The Madras High Court's notice to authorities in some coastal districts of southern Tamil Nadu over the 'public hearings' on the Sethusamudram project proposal has brought out a new facet in Central-State relations unnoticed by many. Coming under the Union Shipping Ministry, the Tuticorin Port Trust, entrusted with the Rs 3000-crore project, has indicated that the District Collectors have been winding up the 'public hearings' citing public disturbances at the venue and during the proceedings as the cause.
The case is an indicator of the percolation-effect in the ground-level working of Centre-State relations, which has found newer expressions in the Tamil Nadu context. While political power has moderated some facets of the Dravidian political ideology, its near-guaranteed continuance over the past decades has rendered mere dogma irrelevant, and ground-level practices attainable and accountable.
It is thus that the pending Supreme Court case on the Tamil Nadu Chief Secretary's petition on the Centre's powers to transfer Governors assumes significance. Heading the members of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) in the State, the Chief Secretary also cited a purported telephonic conversation between the Union Home Minister and the State Chief Minister, while arguing a point. Though the State Government subsequently denied that its agents had taped the telephonic conversation, even such petitions and citations would have been unthinkable in the past. It's another matter that the Supreme Court declined to grant a stay of any possible transfer of then Tamil Nadu Governor, P S Ramamohan Rao - who has since quit office.
The Dravidian political movement, particularly the DMK parent, has laid great stress on 'State autonomy', having diluted to that position from the original demand for a 'separate Tamil Nadu'. DMK supremo and four-time Chief Minister M Karunanidhi has repeatedly demanded the abolition of the Governor's office, but given the constitutional connotations of such a demand, it's committed to abiding by the constitutional norm as long as it remained on the statute book. Yet, the hand of the DMK, as a partner in the coalition Governments at the Centre, has often been seen in the transfer or removal of Governors in Tamil Nadu.
The breakaway AIADMK may have relied on the gubernatorial office to embarrass, and possibly harass the DMK rival while the latter was in power in the early days of the party's founding. This was the case both in the case of the late M G Ramachandran, and Jayalalithaa, first as AIADMK supremo and later as State Chief Minister. In the decades that followed, the party however found no such compulsion to fall back on the Raj Bhavan for political sustenance and solace.
This stage, if anything, has involved, charges of the State Governor acting in a partisan manner. It reached a new low when none other than the then Union Law Minister Arun Jaitley publicly castigated the Governor, Justice Fatima Beevi, over the latter's official report to the Centre, on the controversial midnight arrest of Karunanidhi. Jaitley implied that the Governor had ceased to be the agent of the Union Government and the President of India, as should have been the case, but had quoted extensively from the official reports of the State Chief Secretary and the Director-General of Police (DGP), without independent confirmation. That the Chief Secretary or a DGP of a State would sent in such reports to the Centre was by itself unthinkable in an earlier era.
There have also been occasions when the pendulum swung to the other extreme with the person of the Chief Minister, Jayalalithaa in this case, charging then Governor M Channa Reddy with trying to 'misbehave' with her. The charge remains unchallenged in the records of the State Assembly, which is purportedly headed by the Governor himself. There was also an incident in which persons believed to be ruling party men were involved in throwing stones at Governor Reddy's motorcade.
That way, though, the Governor was not the only person holding a constitutional office who was similarly treated. Union Minister P Chidambaram's motorcade was once attacked, and later, a member of Parliament, Mani Shankar Aiyer, was physically assaulted. A new low however was reached when the State police arrested two Union Ministers, the late Murasoli Maran and T R Baalu, at the height of the 'Karunanidhi arrest controversy'.
Though the two Ministers were subsequently freed from police custody unconditionally, enough damage had been done to the institution and the system that they represented. The State Government's charge that the two Ministers had sought to obstruct the police in the discharge of its duties too cannot be over-looked, given the ubiquitous 'video-evidence' produced at its instance.
The evolution of the federal scheme under a coalition system of governance at the federal-level has not stopped with Tamil Nadu 'testing' the strength of the Centre-State relations as existed. As Chief Minister Jayalalithaa is known to have taken initiatives on the foreign policy front, which was once deemed to be the exclusive preserve of the Union Government. Jayalalithaa's public call for India taking back the Kachchativu islet from Sri Lanka, and modifying it later to get it on lease, are pointers. On the pro-active front, Jayalalithaa has had meetings with visiting Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe, which were more than courtesy calls.
More recently, not only the Tamil Nadu Government, but even the State police has made claims in respect of a 'friendly neighbour' that is not in consonance with the known dictum for such occasions. In the matter of the Kanchi Sankaracharya, Sri Jayendra Saraswati's arrest in the 'Sankararaman murder case', the State police has repeatedly claimed that he had wanted to escape to Nepal. The implication, if one could stretch the argument, is that Nepal was a safe haven. Ordinarily, this is not construed as a 'friendly act' towards a 'friendly neighbour'. It would have been a different case if the Sankaracharya had already been named a suspect in the murder and he had landed in Nepal, after all.
All this does not mean that the official position of Tamil Nadu in this and other cases is patently diffident, or constitutionally unsustainable. It only indicates a pattern, in which administrative realities are replacing constitutional prerogatives and customary dogmas. If nothing else, a review of the system and the scheme as they have evolved could well be in order, if they are not to be shocked beyond repair. The Venkatachalaiah Commission may have had the occasion to review the scheme as was being practised, but its terms of reference did not really provide it with the necessary elbow room. Yet, the job cannot remain undone. Nor can it stay, half-done.
* Views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Observer Research Foundation.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.