New Delhi, June 17: In resigning the governorship of Uttar Pradesh today, retired bureaucrat B.L. Joshi may have embraced a propriety that has not been part of India’s political practice.
A political appointee of the UPA era, shown out of power in May, Joshi was the only one of more than half-a-dozen governors to respond to an informal nudge from the successor NDA government and vacate office. The rest either feigned no knowledge they were unwanted or, through proxy voices, sought the protection of a 2010 Supreme Court ruling that governors cannot be removed on account of their political or ideological leanings.
There are at least two embarrassing ironies boring through the legal armour erected by some Congress-nominated governors: the Congress has been the most rampant practitioner of running the political broom through Raj Bhavans, and, two, the Supreme Court ruling now being used as defence was actually a stricture on the UPA’s axe on governors in 2004 which the highest court found offensive.
Soon after assuming office a decade ago, the UPA had dismissed four NDA-appointed governors — Vishnu Kant Shastri, Kidarnath Sahni, Kailashpati Mishra and Bhai Parmanand — on the grounds that it thought their ideology and politics unpalatable. The Supreme Court responded to a challenge with a unanimous ruling that said: “The governor cannot be removed on the ground that he is out of sync with the policies and ideologies of the Union government or the party in power at the Centre. Nor can he be removed on the ground that the Union government has lost confidence in him.”
On paper, or for the record, no serving governor has been asked to resign or dismissed by the Narendra Modi government. Speculation in power circles, propelled by the fact that several governors called on President Pranab Mukherjee today, that many may have been informally asked to make way for nominees of the new government fetched a matter-of-fact response from Congress spokesman Ajay Maken, who said: “This is not a political issue. The matter is between the President and the governors and the party has nothing to do with it. However, we would like the government to act in tune with the Supreme Court judgment.”
It is moot if Maken had remembered what had brought on that judgment in the first place. P.C. Chacko, defeated Congress MP and former chairman of the joint parliamentary committee on the 2G scam, sounded clearly amnesiac on his own party’s past record and rammed into the reported changes sought in governorships. “This is a political witch-hunt,” he protested, and went on to hint he may be innocent of the demarcation between the jurisdiction of the Congress and the Constitution. “What business is it of anybody what our governors should do?” he countered television journalists, almost affronted, “We will decide if and when our governors should or should not resign.”
Sources in the government said the Centre had “politely nudged” seven governors to consider putting in their papers in view of the change in government. These are M.K. Narayanan of Bengal, Sheila Dikshit of Kerala, Margaret Alva of Rajasthan, Kamla Beniwal of Gujarat, B.L. Joshi of Uttar Pradesh, K. Sankaranarayanan of Maharashtra and Devendra Konwar of Tripura.
This does not make the complete list of UPA-appointed or Congress governors, though. There are, among others, J.B. Patnaik of Assam, D.Y. Patil of Bihar, Jagannath Pahadia of Haryana and H.R. Bharadwaj of Karnataka. The terms of all of these are ending this year, the closest to superannuation being Bharadwaj and Konwar on June 28.
Should governors choose to ignore the time-to-go hint, the Modi government retains the option of skirting any violation of the Supreme Court parameters and transferring them out of their current jobs. It is not known, though, if the Centre will show more patience with governors it wants gone, or drive its will with them. The Modi dispensation could well be playing political cat and mouse with the gubernatorial leftovers of the UPA regime by signalling it wants them gone but refraining to attest its wish with ink on its fingerprints.
Unlike the United States, suo motu resignation of political appointees at changeovers of power has not been an Indian tradition. UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi might have attempted setting an example when she quit the government-run Nehru Memorial Museum and Library soon after the UPA’s defeat last month. Another key member of her circle, Suman Dubey, too have given up his positions on the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library and Prasar Bharati.
India’s governors, though, come from a politically hardier tradition — they tend to await dismissal by successor regimes and, often, attempt to craft political handles off such decisions. When the first non-Congress government took power in Delhi in 1977, Morarji Desai’s Janata Party government dismissed nine Congress-run state governments out of hand. When Mrs Indira Gandhi returned to power in 1980, she did the same to the Janata governments in the states. The use of Article 356 to bundle out state governments has since become much less frequent; this could well be the defining hour on the status of politically appointed governors when power shifts in New Delhi.
Additional reporting by Sanjay K. Jha