Governor can become a “convenient punching bag” in the crossfire between political parties: Jagdeep Dhankhar, Governor of West Bengal

In this interview, Senior Advocate Jagdeep Dhankhar speaks on his professional journey, misconceptions regarding the role of a Governor, and his experience as the Governor of West Bengal.
Jagdeep Dhankhar
Jagdeep Dhankhar

On July 20, 2019, the President of India appointed Shri Jagdeep Dhankhar, a Senior Advocate of over three decades' standing, as the Governor of West Bengal.

In this interview with Bar & Bench, Governor Dhankhar speaks on his professional journey, misconceptions regarding the role of a Governor, and his experience as Governor of West Bengal.

Could you briefly take us through your career as a lawyer?

After graduating in law from the Rajasthan University, I started my legal career in the year 1979 at the Jaipur Bench of Rajasthan High Court, which was re-established only two years earlier in 1977. I came to be elected as the youngest President of the Rajasthan High Court Bar Association in the year 1987. I was later elected as a Member of the Rajasthan Bar Council in the year 1988.

 Rajasthan High Court
Rajasthan High Court

In the 11th year of my legal practice, I came to be designated a Senior Advocate by the Rajasthan High Court.

After my election to the 9th Lok Sabha in the year 1989, I shifted practice to the Supreme Court. During a three-year stint as a member of the ICC International Court of Arbitration, Paris, I dealt with varied human resource issues and grappled with mega commercial matters as well.

What prompted the shift from law to politics? Was politics always the plan?

In retrospect, I think it was destined. It was never a plan. I never entertained the thought of taking the political plunge. Some find it hard to digest that I was a ‘reluctant politician’, given that I have been an MP, an MLA as also a Union Minister. My heart was never in politics.

As a student, my academic career was marked with excellence all throughout. Politics was the last thing on my mind. Though my family is deeply involved with politics, I never thought I’d take a dip in it.

The jump in the political arena was sudden in the year 1989 (the entire country was in the throes of the so-called ‘Bofors Scandal’) when I was offered to contest from the Jhunjhunu Parliamentary Constituency. I won the election with the highest votes in the state.

I was appointed Chairman of a Parliamentary Committee in 1990 and then inducted into the Council of Ministers. Being a Union Parliamentary Affairs Minister afforded me a rare opportunity of enlightenment and exposure, as the then ruling dispensation was a conglomerate of over twenty political parties.

 Jagdeep Dhankhar being sworn in by Chief Justice of the Calcutta High Court
Jagdeep Dhankhar being sworn in by Chief Justice of the Calcutta High Court

Did your experience as a lawyer come in handy during your tenure as a Member of Parliament? Would you say that an education of law better equips a person to serve as a legislator?

I happened to be the only member of the Union Ministry then who had been a Senior Advocate and this did generate extra space for me. Any experience comes handy in the legislative arena. The legal background is extremely helpful, particularly in formulating legislation.

I have noticed that people of eminence drawn from various walks of life get into Parliament and bring to the table their varied exposure and expertise. Their participation brings a stimulating level of discourse, and on occasion, graduates to an intellectual feast.

The role of Governors of states, especially in those ruled by opposition parties, has increasingly come under the scanner of late, with some critics remarking that Governors are facilitating the destabilization of governments. What is your take on this?

Recent past and contemporaneous developments indicate that the holder of this Constitutional assignment is rendered critically vulnerable, and for no rationale, in the crossfire between political parties of the Central and state governments.

All this is primarily because of widespread misconceptions that the office of Governor is ‘ornamental’ for subserving ceremonial obligations.

Raj Bhavan Kolkata
Raj Bhavan Kolkata

However, Constitutional prescriptions call upon the Governor to perform a variety of tasks, and not all are to be performed with “the aid and advice of the Council of Ministers”. Several functions are in the realm of “discretion”.

Constitutional prescriptions call upon the Governor to perform a variety of tasks, and not all are to be performed with “the aid and advice of the Council of Ministers
Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar

I have no doubt that the Governor is not a stakeholder in the politics of the state, but surely has high stakes in its governance. He is required to be well informed about the state of affairs in the region. I take counsel for all concerned, but command only from the Constitution, the only script I follow.

In our country, unfortunately, when the party in power at the Centre is different than the party in power in the state, the Governor becomes an ‘instant easy suspect’ and ‘a convenient punching bag’ and, as in my case, is overzealously categorised as being an ‘agent’ of the Centre or of the party in power at the Centre. Without any rationale, he is taken as an extension of the political party at the Centre, out to execute a ‘hidden agenda’.

Personally, for me, I have so far not, and would never go beyond Constitutional limitations and prescriptions.

Ever since I became the Governor of the State of West Bengal, it has been painful to notice that there is an adversarial and confrontationist stance of the state government either on illusory considerations, or as a part of a strategy. I have often reflected that it is not wise ‘to mistake a rope for a snake.’

It is an obligation of the Governor to work shoulder-to-shoulder and in tandem with the state government so that the interest of the people of the state can be well served. A Governor can be and should be an effective bridge between the state and the Centre.

Governor with Chief Minister Mamta Banerjee
Governor with Chief Minister Mamta BanerjeeTwitter

However, in my case, for reasons which I do not wish to spell out, the stance of the state government has been to make the office of the Governor dysfunctional. The Chief Minister of the State, though obligated under Article 167 of the Constitution to perform certain “duties” qua the Governor, has invariably failed to so discharge these duties.

I am an optimist and will continually and persuasively try so that a wholesome situation for working in togetherness for the larger public good can be generated.

People are increasingly perceiving Governors as agents of the Centre. How can this change?

There is widespread perception that Governors, being appointees of the Central government, act at its behest, and in the process, engage in acts that do not find sanction with the Constitution.

Governor recieving PM Modi
Governor recieving PM Modi

This approach has a fallacy. If it is so, then it will take in its sweep all Constitutional assignments. People must appreciate that ‘sense of duty’ and ‘conscience’ are dear to the people who take oath of office.

I do not subscribe to this perception. The Governor comes to be appointed to engage into certain Constitutional duties and the performance of that is significantly essential for democratic functioning. The office of the Governor acts as a check and balance to ensure there is no deviation or departure from any Constitutional governance in the state.

Though the SR Bommai judgment described the position of the Governor as an “independent Constitutional office which is not subject to the control of the Government of India”, it is often the case that the ruling party appoints its own people as Governors. Isn’t this paradoxical?

The judgment of the Supreme Court in the SR Bommai Case is very significant and delineates the role of the Governor. The only script that I follow in my functioning as Governor is the Constitutional prescriptions and the law laid down by the Supreme Court.

I would not reflect as to on what premise Governors are appointed, but in my case, I can indicate that I have accepted the assignment on the plank that no citizen must shy away from a Constitutional assignment.

The Sarkaria Commission report had recommended that only those persons who are “detached figures and not too intimately connected with the local politics of the state” be appointed as Governors. How does one gauge detachment from politics?

The Sarkaria Commission Report and the recommendations it imparted are frequently quoted. I would say nothing on the point except that the same would generate consequences once sanctioned by the Constitution.

There have also been calls to review the absolute immunity given to the Governor under Article 361 of the Constitution. Do you agree?

The issue needs to be addressed in the light and nature of the oath of office that the Governor and Chief Minister take.

While under Article 159 of the Constitution, the Governor is required “to the best of my ability preserve, protect and defend the Constitution and the law and that I will devote myself to the service and well-being of the people of the State ”, the oath of office of the Chief Minister requires the holder to “ bear true faith and allegiance to the Constitution of India as by law established.

The framers of the Constitution, after deliberations, have thought it wise and sagacious to accord immunity to the Governor in terms of Article 361 of the Constitution.

My experience for a year in the State of West Bengal makes me feel that this is an essential part. The kind of adversarial stance and confrontationist approach that the state government has taken without any premise to the office of the Governor makes such a provision more than relevant so that Constitutional duties can be effectively discharged.

Governor Dhankh
ar's advice to Chief Minister Mamta Banerjee
Governor Dhankh ar's advice to Chief Minister Mamta BanerjeeTwitter

You have been a rather vocal critic of the West Bengal government, which is somewhat uncharacteristic of a Governor. The Chief Minister had even said that you were being more critical of the ruling party than a BJP Spokesperson. How would you respond to that?

This is uncharitable. I wish the question had been differently worded. I have not been a critic of the government. I do not believe in criticism. I favour constructive suggestions on all issues that are reflective of governance in the state distanced from from Constitution.

It is easy to level allegations against the Governor that he is unduly attached to a political party. I have indicated to one and all to point out a single instance that may justify such a conclusion.

You had recently summoned the Chief Minister to explain the law and order situation in the state. What prompted you to do so?

The law and order situation in the State of West Bengal is a cause of serious concern. The democratic fabric is strained as never before. Political violence and killings are becoming a routine affair. Governance in the state is police-driven. Unfortunately, the police acts as an extension of the political party in power.

Human rights compromises are virtually wholesale. In such a situation, it is the Constitutional obligation of the Governor to be fully updated so that things can be fully rectified.

The duties of the Chief Minister, as enshrined under Article 167 of the Constitution, are clear. A Chief Minister is required to engage in the discharge of his/her duties. Unfortunately, in West Bengal, the Constitution is disregarded and the Rule of Law is a casualty. I am doing my utmost to ensure that the situation changes for the better.

I have been asserting that the essence of democracy lies in free, fair and fearless elections. In our state, unfortunately, the situation is far from it and every election in recent past has been plagued with violence of a political nature.

From a larger perspective, is there anything in law that prevents a Governor from playing a more active role as opposed to being a mere figurehead?

According to me a Governor should never yield to the temptation of getting into “execution mode.” At the same time, the spinal strength expected in performance must never be diluted. A Governor as a “watchdog” can generate a wholesome scenario.

I have no doubt that a Governor is neither a post office nor a rubber stamp. The Governor is not expected to “fiddle” in the Raj Bhavan when the Rule of Law is in danger or Constitutional values are diluted and compromised. There is a perception that the Governor has only an ornamental role to play. Such a perception gets immediately demolished once there is focus on Article 159 of the Constitution.

How important is it for the welfare of a state for the constitutional functionaries to co-operate with each other?

Undoubtedly, the harmonious functioning in any facet is wholesome and yields a geometric outcome. In the case of Constitutional functionaries, it is non-negotiable. Our Constitution has carved out functional areas for Constitutional functionaries and organs of the State, be it the Legislature, the Judiciary or the Executive. Incursion of one in the domain of the other turns out to be disruptive for the delicate balance that is essential, and must invariably be avoided.

The framers of the Constitution never contemplated that there would be a head-on collision between the Constitutional Head and the Executive Head, i.e., the Chief Minister of the State. The scheme in the Constitution provides that they are like two tracks running parallel and in sync to take governance to the logical end. Any conflict between the two cannot but result in the dilution and derailment of democratic working.

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