Sanjaya Baru | Are Raj Bhavans a sinecure or a political waiting room?
During my tenure at the Prime Minister’s Office I had the opportunity of staying at several Raj Bhavans across the country as part of the PM’s entourage. These graceful and spacious buildings are largely the legacy of the British Raj and India’s erstwhile princely states. Some are more impressive than others and some are like a good holiday resort, with large spaces, walking areas, gardens and, in Mumbai, a private beach.
After hosting lunch for the visiting Prime Minister in his impressive seaside bungalow, the then governor of Maharashtra, S.M. Krishna, invited me to join him for coffee. The PM had gone into his chambers to rest and I joined Mr Krishna in his private chambers. We spoke about many issues and compared the relative development of Bengaluru and Hyderabad, the roles he and N. Chandrababu Naidu had played, and I said he was now fortunate to be living in this beautiful campus by the sea.
“What am I doing here?” he asked me. “I have been an active politician all my life. I was not yet ready to retire and become a governor. Why did they send me here?” I was nonplussed by his protestation.
Continuing his complaint, Mr Krishna said: “Please tell the PM that I am tired of doing the routine and rituals of this office, I still have some energy left in me to play an active role in national life. I would like to be inducted into the Union Cabinet. On our flight back to New Delhi, I duly conveyed the governor’s message to the PM. It was only in his second term in office that Dr Manmohan Singh finally made Mr Krishna the minister for external affairs.
Most active politicians feel uneasy confined to a Raj Bhavan. Governorship is mostly about protocol, signing files, approving appointments, cutting ribbons, delivering routine speeches, hosting garden parties and such like. When the Union government wants to use the governor as an instrument of intimidation against an elected state government, the politician in them takes charge. Finally, there is fun in a boring job.
It appears that some governors in the southern states, not governed by the ruling party in New Delhi, are getting meddlesome and troublesome, provoking local anger and risking popular demand for their ouster. In Hyderabad we remember how governor Ram Lal was booted out of the Raj Bhavan after he provoked popular anger illegally unseating N.T. Rama Rao as chief minister. The Raj Bhavan in Hyderabad is among the nicer governors’ bungalows and has been home to some very distinguished persons, like Bhimsen Sachar, Gen. Shrinagesh, Khandubhai Desai, Shankar Dayal Sharma and Krishna Kant. When Dr C. Rangarajan was governor, I would often visit him and be the beneficiary of his wisdom and his knowledge of the economy and economics. One Ram Lal does not tarnish that legacy. But we now see many Ram Lals around the country.
The Constitution is very clear about the role of a governor, but because of wilful distortion of that role, and with the Union government imposing President’s Rule in states on the recommendation of pliable governors, a chastened Indira Gandhi appointed the Justice Sarkaria Commission on Centre-State relations, with one of its terms of reference being to examine the role of governors. The Sarkaria Commission recommended that the governor of a state should be a non-political person appointed by the President after consultation with the chief minister of the state.
The most popular “non-political” person that New Delhi has often found to intimidate or monitor the chief ministers has been a retired police officer, and most often a former chief of the Intelligence Bureau. Politics rarely follows principle and all the dispensations in New Delhi have been guilty of using the governor as a political instrument when required. However, for every Ram Lal or an ex-IB chief in a Raj Bhavan, there have been the Shankar Dayal Sharmas, the Ali Yavar Jangs, the Surjit Singh Barnalas and the Gopalakrishna Gandhis. Men of erudition, dignified and decent.
Looking through the list of 28 governors in office today across the country, one is hard put to find anyone worthy of admiration like Air Chief Marshal Idris Hasan Latif or, more recently, Ram Nath Kovind. Perhaps the only former chief minister who has conducted herself with grace and dignity in a Raj Bhavan is Anandiben Patel. But then, she is dealing with a powerful chief minister of her own party and a prime ministerial aspirant to boot.
The declining quality of incumbents in Raj Bhavans has, not surprisingly, been accompanied by increasing staff strength and cost of maintenance. Raj Bhavans, like the Rashtrapati Bhavan, are a fiscal white elephant. There is little legislative scrutiny of their staffing and budgets. Time was when governors had to justify even travelling out of the Raj Bhavan and had to secure the President’s permission for leaving station. These days governors hop on and hop off flights attending all manner of political and private functions and events. Some public-minded organisation should undertake a cost audit of Raj Bhavans and examine the record of travel, public engagements of governors, especially outside the state of their jurisdiction and the cost and pattern of staffing, to see what governors cost the taxpayer.
The protocol and paraphernalia of the job, including a serving military officer standing smartly behind, lends weight to the post, sustains the ego of politicians, especially small people occupying large and stately bhavans. They have to show all this to their political supporters and well-wishers to make the point that they are not just ensconced in a sinecure, but are in a comfortable political waiting room.
Given the context, it is not very surprising that the three non-BJP governments in Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Telangana are at loggerheads with their respective governors. In Kerala, matters have come to a head. What political mileage governor Arif Mohammed Khan intends to secure, now that the post of President and vice-president have been filled up, is not clear. Unless, of course, like Mr Krishna, he hopes to be elevated from a Raj Bhavan to the Union council of ministers.