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Cowed Down, Finally

The recalcitrant governor had to be read the riot act by the apex court before he quietly swore in K Ponmudy as minister. Frequent run-ins with state governments have made some governors a force to reckon with 

By Vikram L Kilpady

A flashpoint between Tamil Nadu Governor RN Ravi and the MK Stalin-led DMK government was resolved recently with a firm warning from the Supreme Court to the governor. Other issues such as pending bills are still simmering. The uneasy relationship between governors and chief ministers, especially of Opposition ruled states, has often made governance the casualty.

In Tamil Nadu, after Tirukoilur MLA K Ponmudy’s conviction in a wealth case was stayed by a Supreme Court bench of Justices Abhay Oka and Ujjal Bhuyan on March 11, Chief Minister Stalin wrote to Ravi to swear in the DMK leader again as Minister of Higher Education. The governor declined, saying the conviction had only been suspended and not set aside. 

Ravi argued on moral and legal grounds and refused to administer oath. In his reply to the chief minister, Ravi said the offences for which Ponmudy had been held guilty by the Madras High Court were very serious, amounting to moral turpitude, and related to corruption that he had allegedly committed as a public servant. Ravi maintained that the interim relief from the Supreme Court staying the conviction did not erase it entirely. “It means the conviction of Ponmudy, though existent, has been made non-operative. It has not been set aside,” his letter argued. Ponmudy, incidentally, is a DMK veteran and served as minister in several governments under Stalin’s father, former DMK president M Karunanidhi.

The Tamil Nadu government moved the Supreme Court after that. The bench, comprising Chief Justice of India (CJI) DY Chandrachud, Justices JB Pardiwala and Manoj Misra, expressed serious concern at the governor’s refusal to re-induct Ponmudy. The Court wondered how the governor could say Ponmudy’s re-induction would be against constitutional morality when another bench of the apex court had itself stayed the conviction. 

The CJI-led bench told Attorney General R Venkataramani: “We are seriously concerned by the governor’s conduct. He is defying the Supreme Court. He has no business to say Ponmudy’s taint continued and that it would constitutionally be immoral to swear him in as minister. Those who have advised him have not advised him correctly in accordance with law. The Governor should be informed that when the Supreme Court of India stays a conviction, the law has to follow its course.” 

The top court then gave Ravi 24 hours to reconsider his earlier decision not to induct Ponmudy. Fearing the top court’s wrath and before it assembled the next day, the governor announced his decision to swear in Ponmudy as Higher Education Minister, a post he had lost after his conviction by the Madras High Court. On December 19, 2023, the High Court had convicted him and his wife in the wealth case. Ponmudy had been acquitted in the disproportionate assets case by a trial court earlier, but this was reversed by the High Court. It then sentenced him to three years imprisonment, leading to his disqualification from the ministerial post.

Venkataramani told the CJI-led bench: “The Governor also wishes to convey that he had the least intent to disrespect the order of the court. On a certain understanding of certain judgements of the court, he has taken a view.” 

After the oath, Stalin thanked the Supreme Court for upholding the spirit of the Constitution. “On behalf of the people of Tamil Nadu, I thank the Hon’ble Supreme Court, the custodian of the Constitution, for its timely intervention and upholding the spirit of the Constitution and saving democracy. In the last decade, the people of India witnessed the dithering of democracy, withering of federalism and misadventures to put spikes before the functioning of sovereign governments elected by the people and giving age-old traditions a go by,” Stalin posted on X.

The Court then disposed of the TN government’s interlocutory application. “Hence, no further directions are needed on the interlocutory application, save and except to take the assurance on the record,” it said. Appearing for the Tamil Nadu government, Senior Advocate P Wilson said: “Parliamentary democracy survives because of Your Lordships.” 

Senior Advocate Abhishek Manu Singhvi, who also appeared for the Tamil Nadu government, asked why the state should approach the court every time because of such actions by the governor. The CJI, however, expressed relief at the matter being resolved.

The saga of Governor Ravi and the DMK government has been brewing for long. From refusing to read the speech prepared by the state government ahead of the budget session to joining issue with the Sanatana Dharma remarks of Minister Udhayanidhi Stalin, Ravi has been a cut above other governors in finding fault with the state government.

At the budget session, Ravi said the speech prepared by the state government had numerous passages with which he disagreed on factual and moral grounds. He said if he lent his voice to it, it would end up as a constitutional travesty. He then walked out as the Tamil version of the speech was being read out, leading to a furore in the assembly. Similarly, after Udhayanidhi Stalin made the Sanatana Dharma remark, Ravi cited the success of the G20 summit in Delhi as an example of the victory of Sanatana Dharma.   

Earlier, the Tamil Nadu government had approached the Supreme Court over the delay in the Raj Bhavan clearing bills, leading the Court to say the governor must act on the advice of the council of ministers. Stalin took the tussle one notch higher when he wrote to President Droupadi Murmu seeking Ravi’s recall.

A similar conflict over a minister was averted when Home Minister Amit Shah had to intervene. Ravi had taken an unprecedented decision to dismiss jailed minister Senthil Balaji for alleged corruption. The Enforcement Directorate had arrested Balaji on June 14 last year in a cash-for-jobs scam. He was later admitted to a government hospital in Chennai after he complained of chest pains. He was allowed by the Madras High Court on June 15 to be shifted to a private hospital of his choice. In a late night action, Ravi had ordered Balaji’s dismissal and said in a five-page letter that the dismissal was to avert the adverse impact that his continuing in office would have on the due process of law in the investigation against him. 

When Stalin retorted that he would take legal action against the governor’s decision, Amit Shah intervened. Following discussions with him, Ravi wrote to Stalin that the order of dismissal “may be kept in abeyance” as he had been advised to go as per the attorney general’s opinion in the matter.

Kerala and Punjab too have been vociferous in protesting the super administrator role played by governors against constitutional norms. Under the Constitution, the governor has to act on the advice of the council of ministers and nothing beyond. The Supreme Court has had to step in several times late last year in similar tussles between the elected government and the centre’s representative in the state. The problem has been acute in states that are ruled by Opposition parties.

The delay in clearing bills has been the tactic of choice. Kerala Governor Arif Mohammed Khan had held back assent to bills passed by the state legislature for as long as two years, and he then reserved it for consideration by President Murmu. Khan assented to one bill and referred seven others to the president, landing the Kerala government in a quandary. The apex court when approached by the state government said it will consider laying down guidelines as to when the governors can refer bills to the president for assent.

The Court had also asked the Kerala governor to meet Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and the minister concerned to discuss the legislations and iron out differences, if any. The Court asked Attorney General R Venkataramani what was the governor doing sitting on the bills for two years. When the AG said he does not wish to go into detail as it will open several questions, the bench said it would have no reservations in doing so since it was accountable to the Constitution.

In Punjab under the Bhagwant Mann-led AAP government, a Supreme Court bench warned then Governor Banwarilal Purohit not to play with fire and said it was a serious matter of concern that he had held up passing seven bills cleared by the Punjab assembly. CJI Chandrachud said: “Our country has been running on established traditions and conventions and they need to be followed.” 

The Court has time and again asked governors and chief ministers to speak to each other and get things moving. But the bipartisan divide has not been bridged by meetings alone.

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