Indian Supreme Court challenges former officials appointed as state governors

By on 21/02/2017
JP Rajkhowa, former governor of Arunachal Pradesh sacked for acting in breach of the Constitution

The practice of appointing former senior civil servants to Indian state governor positions is coming under pressure, after several former officials were accused of failing in their duty to act with complete political neutrality.

Governors are appointed by the federal government to perform an oversight role in elected state administrations, but recently several have fallen foul of Supreme Court judgments. A number of judges have ruled that governors have acted unconstitutionally in undermining state administrations run by opponents of the BJP – the Hindu nationalist party which controls the federal government.

In Arunachal Pradesh, a north-eastern state, governor JP Rajkhowa – a former officer in the elite Indian Administrative Service (IAS) – has lost his job after the Supreme Court took him to task for acting in breach of the Constitution. Rajkhowa had imposed ‘President’s rule’ in the state – dismissing the majority Congress administration and taking over himself under Article 356 of the Indian constitution, which allows governors to remove state administrations when the constitutional machinery has failed.

Rajkhowa took control after local Congress politicians fell out, with some defecting to the BJP; but the Supreme Court found that he had acted outside his powers, and the Indian president subsequently sacked him. Local Congress politicians have claimed that Rajkhowa exceeded his powers in pursuit of a partisan BJP political agenda, but that the court ruling reduced his usefulness to the BJP, leading the party to drop him.

Meanwhile, in the national capital Delhi, lieutenant-governor Najeeb Jung resigned abruptly towards the end of last year after a protracted battle over policy matters with the state government. Jung, another former IAS officer, had also looked vulnerable to being censured by the Supreme Court.

Finally, in Uttarakhand, where elections are being held currently, governor KK Paul – a retired Indian Police Service officer – also briefly imposed President’s rule, before the Supreme Court intervened to restore the Congress administration. Paul kept his job, but his authority has been damaged. “The Presidential proclamations brought the office of the Governor in both states under cloud,” the Indian Express said in an analysis of the events.

Dilip Cherian, who writes a column on Indian bureaucracy in a national newspaper, told Global Government Forum that the BJP’s reform agenda has not extended into the sometimes-suspect system of appointing governors. “The politician-babu nexus is well-entrenched,” he says, using a mildly pejorative, Hindi term for civil servants. “And all attempts to break it have been feeble or half-hearted. The system has worked well for both politicians as well as bureaucrats. In a sense, it is now almost a tradition that a favoured bureaucrat will land a plum position such as a governorship or head of a central regulatory body or some such assignment.” Indeed, the BJP replaced many state governors with its own appointees after taking power – though some, including Jung, were retained.

A senior IAS officer, closely associated with the Central IAS Officers’ Association, told Global Government Forum that a compulsory five-year gap could be introduced – ensuring that civil servants and other officials could only take a governor’s job some years after leaving service. “This would ensure that they do not have a motive to act pliable, especially in the last years of their service,” he explained.

A similar ‘cooling-off’ period for civil servants is currently under discussion in the Parliament, but this would govern movements into private companies rather than government-appointed positions.

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See also:

India moves to protect retired officials from corruption probes

Indian officials challenge civil service leadership review

Indian budget focuses on digital economy and rural growth

 

About Abhimanyu Kumar

Abhimanyu Singh is a journalist based in New Delhi, India. He writes on issues related to politics and governance for Indian and foreign media. He was previously with The Hindu and The Sunday Guardian.

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