Bengal has had an uneasy relationship with her governors right from the days of Robert Clive. At times it has even been perilous, such as when a twenty one-year-old student Bina Das fired five shots from her revolver at Bengal Governor Stanley Jackson at the Convocation Hall of the Calcutta University, where she was to get her degree from his hands the same day in 1932.
So, when the present occupier of Raj Bhavan proudly tweeted pictures of his sitting at the same table where Curzon had sat to decree the partition of Bengal, one could only say a silent prayer for him.
In all fairness, when he realised the irony of invoking ‘bragging’ rights about sharing furniture with someone whose divisive agenda would leave the land – which our man was sent to ‘govern’ – scarred for eternity, Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar was gracious and large-hearted enough to apologise and retract the tweet.
However, the unease of ‘Curzongate’ would go on to define the tumultuous tenure of Dhankhar, and highlight the urgent need to seriously revisit this much-maligned constitutional office – perhaps even go back to the Sarkaria Commission Report which had advised against using this office to accommodate or rehabilitate politicians of the ruling party.
Why Governor Can’t Directly Summon Bureaucrats or the Police
Under the Parliamentary system, the governor, while the head of the state, is not the head of the government. It is also equally true that, unlike the president, the governor has a little more freedom in matters such as choosing the chief minister, dissolving the assembly, and recommending President’s Rule.
In the Constituent Assembly, HV Kamath’s proposal to curtail these matters of gubernatorial discretion had not found favour. Invoking Article 167 of the Constitution of India, the governor can certainly insist that he be well briefed about the goings-on in the administration carried on under his name. However, it is always understood that this right is exercised through the Council of Ministers.
Put simply, the governor cannot directly summon bureaucrats or the police and issue out orders or instructions or even gratuitous advice to them, behind the back of the nodal minister who is in charge of that administrative department.
Most states, including Bengal, have framed the Transaction of Business Rules which set out the procedure of decision-making in government in the minutest detail. In several matters, as per these Rules, the files are not even put up before the Raj Bhavan, though the babu routinely issues the orders in the name of the governor.
Significance of Consultation Between the Elected and the Nominated
The polite and soft-spoken Dhankhar could not be underestimated. Armed with a Twitter handle, a potent amplifier for the modern day politician, this lawyer from Rajasthan went about his task with forensic skill. Article 163 (3) insulates, from judicial inquiry, the advise tendered by ministers to the governor.
Our founding fathers not only understood the significance of ‘consultation’ between the elected and the nominated, they were conscious that the sanctity of this process should be preserved at all costs.
English Constitutionalist Water Bagehot had said that the Sovereign has the right to ‘consult’, to ‘encourage’ and to ‘warn’. The Indian governor — some of our states are even more populous than the British Isles — is the mirror of that sovereign in our parliamentary democracy.
The governor, despite being unelected — and precisely on account of not having to be tied to electoral compulsions — is ideally placed to play the role of a guide, the father-figure.
Often, many governors have, behind closed doors, fallen back upon these tools to course-correct Executive action.
It is for this reason that the Constitution wanted to preserve this process from the public gaze and leave it to the wisdom of the holders of high office. What was not anticipated is that such a system of ‘moral authority’ — of the ‘unelected’ over the ‘elected’ — assumed that both of them would play by the rules. Sadly, Dhankhar and his chief minister started off on the wrong foot, and it was only a matter of time before this ‘dialogue’ — which Ambedkar’s men tried so hard to keep away from the politics of public gaze — started being conducted over social media.
Was Bengal Governor Able to Act as the ‘Goal-Keeper’?
The governor would not hesitate to vent his displeasure at being stranded without a proper welcome at a statue garlanding ceremony or on a district visit. Contrast this with a feud of much more severe in intensity that Lt Governor Tajinder Khanna waged with Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit, unknown to the general public and behind closed doors.
Dhankhar started directly summoning bureaucrats and police officers demanding that he be briefed. In his defence, he claimed that he was compelled to do so as his ministers were starving him of ‘information’. The elected government also hit back with a vengeance.
When the governor, disregarding convention, would plan a district visit without the consultation of the elected government, strict orders would go out from Nabanna (State Secretariat), that officials at the district level were expected not to meet-and-greet Bengal’s First Citizen nor participate in his meetings.
Let history be the judge of who poisoned the well. However, the fact that the elected government and its unelected head are at war is for all to see. The TMC accuses the Rajyapal of acting like a ‘poddo-pal’ (‘poddo’ being lotus in Bangla, an allusion to BJP’s party symbol). They accuse the BJP of using Dhankhar and his office as an agent of disruption. Dhankhar, in his defence, says that he is the goal-keeper trying to protect the rule of law against the tyranny of the elected.
How Bengal Governor Kept His Chief Minister in the Dark
If people had hoped for better sense to prevail on both sides, post the electoral showings, they were sadly mistaken. Breaking tradition, at the oath-taking ceremony itself, the governor publicly shared his ‘advice’ with the chief minister to rein in her party cadre accused of post-poll reprisals against the opposition party workers. The chief minister shot back saying that her priority was COVID control. Defying the advice of the elected government, Dhankhar shot off to Sitalkuchi, the site of poll time violence in Bengal. There, inexplicably, he met with only BJP workers.
The response of the elected government was predictable. Dhankhar himself, while wiping his tears with a handkerchief handed to him by his ADC, summarised his anguish at being boycotted by the administration and local police. There were news reports that he had been met with black flags and jeering crowds.
Back in Kolkata, the governor sanctioned the prosecution of his sitting minister in the long-pending Narada sting case being investigated by the CBI, without even bringing this to the notice of his chief minister or giving her the option of securing a face-saving exit of the minister. The Speaker of the Assembly was also in the dark. The mayhem that followed the next day was for all to see.
Imperative for Bengal to Have a Stable Executive
In years past, wise rulers in Delhi have accommodated the wishes of even Opposition-ruled states in matters of gubernatorial assignments. A case in point is that of Surjeet Singh Barnala in Tamil Nadu.
Bengal is a sensitive border state. It is imperative that it has a stable executive and its fight against the pandemic is not derailed by these side shows. While Bengal has just chosen its leader, and who, for the present, cannot be wished away, certainly it is in the hands of the Centre to de-escalate this without going into the issue of who is in the wrong. After all, nation before ego — right?
(The author is a senior advocate practising in the High Court of Delhi and in the Supreme Court of India. He tweets @advsanjoy. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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