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Governors must know their limits

The Supreme Court’s words to Punjab Governor Banwarilal Purohit that he cannot sit on bills passed by the state legislature after casting doubts on the validity of the Assembly session in which they were passed are at the same time a direction and a warning. Such directions issued to a constitutional authority like the Governor from the Supreme Court are unprecedented. It was accompanied by very strong words also. The court said the Governor was “playing with fire” when he questioned the legality of an Assembly session which passed the bills, because he lacked the constitutional power to do so. The court pointedly asked the Governor what power he had to challenge the decision of the Speaker to convene the Assembly. It also reminded the Governor that “in a parliamentary form of democracy, real power vests in the elected representatives of the people,” and that the Governor is just a “titular head” of the state.Chief Justice of India D Y Chandrachud posed the question, “How can Governor say this…Will we continue to be (a) parliamentary democracy?” These are strong words and wise counsel, relevant in other states also where the Governors are in confrontation with elected governments.

The court had expressed similar concern over Tamil Nadu Governor R N Ravi sitting on bills passed by the legislature, while hearing a petition filed by that state. Kerala and Telangana governments have also approached the Supreme Court for directions with similar complaints. The court’s views were known even before it told the Punjab Governor that he must make a decision on the bills. But there is no sign of compliance by the Governors. Punjab’s bills have not yet been acted upon. Even after the Supreme Court’s comments, Kerala Governor Arif Mohammed Khan has denied that he has created any constitutional crisis by delaying assent to bills and claimed that it is the state government that has crossed the line.

All governments, organisations, institutions and individuals have to comply with the Supreme Court’s directions and take its views and concerns seriously. But even constitutional institutions are turning impervious and acting and speaking with impunity. The Supreme Court told the Maharashtra Assembly Speaker to take an early decision on the disqualification petitions against Shiv Sena (Shinde) MLAs in May. But the Speaker has not done it and the court has now had to set a deadline of January 31. Democracy functions only when the organs of State, constitutional offices and institutions work together, providing checks and balances to the system. Even when they differ, they must abide by the basic principles of our parliamentary democracy and the constitutional scheme that defines the powers, functions and boundaries of each organ of the State and the constitutional offices. It is unacceptable that Governors and Speakers have to be constantly reminded of this by the Supreme Court.

(Published 13 November 2023, 20:52 IST)

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