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Governors as Spoilers

Jaswant Kaur Jaswant Kaur
04 Dec 2023

A tussle between the Chief Minister of a state and its Governor is nothing new. Whether in Delhi, Kerala, Punjab, Chhattisgarh, or Tamil Nadu, newspapers are often replete with stories reporting differences of opinion between the two sides. Sometimes, these tussles go to the extent of accusing each other of non-performance, leading to a stalemate, especially in opposition-ruled states. 

Frequently, this disagreement goes to the extent of stalling the executive’s functioning, even against the public interest. In many states, Governors have been sitting on Bills passed by the State Assembly for months, without considering the impact this would have on the general public.

Data published by the PRS Legislative Research, in 2022, reveals the effectiveness of the State Assemblies in passing Bills. A generally trend is observed wherein legislative activity is concentrated around only a few days in a year.

The report states, “In 2022, nine states including Bihar, Gujarat, Punjab, and West Bengal passed all Bills within a day of introduction. These states passed all Bills within a day in 2021 as well.” Ironically, this points to another problem where important Bills are being passed without much discussion. For example, in Himachal Pradesh, a Bill was discussed only for 10 minutes on an average. The trend has been observed both at the Centre and the State levels.

The data also shows that the number of sitting days has declined in 24 State Assemblies over the last few years. On average, State Assemblies met for 31 days in 2016. This has drastically reduced to just 23 days in 2022. So is the case with the Parliament. The number of sitting days has gone down from 121 days on average before 1970 to just 68 days since 2000. We often come across several amendments in the law which are implemented within a short while of their notification.

For instance, the Goods and Services Tax Act, which was passed with huge pomp, has undergone more than 900 amendments! Now, the question arises, is it possible for a layman who runs a small shop to keep track of all such amendments? The answer is a firm NO.

Coming to the Bills passed by the State Assemblies, what is alarming is the way these Bills are handled by the Governor, who enjoys the power to give these Bills the ultimate form of a law.

According to the PRS data, 43 percent of the Bills passed by the State Assemblies took more than a month to receive the assent of their respective Governors. This is a textbook example of the saying that averages are misleading. 

An in-depth analysis into State-wise performance reveals that States ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party, or by a party in coalition with it, saw the shortest time taken for receiving the Governor’s assent. For instance, in Sikkim, Bills received assent in barely two days, followed by Gujarat and Mizoram, where the duration increased to six days on average.

On the contrary, it took 188 days to get the Governor’s assent on a Bill passed by the Delhi Legislative Assembly. This is the highest among all the States and Union Territories as per last year’s data. West Bengal (97 days) and Chhattisgarh (89 days) are the other two states with comparatively longer average times for receiving the Governor’s assent. A stark contrast is drawn between the BJP-ruled and Opposition-ruled States.

Is it just for the Governor to withhold Bills for such a long period? It's not just relatively longer periods. Exactly a year ago, as many as 40 Bills were languishing with the Governors of Tamil Nadu, Telangana, and Kerala!

Article 200 of the Constitution gives powers to the Governor to grant or deny assent to any Bill. It also says that the Governor may reserve the Bill for the President’s consideration, or may send it to the Assembly for reconsideration. If the Assembly, after reconsideration, passes the Bill without any changes, the Governor must give his assent. 

As per the provisions, it is logical to expect that the Governor would choose one of the options in the interest of the State’s governance. Unfortunately, Article 200 does not provide a timeline. In other words, the Governors can take as much time as they wish, oftentimes based on their own vested interests. Given that the Governor is appointed by the Union government, this lacuna has been exploited several times to suit the interests of the ruling government.

This issue has come up for discussion in the Supreme Court several times. Some time back, the court came down heavily on Arif Mohammad Khan, the Governor of Kerala, for “sitting” on the Bills passed by the State Assembly for two years! As many as eight Bills were sent to the Governor for his assent, but he did not take any action. After the petition was filed with the Supreme Court, the Governor gave assent to one Bill, while the remaining were sent to the President for her consideration.

“What was the Governor doing for two years by sitting on the bills?", the bench headed by Chief Justice D Y Chandrachud asked. The court directed him to meet the Chief Minister and other ministers concerned to discuss legislations. "Let us hope that some political sagacity takes over the State, and we hope some sagacity prevails. Otherwise, we are here to lay down the law and do our duty under the Constitution," Chandrachud said.

The court has allowed the Government to amend the plea, seeking guidelines for Governors to grant or deny assent to the Bills passed by the State Legislature in a time-bound manner. It will be interesting to see how the court comes up with these guidelines, which will put an end to the power dynamics played by the Centre over the States.

It is pertinent to note that these rules were put in place, following the British system. In the United Kingdom, the Governor still enjoys the same power. However, this right has not been exercised since the reign of Queen Anne, as noticed by D.D. Basu in his commentaries on the Constitution. Furthermore, this power can only be exercised on ministerial advice. In other words, this power has not been exercised for a long time by the very country whose systems we adopted when we gained independence.

Regrettably, this power was being exploited since quite some time. In fact, such incidents had come to light even during the UPA rule. However, the frequency was much less. Ideally, the President should have stepped in to stop the misuse of powers given to the Governor under Article 200 of the Constitution, in the interest of the general public. It would seem that political interests are more important than those whose interests the elected representatives have vowed to protect.

(The writer, a company secretary, can be reached at Jassi.rai@gmail.com)

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