J&K governor Satya Pal Malik's revelations reiterate vulnerability of state heads, indicate their difficulty in rejecting central power play

Are state governors in India mere political pawns? Jammu and Kashmir governor Satya Pal Malik's recent confession that he fears a transfer out of the Raj Bhawan for dissolving the state Assembly appears to indicate just that.

Malik had said he was not sure when will he be transferred from Jammu and Kashmir, but the "threat of a transfer is there".

Although he is not the first governor (and likely not the last) to have found himself in the middle of a political controversy, but his statement has revived the debate on the role of a governor and if at all it's possible for the constitutional head of a state to act without fear and favour and without being influenced by the powers that be.

File image of Satya Pal Malik. PTI

File image of Satya Pal Malik. PTI

Earlier, Malik had implied that the Centre had wanted him to give People's Conference chairman Sajad Lone a chance to form the government in Jammu and Kashmir. Lone, whose party had only two seats in the Assembly, reportedly has the support of BJP legislators as well as some rebel MLAs of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). But he was not the only one staking claim to form the state government. PDP chief and former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti had also said she had sent a letter to Malik, claiming that her party has the support of the required number of MLAs — backed by Omar Abdullah's National Conference and the Congress — to form government in the conflict-torn state.

Malik, however, had rejected both claims and dissolved the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly, forcing fresh elections in the state in the next six months.

His decision received a sharp reaction, with most critics accusing the governor of acting as a puppet of the BJP-ruled Centre and not giving Mufti a chance to form the government in the state. While Mufti and her supports claim that Malik had acted in an "unconstitutional" manner because BJP-backed Lone didn't have the numbers, it is also believed that the NC-Congress-PDP alliance caught the Centre off guard, and since it didn't want Mufti back in office, dissolving the Assembly eventually served the BJP well.

The Jammu and Kashmir governor also claimed that he dissolved the Assembly because Mufti was never interested in forming the government and wanted fresh polls. He said the alliance would not be stable for the state, even though it is not his job to test the future stability of the government nor is he qualified to make such as judgement.

Malik's actions and his revelations from earlier this week have shown that the position of a governor can easily be compromised to serve the Centre's political interests, though he said he was not afraid of a backlash from those who had installed him in the Raj Bhawan in the first place.

But can all claim to act without personal prejudice and in favour of the state?

The spats between the Arvind Kejriwal-led government in Delhi and the Lieutenant-Governor is well documented. Similar issues have also been witnessed in Puducherry, where the chief minister of the Union Territory is locked in a bitter battle over powers with L-G Kiran Bedi. While much of these power tussles have been about the authorities themselves, history in states shows a completely different ball game.

In 2016, Arunachal Pradesh governor JP Rajkhowa had triggered a constitutional crisis in the notheastern state by unlawfully advancing the Assembly session, which had led to the imposition of President’s Rule in the state. In Tamil Nadu, then governor C Vidyasagar Rao was often accused of not performing his constitutional duties and for allowing the political crisis that followed former chief minister J Jayalalithaa's death, the subsequent arrest of her aide Sasikala and the split in the AIADMK to get out of hand.

In an ideal situation, a governor is supposed to be anything but a political pawn. The qualities and qualifications for a governor listed out by the Sarkaria Commission say: "The governor should be eminent in some walk of life and from outside the state. He should be a detached figure without intense political links or should not have taken part in politics in the recent past. Besides, he should not be a member of the ruling party."

But these rules are hardly followed anymore in choosing a governor. Karnataka governor Vajubhai Vala was a member of the BJP and is a staunch supporter of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In fact, Vala had even vacated his seat for Modi. That intense political links are still present became apparent when Vala had called on Karnataka BJP chief BS Yeddyurappa to form the state government even though he lacked majority support in the Assembly.

Although a governor is the Centre's representative at the state level, according to Article 159 of the Constitution which lists out the oath of the governor, s/he should "devote himself to the service and well being of the people of state". A governor must work towards the benefit of the people of the state, not towards a party, an ideology or association, or a government. More often than not, governors have done the latter, be it the UPA or NDA at the Centre.

This then pleads a question — was Malik thinking about the people of Jammu and Kashmir when he dissolved the Assembly? Did he have them in mind when he said he fears he might get transferred for not having listened to the Centre's diktat?

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Updated Date: Nov 28, 2018 22:11:23 IST

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