The Supreme Court on February 28, 2023 urged constitutional functionaries to show “mature statesmanship” and not vie with each other in a “race to the bottom” after a war of words between Punjab Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann and Governor Banwarilal Purohit led to an impasse over convening the Budget Session for the State.
Though the Governor informed the court at the outset that the Budget Session would be held as scheduled on March 3, a Bench of Chief Justice of India D.Y. Chandrachud and P.S. Narasimha highlighted how rancour and trading of mutual accusations between Governors and Chief Ministers tend to put constitutional values in jeopardy.
“While the court is cognisant of the importance of free speech and expression, it is necessary to emphasise that dialogue between constitutional functionaries has to be conducted with a sense of decorum and mature statesmanship,” the Bench said.
The Bench noted that “political differences” between a Governor and a Chief Minister should not degenerate into a slugfest where the State turns out to be the ultimate loser.
“Political differences in a democratic polity are acceptable and have to be worked out with a sense of sobriety and maturity without allowing the discourse to degenerate into a race to the bottom,” the court underscored.
“It is inconceivable that the Budget Session of a Legislative Assembly would not be convened… Constitutional authorities must be deeply cognisant of public faith in the offices they occupy… They should ensure that the affairs of the nation are conducted with a sense of maturity,” the apex court said.
The genesis of the controversy began in the middle of February when Governor Purohit questioned Mr. Mann’s decision to send a batch of school principals to Singapore for training. Mr. Mann took to Twitter and also wrote back to the Governor that he was “answerable only to three crore Punjabis and not any Governor appointed by the Centre”. He had also questioned the “qualifications” of the Governor.
The Governor, in return, accused Mr. Mann of “political immaturity” and “extremely derogatory and unconstitutional” conduct. Later, when he was approached by the State Cabinet on February 22 to convene the Budget Session, Mr. Purohit drew attention to Mr. Mann’s earlier behaviour and wrote back that he would consider convening the Assembly only after taking “legal advice”.
The Governor’s inaction prompted Mr. Mann to approach the Supreme Court directly. Senior advocate A.M. Singhvi, for the Punjab government, said the Punjab government would be “left without a penny if the Budget Session is not convened to pass the Appropriation Bill”.
‘Dereliction of duty’
After a short hearing, the court said there was “dereliction of duty” on the parts of both the Governor and the Chief Minister.
“When the Governor asks you for information on issues regarding the administration of the State, you are duty-bound to answer him,” Chief Justice Chandrachud addressed Mr. Mann’s side.
The court said the Constitution clearly enunciates that a Chief Minister should communicate decisions of governance and legislations to the Governor. “The Chief Minister has to furnish such information that the Governor may require,” the court noted.
Turning to the Governor’s counsel, the Chief Justice said there was “no occasion for the Governor to seek legal advice, he is bound to convene the House”.
“When the Cabinet has taken the decision to convene the Budget Session, the Governor has no business to not convene it. It is your constitutional duty to summon the Assembly. You are plainly duty-bound to do it. However, lacking or inappropriate the Chief Minister’s communications were, it does not excuse you [the Governor] from summoning the Budget Session,” Chief Justice Chandrachud observed.
The court said the Governor as a constitutional authority appointed by the President has a duty to “guide and counsel” the government. However, the Governor is bound by the aid and advice of the Cabinet. He cannot employ his discretion against Cabinet advice to convene the Assembly for the Budget Session.