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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 11

Role of the Governor and Multiparty System

Saturday 1 March 2008, by Indrajeet Singh


From time to time, the role of Governor has made Indian citizens feel that they are living in a very fragile democratic realm which can be shaken effortlessly by the Governor. It is a well known fact that the Governors have played a dictatorial role many a time and transcended all the democratic limits. Different political parties have misused the role of the Governor at different times for their partisan interests, thus proving that Indian society has yet to achieve the state of political modernisation and political culture.

The institution of the Governor was misused to a great extent especially after 1967 to gain political mileage because of two reasons: (a) there was one-party dominance at the Centre, and (b) the lack of political power and awareness on the part of the Opposition.

The contemporary period has witnessed a shift in the political party system. It has moved from one- party dominance a to multiparty system, thanks to the growth of regional parties. The trend of the multiparty system, which we have been noticing today in Indian society, is making political institutions more and more democratised. This process of democratisation is also making its impact upon the role of the Governor. The multiparty system has replaced one-party dominance; as a result the party, which is in the power, cannot afford to use the Governor as its instrument. If any party tries to misuse the institution of the Governor, the Opposition parties put pressure upon the government to reverse the undemocratic and dictatorial decision.
The following are some of the questions, which I shall examine in this paper:
- 1. Historicity of the role of the Governor.
- 2. What was the intention of the framers of the Constitution?
- 3. What are the controversies regarding the role of the Governor?
- 4. What was the impact of the recommendations of Sarkaria Commission upon the role of the Governor?
- 5. How the growth of multiparty system has changed the nature of the role of the Governor.

Historical Background

BEFORE the fourth general elections in 1967, the Congress was having a clear majority at the Centre and in most of the States. Ministries in the States enjoyed great stability because the governments, namely, at the Centre and in the States, were run by the same party. Hence the Governor’s role was not a matter of public controversy and least attention was paid to it. Sarojini Naidu, one-time Governor of Uttar Pradesh, said that she considered herself “a bird in a golden cage”. B. Pattabhi Sitaramayya, a former Governor of Madhya Pradesh, also observed that he had no public function to perform except making the fortnightly report to the President.

The 1967 general elections witnessed a drastic change in the political state of affairs. Although Congress retained power at the Centre, it lost its base in eight States [that is, West Bengal, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Orissa, Kerala, Punjab, Haryana and Madhya Pradesh] where non-Congress and coalition governments came to power. The reason for the unity among allies of the coalition Ministries was their bitter opposition to the Congress regime and a desire to achieve power but they could not maintain their unity for a long time. The period between 1967 and 1972 saw the downfall of more than two dozen Ministries in different States giving birth to political defections and opportunistic tendencies, and as a result, the Governors started facing complexities, pressures and strain in exercising their powers. The office of the Governor suddenly became significant and controversial and the role of the Governor was questioned for the first time. As a result, many political debates took place to restructure the constitutional framework concerning the office and role of the Governor in a federal set-up. When the Chief Ministers belonged to the Opposition, the Governor was considered as the Centre’s agent and when there was a coalition government, the Chief Minister’s position was rendered ineffectual. As a result the Governor started playing a stubborn role, which gave birth to debatable issues concerning the constitutional powers of the Governor. So, the question arises: from where does the Governor derive so much power? The answer is the Act of 1935. The Government of India Act. 1935 provided the powers to provinces by giving them an autonomous status but the position of the Governor remained supreme as the executive authority was vested in him. Under the Act, the Governor had to exercise his executive authority in the name of the Crown with the aid and advice of the Ministers of the Council except in the case of discretionary powers.

In some cases the Governor had discretionary powers where he did not need to consult his Ministers, whereas while exercising powers in his individual judgment he could consult his Ministers but was not bound by their advice. In normal times the Governor was to act on the advice of his Council of Ministers. Thus under the Act of 1935 the Governor had to play a dual role, that is, he was the constitutional head of an autonomous province on the one hand, and an agent of the Central Government on the other. This came out sharply particularly when he had to act either at his discretion or according to his individual judgment.

The Governor of a province was also given a wide range of powers in the area of legislation. He could summon, prorogue and dissolve the provincial legislature at his discretion. He had the power to address and send messages to legislatures if it was bicameral. No Bill passed by the Legislative council became the law of the province without the consent of the Governor. He could give his assent to a Bill, withhold it, or return it for reconsideration or reserve it for the sanction of the-Governor General. He could reject a discussion on any issue if, in his view, it would affect his special responsibilities.

In addition to this, the Governor had the power to promulgate an ordinance in his name. This ordinance was to be approved by the legislature and it had the same force and effect as an Act of the provincial legislature assented to by the Governor. He also had the power to issue a proclamation at his discretion if he was satisfied that a situation had arisen in which the government of the province could not be carried on in accordance with the provisions of the Act of 1935.

Under the Act of 1935 the position of the Governor remained supreme as the Act made him the central and directing authority. Discretionary powers and special responsibilities provided ample scope for the Governor to play a supreme role in the provincial administration and thus the Governor stopped being a constitutional head; instead he became the real ruler of the provincial administration.

Spirit of the Framers of the Constitution

THERE were many debates about the election of the Governor. Some people wanted popularly elected Governors but some were dead against this proposal. Ultimately the drafting committee of the Constitution decided that the Governor would be appointed by the President. As a result, different parties manipulated the appointment of the Governor on the one hand, and on the other, Governors started following the command from the Central Government in order to make the Ministers happy at the Centre in anticipation of gaining higher political positions.

In addition to appointment, the makers of the Constitution also decided to keep the discretionary powers intact despite many objections. Though the framers of the Constitution speculated that the Governor would use his or her rational capacity while using the discretionary powers, instead of performing the constitutional obligations the Governors started playing a dictatorial role to keep their political bosses at the Centre.

Thus, we see that the framers of the Constitution endowed the Governor with certain powers with the hope that the Governor would use these powers to keep India united, but the Governors and Central governments misused the institution of the Governor to fulfil their political interests.

Totalitarianism and Democratic Battle

AUGUST 15, 1947 marked a watershed in the history of India because the country got its independence. But this independence was not free from difficulties. The role of the Governor was one of them. There was a long-drawn-debate in the Constituent Assembly regarding the role of the Governor. Ultimately, the Constituent Assembly decided to give much power to the Governor to maintain the unity of India. Perhaps, the framers of the Indian Constitution could not anticipate the misuse of the role of the Governor. Although there was a period of stability till 1967, it was an extravaganza in the Indian political state of affairs. As far as the role of Governor is concerned, the year of 1967 was a landmark in the history of the Indian political system.

The dominance of one party, that is to say, the dominance of Congress was evanescing. Opposition parties in different States came on the political map of India which led to various disputes and controversies between the Centre and the States regarding the appointment of the Governor by the Central Government, the powers of the Governor to appoint and dismiss the Chief Ministers, and the misuse of Article 356. As a result, the Central Government made the Governor a string-puppet to fulfil their partisan interest by getting unwanted Chief Ministers dismissed at their will. That is how the power of a Governor to appoint and dismiss any Chief Minister was abused by the government.

The basic problem lies in Article 164 (1) of the Indian Constitution, which reads as follows:

The Chief Minister shall be appointed by the Governor and the other Ministers shall be appointed by the Governor on the advice of the Chief Minister, and the Ministers shall hold office during the pleasure of the Governor.

Actually, the expression “holding an office during the pleasure of the Governor” is vague.

Dr Ambedkar was of the opinion that as long as the Ministry enjoyed the confidence of the House the head of the State would not be able to dismiss his Council of Ministers. But, as we have seen in the post-independence era, under the doctrine of “pleasure” the Governor can dismiss a Ministry even without giving any reason. Initially, a Ministry so dismissed had no remedy in law because the courts paid more attention to the language of the Constitution rather than its spirit and the intention of framers.

The appointment of Dr P.C. Ghosh as the West Bengal CM in 1967 was challenged in the High Court of Calcutta on two grounds: (i) the Governor was under the obligation to act under the advice of his Ministers under Article 163 (1) and the Ministry had been dismissed without such advice and therefore, the appointment of a fresh Ministry was unlawful; and (ii) the Governor could not dismiss the Ministry until it had been defeated on the floor of the House, for under Article 164, the Ministry was collectively responsible to the Assembly.

Justice Mitra rejected both of the bases and held that Article 164 (1) did not impose any restriction or condition upon the power of the Governor to appoint a Chief Minister. Further, the Ministry held the office at the Governor’s pleasure under Article 164 (1). No limits were placed on the Governor exercising his pleasure. Moreover, under Article 163 (2) the Governor was made the sole judge whether any power was required by the Constitution to be exercised in his discretion. Besides, the Constitution had not conferred any power on the Legislative Assembly of the State to dismiss or remove from office the Council of Ministers. Therefore, the Governor had absolute, exclusive and unquestionable discretionary powers to dismiss and the courts were precluded from deciding that question.

It is not the Congress which misused the institution of the Governor. Whenever the Opposition parties came to the power, they never missed the opportunity to hit back at the Congress. The Janata Party came to power in 1977 and started playing political gimmicks to topple the Opposition governments in different States. As a result the Janata Government dismissed the Congress governments in nine States which led to a nationwide controversy. In 1980 Mrs Indira Gandhi came back to power and showed a vindictive attitude by imposing President’s Rule in nine States governed by the Janata Party. This showed that the Ministry can be dismissed not only under Article 164 (1) but also under Article 356 by imposing President’s Rule.

In addition to this, in 1984, there were two more cases of dismissal of Chief Ministers. Ram Lal, the Governor of Andhra Pradesh, flouted constitutional norms by dismissing N.T. Rama Rao, who came to power with a landslide victory and was ready to prove his majority in the House within 48 hours, but he was not given a chance to do so. Instead Bhaskar Rao, who did not have the majority, was invited to form the government. Ultimately, Rama Rao had to prove the majority in front of the President and was restored to his position.

The same unfortunate chapter was written by Jagmohan, Governor of Jammu and Kashmir, who dismissed the then Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Farooq Abdullah, who had substantial majority. These two examples show very clearly how the Central Government can act in such cases and to what extent it can use the Governor as an instrument to fulfil its political interest.

In the final analysis we find that, although the framers of Indian Constitution made the Governor very powerful by providing discretionary powers to him to maintain the unity and integrity of the nation, in post-independence era Governors have been used as an instrument by the Central Government to fulfil narrow political interests.

The founders of the Indian Constitution added Article 356 to the Constitution to make the Centre exceedingly powerful so that its will could be imposed upon the ill will of any regional leader, but this too, has been used to fulfil political purposes, which has given birth to many disputes between the Centre and the States. As a result, a number of efforts were made to seek a solution to the problem, the Sarkaria Commission being a case in point.

Appointment of Sarkaria Commission: An Era of Expectations

THE Sarkaria Commission submitted its report to the Union Government on October 27, 1987. It focused upon the role of the Governor and gave the following recommendations regarding the Governor:

A. The appointment of the Governor
- 1. He should be a man of some eminence in some field.
- 2. He should not belong to the State where he has to serve as the Governor.
- 3. He should be a detached figure with little record of participation in the local politics of the State.
- 4. He should be a person who has not taken too great a part in politics generally, particularly in the recent past.
- 5. Preference should continue to be given to the minority groups as hitherto.
- 6. It is desirable that a politician from the ruling party at the Centre should not be made the Governor of a State run by another party or a coalition of parties.
- 7. Article 155 of the Constitution should be suitably amended to ensure effective consultation with the Chief Minister of a State while appointing a Governor in that State.
- 8. The Vice-President of India and the Speaker of the Lok Sabha should also be consulted while making this appointment though this consultation should be ‘confidential’, ‘informal’ and not a matter of constitutional obligations.

The above-mentioned recommendations show that the Sarkaria Commission has made many suggestions regarding the appointment of the Governor but it has failed to show how these recommendations can be implemented. The Sarkaria Commission seems to be interested in giving much power to the Centre; therefore, the matter regarding the appointment of the Governor still lies in the hands of Central Government.

A. Sarkaria Commission on Discretionary Powers of the Governor

Article 163 (1) reads as follows:

There shall be a Council of Ministers with the Chief Minister as the head to aid and advise the Governor in the exercise of his functions, except in so far as he is by or under this Constitution required to exercise his functions or any of them in his discretion.

And Article 163 (2) 1 as:

If any question arises whether any matter is or is not a matter as respect which the Governor is by or under this Constitution required to act in his discretion, the decision of the Governor in his discretion shall be final and the validity of anything done by the Governor shall not be called in question on the ground that he ought or ought not to have acted in his discretion.

Therefore we see that this Article provides the Governor with wide-ranging powers. Since the Governor decides everything, sometime he plays a dictatorial role to fulfil partisan interests. As a result, some of the States demanded the deletion of the discretionary powers of the Governor but the Commission rejected it. Instead, it suggested that Article 163 should be left untouched. Hence, it proposed the continuance of this power but it also said that it should be used only as a last resort.

It made clear that the Governor can still misuse the discretionary powers for partisan interests and; Sarkaria Commission at least succeeded in putting a check upon them.

It points out:

Article 356 should be used very sparingly, in extreme cases, as a measure of last resort, when all available alternatives fail to prevent or rectify the breakdown of the constitutional machinery.

In conclusion, we can say that Sarkaria Commission has taken many initiatives to stabilise Center-State relations regarding the role of the Governor. But question still remains to be answered: Has it done enough?

In the final analysis, as far as the role of the Governor is concerned, the Sarkaria Commission did not suggest much change.

Multiparty System and Democratisation of the Institution of the Governor

THOUGH India has suffered many setbacks from the federal point of view, it has been quite successful in reaching consensus and settlement. This has been possible because of its capacity to develop harmonious conditions of federal polity. So, the question arises: what are the means which help us reach an agreement? The answer is: a federal model of government and the human actors who make this model a success with the help of political parties which are the backbone of democratic societies—they are the main vehicle of representation of the people.

Direct democracy is not feasible in modern nation-states because of their big size and complex social arrangements. There must be an agency to make decisions on the behalf of the people. Political parties shoulder the responsibility to perform this task. So the political parties play an absolutely vital role in making democracy a success and they are the lifeblood for democratic societies; without them no one can even think of establishing a democratic society.

In the recent past Indian society has seen a sea- change in the nature of the party system. It has shifted from one-party dominance to a multi-party system. The year 1989 was a landmark in the Indian political system because the people of India witnessed for the first time the introduction of a multi-party system. The Indian citizens kept this trend alive in 1996 when the United Front assumed power at the Centre. Thereafter the BJP formed the government at the Centre with the help of its regional allies in 1998 and in 1999 thereby giving the Indian federal model a new shape. It manifested a substantive degree of cooperation between the Central Government and regional parties. The 2004 elections have also compelled leaders of different parties to form a coalition government at the Centre. The political environment which India has developed in the last 17 years proves the point that now India is probably taking steps towards cooperative federalism. Earlier there were conflicts between the party at the Centre and regional parties in the States. But it was felt after 1996 that Indian politics was shifting towards consensus politics. This shift has also affected the position of the Governor. The role of the Governor has been one of the important reasons of conflict between different political parties. With the change in the nature of the political party system, there are changes in the institution of the Governor. Earlier there was one-party dominance; as a result, the Congress was in a position of making political use of the institution of the Governor. In the post-1967 period the Congress had to face a difficult time because it lost power in eight States and immediately the Congress started using the Governor for its political interests. But democracy did not succumb to the tendencies of totalitarianism. The Opposition parties put pressure upon the Congress not to use the Governors for political benefit. Besides, the Opposition parties also hit back at the Congress in 1977 by suspending Congress Ministries in eight States. After 1980 the politics of pressure increased as we have seen in cases of Andhra Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir.

The more political parties we have, the more political pressure upon the party in power to reverse its undemocratic decisions. We also noticed tactics of pressure in Bihar and Jharkhand in the beginning of 2006. Pressure politics forces politicians to reach the politics of consensus.

We ultimately reach the conclusion that while initially there was the politics of confrontation between the Congress and Opposition parties, after 1980 the politics of pressure came into existence. Now we see that pressure politics and tendency of consensus go hand-in-hand and this has become possible because of the existence of many political parties which can put considerable amount of pressure to get undemocratic decisions reversed.

The multiparty system in the recent past has helped evolve the politics of consensus regarding the role of the Governor and this system will put a check upon undesirable misuse of the institution of the Governor. Absence of one-party dominance will lead to more democratic values concerning the role of the Governor and inspire the governments in power to make the Governor the protector of the Constitution and the Governors will work in the same way as the Constitution-makers wanted.

Myron Weiner seems very relevant even today, though he said it in 1957:

Providing the machinery for the peaceful transfer of political power from one group to another, is essential to any democratic system. A two-party system in which one party is democratic and the other totalitarian is hardly viable. n


1. Bhawani Singh, Governor: Role Identification and Sarkaria Commission.
- 2. Binod Kumar Sinha, Governor as a factor of Indian federalism.
- 3. H.A. Gani, Governor in the Indian Constitution.
- 4. M.S. Dahiya, Office of the Governor in India.
- 5. Myron Weiner, Party Politics in India: The Development of a Multi-Party System.
- 6. N.S. Gehlot, The Office of the Governor—Its Constitutional Image and Reality.
- 7. P.M. Bakshi, The Constitution of India.
- 8. R.P. Nainta, Governor under the Indian Constitution.
- 9. Sarkaria Commission Report.
- 10. Sibranjan Chatterjee, Governor’s Role in the Indian Constitution.

The author is a Lecturer, S.G.N.D. Khalsa College, University of Delhi.

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