Test of wills, with a few bills

Constitution is silent on a time frame for the president or governor to sign a bill

Our Constitution, lauded as the world’s longest and one of the finest, is said to contain prescriptions for most of the problems that our politics, which is often the art of the impossible, can throw up. Yet there are occasions, however rare, when we find the Constitution being silent, and its pundits clueless.

The Constitution says that a bill passed by the legislature shall become law only after the president, or governor in the case of a state, gives his assent. If he returns the bill, and if the legislature passes it again and sends it to him, he is bound to give his assent.

But what if he does nothing on presentation of a bill for the first time? That is, if he simply sits on it? The Constitution is silent on this; it does not prescribe a time frame for the president or the governor to sign on the dotted line, or tear it up on any perforated line.

Illustration: Bhaskaran Illustration: Bhaskaran

President Zail Singh used this silence of the statute to the hilt; he killed Rajiv Gandhi’s postal bill, which was not to his liking. The postal bill, if you don’t know, was one which empowered your postmaster to open your love letters, an ungentlemanly act in those pre-hacking days when epistolary privacy was an article of faith in decent democracies.

Zail knew that if he sent the bill back, the government would get it passed again by the houses, and present him with fait accompli. So he just kept it in his pocket. Soon constitutional pundits came out with a new political phrase—pocket veto, a stage where a bill is neither alive nor dead or, to borrow a phrase from the Dracula stories, it is “undead”.

Since then governors who have quarrels with their governments have been taking pages out of Zail’s pocket, and keeping bills undead with them, leaving their CMs fretting and fuming. The trend has been spreading among more and more governors in opposition-ruled states.

Last week, however, Governor N. Ravi of Tamil Nadu (or Tamizhagom, as he pleases) tried to give a finality to the situation. Addressing a few civil service aspirants who came calling at his Raj Bhavan, he said a bill is dead if the governor has not given assent.

The death verdict from the Raj Bhavan brought back to life all the dead and buried federal spirits in Chief Minister M.K. Stalin. In no time he marched into the assembly, told the law-makers that a law that they had passed so as to save young men from getting trapped in gambling debts, was lying ‘dead’ with the governor. The law-makers passed a resolution, urging the president, who had appointed Ravi and all the governors, to prescribe a time frame for governors to sign bills. Prompt came a statement from the Raj Bhavan that the governor had signed the bill two days earlier!

Soon Stalin was telling opposition CMs across India to take leaves out of his pocket and get their assemblies adopt similar resolutions. For sure, said Kerala’s Pinarayi Vijayan, Chhattisgarh’s Bhupesh Baghel et al. Telangana’s K. Chandrasekhar Rao has other ideas. He has approached the Supreme Court seeking directions to Governor Tamilisai Soundararajan to clear his bills, one of which has been pending since September.

Whether the court would listen or not is yet to be seen, but the move has had its own effect. Hours before the case came up for hearing last week, the governor cleared three bills and sent back two. Anyway, it looks like the phenomenon of pocket veto is finally ending.

Moral of the story: Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Where there’s a bill, there’s a pay. Where there is a bill blocked, there is a way out.