On Tuesday, the Modi government sacked its Lieutenant Governor in Puducherry, Kiran Bedi. The Lieutenant Governor in Union territories is equivalent to the post of governor in states. The person holding the post is appointed by New Delhi.
Bedi’s dismissal comes after more than four years of bitter politics. Puducherry Chief Minister V Narayanasamy had repeatedly complained that the Lieutenant Governor had severely hamstrung his elected government.
However, that by itself, did not lead to Bedi’s sacking. NDTV reports that this was done to protect the Bharatiya Janata Party from possible blowback in the upcoming Assembly elections. Clearly, ruling the Puducherry from Raj Bhawan was not going to be a popular plank at the polls.
While Bedi might be gone, the trend of the ruling party using governors to play partisan politics is still going strong. In Kerala, the Centre-appointed governor has constantly interfered with functions that lie squarely with the elected government. In Maharashtra, the Congress, which is part of the ruling coalition, has threatened to move court against the governor given the latter has refused to accept the cabinet’s advice on the appointing of nominees in the legislative council.
In West Bengal, the governor functions largely as an opposition politician, ironically taking on a government that, as per the constitutional scheme, functions in his name. Apart from regular statements in the media, the governor has also delivered an unprecedented televised address on the Union government-run broadcaster Doordarshan in April.
One of the fundamental axioms of a democracy is that political power rests with elected officials. Before Independence, freedom fighters fought for power to be given to elected ministers rather than unelected bureaucrats. This led to partial transfers of power in 1919 and 1937, with Indian ministers holding more authority over the bureaucracy.
However, India’s Constituent Assembly erred by holding on to the colonial office of governor. The move allowed the Central government a measure of control over states – even without winning an election. This ended up weakening the development of Indian federalism, with state governments being hobbled by the machinations of an unelected person – an uncomfortable throwback to the Raj.
While the argument is often made that a governor who plays a political role have somehow deviated from her stated job, the colonial history of the governor makes it clear that it is not the case. The current post of the governor, created in 1937 when state governments were made democratically accountable under the Government of India Act 1935, was an explicitly political post meant to keep state governments in check and limit the power of democratically elected Indian leaders.
When the office of governor was adopted by Independent India, it was used by the Congress-led Centre to control recalcitrant states. In 1952, for example, after Independent India’s first election, the governor of Madras called 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 1959, the governor helped Nehru dismissed the Communist government of Kerala even as it was fighting the Congress electorally.
Since then, India has seen its federalism deepen, with the rise of powerful state-oriented politics and, in many cases, even the growth of state-based parties. The current prime minister, Narendra Modi, in fact cut his political teeth as a powerful chief minister, using the position to gain national prominence.
In such a situation, the office of governor is doubly anachronous, going against Indian democracy and federalism. India’s states are in many cases as big as large countries. To deny them their full democratic voice and to have the power of the leaders they elected be curtailed by an unelected colonial remnant significantly undermines Indian democracy.