Oppostion may well thank Karnataka Governor for impressing on them the need for pre-poll unity

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Vajubhai Vala was a name few outside Gujarat knew of. That is, until last week. Karnataka knew of him, of course, as its governor, but no one really thinks too much about governors. It is the chief minister and would-be chief ministers who matter. So even in Karnataka, his was not what may be called a household name.

But ever since his asking the BJP leader, B S Yeddyurappa, to form a government in Karnataka, the state’s governor has become one of the nation’s most talked about names. Was Vala right? Was Vala wrong? Did he act on his own? Was he arm-twisted? Was he poorly advised? Was he, a BJP veteran, acting out of bias?

And after the Supreme Court cut the time the governor gave to Yeddyurappa to prove his majority in the Assembly, we have been hearing “Vala must resign” in a steady refrain: “If he has any self-respect, he would go.” The Supreme Court’s order is seen as a hidden reprimand, an indirect condemnation of his decision, an indictment after which he should not continue in office.

But at least one commentator differs. He feels that far from being severe on the governor the Supreme Court has in fact been kind to him. It should, he feels, have come down hard and heavy on him for the “substantive” error of having asked Yeddyurappa and not Kumaraswamy to form the government. But the Court has only found him to have erred on a “procedural” point, namely, on the time he gave to Yeddyurappa to prove his majority. It has not found or described his decision to be egregious, unconstitutional, unethical. The commentator says he does not celebrate the Supreme Court’s order as far-reaching , rather he laments it for not going far enough.

I can see his point. The governor’s decision was patently wrong. It was also dangerously wrong for it could have led to a perpetuation of the incorrect installation of Yeddyurappa. Worse, it could have set a precedent for others to follow. Had the Court struck down the governor’s decision, being manifestly in error, it would have perhaps done something never done before, a “first”, a salutary first. But it chose not to do that. It did not interfere with the governor’s choice, only on one corollary of the decision, namely, the lead time given to Yeddyurappa.

Now, looking at the proceedings dispassionately, I think the Supreme Court’s circumspection has been right. In being corrective and not confrontationist, it has checked an error from becoming a disaster and stopped a mistake from becoming a misadventure with long-lasting implications. It has also, by doing what it has and no more, refrained from becoming in itself a de facto governor, exposed to the charge of “judicial overreach”.

And yet, with all its self-restraint the Court has managed to create a difference, a huge difference. It knew, as everyone knows, that the time factor is “procedural” only in a technical sense and that it is in that vestibule of days that horses get traded, turning minuses into pluses, minorities into majorities. It knew that by making the lead time as narrow as was possible, it would make horse trading difficult if not impossible. And its presumption, its hope and expectation, turned out to be right. The governor’s prerogative, with the limited subjectivity implied in it, was not interfered with. But possible mischief emanating from it was obviated.

There is another very important “positive” from the Supreme Court’s not tinkering with the substantive decision. Had the Supreme Court reversed the governor’s decision and “ordered” the installation of the single-largest group as opposed to the single-largest party, and the new coalition were to work well, all would be well. But if, as has happened with many coalitions, it were to crack up, Governor Vala would have had the last laugh. And the cry would go up: Post-poll alliances are unsteady.

In the event, I believe the Supreme Court has done the right and proper thing within its proper bounds. And as for the governor, he has, without intending to, shown how pre-poll seat adjustments and alliances are by far preferable to post-poll ones. He has shown how vulnerable the claim of post-poll arrangements, even when mathematically incontrovertible, is to gubernatorial subjectivity.

Vajubhai Vala may well come to be thanked by the Opposition for having, paradoxically, brought them closer to the compulsions of integrated strategising and adjusting in the interests of electoral consolidation.

The article first appeared in The Indian Express



Gopalkrishna Devdas Gandhi

Gopalkrishna Devdas Gandhi is a retired IAS officer and diplomat, who was the Governor of West Bengal from 2004 to 2009. He is the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi.

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