We have been here before, any number of times. If the major political parties in the country continue to behave in the manner they have been doing, we will assuredly be here for any number of times in the future too. Unless, of course, the nation explodes in anger. That, however, is only an abstract notion for the present ' and politicians care only for the present. Besides, as the learned judges of the Supreme Court have tacitly admitted, their verdict notwithstanding, once a malevolent process is set in motion, it cannot quite be rolled back.
Buta Singh has been reluctant to vacate office despite the slap on the face administered by the nation's highest judiciary. He has a point. He did what he was instructed to do. The format was established during Indira Gandhi's imperious regime. She perhaps did not like the face or gait or political affiliation of a particular chief minister. Or her party was about to lose its majority in a state legislature. A message was sent down to the governor. The governor would immediately sit down, prepare a report and transmit it to New Delhi. To make the drama somewhat exciting, the Union cabinet would meet late in the evening, or in the early hours of the morning. The decision would be taken, on the basis of the governor's compliant report, to remove the chief minister or dissolve the assembly. The reason or reasons ascribed would be of a pre-packed genre. The president would be made to sign the necessary proclamation. Should he have the temerity to demur, Article 74 of the Constitution would be quoted back at him.
The format has not varied. In the case of Bihar 2005, it has been adhered to. Buta Singh is therefore perfectly justified not to plead mea culpa; why pick only on him, he did what was intended he should do. Should he have to go following the Supreme Court's stricture, there is no reason why, along with him, the prime minister and his entire cabinet should not go too.
Is it not the season to remind ourselves that the governor of Jharkhand, Syed Sibtey Razi, should also be asked to quit in the event Buta Singh does' For that gentleman's conduct as governor some months ago was no less outrageous. He installed his party's nominee as the chief minister of Jharkhand despite the latter's all-too-apparent lack of a legislative majority at the moment; he then chose to allow the chief minister he had installed an extraordinarily generous length of time to buy support in the state legislature. The governor was stopped in his tracks by a severe tongue-lashing from the Supreme Court and was made to reverse his decision. That does not lessen the enormity of the impropriety he perpetrated.
In both episodes ' in Bihar and in Jharkhand ' the Congress behaved in the manner it has habituated itself to behave. Nor is there much scope for the Bharatiya Janata Party to wax with righteous indignation. The governors it appointed when in power in New Delhi ' the Sundar Singh Bhandaris and Vishnu Kant Shastris ' had conducted themselves equally disgracefully. Whenever controversial issues concerning Centre-state relations have cropped up, governors, irrespective of their party affiliation, have trained themselves to act as impeccable agents of the Centre. This bit of self-education was for dear life, for otherwise they would not have been permitted to continue to occupy the positions they were gifted with.
Neither of the two principal parties is actually reconciled to the concept of India as a federal entity. As the decades have rolled by, these parties have either experienced a gradual shrinkage of influence in their original bases of strength, or have been unable to spread to other regions. Meanwhile, new strains of thought have sprouted, leading to a rapid proliferation of regional parties. Such phenomena have found reflection in national polls: the Congress and the BJP together were able to claim only about 45 per cent of the total votes cast in the Lok Sabha elections last year. The import of this reality has not, however, penetrated the psyche of these parties. Wherever they perceive an opportunity to manipulate a situation which could enable them to annex a state administration ' for instance, through the deus ex machina of a state governor ' they will not be deterred from availing of it.
It is now two decades since the Sarkaria commission dispersed. It had made a number of well-considered recommendations with regard to both the institution of state governors and the use and abuse of Article 356 of the Constitution. It expressed a strong preference for non-political, non-partisan state governors and laid down a number of criteria for their selection. Similarly, while discussing circumstances indicating the possibility of action under Article 356, it advised due circumspection. The commission's wise words have been like water off a duck's back. How else do you explain the naming of Sushil Kumar Shinde as governor of Andhra Pradesh the very day he vacated the chief ministerial slot in Maharashtra, or of S.M. Krishna as governor of Maharashtra the moment he ceases to be chief minister of Karnataka'
Sarkaria and his colleagues, it appears in retrospect, were much too gentlemanly. They stopped short of suggesting wholesale constitutional amendments abolishing the post of state governors and, simultaneously, throwing out of the window Article 356. Explorers keep scaling fresh mountain peaks for the simple reason these peaks happen to be there. The Union government, whatever its political complexion, will similarly be under constant temptation to make use of the institution of state governors and Article 356 for narrow partisan purposes as long as these provisions are there in the Constitution
The caveats that will be entered at this point are guessable. Installation and dismissal of chief ministers apart, a state governor, we will be told, has certain other constitutional functions and obligations; were the post to be abolished, a vacuum will result, giving rise to awkward administrative problems. But some of these ritualistic functions can be performed either by the speaker of the state legislature or by the chief justice of the state high court. In the federal framework of the United States of America, the head of administration of a state is directly elected by the people. It has not been felt necessary to introduce an intermediary between him and the federal administration; there has been no collapse of the American administrative system.
The indispensability of Article 356 has been hawked around on the ground that, if the article had not been there, it would have been impossible to dislodge the Kalyan Singh regime in Uttar Pradesh in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid outrage. But had the Centre possessed the sagacity and the will to avail of the various instruments in its command to checkmate the conspiracy to destroy the mosque, there would conceivably have been no need to have recourse to Article 356. The carnage of Gujarat a decade later proved something else: darkness could descend at noon even with the particular article left secure in the Constitution.
We thereby come to the nitty-gritty of realpolitik. Swearing by scriptures is meaningless as long as democracy in India remains hostage to the machinations of the major political parties. As long as these parties are ensconced in their self-seeking, state governors will continue to revel in their indiscretions; they will also continue with their jolly outrageous use of Article 356.