could be made unitary during extraordinary circumstances. These extraordinary circumstances usually manifest themselves during the appointment or dismissal of governments. It is for such occasions that certain discretionary powers are vested with the President or the Governor. In our country’s history, these circumstances were usually unduly created, or, occasionally, the provisions of these powers were exploited by the Union Government.
How were the two roles envisioned?
The Constituent Assembly remained silent on what qualities the President or the Governor should bring to their constitutional post. There are no guidelines prescribed by the Constitution on the nature of the office bearer. However, they are expected to be highly regarded individuals who would strive to live by constitutional values. It has hence become a custom that the President and the Governor shed their political affiliations once they assume office, keeping in role with their de jure status. Usually retired from active public life, we expect them to remain above partisan struggle to stand watch for the state machinery. In these seven decades, we have seen eminent people who, by their virtue, have shaped what these offices must stand for.
The Constituent Assembly foresaw that at a time of crisis, it is swift authority and control that could ensure democracy, and hence, bestowed upon the high offices some discretionary powers. It was expected by those holding these offices to use them wisely. But there have been occasions when these discretionary powers were blatantly misused. Though democratic consolidation comes only with how well we play with what we have, the reform of such loopholes demands equal attention.
What role do they play today?
Under normal circumstances, the roles of the President and the Governor invite no controversy whatsoever. It is highly possible that their names will be pushed to the background even when the political atmosphere is highly charged, if they have stood by their constitutional morale. Governors usually become prominent names in ongoing power tussles within a state’s parties.
Unlike the politically charged atmosphere of the seventies and the eighties, our generation has seen governments which are not vulnerable to being dismissed overnight. Yet, there have been times like those of April 30, 1977 and February 02, 1980, when tit-for-tat politics of the Union took a toll on the States and the Constitution alike. President’s rule was proclaimed on those two days in the states that were not ruled by the parties in the Union – the Janata Party and the Congress party respectively. It was only after the ruling of the Supreme Court through the S. R. Bommai v. Union of India case in 1994 that such a fiasco has not continued.
Often times, the discretionary powers bestowed upon constitutional posts is exercised by the government at the expense of constitutional expectations and norms. And being the guardian of the Constitution, it is the honourable Supreme Court that is expected to clear a dispute and give out detailed interpretations of the Constitution as a precedent to how things should be done. It is how parliamentary democracy matures. That said, the role of Governors has not completely lost its significance. With the rise of coalition politics, there have been instances where the electorate threw a hung assembly, and it was through the Governor’s role that any party was able to lay claim to the government. Often, because of the lack of rules or regard for conventions, we are baffled with arbitrary decisions of the Governors based on their previous political affiliations. But this should be considered as a caution rather than an err, noting that the role of this post undergoes changes that are possible but not previously seen. It is with cautious reform that we need to re-imagine such posts.
The government makes an appointment to constitutional posts, but once made, their functioning is no longer subject to the purview of the government or the appointee. This is because these offices are expected to owe their allegiance only to the Constitution and its principles, no one else. Their role is also such that no matter which party is in power, their job is to aid the state machinery to function. Examples of such posts other than the popular ones, include the post of the Election Commissioners and of the Comptroller and Auditor General. But these posts are at risk of being assigned as prizes to those who don’t step on the toes of the government, regardless of which party is in power. Owing to this, at a time of crisis, these posts are caught up in a bind, disabling them from using the full power of their office to defend the constitution and thereby our democracy.
Vijay Ramanathan is an undergraduate student of Mechanical Engineering at Meenakshi College of Engineering, Chennai. He is interested in pursuing a career at the intersection of Energy Systems Engineering and Public Policy.