New Delhi: The simmering tension between Kerala Governor Arif Mohammad Khan and the state government seems to have reached boiling point. Days after controversially asking 11 university vice-chancellors to resign and pulling up ministers who criticised him, the governor has now sought action against state finance minister K.N. Balagopal. Unsurprisingly, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan isn’t willing to play ball.
Khan, whose relationship with the state government has taken a sharp turn for the worse over the past few weeks, wrote a letter to the CM on 25 October in which he said that Balagopal “has ceased to enjoy my pleasure” since he had violated “the oath I had administered to him”.
The trigger for this letter was a 19 October speech at Kerala University in which Balagopal contrasted the “democratically functioning” educational establishments in the state to Uttar Pradesh, where he claimed students had been shot by gun-wielding guards of the Banaras Hindu University (BHU) vice-chancellor years ago.
“The situation (V-Cs walking around with armed guards) was similar in many other universities there,” Balagopal had said, while speaking about his own days as a student activist.
Khan, who comes from Bulandshahr in UP, indicated in his letter that he understood the minister’s remarks as being aimed at him.
He wrote that Balagopal’s comments promoted “regionalism” and challenged not only “national unity and integrity but also the constitutional convention that makes it necessary that the governor of each state shall be from outside the state”.
BHU, he added, was a central university and did not come under the control of the UP government. Further, “it had more vice-chancellors from other states, including southern states, than from UP”, he wrote. He went on to add that the CM should take “constitutionally appropriate action” against Balagopal.
Vijayan, however, rejected this demand in a letter, according to an official source quoted by PTI, and said that his trust in Balagopal was “undiminished”.
“Viewed from a constitutional perspective, factoring in the democratic conventions and traditions of our country, (Balagopal’s) statement cannot warrant a ground for cessation of enjoyment of the governor’s pleasure… I hope that the governor will appreciate that no further action needs to be taken in the matter,” he reportedly wrote.
Notably, when Khan asked 11 V-Cs to resign on the grounds that there had been anomalies in the selection process, several leaders of the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government had called the step “autocratic”, with the CM even alleging that the governor was acting as a “tool of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)”.
According to political observers, the current row is also more about politics than the issue of “regionalism”.
“Balagopal was comparing campus politics in the north and south. But to look at the current debate as regional is not correct. Can’t one compare one state to another? Basically, what the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) state unit cannot do, it is getting the governor to do,” said political commentator J. Prabhash.
This is an allegation that has arisen several times over the past few days, inviting the wrath of the governor, who had earlier this month threatened to ‘withdraw his pleasure’ from recalcitrant ministers even before the V-C issue caused a stir.
Also read: Why Kerala governor wants 11 university V-Cs out & how it’s turned into a political slugfest
‘Withdrawal of pleasure’ warning for critics
A day after Khan called for resignation of V-Cs, the Kerala High Court Monday allowed the V-Cs to continue in their positions until the governor passed a final order — but a war of words had already been set in motion.
While Khan officially ‘withdrew his pleasure’ only from Balagopal, his letter also includes references to news reports on state higher education minister R. Bindu.
On Sunday, she had told mediapersons that the governor’s notice to V-Cs was unprecedented and could be “seen as part of a thought to interfere in current activities” in the higher education sector.
Bindu had locked horns with the governor earlier in the month, too, when she alleged that he was “trying to implement the RSS’s agenda” in matters pertaining to the state’s higher education system.
Then, on 17 October, Khan tweeted — reportedly in reaction to Bindu’s remarks — that statements of ministers that “lower the dignity of the office of the governor can invite action including withdrawal of pleasure”.
In the wake of the V-C fracas, when law minister P. Rajeev said that he would examine the legality of the order, Khan called him an “ignorant, uneducated man” who had no authority over him. He also added that “brilliant people go outside because you have these ignorants ruling the state”.
CM Vijayan has himself been one of Khan’s strongest critics, often accusing the governor of being an agent of the central government.
Last month, after Khan claimed at a press conference that the Chief Minister’s Office was complicit in an alleged incident of heckling against him at Kannur University, the CM lashed out with a litany of complaints.
“As a governor, he is sworn to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution. The Constitution stipulates that the governor should act with the help and advice of the cabinet but here, he is in an open collision with the government which is anti-constitutional,” Vijayan said. He also criticised Khan’s meeting with RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat.
Also read: Kerala’s demography is changing. But not how politicians are saying