A lawyer’s reminder to West Bengal Governor Jagdeep Dhankar
The Governor needs to remember that he is not an active politician, that he has limited powers, that he deserves respect not power and that he cannot function as leader of the opposition
Under the Indian constitutional scheme, the Governor is a constitutional head of the State, who acts on the aid and advice of the Council of Ministers headed by the Chief Minister in the exercise of his constitutional powers and functions.
There are only a few areas where the Governor can act at his discretion. In a parliamentary form of government, as enshrined in our Constitution, the people elect a government that remains collectively responsible to the legislature that can examine, check, and reprimand the omissions and commissions committed by the elected government. The moment the legislature withdraws its support from the government, the government will be out of power. It is the fundamental constitutional principle that ensures a responsible government in the country.
The Governor is not accountable to the people and his role is to facilitate the functioning of an accountable government by discharging his functions on its aid and advice as mandated under the Constitution.
Time and again, the Supreme Court of India has also reiterated this position in several landmark judgments such as Ram Jawaya Kapur, Samsher Singh, Maru Ram, S. R. Bommai, and Rameshwar Prasad, etc. After this well-settled constitutional position, the Governor should have no confusion about his constitutional role. His role is ceremonial, being appointed by the President on the Prime Minister’s advice. He holds his office during the pleasure of the President and the President can remove him from his office at any time without assigning any reason.
However, he is a very important link between the Centre and the State. As Union’s nominee, the Governor has to ensure that the State’s administration is being carried on under the constitutional norms.
But the Governor is not merely a figurehead or a cipher at all. Under Article 163 of the Constitution, he has some discretionary powers that can be exercised by him without receiving the ministerial advice in certain rare cases. In addition to this, he has also a right to seek information from the Chief Minister on the state’s affairs, policies, legislations, and programs under Article 167 of the Constitution, and the Chief Minister has to furnish him with such information.
Unfortunately, West Bengal’s Governor Jagdeep Dhankar, who is a senior advocate by profession, is not ready to follow this well-recognized constitutional practice. He interprets the Constitution according to his own convenience and justifies his unwanted gubernatorial activism. He thinks he has a constitutional right to monitor the State Government’s work. Ever since he assumed the Governor’s office, he has defied all constitutional conventions and protocols in exercising his constitutional powers and functions and interactions with media.
On several occasions, he has criticized the policies of the State Government. He has complained against the Chief Minister to the Central Government, visited Universities, and intervened in their decision-making process. Not only this, but he also summoned some senior government officers without taking the Chief Minister into confidence. Recently, minutes after swearing-in Mamta Banerjee as the Chief Minister for her third consecutive term, he said that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had telephoned him and expressed his deep concern about the post-poll violence in West Bengal. This is why he asked the Chief Minister to take serious note of the law-and-order situation in the state.
Undoubtedly his concerns about the law-and-order situation are genuine, but he should have chosen the appropriate platform to raise this issue with the Chief Minister on some other day as per the protocol. He also decided to visit the violence-affected areas in the state. On this development, the Chief Minister Mamta Banerjee urged him not to visit such areas and stick to the “Manual of Protocols & Ceremonials of West Bengal Government” but he ignored all such requests and visited the riot-hit areas in Cooch Behar and criticized the state administration scathingly.
Many constitutional scholars rightly believe that the Governor is running a parallel government in the state on the directions of his political masters, and this trend is causing irreparable loss to the parliamentary democracy. The Constitution does not allow the Governor to do so. The Governor must remember he is not an active politician who has the freedom to criticize the government unhesitatingly. He is a constitutional functionary, always expected to maintain neutrality in his functional approach and opinions and bound to act within the constitutional framework.
His comments and criticism about the Chief Minister, the State Government’s work, interaction with its officers need to be guided by well-settled constitutional conventions, practices, and protocols. He deserves respect, not power. The power belongs to the elected government. He needs to maintain a social distance from party politics to maintain the dignity of his high constitutional office. Admittedly, there are some genuine concerns about the law-and-order situation in West Bengal and the Chief Minister must take a serious note of the situation given her secular credentials, but the Governor cannot go beyond a limit. He can convey his message to the Chief Minister through constitutional platforms and channels.
Given the above discussion, it is submitted that Governor Dhankar has no justification to intervene in the state’s administration and behave like a leader of the opposition to please his political masters. He should not offer public comments on situations that can be handled by the Chief Minister effectively. The constitutional morality demands that he should respect the popular verdict given to the Chief Minister and should work to strengthen parliamentary democracy. He may act as the guide, and a friend to the Chief Minister and her colleagues, but cannot assume to himself the role of their master. He may facilitate the government by staying within his constitutional boundaries and limitations.
(The author is a Supreme Court advocate. Views are personal)