When a colossus becomes a man of straw with feet of clay

The apex court finally expressed the view that the governor and the speaker had not acted according to constitutional propriety, but by then the damage was done. 

Published: 16th July 2023 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 14th July 2023 05:18 PM   |  A+A-

All the cliches have been used to describe the ‘man of the moment’—Sharad Pawar. ‘Strong Man of Maharashtra’, a ‘Colossus’, ‘Master Strategist and Supremo Survivor’, a ‘Man for all Seasons’ etc. But this time, past his prime, he appears to be a man of straw, a colossus with feet of clay, an idol perched on a crumbling pedestal. A dynast doting on his daughter deserted by his lieutenants and almost all the stalwart supporters. One could go on, but that would be cruel. The question is how did things come to this sorry pass? The tragic tale has a trail with many twists and turns. Words like loyalty and betrayal lost their meaning in public life long ago. An essential ingredient in ‘Pawar Play’ by Saheb from Baramati has been switching sides to turn the tables. Chanakya-like crafty statesmen know well that only the foolish or the weak cling to their convictions. Ideological positions evolve in light of changing circumstances. The great Maratha chieftain can hardly cry ‘Foul!’ at those who have walked away with his party. It is rumoured that the nephew and others, who joined the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA), did so under duress. 

We, the people of India, take our cricket more seriously than politics, so it’s perhaps apt that we try to understand the recent events in Maharashtra by applying the lessons learnt from the uneven pitch. There was a time when any team playing against Pakistan had to cope not only with the 11 players but also with the two not-so-neutral umpires. It was then when it was quipped, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. If Khizar doesn’t get you, then Shakoor must.” Only a little tweaking is needed to scare the troublesome MLAs—‘If the CBI doesn’t get you, ED must’. Even Harish Salve, the renowned lawyer, who can’t by any stretch of the imagination be considered a critic of the NDA, has had to argue that the ED has no powers to arrest people and should be reined in by the Supreme Court to save democracy in this land.  

What has happened in Maharashtra, and is very likely to replay elsewhere, is just not cricket, but who cares? Indian democracy strayed a long way off from the strait and narrow path dictated by the anti-defection law, the judgment in the SR Bommai case and its many creative interpretations by many governors and speakers. The EC and judiciary remind onlookers of the Jesting Pilate who wring their hands and, in such cases, scrupulously maintain a safe distance from what is the domain of legislature till fait accompli renders any intervention hopelessly ineffective. We have seen this happen in Maharashtra itself not too long back. The apex court finally expressed the view that the governor and the speaker had not acted according to constitutional propriety, but by then the damage was done. 

In fairness, it must be added that the governors in past, during the years when the Congress was in power, have also violated the provisions of the Constitution with impunity to please their patrons in Delhi and brought disrepute to their office. One recalls that in years gone by, buses on hazardous hill roads were fitted with ‘governors’ to impose a speed limit which no reckless driver could exceed. Those who occupy Raj Bhawans these days aren’t usually bothered about speed limits or traffic rules. Some are glad to court controversy by acting like what the governor was called in popular parlance, ‘Laat Saab’—one who recognised no superior and made the law as he went along.

Every time an unsavoury confrontation takes place in a state between the elected CM and appointed governor, we hear about the grey areas in the Constitution and the discretionary power of the governor. Take the case of the governor of Tamil Nadu who issued orders to dismiss a minister who was accused of corruption and was undergoing custodial interrogation. Advised, however, by the Home Ministry in Delhi, he hastily backtracked and stayed his own order. The relations between the CM and the governor have been adversarial in Kerala, West Bengal and Delhi too. Sensational disclosures by an ex-governor in Kashmir have highlighted how someone considered trustworthy can turn into a loose canon causing collateral damage. From retired judges of the SC to ex-generals and experienced bureaucrats no one has accomplished the task as expected. Perhaps the time has come to rethink the relevance of governors in contemporary India. 

But let’s not digress. Does the party enjoying a brute majority in the parliament and ruling in many large states need to take recourse to thinly disguised (deniable) dirty tricks to annihilate opposition? Congress is bent on demolishing itself so the BJP can devote all its attention and forces to exterminate powerful regional parties that may upset its plans in 2024. Pawar’s plight has pushed all else from headlines—from unrest in Manipur to unspeakable crime against a tribal in Madhya Pradesh. Strong Men needn’t resort to ‘hook or crook’ ever.  

Pushpesh Pant

Former professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University


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