BODY BLOW TO INDIAN FEDERALISM
Acts of deflection best reflect a person’s motives and mission. Eighty-nine- year-old Gujarat Governor Kamala Beniwal’s recent unprecedented move to unilaterally appoint a Lokayukta for the state clearly reflected her mindset to deflect the BJP government from its development agenda. It was a gauntlet thrown down at Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, who is already beleaguered by numerous legal battles involving the 2002 riots. It wasn’t just the act but the way she made the announcement that once again revived the contentious political debate surrounding the role of state governors.
Coming close on the heels of the controversial game played by Karnataka Governor Hans Raj Bhardwaj against former chief minister B S Yeddyurappa’s BJP-led government, Beniwal’s move has dealt a severe blow to the spirit of Indian federalism. Since it comes barely a few months before the state Assembly elections, the move is obviously aimed at vitiating the electoral atmosphere. Beniwal, a former Congress leader and an ex-minister from Rajasthan, took over as Gujarat governor after Nawal Kishore Sharma.Hardly had the UPA government recovered from the Karnataka governor’s highly adventurous activism that Beniwal’s administrative enthusiasm pushed the ruling party into a corner. In her attempt to open yet another front against Modi, Beniwal has provided a handle to the BJP and the entire opposition to charge the UPA with the misuse of Raj Bhavans as instruments for settling political scores and sabotaging duly elected state governments.
Never before in our political history has a decision taken by a governor against a state government been announced by the Leader of the Opposition within minutes of his meeting with the governor. The state government came to know about the formal appointment only through a statement made by Shaktisinh Gohil, leader of the Congress party in Gujarat Assembly.
The Congress didn’t hide its intentions. In what appears to be a planned move, Gohil met the governor along with a delegation of partymen and demanded the immediate appointment of a Lokayukta to investigate charges of corruption against Modi’s government. Instead of forwarding the complaint to the state government for comment, Beniwal simply handed over to them a notification appointing 75-year-old Justice R A Mehta as the state’s second Lokayukta. Mehta has been quite active in some of the NGOs working against the state government. What followed his appointment was even more pernicious. The Congress party, both at the state level and the Centre, justified the exclusion of the state government from the process of appointment. It selectively quoted provisions of the Lokayukta Bill to justify the Gujarat governor’s politically motivated action. Contrary to the settled legal interpretation of the Governor’s role, the party claimed that under state law, the governor may appoint a Lokayukta after consulting the Leader of the Opposition. According to established constitutional convention, neither the President of India nor governors can act on administrative matters without the advice of the council of ministers.
It was a specious explanation— meaning, in short, if the ruling party at the Centre and the Opposition in Gujarat belong to the same party, both can collude to legally destabilise an elected government with the help of a pliable governor. Strangely, it is the office of the governor which sat over the chief minister’s recommendation for three years—from 2006 to 2009—for the appointment of a Lokayukta. According to Gujarat government sources, the Leader of the Opposition didn’t attend many of the recent meetings called by the chief minister to select a name from a panel of many. Moreover, Governor Beniwal ignored procedures followed earlier by the state government while appointing a Lokayukta. In 1998, the then governor of Gujarat, Anshuman Singh, had accepted the suggestion of then chief minister Keshubhai Patel to appoint Justice S M Soni as Lokayukta. Then, no procedural objections were raised either by the Governor or the Congress because the latter was in the Opposition, both in the state and at the Centre, which explains the political expediency behind the current attempt to invoke legal provisions while ignoring the spirit of the Constitution. It is also ironical that Lokayuktas are most active in many of the non-Congress ruled states that are due for elections next year.
In Punjab, too, Lokayukta Justice G S Dhaliwal has been active against the SADled government. He entertained a recent complaint from Sukhpal Singh Khaira, a Congress MLA, against Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal and his colleague Bibi Jagir Kaur, and ordered a probe against both. He has also expressed displeasure over a lack of staff and infrastructure. It is clear that even the credibility of the institution of Lokayukta, which is meant to cleanse the system, is being eroded by either their excessive activism or politically motivated attacks. But the governor of Gujarat has added an entirely whole new dimension to this. Now, it seems any governor nominated by the ruling party in Delhi can taint the image of the anti- graft institution even before it begins work. The Gujarat episode is a timely warning to Team Anna, which is fighting a relentless battle for the passage of effective Lokpal and Lokayukta Bills. If not reined in, a Beniwal in any state can destroy robust anti-graft mechanisms with a drop of ink from the gubernatorial pen. Will Anna take note before it is too late?