Will somebody please tell His Excellency, Mahamahim, the governor of West Bengal, Shri Jagdeep Dhankhar, that he is crossing all the lines of Constitutional propriety? Dhankhar Saheb is under the mistaken impression, it would seem, that he is ensconced in the palatial Raj Bhavan as a representative of the BJP to which he belonged prior to being plucked out and made the Mahamahim. It is a lethal misapprehension, although to be fair to him, it has possessed other governors too in the past cutting across party lines. But, the degree to which Dhankharji appears to have become partisan, and the blatancy of his partisanship, sets a new benchmark of gubernatorial indiscretion.
Articles 155 and 156 of the Constitution lay down clearly where the loyalties of a governor should lie. Article 155 says: “The governor of a state shall be appointed by the President by warrant under his hand and seal.” Article 156 declares: “The governor shall hold office during the pleasure of the President.” The position is, therefore, crystal clear. A governor is the representative of the President of India. He has to then be, like the President, above all party politics, and independent of any political loyalties that may have guided him in the past. Dhankhar was an active member of the BJP for decades, and had represented the party both in the Rajasthan legislature and the Lok Sabha. It is understandable then that his fidelity to his political alma mater is deep and abiding. However, once he assumed the office of the governor, he is bound, under the express provisions of the Constitution, to transcend such old loyalties and play his role with impartiality and dignity.
I have worked in Rashtrapati Bhavan as the press secretary to two Presidents of India, Shri R. Venkataraman and Shankar Dayal Sharma. I still remember that in very first meeting with President Venkataraman, his first instruction to me was that the President of India does not comment on the day-to-day functioning of government. “I do not want publicity,” he said to me, “especially that which brings into question my political impartiality.” Shankar Dayal Sharma also did not give — with one exception perhaps — a single interview to the media. These were stellar precedents. They reinforced the fact that the President remained resolutely above the political fray, and intervened only during a genuine Constitutional crisis, when — as Venkatraman used to say — the power of the presidency comes alive but only like an emergency lamp.
Governors, appointed by the President, and holding office only at his pleasure, must model themselves on this kind of principled restraint. However, Mr Dhankhar has almost become a continuous voice in the political discourse. He tweets much too frequently. He gives media interviews. And, he is forever ready to go public on every issue, instead of resorting to the discreet back channel ways in which a Constitutional head should communicate with a duly elected democratic government. As per the conventions of the high office he holds, his actions border on the adventurous. In an unprecedented manner, at the time of the swearing in of Mamata Banerjee, the newly elected chief minister of the state, he launched into a speech, delivering a public homily — bordering on a reprimand — on the need for her to control law and order. This very message could have been conveyed — if he was so keen that it should — to the chief minister in a private conversation. Similarly, in spite of the express advice to the contrary of the elected government, he broke convention by going off on a tour of the areas where alleged violence had taken place against BJP workers. Dhankharji has also made it a habit to summon senior officers of the state government to brief him. Technically, he may be within his rights to do so, but doing so on every occasion, and then publicly berating the officers and the state government if they don’t satisfy his exacting and peremptory fiats, hardly appears to be becoming for the Raj Bhavan.
True, violence and lawlessness of any kind, including against BJP workers, needs to be unequivocally condemned. It is true also that the governor can legitimately be concerned about a deterioration in the law and order situation. But there is a sustainable perception that Governorsaheb is only exercised on those issues which fit into the BJP agenda. His interventions, therefore, become a kind of partisan hectoring where it almost seems that he is batting for the BJP rather than following the impartiality code befitting his position.
Frankly, I am a little surprised that the President of India has not as yet taken cognisance of the unconventional, undesirable and unprecedented behaviour of his appointee. Dhankharji’s actions, to my mind, constitute a fit case for President Kovind to take suo motu initiative to counsel his state-level counterpart. It is not as if governors in the past have not acted in a partial manner. But the endeavour should be to learn from the past, and ensure that in our maturing democracy such mistakes are not repeated in the future.
The BJP, on its part, has already done great damage to several of our institutions. It should seriously ponder on the advisability of justifying the behaviour of Mr Dhankhar. What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Tomorrow, if they are on the other side of the fence, would they like a governor who in terms of both optics and substance has thrown all constitutional reticence to the winds, and is openly partial to those who rule at Delhi? The fire of wrong precedents must be doused. Otherwise, in the future, it can burn your house and mine, and the Constitution of India.