Kerala Governor Arif Mohammed Khan’s indirect threat that he can independently dismiss Ministers is neither in keeping with the dignity of his office nor in line with the Constitution. His claim that “statements of individual ministers that lower the dignity of the Governor’s office can invite action including withdrawal of pleasure” has no basis in the constitutional system. Article 164 of the Constitution, which says the Chief Minister shall be appointed by the Governor and other Ministers shall be appointed by the Governor on the Chief Minister’s advice, adds that “the Ministers shall hold office during the pleasure of the Governor”. There have been instances of Governors dismissing Chief Ministers, but those were related to constitutional situations in which the legislative majority of the incumbent ministry was in doubt. It is also now judicially determined that the question of majority can be answered only on the floor of the legislature through a confidence vote. Nothing in the Article means that the Governor may independently dismiss a Minister. The pleasure doctrine exists only in a constitutional sense, and is exercised by the Governor only on the advice of the Chief Minister. In other words, the term ‘pleasure of the Governor’ is used as a euphemism to refer to the Chief Minister’s power to drop a Minister from the Council of Ministers.
The context for this particular confrontation appears to be the Governor’s reluctance to grant assent to the Kerala University Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2022. Higher Education Minister R. Bindu’s remark that the Governor should return the Bill for reconsideration instead of withholding his approval indefinitely was a possible trigger for his comment. While Governors may differ with the contents of a Bill and may exercise the available constitutional options, they should not use their powers to stall legislation unpalatable to them. In the realm of university laws, Governors, being Chancellors of most universities, the scope for friction is quite high. It should be remembered that the office of Chancellor is created by the statute that establishes a university, and the legislature is equally competent to curtail the Chancellor’s powers or even abolish the system of having the Governor as Chancellor. Even the M.M. Punchhi Commission, which reviewed Centre-State relations, recommended that Governors should not be burdened with the role of Chancellors. It is time to implement this principle. Governors seem to have an exaggerated notion of their own roles under the Constitution. They are expected to defend the Constitution and may use their powers to caution elected regimes against violating the Constitution, but this does not mean that they can use the absence of a time-frame for decision-making and the discretionary space given to them to function as a parallel power centre.