When it comes to observing constitutional proprieties, the Congress seems determined to return to its old capricious ways. The story is now familiar: Sri Prakash installing Rajagopalachari, Sampurnanand supporting Sukhadia, Tapase betraying Devi Lal. To this illustrious roster we can now add, Jamir installing Rane. And in an even more bizarre move, Razi inviting Shibu Soren to form a government. The office of the governor does not have many powers, but it does have the power to make or break governments. The Congress, it appears, is determined to ensure that governors exercise this power in its favour. Constitutional proprieties be damned.
Admittedly, the decision on whom to invite to form a government when no clear party or coalition has a majority is a complex one. There can be no standard formula in such cases. But Syed Sibtey Razi's decision to invite Shibu Soren and then give him three weeks to prove his majority violates all constitutional decencies. The National Democratic Alliance was only four short of a majority, it claimed to have paraded the requisite number before the governor. The decent thing to do would have been to give them a chance to prove their support on the floor of the house. Perhaps the lead time allowed for proving a majority could have been short. Yet Razi chose to invite the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha leader.
In 1952 when Sri Prakash installed Rajagopalachari, Nehru was unhappy with the decision. He wrote to Rajaji that 'the one thing we must avoid giving is the impression that we stick to office and we want to keep others out at all costs.' But this is exactly the impression Congress is giving: its antics in Goa constitute a new low; it barely has a dozen seats in Bihar but is bending over backwards to manoeuvre the outcome in its favour, and in Jharkhand, its alliance did not emerge as even the single largest coalition. Perhaps Mr Razi was acting on his own accord, as Sri Prakash did. But the Congress's shadow over this affair is difficult to shake off.
It could be argued that the Congress's opponents, the NDA, are no saints either. But it would be difficult to make the case that any party has committed as much hara kiri on the office of the governor as the Congress. One of its very first actions in power was to remove three governors, in a move that was to set a precedent for how the party views this office: as an instrument of the Centre's political fancy. In its quest for power, the party has forgotten one basic political lesson: playing constitutional footsie may bring you short term gains, but it will definitely erode your long term credibility. Remember the dark days when the Congress did everything it could to undermine a healthy federalism' Recall the Congress political style of choosing leaders, even in its own party in backroom deals rather than by open vote' The Congress is ensuring that the same style now penetrates the functioning of constitutional offices.
The UPA government came with a mandate to provide a clean beginning on many fronts: secularism, economic policy and governance. But it is difficult to imagine how it is going to claim any measure of political propriety if it fails to capture the high moral ground on constitutional and administrative questions. Its discretionary use of the Central Bureau of Investigation, much in line with the broader political culture, raises serious questions about what the UPA means by good governance. The Congress should remember that its credentials to represent India became suspect, not because its ideology was unsound. It was rather because it acquired the reputation of a party that will sacrifice not only its principle, but political morality, on the altar of expediency. It is a real pity that just at the moment when the party was settling into an interesting policy groove, taking new initiatives on economic and foreign policy, it has chosen to remind the people that it cannot always be trusted to exemplify the highest constitutional and political values. By showing a little restraint, it would have given the NDA rope to hang itself. The NDA will only garner more sympathy if it appears that it has been cheated out of office. The Congress has instead directed attention to its own weaknesses rather than played on its strengths.
In some ways this is not surprising. Sonia Gandhi's core political team, if not her policy stalwarts, are legendary in backroom politics. Arjun Singh's career exemplifies what is wrong with Congress politics. Here is a man who can never win elections on his own, but can still control levers of power. Admittedly, this is true of the prime minister as well ' but the prime minister at least sticks to his comparative advantage ' crafting policy. If the political team of the party is dominated by people who understand neither mass politics, nor new policy initiatives, it is little wonder that the party will spend its time in back room manoeuvring. It will be little wonder that the party will think that constitutional principles are no more than expedients in club politics.
Given the constraints on coalition politics, it will be too much to expect the Congress to clean its stables thoroughly. But the least it could have done is not gone out of its way to violate norms. The manner in which the Congress seems to be able to manipulate the office of the governor exemplifies, not just the crisis of constitutional morality, but also Congress culture itself. It is perhaps only fitting that the office of the governor should expose the Congress's Achilles heel. It was the one office that Nehru himself thought could be governed largely by trusting convention and the stature of the governor. He himself refused to countenance any measures that would ensure that the governor is not overtly partisan. (It was his great failing to assume that the world was composed of people like him!) Despite visible abuse of this office, even in his own time, he seems to have done little to rein in governors. None of the successive recommendations made by the Sarkaria Commission on the norms governors should follow in inviting parties to form government have ever been seriously contemplated. Thus we are left at the mercy of convention and morality, two things in short supply indeed.
Perhaps little constitutional quibblings ought not to exercise us so much. But in a democracy, all that stands between arbitrary power and the people is deference to constitutional morality. None of our values can survive if we have a political culture that, in Nehru's phrase, 'wants to keep others out at all costs'. The Congress has just reminded us of how precariously our constitutional fabric hangs. All of its policy initiatives will come to naught if it always appears so desperate for power.