Changing UPA's governors: Why Tharoor is only half-right

If governors have to be changed, we need a new set of transparent rules for it. Shashi Tharoor has some suggestions, but his ideas do not go far enough. And his critique is not quite non-partisan.

R Jagannathan June 18, 2014 21:45:53 IST
Changing UPA's governors: Why Tharoor is only half-right

The Modi government's plans to pack off some of the state governors appointed by the UPA—which means basically the Congress high command—makes some political sense. When governors are political appointees, their exits can also be political.

However, this does not mean the NDA should follow in the UPA’s footsteps. A Supreme Court judgement of 2010 says that governors can be removed, but there must be "compelling" reasons for doing so.

Changing UPAs governors Why Tharoor is only halfright

Congress leader Shashi Tharoor. Image courtesy PIB

The problem is with the word "compelling" – and who decides whether a removal is for compelling reasons or not. Can Sheila Dikshit be removed as Kerala Governor because her name figures in the Shunglu committee report on the Commonwealth Games? Since the court has ruled out change in government as a reason for removal, incoming governments will try and find reasons that sound compelling enough even though the primary aim may be to remove a political appointee of the previous government.

Shashi Tharoor, Congress MP from Thiruvananthapuram,  makes two invalid comparisons while mildly decrying the NDA move to change some Congress-appointed governors. But he also makes two important suggestions for change that can be built upon.

While claiming to depoliticise the issue, he effectively politicised it by pointing out that the practice of removing inconvenient governors was not started by the Congress. He traced it to 1977, when the Janata Party sacked all Congress-appointed governors at one stroke – governors mostly appointed during Indira Gandhi’s notorious internal emergency. The Janata party's more controversial move was, in fact, the sacking of all Congress state governments. The removal of governors in 1977 was thus an exceptional case coming after an exceptional event. In any case, 1977 was the start of it all only because before that only Congress governors and retainers were appointed. The right precedent to cite was thus 2004, when the UPA government removed NDA-appointed governors. So the bad precedent was set by UPA, not opposition parties.

Second, Tharoor said governors ought not to be removed as it would be similar to asking President Pranab Mukherjee to resign as he had assumed office during UPA rule. Here, Tharoor is being too clever by half. The President is an elected official while the governor is a selected official – selected by the party in power at the centre for political reasons.

However, there are two other proposals offered by Tharoor for the future. One, we can either abolish the post of governor altogether, or depoliticise. There may be few takers for the former, but the second makes logical sense. A non-political governor would have credibility – which is exactly what the office needs. According to Tharoor, this means anyone made governor should resign from any political party he has been part of. He cannot also rejoin any party after his assignment is over.

Using this as a starting point, the NDA must frame rules to clearly state who is eligible and who isn’t for the office of governor.

First, it is not enough if an appointee just resigns from a political party a day before his appointment. Only those who are not currently in active politics—say, a minimum of two years after resigning from active political party membership—should be eligible for governorship. Someone resigning yesterday from the Congress party cannot today be made governor. This does not create adequate distance from politics.

Second, non-partisan people, including eminent persons and Supreme Court and high court judges, and former senior bureaucrats, can be considered as major catchment areas for governorships.

Three, state governments should be consulted on appointments, and if they have serious objections to someone being posted as governor, the centre should reconsider even without giving states a veto.

Four, the possibility of having an elected governor need not be ruled out. If the President of India can be elected using a combined electorate from states and Centre, something similar can be done with state governors. Maybe the electors could be a mix of MLAs and elected municipal and panchayat officials.

Five, transfers of governors should be possible at any time.

Six, governors should get a fixed five-year tenure, and no governor should be appointed if she/he is above the age of 80.

Tharoor’s suggestions make for a good starting point, but they don’t go far enough.

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