Unending Controversy: The Governor in Indian Politics


 Shuja Shakir

Association: Associate Professor, Political Science

Address ®: 1-19-555, Near Sane Hospital, Jubilee Park, Aurangabad, Maharashtra, Pin|:431001

Address (o): Department of Political Science, Dr. Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar Marathwada University, Aurangabad, Maharashtra

Mobile: 9158440968 / 9890457917

Email: shujashakir@rediffmail.com


Office of Governor has remained in controversy since 1967. Center Governments, irrespective of their ideological orientations, have often connived at the established practices and norms to use office of governor for the political ends. As a result, the Governor-related controversies in the country have not only kept the center-state relations strained for long, but have also become a huge obstacle in the way of state autonomy. At times, these controversies became so serious that several political parties demanded scrapping the office of Governor. However, this paper argues that in the era of competitive politics and coalition governments, abolishing Governor’s office would not be appropriate in the larger interest of democracy.  

Keywords: Governor, Indian politics, polity, centralization, state politics

Full Paper

Time and again the office of Governor is usually in the news for all wrong reasons. The controversies relating to the office of Governor seem to be unending (Sharma, 2014).  The state governments, where the ruling party is different from the one at center, have often found Governor’s role partisan. Their charge is that the central government has used the Governor as a trusted agent to create problems for the state governments, ruled by the opposition parties.

Endowed with a limited functionality under the constitution of the country, the Governors were expected to be harmless and non-interfering. The framers of the constitution preferred nominated Governor to an elected one because they did not want to create a dual power center within the states with an elected chief minister and elected Governor, for which reason, Dr. Ambedkar stated in Constituent Assembly that powers of Governors were proposed to be just ornamental. (CAD 1949: 468). Much like President of the country, the Governor was supposed to be a formal head of the state with real powers being with the elected chief minister and his cabinet.

What has happened over years is exactly reverse of what makers of constitution might have expected in respect of the functioning of Governors. Barring a few exceptions, majority of Governors have tended to act as the agents of the Centre and pander to the interests of center rather than to those of the states, to which they were appointed. Whether it was appointing the chief ministers or dislodging the state governments, the Governors often took a call from their political masters in New Delhi. As a result, office of Governor not only lost its credibility, but also ended up violating the very spirit of the constitution.

General Elections, 1967

There was a little controversy about the powers of the Governor in the State until February 1967, when the Fourth General Elections were declared. These elections proved to be a landmark in that they ushered in a new phase in Indian politics-the end of one-party dominance of Congress and beginning of coalition politics. As many as eight States saw the rout of Congress at the hands of non-Congress parties. The office of the Governor from being a matter of academic interest shot into prominence as an epicenter of serious political altercations from here onwards. It also subsequently became an apparent cause of serious strains in the Center-State relations. A major reason for this murky state of affairs was an attempt by the Congress at the Center to use the office of Governor for narrow political ends. The opposition parties in the States vociferously claimed that the Congress was using this gubernatorial office to dislodge the legitimate State Governments. Review of the Governor’s role during this period indeed shows that most Governors acted as stooges of the Center, ready to topple the elected governments in the State. It is in this context that the role of Governor as the Constitutional Head of the State assumed added importance in appointing and dismissing the Chief Ministers in the State, especially after 1967.

Misuse of Discretionary Power

Governor can appoint chief minister under his discretionary powers when no party secures majority in the state assembly. Under the name of discretion, Governors have often violated the established conventions to favour the central government. As a matter of standard practice, Governor allows single largest party in the assembly to form government, but contrary to popular understanding, Governors have made their own calculations to judge which party is single largest. In 1952, the Governor of Madras judged that Congress was single largest party with 155 seats in the assembly of 375, even though the combined strength of opposition parties, which had formed a United Front, was 166. His logic was that since opposition parties came together after elections, he couldn’t consider them as one party (The Indian Express, March 30, 1967). In short, there was no place for post-poll alliance.

After general elections of 1967, in the Rajasthan assembly of 183, Congress got 83 seats whereas combined strength of opposition parties, fighting in name of Samyukta Dal, was 93. The Governor judged that Congress deserved to form the government because in Samyukta Dal there were about 15 independents whose existence the Governor did not consider valid because independent MLAs “cannot have any policy, party or group” (The Statesman, March 2, 1967). But the Governor of Gujarat did not find any problems in allowing Hitendra Desai of Congress (O) to form the government in 1971 with the support of independent MLAs (The Statesman, April 8, 1971). Likewise, the Governor of Uttar Pradesh invited the Congress to form the government after elections of 1967 when he was satisfied that independent MLAs were ready to support the party leader, C.B. Gupta (The Hindustan Times, March 14, 1967).

It may be noted that in different States the different criteria followed by the Governors in appointing chief ministers gave rise to the suspicion that they wanted to favour the ruling party at center. It is not that Governors indulged in this kind of practice only during 1960s. Even in 2005, the Governor of Jharkhand invited Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) chief, Shibu Soren to form the government when JMM had only17 seats whereas BJP had 30 seats in the House of 81. Going by the principle of inviting single largest party to form the government when no party secures absolute majority, BJP should have got the first invitation, but the Governor chose otherwise. Interestingly, Shibu Soren was then central Cabinet Minister and his party was supporting the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA). Was the Governor, like his numerous predecessors, trying to please his political masters in New Delhi? Answer is not far-fetched.

Governors have also misused their discretionary powers in the matter of dismissing the duly elected chief ministers, dislodging the legitimate state governments and having the President’s rule imposed. The BKD Ministry headed by Charan Singh appeared to have been reduced to minority after the Congress (R) withdrew its support in 1970. Instead of asking the Chief Minister to face the trial of strength, the Governor asked him to resign straightaway. When Charan Singh refused, the Governor recommended imposition of President’s rule (The Statesman, September 25, 1970). Office of Governor is not superior to Council of Ministers and in dismissing the chief minister based on the assessment of his party having been reduced to minority, the Governor should ask chief minister to face the trial of strength in the House. Both Sarkaria Commission and later Supreme Court stressed making trial of strength of chief minister mandatory before dismissing him and his government. Supreme Court’s stand on this issue was a result of what was clearly an unlawful dismissal of Bommai government by the Governor in 1988. Governor dismissed the chief minister of Karnataka, S.R. Bommai on the grounds that Janata Dal, he was heading, had lost confidence of the House when a group of 19 MLAs had given a letter withdrawing its support to the Bommai government. The Governor immediately recommended president’s rule even when Bommai was ready to face trust vote on the floor of the House (The Statesman, June 25, 1983). Governor ignored the petition of the 7 out of 19 dissident MLAs who later met and told him that their signatures were taken by misrepresentation. Bommai challenged the role of the Governor and the decision of the Central Government to impose the President’s rule in State following which the Supreme Court ruled that any proclamation of the President’s rule under Article 356 was subject to judicial review. Making a scathing comment on the role of the Governor, the Court said that it appeared that Governor was in a hurry to dismiss the ministry and dissolve the assembly. The Bommai judgment had a huge impact on center-state relationship as it largely stopped the misuse of article 356 that deals with the imposition of president’s rule in the states.

It should be understood that for their blatantly partisan role, Governors alone should not be held responsible. The responsibility lies partly with constitution itself and partly with nefarious political agenda of the party ruling at the center. When the constitution was being framed, it was initially thought to have a relatively autonomous Governor, with proposals almost being accepted to have an elected Governor. However, this idea was soon dropped following the bloody partition and the resultant fear psychosis that gripped the national leaders at large. It was then thought that the country needed a strong center. Hence, makers of Indian constitution did away with the idea of autonomy of the states. Consequently there are provisions like the executive power of every State being so exercised as to ensure compliance with the laws made by the Parliament and the existing laws under Article 256 of the Constitution. Under Article 355, the Union has the duty to protect the States against internal disturbance and to ensure that the governance of every State is carried on in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution, for which it’s free to use article 356. The Planning Commission and the Ministry of Finance monitoring the transfer of finances to the State are central agencies. A casual look at the distribution of powers between the Centre and the States shows that the Centre has an upper hand over the states.

Centralization ensured that Governor remained a dominant entity. Right from the appointment to the dismissal of Governors, states have a little say. Although Sarkaria Commission, and lately Punchhi Commission, emphasized the convention of President consulting state chief minister before appointing a Governor, in practice, it was blatantly flouted. On the contrary, there are several examples to show that center has imposed on states such persons as Governors whom the state chief ministers had vehemently opposed.

After 1967, suffer an identity crisis of sorts, the Congress party had Governor’s office pressed into services of the center. The authoritarian attitude of Indira Gandhi and her increasing intolerance of any opposition began to result in the appointment of politically motivated persons to the post of Governor. It would not be incorrect to say that after 60s, biased action of Governor was one of the major reasons for the continuous friction between Centre and States. Coincidentally, this was also a period when political opportunism in the form of political defections for petty allurement became rampant across the States. Indira Gandhi was never comfortable with the fact that non-Congress parties, too, had a right to occupy a political space within States. Unethical means were used to emaciate the regional parties. Horse-trading, promise of positions and posts to opposition candidates and promotion of caste-based politics at regional level were some of them. Office of Governor was subject to an extreme misuse in this period with the result that not only was the State autonomy adversely affected, but also the spirit of federalism, so dear to the framers of the Constitution, was crushed to the hilt.

However, this is not to say that it was Congress alone that manipulated Governor’s office to achieve narrow political ends. Opposition parties did the same whenever they came to power at center.

When V.P. Singh became prime minister, his government asked all the Congress-appointed governors to lay down the office. The logic given was change in government should be followed by change of Governors even if the Governors had not committed any constitutional impropriety. Thus, 18 Governors who were holdovers from the Rajiv Gandhi government had to go, not because they had done anything wrong, but simply because it was the wish of central government.

In 1998, when the BJP came to power for the first time, then Union Home Secretary B.P. Singh was reported to have asked three Governors (Gujarat, Goa and Mizoram) and three lieutenant Governors (Delhi, Andaman and Nicobar, and Pondicherry) to put in their papers. In fact, the then Gujarat Governor Krishna Pal Singh said that the Union home secretary had informed him that it was the Centre’s ‘wish’ that he resigned. At the BJP’s National Council meeting in Gandhingar on May 4, 1998, L.K. Advani pointedly defended political appointments to Governor’s office, arguing that the party was never in agreement with the Sarkaria Commission’s recommendations on the subject (Rediff News, July 5, 2004).

Should the Office of Governor be Scrapped?

The fact is, like a former Governor, Jagmohan, wrote, every political party has turned Governor into a political football. For this reason, several political leaders have sometime or the other shouted from their rooftop to abolish the office of Governor. And this demand is not new. Following the dismissal of Namboodripad Government in 1959, the Communists demanded that office of the Governor be scrapped. After the dismissal of TDP in Andhra in 1984, the party called for the abolition of Governor’s office. The Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, R.M. Karnunanidhi even went to the extent of moving a resolution in the legislative Assembly for the abolition of Governor’s post. The echoes of this demand continue to resonate in the present times as well.

Would it be feasible not to have Governor within the present constitutional scheme? With a possible exception of Rajamannar Committee, most Commissions looking into issues relating to center-state relations do not agree. They always stood for retaining the Governor, but of course with some crucial changes in the process of his appointment and termination. Latest suggestion came from Punnchi Commission that said ensuring security of tenure to Governor would make him behave impartially. It, however, remains to be seen how serious the government is about implementing these suggestions.

By and large, if one ignores the controversies created by the Governor’s office in the past, one gathers that Governor can play an important role. The most important aspect of Governor’s office consists in its being a watchdog of the Centre within the State. The intention of the framers of the Constitution was to prevent the threats to the unity and the integrity of the nation. Fissiparous tendencies were likely to rise from the newly formed States that had been under the princely rule for years. In the so-called quasi-federal model that India adopted after independence, the office of Governor was intended to be an instrument of smoothening Centre-State relations.

In the contemporary period, the office of Governor assumes added importance. The era of single-party rule is over and in the days to come, it is likely to be multi-party or coalition governments all along. Such a system is a major challenge before the modern-day democracy. A high degree of competitive and aggressive politics underlies coalition system. The parties are subject to myriad pressures and pulls from inside and the bigger parties have to keep devising the mechanism to accommodate the demands of the smaller ones in a perpetual struggle for survival. One of the features of the multi-party Government is the confused electorate. Consequently, all kinds of undesirable elements – corrupt persons, scamsters, defectors and criminals – can thrive on this confusion and succeed in making it to the Government.

According to Fareed Zakaria, one trend characterizing the modern-day multi-party democracy is growth of illiberalism (1997: 22). He quotes the American diplomat, Richard Holbrooke, as saying on the eve of elections in Bosnia in 1996, “Suppose the elections are declared free and fair but those who are elected are racists, fascists and separatists who are publicly opposed to peace and harmony then that is the problem”. Zakaria says this is what is increasingly happening around the world. The democracy is functioning according to the constitution. Elections are free and fair. However, the kinds of leaders such democracies are producing have a bigoted, retrograde and reactionary outlook that is totally anti-democratic.

Zakaria’s observation has a bearing on the Indian situation. The growing influence of the regional forces in different States and the blatantly parochial agenda some of these carry entails the need to have a central mechanism, like the office of Governor, which could ensure an effective check in case the unduly belligerent politics of local forces starts pushing beyond the constitutional parameters.


  • A.D. (Constituent Assembly Debates) 1949 Vol. VIII Government of India Publications, New Delhi
  • Fareed Zakaria, (1997) “Rise of Illiberal Democracy”, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 76, No. 6, Nov-Dec
  • Sandeep Shastri, (2014) “Controversies relating to the office of the Governor resurface: Can we restore healthy conventions?” August, New18.com


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