Saturday, January 21, 2012

India Matters: Independence of Lokayukta should be total.

Governing our governors

Jan 21, 2012, 12.00AM IST
How independent should a state Lokayukta be? You can either be pregnant or not pregnant - there's nothing in between. The same principle applies to an ombudsman: independence must be total. The verdict of the Gujarat high court justice V M Sahai on Wednesday upholding the appointment by Gujarat governor Kamla Beniwal of justice R A Mehta as the state's Lokayukta is a slap on the wrist of Gujarat chief ministerNarendra Modi. The matter will now be decided by the Supreme Court, but the chief minister may well find himself on the wrong side of constitutional propriety.

The increasingly fraught relationship between governors and chief ministers can upset the fine balance of power in India's federal structure. Governors are appoin-ted directly by the president. The president in turn, according to the Constitution, acts on the advice of the council of ministers headed by the prime minister. In effect, therefore, governors are appointed by the central government.

This can be a problem in a federal system like India's where nearly a dozen states are ruled by the opposition. The system is open to abuse. Between 1966 and 1977, Indira Gandhi imposed President's rule 39 times in opposition-ruled states. In retaliation, the Janata Party government imposed President's rule 11 times between 1977 and 1979 in Congress-ruled states.

At the height of the falling out between President Giani Zail Singh and Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in March 1987, rumours swirled around Delhi that Zail Singh was about to do the unthinkable and dismiss Rajiv. He was fond of inviting editors for 'briefings' to Rashtrapati Bhavan or one of the state Raj Bhavans when he was travelling. It was thus that i found myself alone with the president at Raj Bhavan in Mumbai for an off-the-record briefing on his latest problems with the Rajiv Gandhi government. What the president said that day must remain off the record, but it revealed the extent to which standards had fallen in what constitutionally is an office above party politics.

In a federal system, state governors, as the president`s representatives, play a unique role. A Westminster parliamentary demo-cracy like Britain has no system of governors because it is a small, homogenous country. A large, heterogeneous federal democracy like the US does have state governors, but their role is constitutionally akin to a chief minister's in India. Like many colonial leftovers, India invented the role of state governor after Independence to act as a conduit between the ceremonial head of state (the president) and the chief minister of each state in what was then a federal work-in-progress.

As the president's eyes and ears in the country's diverse and far-flung states, governors at first played a useful role. They were mostly apolitical. So was the president they reported to. Presidents of the calibre of Rajendra Prasad and S Radhakrishnan ensured that a young, fissiparous demo-cracy was kept glued together by not only the checks and balances written into the Constitution but the wisdom of its apolitical presidents and governors.

The decline in standards began during Indira Gandhi's prime ministership when the office of president was regularly misused. In June 1975, President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, instead of standing firm against the prime minister's advice to proclaim a draconian Emergency, rubber-stamped it. As politics became more partisan, so did presidents and governors.

How do we fix what is now a systemic problem? The solution lies in the rules framed to appoint governors. An amendment to articles 155 and 158 of the Constitution should mandate that a governor must not have held political office for at least five years before being appointed and be barred from holding public office permanently after demitting his gubernatorial post. This single amendment will transform the quality of interaction between elected chief ministers and selected governors.

The 1,600-page Sarkaria commission report submitted to the government in 1988 had recommended watered down strictures on the eligibility of a governor who had held prior political office. Even this diluted recommendation was never implemented. The recommendations of the Venkatachaliah commission report (2002) and the Punchhi commission report (2010), which dealt with Centre-state relations, the role of governors and the importance of the Inter-State Council to resolve disputes, have been similarly ignored by successive governments.

Today governors are the handmaidens of the Union government. That was never their inten-ded role when B R Ambedkar and his distinguished colleagues wrote the Indian Constitution. Their duty was to be neutral guardians of the complex relationship between the federal government and state governments belonging to different political parties.

The first president of India, Rajendra Prasad, had warned: "It is necessary that the people of a State should have full confidence in a supreme non-partisan institution like that of Governor." Amending the constitutional provision under which governors are appointed will restore non-partisanship to our federal polity. Additionally, distinguished leaders from the judiciary, law, business and academia - rather than politicians seeking pasture or rehabilitation - should be considered for appointment to state Raj Bhavans. The role of governor must change from being a cynical political check on opposition-ruled state assemblies to that of guardian of the public interest.

The writer is an author and chairman of a media group.

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