Guide their excellencies, m’lords!

A foreign scribe asked me why last week's governors' conference, though coming on the heels of the Karnataka crisis, didn't discuss the role and conduct of governors. The simple soul didn't know that we Indians aren't constitutionally built to introspect. Pun intended.

All the same, the president or the prime minister could have initiated a debate—both of them addressed the governors' conference—over Raj Bhavan reform. Neither did. Both used the forum for talking about governmental agendas.

President Ram Nath Kovind lectured to the governors about environment protection, the Paris Accord, the International Solar Alliance, how the governors can make Raj Bhavans and state universities (of which they are chancellors) green, why students should go to villages, and about the importance of literacy, immunisation and nutrition programmes.

Narendra Modi waxed at length over issues much similar—how guvs can goad banks to give loans to tribals, dalits and women; how they can serve the cause of swachhata, how they can make India open defecation-free, and so on and so forth. Heavens be thanked that there was no Prabhudas Patwari among the governors assembled. The old Gandhian is said to have insisted on crouching in a corner of the vast Raj Bhavan grounds for his morning ablutions when he was governor of Tamil Nadu in the late 1970s.

Illustration: Bhaskaran Illustration: Bhaskaran

Only Vice President Venkaiah Naidu raised a few points at the conference on the role and conduct of governors. While elected governments plan and implement programmes, a governor can be “a wise counsel, a mentor, a friend, philosopher and guide”, he said. “Through your position, you can ensure that the policies and programmes are in consonance with the constitutional provisions.” And, then the VeePee reminded their excellencies: “Raj Bhavans are not parallel power centres.”

Sadly, in the last few months, we have seen several Raj Bhavans being converted into political plotting rooms. To be fair, the rot didn't start with Modi. Nor with Indira or Nehru. It predates the Constitution, and even the Government of India Act, 1935. The Act, a refinement over Montague and Chelmsford's 1919 diarchy, established elected legislatures in the provinces, but gave the [British] governors powers to override them. The Constitution, built over the foundation of the 1935 Act, retained the governors but with ceremonial powers.

Over the years, several Raj Bhavan occupants have been harking back to the halcyon days of the Raj. Right after the first general elections, governor Sri Prakasa, otherwise a saintly soul, invited C. Rajagopalachari's Congress (152 seats in a house of 375) to form the government in Madras, ignoring the claims of the left-leaning United Democratic Front (166 seats). Since then, several governments have been made and unmade in Raj Bhavans, especially so in the 1970s and the early 1980s, when Indira Gandhi overlorded India's political landscape. So much so that THE WEEK ran a hard-hitting cover story in the 1980s, with a headline: “On Her Majesty's Service”.

The Bommai judgment of 1994 curbed the governors' powers in effecting mid-stream regime change, but did little to suggest how they should act when no one has majority in an election. There are several committee recommendations and judgments (Google 'Rajamannar', 'Sarkaria', 'Venkatachaliah', 'Punchhi', 'Bommai', 'Rameshwar Prasad', to learn more), but a resourceful governor can pick, choose, interpret and adopt the one that suits him.

Yet, there is hope. The Karnataka case is still in the court. Would the court consider forming a larger bench to give a consolidated set of directions, once and for all, after examining all the above?

Seize the day, m'lords! For the sake of democratic discipline.