North East Echoes: The garrulous Governor

Governors do not speak against or criticise the Union Government, the PM, RSS, bureaucrats or serving or former chief ministers. Why then is Satya Pal Malik so vocal?

Governor Satya Pal Malik
Governor Satya Pal Malik

Patricia Mukhim

Meghalaya Governor Satya Pal Malik’s days in the Raj Bhavan are numbered, is the popular consensus. BJP in Goa demanded that he step down. Former J&K chief minister Mehbooba Mufti has served him a legal notice. RSS Pracharak Ram Madhav wants an inquiry against him. BJP is embarrassed at his outspoken support of protesting farmers. Concede their demand or else BJP would lose elections in UP and in 2024, he has said. How long can he last as Governor?

Malik, who has been the Governor of Bihar, J&K, Goa and Meghalaya since 2017—each stint lasting about a year or less, looks resigned. He now wants to lead a quiet life. “After this tenure in Meghalaya, I shall retire and I don’t even have a home to go to,” he says plaintively.

In Meghalaya itself he has steered clear of controversies. Meghalaya has been rocked by a number of scams including the ADB-funded smart meter scheme with allegations of overpriced meters and cement besides engaging questionable contractors. But Governor Malik has not spoken out on such governance issues in the state.

Asked about this paradoxical conduct, Malik is philosophical. He has done enough and would like now to lead a peaceful life. He however points out that he has been taking keen interest in the state’s agriculture. He had summoned scientists from the ICAR to explain why Meghalaya grows a single crop of paddy. He also hosted a delegation of farmers from the state in the Raj Bhavan, ostensibly for the first time. The farmers’ delegation had sought an audience after finding out that the Governor identified himself with farming.

He has not been able to traverse the length and breadth of Meghalaya, he admits, on account of his inability to sit inside a vehicle for too long due to his physical ailments.

The two previous incumbents of the Raj Bhavan in Shillong were hard core RSS workers. Both turned out to be controversial. While Malik’s immediate predecessor Tathagata Roy became notorious for his incendiary social media posts, the incumbent before him, Shanmuganathan, had to be shifted following a public scandal about his lifestyle. Malik in comparison has been staid.

But Malik too has had meltdown moments. While addressing a convocation at a university in Meghalaya, Malik broke down saying he had been shunted from one state to another merely because he pointed out infirmities in governance in Jammu and Kashmir and Goa. His tenures had always been cut short, he insinuated, because he is upright. His stints in Raj Bhavans do appear to end abruptly (Governor of Bihar 2017, Jammu & Kashmir [August 2018 – October 2019], Goa [October 2019-August 2020], Meghalaya from August 2020).

Why did he suddenly decide to go public with his allegations about the “senior RSS officer”, Mehbooba Mufti and the present Goa chief minister? Is it because at 75, he feels he has nothing to lose by being candid? The Governor merely shrugs.

Malik caused a sensation by alleging that a senior RSS leader was pushing a contract in J&K for the Ambani group. He mentioned two files that were put up to him for clearance when he was Governor in J&K. Officials told him that he could personally gain as much as Rs. 150 Crore from each project, if he cleared them. He didn’t.

When this writer asked the Governor whether the revocation of Article 370 was right, he said it was needed because the people of Kashmir must also learn to be ‘Indian’ and not think of fellow Indians as ‘outsiders’.

On the threat of defamation charges from former Chief Minister, Mehbooba Mufti, who Malik had said was a beneficiary of the now defunct Roshni scheme, the Meghalaya Governor said Mehbooba should know that the Governor of a state and the President of the country are exempt from any legal action. He accused Mehbooba and other elite members of the ruling class of acquiring land under the Roshni scheme through the benami route.

Another person who has also threatened action against Malik is RSS leader Ram Madhav. Malik alleged that a senior RSS leader had been pushing for the Insurance Scheme promoted by Reliance. Government employees under the scheme were to pay Rs 2,000 annually and pensioners Rs 8,000 annually; but hospitals associated to this scheme were all thirdrate ones, Malik recalled. Malik said he found out from the state officials that this scheme was not beneficial to the people of the state and therefore it was cancelled.

Malik also took potshots at the Goa Chief Minister Pramod Sawant. Following Malik’s allegations of corruption, opposition parties in Goa have demanded Sawant’s resignation. Malik pointed fingers at the manner in which the state government handled the Covid crisis, including door to door rice distribution outsourced to a private company. Malik claimed he had brought this to the notice of the Prime Minister but instead of taking action against the Goa CM, he was packed off to Shillong.

From the beginning of the farmers’ protest Malik has maintained that the protest was justified and Prime Minister Modi should have addressed it. Malik believes the PM was misled by bureaucrats. He recently met the Prime Minister, he says and explained why the Government should concede the demand for making MSP a legal right.

He was also critical of the mishandling of the incident at Lakhimpur Kheri, where protesting farmers were mowed down by a vehicle allegedly at the instruction of the son of Union Minister of State for Home, Ajay Mishra. That it took the Uttar Pradesh government several days before Mishra Jr. was arrested and that Ajay Mishra was not even ticked off by his boss Amit Shah, Malik agrees, was a sad commentary on governance.

“How can a Government not show empathy when 600 farmers have lost their lives during this agitation? I come from a village in Uttar Pradesh, from a farming family and my heart will always be with the farmers,” Malik says, adding that his mentor late Charan Singh had cautioned him against betraying his class interests.

Told that several people are not in support of the farmers’ agitation and believe growing rice in Punjab was not conducive because rice is a water-intensive crop and could create climate havoc in the long run, Malik said this was a wrong assumption. He said he met Prime Minister Modi recently and has urged him to resolve the farmers’ issue.

Political observers have not missed Malik’s comment that only the honest and the upright can afford to take on Prime Ministers. The fact that despite his indiscreet, if not intemperate, outbursts he still remains in the Raj Bhavan, they believe, signals there is a lot more than meets the eyes.

The last word on Satyapal Malik has not been heard.

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