Tamil Nadu Governor R.N. Ravi appears to be on a mission to demonstrate his tenuous grasp of the Constitution. In an action without precedent — and, as it turns out, without forethought — he sent out a communication to the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, M.K. Stalin, that he had dismissed V. Senthilbalaji, a State Minister without Portfolio, who is in hospital and in judicial custody. Within hours, on the advice of the Union Home Minister, he again wrote to the Chief Minister that he was holding the order in abeyance and was, instead, seeking the opinion of the Attorney General of India. One would have thought that a Governor expected to abide by constitutional norms would have obtained appropriate legal opinion prior to his drastic action. That Mr. Ravi had to be advised to seek ex post facto legal opinion reflects poorly on his decision-making prowess. His letter says he was invoking Articles 153, 163 and 164 of the Constitution, which deal with the executive power of the State being vested in the Governor, his acting on the Cabinet’s aid and advice, and the appointment of the Chief Minister and other Ministers. The constitutional scheme set out in these articles gives no room for doubt that the Governor has no discretion in the matter of appointing and removing ministers, which is under the Chief Minister’s domain.
Mr. Ravi has sought to justify the extraordinary action by referring to the allegations against the Minister and the Supreme Court of India’s observations in a recent order. However, any call to remove a Minister is an appeal to moral sense rather than a legal requirement. For the Governor to remove someone unilaterally on the ground that his earlier counsel to drop a Minister went unheeded is nothing but a constitutional misadventure. It will be desirable if Ministers facing charges quit on their own, or they are removed by the respective Chief Ministers. In the past, the framing of charges in the trial court has led to Ministers being removed, but it remains a moral high ground, and not a mandatory feature of the constitutional system. Few would disagree that the charges of bribery that Mr. Senthilbalaji faces, dating back to his stint in the erstwhile All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam regime, and allegations of laundering the proceeds are serious enough to merit his stepping down until he is cleared of charges. Mr. Stalin could have acted on his own to avoid facing the charge that he is providing a “shield of office” for the Minister to protect himself or that the Minister’s presence in the Cabinet is obstructing the due process of law. But nothing can excuse the Governor’s misadventure.