On November 11, 2021, former President of India Ram Nath Kovind exhorted the Governors to play the role of the “friend, philosopher and guide” in states of their posting while inaugurating the 51st conference of Governors, Lt Governors and Administrators at Rashtrapati Bhavan. Ravindra Narayana Ravi, (RN Ravi) the Governor of Tamil Nadu who assumed office on September 18, 2021, has been criticised for not ticking any of these boxes so far.
The Governor unilaterally on June 29 dismissed arrested minister V Senthil Balaji from the council of ministers without seeking the approval of Chief Minister MK Stalin, exacerbating a constitutional crisis in yet another opposition-ruled state. Facing political backlash, the Governor communicated to the Tamil Nadu government that his earlier decision was on hold. However, the ongoing confrontation, only the latest in the standoff between the Governor and the DMK government, has raised questions on the legality of such a move by the figurative head of a state, nominated by the government at the Centre – currently, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Roles, duties, powers of a governor
Several constitutional provisions and some key verdicts of the Supreme Court have time and again mapped out the role, duties and powers of a governor. Of specific importance is a 2016 constitution bench ruling that explicitly rejected a contention that the governor’s right to “withdraw the pleasure” -- the language of the Constitution says that a minister holds office at the pleasure of the governor -- is absolute and unrestricted.
Shamsher Singh v State of Punjab (1974) was the first case where a seven-judge bench of the Supreme Court had examined at length the functions of a state governor. The court ruled that the governor does not enjoy any executive powers and that he can act only on the aid and advice of the council of ministers.
The same was reiterated in the 2016 judgement which held that if a governor chooses to “withdraw his pleasure” in respect of a minister, he must exercise his discretion with the knowledge of the CM and not by keeping him in the dark or unilaterally.
The top court also rejected the proposition that the governor has the freedom to determine when and in what situation he should take a decision without the aid and advice of the CM and his council of ministers. “We, accordingly, also turn down the contention, that whenever the governor in the discharge of his functions, takes a decision in his own discretion, the same would be final and binding, and beyond the purview of judicial review,” the court held.
DMK Government Vs RN Ravi
The standoff regarding Senthil’s position in the cabinet is the latest of the run-ins between the DMK government and Governor Ravi. The two have been at loggerheads from the time the latter took charge on 18 September 2021.
Delay in assent to bills
One such bone of contention has been regarding the delay in giving assent to bills passed by the state assembly. Thirteen Bills passed by the Tamil Nadu legislative assembly are pending before the state’s governor, according to the response by the state government to an RTI filed by The Hindu. Ravi had, however, earlier claimed in an interview to the Times of India in May that “there was no bill pending before the Raj Bhavan or the governor”.
Of the pending bills, two are the Tamil Nadu Fisheries University (Amendment) Bill, 2020 and the Tamil Nadu Veterinary and Animal Sciences University (Amendment) Bill, 2020 – which seek to shift the power of ‘inspection’ from the governor in his/her capacity as chancellor of these universities to the state government, the Hindu reported.
In November 2022, the ruling coalition in the state went so far as to seek Ravi’s removal as governor over delay in giving assent to bills, enumerating their concerns in a letter to President Droupadi Murmu.
Walking out of legislative assembly
Causing yet another controversy, in January this year, Ravi skipped portions of a government-prepared customary address on the first day of the House’s winter session.
The parts that he skipped included these lines – state’s “highest priority to maintaining law and order” and taking steps to “ensure that the State continues to be a haven of peace and tranquilly, free from any form of violence.”
“Government has been delivering the much-acclaimed Dravidian model of governance to its people.”
Taking offence, MK Stalin interrupted RN Ravi’s speech and expressed regret that the Governor had avoided certain portions of the prepared address.
The chief minister moved a resolution which was adopted. What ensued, witnessed RN Ravi walking out of the House immediately – perhaps the first time that such an unprecedented incident took place in the history of the Assembly.
The assembly later passed a resolution condemning his conduct, following which Ravi gave his assent to a Bill that was pending before him for 131 days.
Tamil Nadu vs ‘Tamizhagam’
The aforementioned controversy came a few days after Ravi suggested changing the name of the state to ‘Tamizhagam’.
While addressing a program felicitating organisers and volunteers of the Kashi Tamil Sangamam, held at the Raj Bhavan in Chennai, Ravi allegedly remarked that the word ‘Tamizhagam’ was a more appropriate term for Tamil Nadu.
“Here in Tamil Nadu, a different kind of narrative has been created. Everything applicable for the whole of the country, Tamil Nadu will say no. It has become a habit. So many of these have been written – all false and poor fiction. This must be broken. Truth must prevail,” he said, PTI reported. “Tamizhagam would be a more appropriate word to call it,” he said.
His remarks provoked strong reactions from political parties with members and supporters of Dravidian parties registering their protest by trending #TamilNadu on Twitter.
NEET, NEP and more
The first flashpoint between the government and the governor was with regard to the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) which is the all-India pre-medical entrance test that Tamil Nadu has always been opposed to on the grounds that a common entrance test would harm the prospects of state board students.
Called the Tamil Nadu Admission to Undergraduate Medical Degree Courses Bill, 2021, the legislation seeks to exempt Tamil Nadu’s students from the NEET.
It was first passed in the Tamil Nadu Assembly on 13 September 2021. The bill was sent to the governor for his assent the same month. The Governor returned the Bill in 2022 amid allegations that he was stalling the process. It was readopted by the assembly in February 2022. But is still lying idle in cold storage.
The Governor has also differed from the state government on the National Education Policy (NEP). While Ravi batted for the NEP, the Stalin-led DMK government maintained that they would not implement the NEP in the state.
Tamil Nadu is not an isolated case. Governors appointed by the BJP-led Centre have been in a tussle with their respective state governments in some other Southern States – in Kerala, the CPI (M)-led government has voted to bring in an ordnance or special order to remove the Governor as Chancellor of Universities in the state and in Telangana, Governor Tamilisai Soundararajan is under fire from the KCR-led government over recruitments in state universities.
As Faizan Mustafa, an Indian academic and legal scholar said, “The governor reigns but does not rule. Ours was the idea under which the governor had a faint presence, like a full moon at noon. His primary role as a sagacious counsellor is “to be consulted, to warn and to encourage.”