The first session of every new Parliament in the United Kingdom requires the election of the Speaker to be completed and members of both Houses to take oath. Neither House of Parliament can proceed with any public business in any further session unless it is opened either by the King himself or by Lords Commissioners acting on his behalf. The King’s speech is thus the formal beginning of each new session of Parliament and states the government’s policy and the intended programme of business for the forthcoming session. The King’s speech is prepared by the incumbent government and a copy of it is given to him by the Lord Chancellor.
A special address
As India adopted the Westminster model of parliamentary democracy, the Constituent Assembly decided, on May 18, 1949, to adopt this practice. Article 87 of the Indian Constitution requires the President to make a special address to both Houses of Parliament assembled on the commencement of the first session of each year. The President has to inform Parliament of the causes of its summons. Similarly, Article 176 requires the Governor to make a special address at the first session of each year of every State Legislative Assembly and to both Houses wherever the State also has a Legislative Council. The language of these provisions were borrowed from the rules of the House of Commons.
Jawaharlal Nehru, speaking in the Lok Sabha on February 22, 1960, stated that the President’s address is nothing but a statement of policy of the government. He observed: “If the President’s address has anything wrong in it or objectionable in it, it is the government to blame not the President, and it is open to hon. Members to criticise or condemn government because there is some such statement in it which they disapprove of”.
The Calcutta High Court, while interpreting this article in Syed Abdul Mansur Habibullah v. The Speaker, West Bengal Legislative Assembly (1966), held that the special address is not an idle or ceremonial formality. It keeps the members informed about the executive policies and legislative programme of the State government. The High Court further observed that the non-delivery of the special address hampers legislative debates and budgetary criticisms.
Thus, both in the U.K. and in India, it is a time-honoured constitutional convention that the King or the President or the Governor must read out the exact text of the speech or special address which informs the nation or the State of the policies that an elected government intends to pursue. There has never been an incident of the monarch in the U.K. departing from the official text of his speech. The Governor of Tamil Nadu, R.N. Ravi, made constitutional history in the State by omitting certain paragraphs and departing from the official text of his special address at the opening of the Legislative Assembly of Tamil Nadu for 2023.
It is interesting that during the Constituent Assembly debates, Professor K.T. Shah proposed an amendment to Article 87 giving discretion to the President to also make an address on “other particular issues of policy he deems suitable for such address”. This amendment was rejected as B.R. Ambedkar pointed out that the President, under Article 86, had the right to address either House or both Houses of Parliament together and Parliament had to assemble for this purpose. Similar power was given to the Governor under Article 175. Thus, when there is an independent power provided under Article 175, it is a serious impropriety for any Governor (or even the President) to omit several paragraphs from the speech prepared by the incumbent government.
The Supreme Court has held that constitutional conventions are as much a part of the Constitution as its written text. And it is well-settled that constitutional morality consists of not only adherence to the written text of the Constitution but also to constitutional conventions. These conventions fill the interstices of a written Constitution and enable effective coordination between the legislature, executive and the judiciary.
Article 361 of the Constitution gives the Governor complete immunity from any legal action because our founding fathers hoped that Governors would maintain the highest standards of rectitude and propriety. It is disturbing that serious breaches of constitutional conventions continue to be made by Governors in States ruled by Opposition parties. The swearing-in of a Chief Minister early morning, the continued friction now between the Governor and the ruling party in Kerala and formerly in West Bengal, the omission to invite the single largest party to form a government in Manipur and Goa, the deliberate delay in providing assent to bills passed by the elected legislature in Tamil Nadu are some disturbing examples that have not met any censure.
The role of the Governor
The special address of the Governor is an important constitutional duty, which is performed with the aid and advise of the Council of Ministers with the Chief Minister at the head. The constitutional role of the Governor is that of an elder statesman who brings a sense of gravitas to this high office, and by his oath, must preserve, protect and defend the Constitution and the law. The residents of Raj Bhavans are expected to be above party politics and should not hamper the functioning of a duly elected State government. It is a tribute to our Constitution that it continues to be the steel-frame of India’s republican democracy and has survived for over 70 years. But there is always the danger that this frame can be corroded and destroyed by short-sighted constitutional amendments and by repeated breaches of constitutional conventions. And the even greater danger is that no one can predict when the tipping point will come.
Arvind P. Datar is a practicing advocate at the Madras High Court; Rahul Unnikrishnan is a practicing advocate at the Madras High Court