Except for the throwaway byte he gave television channels on his way out, Kerala Governor Arif Mohammed Khan conducted himself with commendable poise and shrewdness in the Assembly on Wednesday, the first day of the Budget session.
He read out the policy address in its entirety, keeping the government side satisfied, but in no uncertain terms expressed his reservations, too. Governor Khan had his cake and ate it too. Also, he remained composed in the face of shrill Opposition shouts of “go back” and “go read the Constitution”.
In the end, it was the Governor who walked away with all the big prizes. Like a true constitutional head, he kept his Chief Minister happy. Though he could have easily omitted passages he had found objectionable, Governor Khan preferred not to edit a word out of the policy address prepared for him by the state government.
But like a consummate politician, he used the occasion to subtly re-emphasise his disagreement with the government moves on Citizenship Amendment Act. And the Governor, contrary to what the Chief Minister wanted of him, said things not in the cabinet-approved text. This was what Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan's diktat, served in a missive despatched to the Governor's office on January 28 midnight, said “It is requested that the address approved by the council of ministers be read in its entirety sans any additions or deletions.”
The Governor but strayed from the text when he reached the 18th paragraph. “Now I come to para 18 (which speaks about the Assembly resolution that called for the abrogation of the CAA and the suit the government had filed in the Supreme Court). I have been corresponding with the honourable Chief Minister for the last few days. I have my reservations. But I am going to read this para because the honourable Chief Minister wants me to read this, although I hold...,” at which point, there were collective thumps of appreciation on the wooden desks by the ruling members.
The Governor paused and repeated what he thought was perhaps drowned in the applause as if he did not want the members to miss out on what he had to say. “Although I hold the view that this does not come under the definition of policy or programme the honourable Chief Minister himself has said in his letter that this is the view of the government. To honour his wish, I disagree, but to honour his wish I am going to read this para,” he said.
This time his disagreement, though sweetened by his professed respect for the Chief Minister, was aired not from the dais of an ordinary public function, but from the dais of the Assembly Speaker. In fact, the Governor-government face-off began with Arif Mohammed Khan questioning the authority of the Assembly to pass a resolution against an Act passed by the Parliament.
On Wednesday, the Governor took on the legislators in their own lair. With the Opposition boycotting proceedings, there was not a murmur of protest when he expressed his disagreement right inside the Kerala Assembly.
Parliamentary affairs minister A K Balan is now left to clean up the mess. He had a tough time explaining that all that the Governor said on his own would not be part of Assembly records. “Only what we had given him in writing will be in the records,” Balan said.
If the Governor had skipped portions of the address, these would still be considered read. But at this point, no one is sure what happens if the Governor introduces his own sentences. This is for the first time that a Governor had moved away from the prepared policy address.
It is certain that Speaker P Sreeramakrishnan would not allow the Governor's words of disagreement to find its way into official records but the Opposition is also certain to pull up the Pinarayi Government for allowing the Governor to have his say inside the Assembly.
But here was the biggest lottery of them all. Governor Khan, by demonstrating that he had graciously acceded to the wish of the Chief Minister, has ensured that the Opposition resolution demanding his recall would be dumped. The Pinarayi government is now obliged to protect the dignity of the Governor. Had the resolution been taken up, it would have been a most damning slight.
After gaining so much in stature, the Governor allowed his bitterness to get the better of him. When television journalists asked him about the Opposition blockade as he walked out of the Assembly, he said: “It does not become news. I have seen much worse than this when I was a member of the Assembly.”
All of a sudden the Governor looked like an ordinary politician out to settle petty political scores.