How Far Can Governors Go? A Dangerous Precedent Set In Tamil Nadu
With indiscreet comments disapproving of its political model and even the name of the state, Tamil Nadu Governor RN Ravi has emerged as an opponent not just to the elected Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam government but also to the dominant Dravidian ideology in the state.
His face-off with Chief Minister MK Stalin in the state legislature, when Ravi departed from convention and omitted sections of the prepared text during his customary address to the house, was an ugly reiteration of this fault line.
A portion Ravi omitted from the text was praise for the "Dravidian model of governance" and architects of the Dravidian movement, and he didn't even mention Dr BR Ambedkar. The chief minister raised an objection and passed a resolution asking the speaker of the house to take on record the fully prepared text, following which the governor walked out of the assembly.
There have been instances of governors departing from a prepared text or registering their opposition. Recently, in 2020, Kerala Governor Arif Mohammad Khan read out the state assembly’s opposition to the CAA but added that he did not agree with it. However, a resolution against it and a walkout from the floor of the house are rare acrimonies.
The chief minister has instructed DMK legislators not to raise the issue again in the house, helping avert further attrition with the Raj Bhavan and a potential constitutional crisis.
Electorally and in dominant political discourse, there has been little or no challenge to Dravidian ideology in the state as the principal political parties owe their allegiance to it. The DMK also understands that allowing such a confrontation to continue only creates space for Hindutva to creep in as an ideological opposition to the "Dravidian model".
For his part, the governor seems unrelenting and has now criticised the state government for using the term ‘Union’ Government instead of ‘Central’ Government in all official documents. The DMK government had declared that it would refer to the ‘Centre’ only as ‘Union’ government to emphasise on the importance of a federal structure.
He has even suggested that the state ought to be called Tamizhagam (home for Tamils) and not Tamil Nadu (Tamil Nation). These comments stir up dangerous emotional, divisive, and ideological fault lines. It raises questions about the governor’s intentions.
His comments are uncomfortable even for the BJP’s ally and the principal opposition party in the state, the All India Anna DMK. However, it has gone soft on the governor for now. The party’s leadership is dependent on the BJP to combat the DMK and has trained its guns on the chief minister.
In fact, even the state BJP may not be thrilled with the governor, as the party has been trying to shed the image of being an "outsider" in the state. It wants to co-opt Dravidian political sensibilities to build an electoral base and is worried that the governor’s comments could alienate it from the electorate.
The issue here is not just about partisan politics or political ideologies but, more importantly, also about the role of a governor and how far such a confrontation can be allowed to go.
Gubernatorial sojourns in India are, usually, luxurious accommodations endowed as a retirement reward for loyalty to the ruling political establishment in New Delhi. The test of that loyalty is in cases of a fractured mandate in a state or when the centre’s political interests are under threat.
What was intended to be a dignified office to ensure constitutional adherence has often turned into a political one.
With no concrete code for their actions mandated by law, there have been innumerable instances when governors have acted as "agents of the centre". Courts have overturned decisions made by governors but have stopped short of dictating a code, leaving discretionary powers to remain at a governor’s discretion.
For instance, even the question of whether a governor can depart from a prepared text is not conclusively settled. While there is literature on the matter and what it was intended to be by the constituent assembly, there is no conclusive verdict that makes it unlawful to depart from the text.
In a divisive political environment, such discretionary powers and vagueness have allowed space for the Raj Bhavan to become political epicentres in opposition ruled states resulting in constitutional confrontations. Important legislative and administrative issues are casualties of such a slugfest.
A careful examination of the role and powers of the Raj Bhavan is beyond doubt needed. Perhaps even the need for such a constitutional office will have to be revisited.
Departing from a prepared text that is vetted by a state cabinet is just one issue in a long history of controversial equations between governments and governors. It is time to settle them all.
TM Veeraraghav is an independent journalist based out of Bengaluru. He can be reached @TMVRaghav
The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of BQ Prime or its editorial team.