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Governor Caught In Centre-Tamil Nadu Crossfire

April 20, 2022 16:54 IST
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The DMK feels its genuine gestures have had no bearing on the governor's politico-administrative conduct, which is 'more political and politicised than administrative and Constitutional', observes N Sathiya Moorthy.

IMAGE: Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M K Stalin, left, with Governor Ravindra Narayan Ravi. Photograph: R Senthil Kumar/PTI Photo

By boycotting the maiden Tamil New Year high tea hosted by Governor R N Ravi at the Chennai Raj Bhavan over the 'inordinate, inexplicable and unjustifiable' delay in his forwarding the second NEET Bill passed by the state assembly, the Tamil Nadu government under Chief Minister M K Stalin and the ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam under him, have sent out the strongest message thus far on the issue.

It remains to be seen what other form would the next round of protests take, if it came to that, as any further deadlock in the relations between the government and the governor can have Constitutional consequences, which can cut either way.

Unlike what the Opposition All India Anna DMK spokesman and former minister D Jayakumar condemned, this is not the first time such a boycott of the governor-hosted event is taking place in the state.

Having possibly taken the millennials' lack of memory and the short-term memory of the older generation for granted, Jayakumar conveniently hid the fact that his late boss Jayalalithaa, in her first term as chief minister (1991-1996) ordered the boycott of then governor Marri Channa Reddy. It included all Raj Bhavan functions, including high tea on Independence Day and Republic Day.

Jayakumar was a member of Jayalalithaa's cabinet at the time and had himself joined the boycott.

Incidentally, Jayalalithaa is the only chief minister, or any woman political leader in the country till date, to have accused the governor of 'misbehaving with her' in the Raj Bhavan. Though she did not elaborate -- and no one asked her either -- the insinuations and innuendo were not missed either. Better or worse still, Jaya also got her charge against Chenna Reddy entered in the eternal records of the state assembly.

The first Jayalalithaa government also holds another dubious record of the kind when the police looked the other way when her ruling AIADMK cadres 'gheraoed' governor Reddy's motorcade for hours together, on a narrow stretch of national highway in the northern district town of Tindivanam.

The protestors dispersed only after they were convinced that the message had gone across to distant Delhi, where they saw Congress prime minister P V Narasimha Rao as the master puppeteer of governor Reddy, who was 'not cooperating' enough with Jayalalithaa, a first-term chief minister with a massive legislative majority, facilitated by the Rajiv Gandhi assassination in elections '91.

The Channa Reddy treatment does not seem to be a stand-alone case anymore. On Tuesday, April 19, some of the ruling DMK's alliance cadres threw black flags at Governor Ravi's convoy while he was taking the road in Thanjavur district where he was travelling to the 16th century Saiviite mutt, Dharmapuram Adheenam, for an audience with the incumbent chief.

They were protesting against the governor not forwarding to the President, the NEET exemption bill, unanimously passed by the state assembly after the Raj Bhavan had returned it once.

According to the state government, the ruling DMK and its allies, the governor's role in the matter was confined to forwarding the bill to the President/Centre, and he did not have a choice or option in the matter.

While the state Bharatiya Janata Party and Opposition AIADMK leaders lost no time in blaming the Stalin leadership, the police have since claimed/clarified that the black flags tied to plastic pipes fell only on the police vehicles forming the tail-end of the governor's convoy.

State BJP president K Annamalai, a former IPS officer, also wrote to Union Home Minister Amit Shah, seeking 'suitable action' and blaming it on Stalin's utterances against the governor over the past few days (but confined to the NEET bill issue).

As has become the wont, state BJP leaders have also been organising cadre-based 'receptions' for Ravi whenever he visits the districts, defying standard protocol in the matter.

More importantly, Vishwesh B Shastri, the governor's ADC and an IPS officer, has filed a complaint with Director General of Police C Sylendrababu, alleging offences under Section 124 of the Indian Penal Code and other relevant sections. The said section prescribes a punishment of imprisonment up to seven years and/or fine, for 'assaulting President, governor, etc, with intent to compel or restrain the exercise of any lawful power'.

Indications are that the local police had faltered in not holding back the protestors a comfortable distance, say 100 metres, away from the convoy's route. That would not have been the normal course whenever the police have advance information about such protests against visiting VIPs, both inside capital Chennai and elsewhere in the state.

Better clarity would emerge only when a full inquiry is ordered into the incident -- which now the state police is sure to undertake, especially after the complaint from the governor's ADC.

At another level but on a related issue, Stalin continued not to issue the customary Tamil New Year greeting message, for more reasons than one.

This when Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Governor Ravi and leaders of every other political party in the state and at times from outside, too, greeted the Tamil people on the occasion.

Stalin's late father M Karunanidhi in his last term as chief minister (2006-2011) unilaterally and unjustifiably advanced Tamil New Year Day from mid-April, coinciding with the birth of the first Tamil calendar month in 12, namely Chithirai, and ordered official celebrations on Pongal day, the Tamil harvest festival on the first day of the Tamil month Thai, in mid-January.

The mid-April celebrations had religion-based astrological sanction, which is what made it Tamil New Year Day.

Barring the faceless state government, every Tamil who celebrated Tamil New Year, continued with the traditional date under the Hindu panchang, or almanac. Once Jayalalithaa returned to power in 2011, her government returned to the tradition.

Then and now, believers in the DMK, who number the most unlike in the early years of the party, founded in 1949, continue to celebrate Tamil New Year only on the 1st of Chithirai each year, including early morning pujas in temples and homes.

When former IPS officer Ravi was posted as TN governor, the expectation was that the Centre was seeking to use his experience in the handling of north-east militancy, to curb possibilities of such revivals, based on linguistic, ethnic, religious and equity-based militancy, which have had dug deep roots in what otherwise still remains a 'Dravidian state', with all its connotations.

Tamil Nadu, incidentally, is possibly the only large state in the country with almost every possible form of militancy, active at times, dormant otherwise, yet present.

This apart, Stalin, still settling down in office, wanted to maintain good relations with the BJP-ruled Centre and PM Modi, despite the deep-seated ideological differences and mutual political suspicions, the latter based on the national party wanting the DMK to ditch its long-term Congress ally, even if it meant that the ruling party in the state may not want to align with it. Included in his list of priorities at the time was to have an open mind on the new governor and extend an open arm of friendship and cooperation.

Stalin was thus reported to have given strict instructions to DMK functionaries not to say anything negative about the new governor. Officials were also reportedly advised to follow suit. When Governor Ravi wanted direct briefing by various department officials, both in the Raj Bhavan and whenever he toured the districts, Stalin did not want to stand in the way -- as Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa would have done, if such requests/directives had emerged in their times.

Instead, Chief Secretary V Irai Anbu even issued a circular to all department heads to oblige if and when Raj Bhavan sought such meetings and briefings. Stalin looked the other way when murmurs of protest were heard within the DMK and from among the party's poll allies.

IMAGE: Activists of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi and left-wing parties wave black flags and raise slogans against Tamil Nadu Governor Ravindra Narayan Ravi, over the delay in forwarding the anti-NEET bill to the President, during the governor's visit to Mayiladuthurai, April 19, 2022. Photograph: PTI Photo

The DMK now feels that such genuine gestures have had no bearing on the governor's politico-administrative conduct, which is 'more political and politicised than administrative and Constitutional'.

At the centre of it all is the growing perception that the governor has no Constitutional right to hold back a bill that had to be disposed of by the President, through the Centre -- or, vice versa -- but was not doing so. It is deemed as disrespect to the Constitution, and more so to President Ram Nath Kovind.

The Tamil New Year high-tea protest itself followed a series of missives and meetings involving Governor Ravi and CM Stalin, over the past months. While the state government was reportedly and repeatedly given to understand that Raj Bhavan too felt that its role in the NEET bill matter was limited, or next-to-nothing, the reality seemed otherwise.

In a more recent incident, Governor Ravi was supposed to have discussed the matter with Union Home Minister Amit Shah in Delhi, but that meeting reportedly did not take place, as promised/planned.

Peeved at contradictory signals emanating from Delhi and the Chennai Raj Bhavan, Stalin decided to take on the governor, with the high-tea boycott becoming the latest in a series. Earlier, DMK parliamentarians had sought Ravi's removal, and even sought to move an adjournment motion in Parliament, but to no avail.

The boycott decision, Stalin had two ministers, Thangam Thennarasu (Industry) and M Subramaniam (Health), convey to the governor in person and also announce it to the people through a news meet outside Raj Bhavan, hours earlier. The chief minister had met the governor a couple of days earlier to press the NEET bill issue.

Indications from a DMK perspective is that the governor was unwittingly placing himself in what essentially was evolving into a Centre-state politico-Constitutional clash, involving issues of federalism, wherein they see the NEET bill only as a marker and not the whole of it.

Since coming to power in May 2021, the ruling DMK and the state government have been stoutly opposing what they see as the BJP Centre's continual intrusion into the powers of the state under the federal constitutional scheme.

On the equally sensitive and even more historic language issue, Stalin's statement, like those from his allies, criticised Home Minister Shah for recently declaring himself in favour of Hindi as if to the exclusion of other Indian languages, including English and Tamil, especially for official use.

While underlying the state's 'two-language' formula of ages, a section of social media referred to DMK founder C N Annadurai's parliamentary speech, where he likened English to a large door opening up to the whole world and Hindi to a smaller one giving a full view of the nation.

'You can use the larger door to view India too, but you cannot use the smaller door for going out to the world. And two separate doors are unnecessary,' Annadurai had told Parliament.

It was not just political, as the DMK as a party has had a long history of policies and ideology based also on federalism issues. So much so when the DMK had come to stay on in government and Karunanidhi too had firmed up his position as chief minister, he had a former chief justice of the Madras high court, P V Rajamannar, to head a commission, to study central-state issues.

Rajamannar, who had been chairman of the Centre's Fourth Finance Commission (1966-1969), came up with a report, whose core findings Karunanidhi summed up in a single sentence in Tamil: 'Maanilathil suyatchchi, maththiyil kootatchchi.' It translated as a demand for 'state autonomy and federal Centre'.

Tamil Nadu's oft-quoted Finance Minister P T R Palanivel Thiagarajan has since been pointing to the impossibility of the situation, recalling how 19 bills passed by the state legislature had been held back in the Raj Bhavan. The common refrain is that the governor, instead of being a facilitator of good relations between the Centre and the state, as the Constitution had visualised, was acting as a hurdle, instead.

Whether true or not, justified or otherwise, such perceptions now continue to dominate the Tamil pulp press and Tamil social media.

A section of Tamil social media has also begun recalling the unforgettable-yet-often forgotten quote of Annadurai, likening the governor's post to a billy goat's beard (aattukku thaadi). Rather, the imaginative quote read this way: 'Aattukku thaadi etharkku? Nattukku governor etharkku? (Why is there a beard for a billy-goat? And why is there a governor for a state?).' The unsaid averment was that both had no purpose or use.

The irony is that not just the DMK, mostly under Karunanidhi after a short stint of Annadurai's chief ministership (1967-1969), but even the breakaway AIADMK, under party-founder M G Ramachandran and his self-styled political heir Jayalalithaa, had referred to Annadurai's analogy whenever in power and whenever they had faced problems with the governor of the day.

And over the years, whenever the governor's post comes under a political cloud in the Dravidian state, then the recall of Annadurai is based on perceptions that the Raj Bhavan was placing unnecessary unconstitutional hurdles in the state government's ways.

The DMK is peeved that despite sending out positive signals to the ruling party at the Centre, but after clarifying that the party was in no mood to ditch the Congress electoral ally, the latter had unleashed the state BJP on the DMK, the latter often continuing to target the state government and the ruling party on pre-poll political attacks centred on god, religion and the upper caste Brahmin community.

This was so even when the Stalin government had assiduously sought to re-take possession of temple properties in private possession violating original terms, and/or recovering massive backlog in rents, which had not been revised upwards, to reflect market conditions.

There are also occasions in which the DMK, known for its propaganda machinery, has not done enough -- or, so it seems.

One such is the case of the government takeover of a Brahmin-majority Sri Ram Samaj trust that manages the Ayodhya Mandapam property, including a temple-like structure, and associated institutions, build on public donations and valued at crores of rupees.

On a complaint by one Ramani, whom the trust reportedly sacked as its president, after he had sought to expose 'fraudulent accounting' by his predecessors over decades, the then Jayalalithaa government ordered its takeover by the HR&CE department, in 2014.

Recently, the Madras high court vacated the stay granted at the time. However, when the state government sought to enforce the order, pro-Hindutva groups, including the state BJP-RSS combo, have sought to project it all as the handiwork of the 'anti-god, anti-Hindu, anti-Brahmin' DMK. The irony is that the ruling party has not effectively countered the 'false propaganda' and has ended up bearing the cross all by itself.

Even without this one, a host of sensitive criminal cases, including the alleged conversion-efforts of a girl student in Christian missionary school near Thanjavur, have also met with negative observations and interim rulings from the Madras high court and at times the Supreme Court.

State BJP leaders, starting with unit president K Annamalai, a former IPS officer -- though with no professional links to Governor Ravi, an IPS veteran -- had sought to make out as if the DMK's 'anti-Hindu' political philosophy from before the days of the formation of the party under ideological parent 'Periyar' E V Ramaswami Naicker was to blame for all this and more. 

Though it may not have made much difference on the ground -- as the DMK's sweep in the urban local bodies polls showed -- they were enough to create avoidable bad publicity in distant Delhi, and it has mattered in a nation caught in the Hindutva mood and methods.

There is another side to it all too. Through the decades since the Dravidian polity had come to dominate political power in the state since 1967, governments in Tamil Nadu have fallen foul with governors, whom they said were acting as political tools of the ruling party at the Centre, whether the Congress, the BJP or any other.

The lone exception was said to be governor Surjit Singh Barnala who refused to recommend the dismissal of the third Karunanidhi government in early 1991, accompanied by the dissolution of the state assembly.

Then prime minister Chandra Shekhar's short-lived government still went ahead and did precisely that. Yet, the dismissal still could not save the DMK of the 'moral responsibility' for the 'circumstances leading to the Rajiv Gandhi assassination' during its short-lived tenured (1989-1991), and suffering the worst-ever electoral defeat of all times.

Overall, however, whenever the Centre and the Dravidian government in the state patched up their differences, invariably over an electoral alliance, the governor had fallen victim. The Centre that had appointed him and used him purportedly to serve its political ends, also transferred or sacked him, whatever be the other circumstances.

The last one to suffer such was Ravi's predecessor Banwarilal Purohit, who had a relatively smooth term with then AIADMK government of chief minister Edappadi K Palaniswami. As if to send out a positive signal to the DMK under Stalin after it won elections 2021, the Centre shifted out Purohit as Punjab governor, not long after his swearing in the new chief minister and team.

Today, no one in Tamil Nadu, especially in the DMK is talking about Purohit. They are busy blaming incumbent Ravi for everything.

But then, as BJP's Annamalai has pointed out, Ravi has also read out the customary governor's speech to the assembly, as prepared by the state government. His unasked question: If the governor had personal animus, like his BJP-appointed counterparts in other non-BJP states, Ravi could have caused problems on that score (too)!

N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist and author, is a Chennai-based policy analyst and commentator.

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