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On Wednesday, the governor of Tamil Nadu, RN Ravi, issued a curious official clarification. It said that the governor had not, in fact, wanted to “change the name of Tamil Nadu” and any arguments to that effect were “erroneous and far-fetched”. The governor hoped his statement would “put an end” to the controversy.

Ravi had to issue this clarification because his suggestion on January 4 that “Tamizhagam” – which means “the abode of the Tamils” – was a “more appropriate word” for Tamil Nadu set off a storm. Ravi argued that this was necessary since many Tamils ended up “claiming that the state is not integrally part of India”.

He seemed to be working under the logic that the word “nadu” or “land” in the state’s name is a common pattern for sovereign nations (for instance Deutschland and Bangladesh).

Naming fight

This is not a new debate. In the 1960s, the Congress too had opposed the proposal to have Madras state renamed Tamil Nadu, fearing the rise of state identity. Ravi’s superficial analogy ignores the fact that the name Tamil Nadu seems to be quite popular to the state’s residents. Political parties across the board criticised the governor for the remark. Ironically, they included the Tamil Nadu unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party, whose bosses in Delhi had appointed Ravi to the role.

Ravi’s hard line against Tamil identity is not new or surprising. After all, the BJP is ideologically opposed to federal forms of identity. Besides, in Tamil Nadu, state identity is the saffron party’s biggest block in its path to growth.

What was more interesting in this case, therefore, was the governor’s clarification. Clearly, whoever in the BJP had thought that a powerful, unelected governor would create space for the party in Tamil Nadu had made a miscalculation.

Excuse me, guv

This is not a small realisation. The political use of governors in Opposition-ruled states has been a hallmark of the Modi years.

Deploying governors in this manner is not a new phenomenon. In fact, the post of governor in its current manifestation was created with the express intention of allowing the incumbent to meddle in state politics. In 1935, India’s British rulers drafted a new (and, as it so happened, final) constitution for the colony. As a major concession to Indian demands, it allowed the provinces to have democratic governments. But to keep these elected officials in line, it also created the post of a powerful governor who would be appointed by the central administration.

In 1950, the Congress-dominated Constituent Assembly decided to retain this Raj avatar of the governor. While the Congress had till then opposed the idea of a governor, it had a change of heart when it took control of the Centre in 1947. This was a hypocritical but, as is so often the case in politics, highly expedient move. The institution of the governor was a key part of the Congress’ incredible dominance during the Nehru and Indira Gandhi years, hobbling regional parties and giving the state Congress units a significant leg-up.

In fact, after the 1952 elections, the Congress managed to form a government in Madras only because the governor favoured the party, even though another coalition had got more seats. In the late 1960s, Dharma Vira, one of independent India’s most infamous governors, summarily dismissed a coalition of Left parties in Bengal and ensured that the Indira Gandhi-led Congress was able to wield power in a state where the electorate had rejected it.

Federal faultline

If the BJP is just copying an old playbook, why is it facing so many pitfalls? A large part of the answer to that might be the rise of strong state identities that had not coalesced politically in the initial Congress years.

The BJP’s use of governors sent from Delhi offers an easy handle to regional parties bent on raising local nationalisms as a counter to the BJP’s centralised Hindutva plank. Tamil Nadu is, of course, the classic example but a similar politics has played out in Maharashtra, West Bengal, Telangana and Kerala too. In all such cases, state leaders have been more than happy to enter into a public fight with the governor. It allows them to invoke India’s constitutional principles of federalism to make their case. Besides, since the governor will never fight an election and is often a relatively unknown figure in the state, is a low-risk conflict for a regional party.

Why then does the BJP persist with this strategy? Part of the answer to that lies in the structure of the present BJP: it is a highly-centralised party run by a high command located in Delhi. The party, in its present shape, has little interest in building up strong state units that could, in theory, challenge the high command. In such a situation, it makes more sense to play politics using an unelected governor (who could never be a political threat).

Electorally, of course, this is not ideal. But since the BJP depends on the Modi factor to draw votes, this arrangement might suit the prime minister. It allows him to maintain hegemony within his party as the BJP’s sole electoral face and, hence, power centre.