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Governor had no discretion to delay Punjab assembly budget session: SC on Bhagwant Mann’s plea

SC says chief minister, governor should maintain 'dignity' and 'mature statesmanship' in their communication despite them representing different ideologies.

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New Delhi: The Supreme Court Tuesday held that it was unconstitutional for the governor of Punjab not to summon the legislative assembly when advised to do so by the state cabinet, while emphasising the need to maintain “dignity”, “decorum” and “mature statesmanship” in communication between two constitutional authorities.

“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,” a bench of Chief Justice of India D.Y. Chandrachud and Justice P.S. Narasimha said. It added that the failure of one constitutional authority to fulfil its duty would not be a justification for another not to fulfil his or her distinct duty under the Constitution.

These observations were part of a court order that came on a petition filed by Punjab Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann. In the petition, Mann had sought the quashing of Governor Banwarilal Purohit’s decision to obtain legal advice on the cabinet’s recommendation for him to convene the budget session on 3 March. Mann also wanted the court to declare that the governor is duty bound to act on the aid and advice of the cabinet in such matters.

Invoking the urgency clause under the Supreme Court rules, senior advocate Abhishek Manu Singhvi — appearing for Mann — mentioned the petition early Tuesday morning and was told by the CJI’s bench that the matter would be heard at 3.50 pm.

However, solicitor general Tushar Mehta, appearing for Purohit, informed the bench that now, the governor indeed had decided to summon the assembly on 3 March. Mehta also pointed to the use of “street language” by Mann to communicate with the governor and accused the chief minister of lowering the level of official communication with a constitutional functionary.

Mehta complained that Mann had refused to share with the governor details of administrative decisions taken by his government. This, argued Mehta, was against the mandate of the Constitution since Mann chose to question the governor’s authority instead of responding to him.

Moreover, Mehta clarified that the governor never shot down the cabinet’s decision to summon the session, but simply said that he had sought legal opinion on the same.

The bench agreed with Mehta that the Constitution mandates a chief minister to furnish information sought by the governor on issues related to administration. Refusal to provide this information would amount to dereliction of constitutional duty, the bench observed.

Reacting to the spat between two constitutional authorities, the bench said that there is a need to have some dignity in public discourse between the two offices despite them representing different ideologies.

The genesis of the dispute began with the governor writing a letter to the chief minister on 13 February, 2023 in which he highlighted certain issues. He questioned the basis for selecting principals sent to Singapore for a training programme and the appointment of the chairperson of the Punjab Information and Communication Technology Corporation Limited.

In response, Mann said in a tweet that the democratically-elected state government was answerable to “three crore Punjabis” and not to the governor, a central government appointee. Later, when Mann wrote to the governor conveying his cabinet’s decision to convene the assembly session, the latter sent him a communication saying that he was seeking legal advice on this issue. In this letter, the governor underscored that he was compelled to take legal advice in the backdrop of his previous correspondence with the chief minister in which he had sought details and information which was not provided to him by the CMO.

The governor pointed out that Mann’s tweet and subsequent letter were not “only patently unconstitutional but extremely derogatory”. This correspondence prompted Mann to move the court against the governor.

Also Read: Central ministries biggest litigants in govt with 2.85 lakh pending cases, finance tops list

‘Governor can’t exercise power at own discretion’

The hearing Tuesday saw both sides accusing each other of violating their respective constitutional obligation. Mann accused the governor of blackmailing and hijacking the Constitution, while Purohit criticised him for showing utter disregard to the office of a high constitutional authority.

In its order, the court underlined the importance of the two constitutional functionaries who have been entrusted with specified roles and obligations under the Constitution. It observed: “The framers of the Constitution were prescient in including the above provisions to ensure that while on the one hand the administration of the state is entrusted to a democratically elected CM who heads the council of ministers, which in turn owes collective responsibility to the state legislature, the governor as a Constitutional authority, appointed by the President is entrusted the duty to guide and counsel (the elected government).”

Therefore, while the framing of legislation is entrusted to an elected legislature, the executive power of the state is vested in the governor which is to be exercised by a directory of officers subordinate to him/her. 

The court went on to cite its earlier judgements that “clearly laid down” a governor’s power as a Constitutional head. “In view of the clear constitutional provisions there can be no manner of doubt that the authority which is entrusted to the governor to summon the House or each House of the legislature of the State is to be exercised on the aid and advice of the council of ministers. This is not a constitutional power in which a governor is entitled to exercise his own discretion,” said the court.

In the present case, the court noted, the governor was not summoning the House for the first time following the general election, but was advised by the council of ministers to convene a budget session at the behest of the government which has been duly elected in the general election.

The court also said that there was no occasion to take legal advice on the issue, as was decided by the governor, and that he was required to plainly follow the cabinet’s advice.

The court maintained that the governor has a right to seek information from the chief minister on matters related to administration and proposals for legislations and the latter if duty bound to submit the same.

Therefore, the tone and tenor of Mann’s tweet as well as the letter “left much to be desired”, the court added.

Yet, the court opined that dereliction of duty by the chief minister would not justify the governor’s non-compliance of his constitutional obligation to summon the house.

The court also added that while it is cognizant of the importance of free speech and expression, it “becomes necessary to emphasise that constitutional discourse has to be conducted with a sense of decorum and mature statesmanship particularly in the context of a constitutional dialogue conducted between functionaries”.

Unless these principles are borne in mind, the effective implementation of constitutional values is liable to be placed in jeopardy as the situation emerged in this court in this case, the bench said.

(Edited by Amrtansh Arora)

Also Read: ‘No remorse’: HC order sentencing dismissed Punjab DSP, aide to 6 months’ jail for contempt of court


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