Governors forcing floor tests on reluctant chief ministers has been a frequent occurrence through India’s seven decades of democracy. But 2020 has bought a curious inversion: for the first time, it is a chief minister who needed to convince a reluctant governor that there should be a floor test to see whether his government enjoys the support of the majority of the members of the state assembly.

Late in Wednesday, Rajasthan’s governor accepted a petition from the Ashok Gehlot-led Rajasthan cabinet to call for a session of the assembly. This was Gehlot’s fourth request in seven days. The earlier three had been rejected.

The political deal making going on behind the scenes is not difficult to fathom. Gehlot, facing a revolt from 19 MLAs from his Congress party, is seeking to quickly prove his majority in the house, before things get worse. Before the crisis erupted earlier this month, the Congress had the backing of 125 MLAs in the 200-member Rajasthan Assembly, including 107 from its own party. The governor, a former minister in the Modi government, wants to prevent Gehlot from marking himself safe. As a result, the governor sought to delay the session. In the end, the Gehlot administration had to bend to the governor’s demand and accept that a session should only be called with three-weeks notice.

Beyond the law

Matters, however, start to get a lot murkier when looked at from the domain of law and democratic propriety. The governor’s decision to lay down conditions to summon an assembly have no basis in law. The Indian Constitution is clear that when it comes to summoning a state assembly, the governor has to function on instructions provided by the state cabinet. He has no discretion in the matter at all.

This was reaffirmed as recently as 2016 by the Supreme Court. While the “Constitution provides that the Governor shall summon the Legislative Assembly from time to time and may prorogue and dissolve the Legislative Assembly,”, the court said, it emphasised that this act “cannot be performed except on the aid and advice of the Council of Ministers”. Any violation of this “would be doing violence to all canons of interpretation if the discretion of the Governor”.

The logic of the law is clear: the governor is a nominated individual while the council of ministers enjoys the support of the democratically elected legislature. The only time when the governor does have discretion in the matter is when he suspects that the cabinet has lost the support of the house. Even then, this discretion only extends to calling for a floor test immediately.

In the case of Rajasthan, no matter how the situation is viewed, the governor delaying a session of the state assembly has no backing of law or logic.

Retaining the Raj

The phenomenon of governors working to undermine Indian democracy is not new. In fact, the very concept of a governor was created for exactly that purpose in the British Raj’s Government of India Act, 1935. As the Raj introduced democratic government in the provinces, it needed a tool to keep these administrations in check. This was done via the office of the governor, who rather than being elected was directly nominated by the British-controlled Central government.

At the time, the Congress opposed the concept of a governor. But once it was in control of the Central government itself, it had a change of heart. Retaining the position of the colonial-style governor allowed the Congress to control states where it did not have a proper democratic mandate.

In 1952, for instance, after independent India’s first election, the governor of Madras state summoned fellow Congressman C Rajagopalachari to form the government even though the United Front had more seats than the Congress and – remarkably – Rajagopalachari was not even an MLA. In 1954, the Punjab government was dismissed simply because Prime Minister Nehru wasn’t happy with the chief minister. In 1959, a pliable governor helped the Nehru government dismiss the Communist government of Kerala even as it was fighting the Congress electorally.

Little has changed in seven decades. With the Bharatiya Janata Party now replacing the Congress as the most powerful party in India and one that controls the Central government, it is now using the position of the governor to pummel demoratic mandates.

As long as the office of governor exists, it is clear that Indian democracy will be seriously hobbled by the ambition of a few leaders managing to ride roughshod over the votes of millions of Indians.

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Why today’s Rajasthan political crisis has its roots in Constituent Assembly debates of the 1940s