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The Kiran Bedi saga: What makes Governors and Lt Governors so controversial?

By Dr. Sandeep Shastri
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Democratic governments function effectively when those who adorn constitutional offices accept and understand the rationale of their respective roles. This is even more relevant in parliamentary democracies where a distinction is often made between the Head of State and Head of Government. In India, this has reference to the office of the President and the Council of Ministers headed by the Prime Minister at the central level and the position of the Governor and the Council of Ministers headed by the chief Minister in the states. Equally important is the role of the Lt. Governor and the Council of Ministers headed by the Chief Minister in special category states like Delhi and Union Territories like Puducherry.

What makes Governors and Lt Governors so controversial?

The Lt. Governor of Puducherry, Kiran Bedi has been in the limelight for several decades now, first as the first women IPS officer, as a civic activist, briefly as a politician and now as the Lt. Governor of a Union Territory. She is a public figure who is known to call a spade a spade and took on senior politicians during her career in the police. As DCP (Traffic) in Delhi, she earned the nickname Crane Bedi for having got the cars of VIPs towed away for being parked in No Parking zones. Ever since she took oath as Lt Governor of Puducherry, she has been the focus of media attention and at the centre of many a political controversy. The latest episode has been her directing the organisers to switch off the mike when a AIADMK MLA was speaking at a public function as he refused to adhere to time limits. The confrontation that erupted has been in the spotlight of attention in the social, electronic and print media and merits detailed analysis.

Also Read | WATCH: Asked to wrap speech, lawmaker fights with Kiran Bedi on camera

The entire episode draws attention to two important dimensions. Firstly, one needs to revisit the role of an important constitutional office like the Governor in a State or Lt Governor in a Union Territory. Secondly, it also raises questions on the manner in which people are appointed to these positions and the political background or track-record of those made Governors/Lt Governors.

In the last seven decades of the operation of the Constitution, no constitutional office has generated more controversies than the office of the Governor. The root of the crisis is possibly the lack of clarity in the constitutional document or in the constitutional assembly debates on the role of the Governor. During the debate it was sometimes mentioned that the Governor of a State is like the President at the Centre. At other times it was mentioned that the Governor would be the first citizen of the state and yet at other times it was asserted that the Governor would be the representative of the centre in the state. Each of these roles could merit a different interpretation. The position of the Lt Governor in a Union Territory like Puducherry, has to additionally take into account the special powers assigned to the office, even as one provided for a democratically elected government in the Union Territory or a special category state like Delhi. The Court directives in the light of certain actions of the Lt Governor of Delhi, clearly indicate that when there is a democratically elected government, the Governor (or Lt Governor) needs to act largely under the aid and advice of the Council of Ministers except when the rare situation requires an interpretation of constitutional provisions and use of discretion. What in reality has happened is that those anticipated rare moments have become common-place unfolding on a daily basis bringing the office of the Lt Governor in direction confrontation with the democratically elected government. This becomes even more visible when one party is in power at the centre and another the ruling party at the State/Union Territory as in the case of Puducherry. The confrontation between the Lt Governor and Chief Minister of Puducherry has been out in the open with the Chief Minister even writing letters to the Centre complaining against the many actions of the Lt Governor.

Also Read | 'People of Pondicherry proud of French heritage': Kiran Bedi on being trolled over WC tweet

At the heart of the controversy relating to the office of the Governor/ Lt Governor is the manner of their appointment and the background of the people appointed to these positions. In the Constituent Assembly debates Jawaharlal Nehru has assured the members of the constitution making body, that Governors would be appointed after consulting the Chief Ministers. This however was not implicitly stated in the Constitution but was expected to be followed as a convention. Over time, consultation became information with many an unwelcome Governor being thrust on a State, especially when the party in power at the Centre was different from the one that was the ruling party in the state. The controversy that followed the side-tracking of a convention that involved consultation with the Chief Minister, invariably involved an increasing mistrust of the Governor by the democratically elected government in the State/Union Territory.

A linked factor is the background of individuals appointed as Governors/ Lt Governor. In the Constituent Assembly debates, Jawaharlal Nehru had held out an assurance, that when appointing Governors eminent people who were not involved in active politics would be appointed as Governors. In reality, nine of every ten Governors have been politicians who were active in the ruling party in power at the centre or retired but loyal civil servants. A survey of those holding the Gubernatorial office today across the country would underscore this point. To be fair to the present government, they are only carrying forward a well established tradition fashioned by previous governments. Given the background that they bring to the office, controversy would invariably be a natural by-product.

In Ms Kiran Bedi's case, not only was she the BJP Chief Ministerial candidate in Delhi she was known to be a no-nonsense police officer who spoke her mind. That continues to be her trait even after her appointment as Lt Governor. While some of the public causes she has fought for are commendable (even as Lt Governor), it may be important to reflect on the limits that the holders of an office must voluntarily place on themselves, given the nature of democratic governance and respect for constitutional norms and propriety. Such controversies will continue to abound if those chosen to constitutional positions do not appreciate not merely the letter but the spirit of the Constitution. More importantly, insulating the office from political controversy would require appointing individuals to these positions who are eminent individuals whose prominence is not merely on account of their past political or administrative career.

(Dr Sandeep Shastri is a leading political scientist and Pro Vice Chancellor, Jain University)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of OneIndia and OneIndia does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

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