February 6, 2001


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Arvind Lavakare

Vitriol from the viceregal lodge of yore

Congressman K R Narayanan, alias President of India, has been at his favourite pastime yet again -- hurling vitriolic barbs at the BJP-led coalition in the capital.

Speaking at the golden jubilee function of the country's Election Commission last month, he crossed swords with Prime Minister Vajpayee's suggestion of a fixed term for the Lok Sabha and the state legislatures. A few days later in his R-Day eve address to the nation, the President hit even harder, as though he were the Congress's appointee at Rashtrapati Bhavan.

Narayanan's blows to the Vajpayee punch bag covered the following areas.

1. Responsibility, not stability, was what the founding fathers had emphasised when they devised the Constitution. Ergo, the poll reform aimed at fixed tenures for elected legislatures -- as contemplated by the review panel of the Vajpayee government -- was taboo.

2. The founding fathers had also the wisdom to reject restricted franchise. Ergo, indirect elections -- mooted in a consultative report of a Constitution Review sub-committee -- smack of the "guided democracy" introduced by Ayub Khan, the father of military rule in Pakistan.

3. Male prejudices were holding up the women's reservation Bill.

4. The current obsession with "development" was causing "untold misery" to the unprivileged tribal population.

The above blows are such as to be necessarily counter-attacked. So here goes.

Responsibility vs Stability. Narayanan is wrong if he construes a fixed tenure for a legislature to be a fixed tenure for Vajpayee's or anyone else's ministry. What reformers intend is to pre-empt a general election every time a particular ministry loses a constitutional vote of confidence. What is intended is that once elections are held, the members of the legislature should hold office for the fixed period of five years while being free to throw out the ruling ministry and instal another from among themselves -- without the arduous and abnormally expensive exercise of fresh elections even before the expiry of the stipulated five-year tenure of the legislature itself.

Germany has such a system. And if Germany, a much smaller but much more literate and prosperous country than India, can have it, why can't we?

As for the "wisdom and foresight" of our founding fathers in emphasising accountability rather than stability, Narayanan should ponder over the view of Subhash C Kashyap. In Reforming the Constitution (UBS Publishers Distributors Ltd, 1992), that renowned constitutional authority wrote about the founding fathers that "…because of the background of the freedom struggle, they were particular about the accountability of the government to the elected representatives of the people. Assured of their safe majorities in the foreseeable future, they seemed to have no worries about the stability aspects." (Emphasis supplied)

Indirect elections and restricted franchise. In invoking Ayub Khan's ghost, the first thing Narayanan forgets is that he himself, President of India, is indirectly elected -- by a college of the country's state legislatures. Yes, the President who lectures to the people of India is not directly elected by those very people.

Narayanan also needs to be reminded that our founding fathers (on whom he showers much praise for their "wisdom") were themselves indirectly elected! Our Constituent Assembly was not set up by the people of India on their own initiative. It was not elected by them either. It was, instead, set up under the terms of the British Cabinet Mission proposals. Its members were indirectly elected by the provincial assemblies that were themselves elected under the Government of India Act, 1935, on a highly restricted franchise covering hardly 11 per cent of the population of British India and surrogates, not of the people of the princely states, but of the princes.

Our Constituent Assembly was thus an elitist body of the chosen, not an assembly of people's representatives. Was that the reason why many leaders of that assembly were foreign-educated and western-oriented? Was that the reason why that assembly consisted of some of the wisest men and women of the land? And was that the reason why, speaking at the All India Congress Committee on July 7, 1946, Jawaharlal Nehru had said: "I do think that some time or other in the future we may have to summon our own revolutionary Constituent Assembly"?

Further, when Narayanan talks of our vast electorate's remarkable maturity in exercising its franchise, he is only repeating the populist jargon that though our people are illiterate, they vote intelligently, freely and with a sense of responsibility. The reality of the scene confronting us -- the communication and criminilisation of politics, the dominance of money and muscle power, the rampant violence and terror during polling time, the vote banks built on religion, caste, sub-caste, region and dialect -- is proof that the so-called "courage and faith" of our founding forefathers behind their sudden introduction of adult franchise without any literacy or other qualifications is all so much poppycock. A 10-year timetable of compulsory education before extending franchise may well have prevented the present trend of MPs and MLAs with criminal records or other dubious "distinctions."

Male prejudices. Inhabiting the secluded viceregal lodge of yore, Narayanan seems to be insulated from reality when blaming India's males for not yet passing the legislation that will ensure a handsome proportion of seats for women in our Parliament and state legislatures.

The fact is that there are very real dimensions of concerns in legislating such a reservation. That Bihar's chief minister is a puppet of her husband is no secret; neither is it a secret that women members of panchayats go according to the back seat driving of their hubbies. Rotation of women-reserved constituencies dents accountability of the representative once she is elected. Mulayam Singh is not entirely wrong when claiming that elitist women will be the main beneficiaries of the reservations contemplated in the Bill as presently introduced in the Lok Sabha. It is because of these very pros and cons of the issue that the Chief Election Commissioner has thought it fit to make his own suggestions that is before all the political parties. Where, then, is the question of male chauvinism and diabolical delay? Remember that ours is a full-fledged democracy, not a protectorate lorded over by an imperial Viceroy in Raisina Hills.

Unprivileged tribals. Clearly, Narayanan is fascinated by the likes of Medha Patkar and Baba Amte who, incidentally, have proved themselves not only as resourceful social activists but also as expert media managers. That is why our President is now giving a boost to lobbies like that of Patkar by cautioning the government against its obsession with "development," forgetting that "accelerated development" is, in fact, the need of all Indians, tribals included. That is why the President forgot to wrap the knuckles of Arundhati Roy & Co for abusing the Supreme Court's judgment in public and thereby lowering the status of our apex judiciary.

That fascination with media managing activists is also why, unknown to many, Narayanan wrote, in December last, a letter to PM Vajpayee seeking the government's advice on the Narmada dam issue as a sequel to Medha Patkar being extended the courtesy of meeting the President of India even after the Supreme Court had ruled against her legal petition against the dam's construction. Now tell me, just what advice can Vajpayee's government give to the President of India on the subject decided by the apex court? With the Narmada Bachao Andolan having filed a review petition before the Supreme Court, all that Vajpayee can say is "The law will take its own course."

But, ah, can't the law itself be changed? Unknown to many, Narayanan, hints a little bird, is wondering whether the President of India can invoke, in the Narmada dam jurisdiction, our Constitution's Schedule V that contains provisions for special treatment of aboriginals living in what are known as Scheduled Areas. One such provision enables a Scheduled Area to be exempted from a law made by Parliament. Considering that the Narmada project encompasses tribal villages numbering 19 in Gujarat, 33 in Maharashtra and some 50 in Madhya Pradesh, the result of invoking this provision on the very future of the Narmada project can well be imagined.

Once more, however, Narayanan seems to have overlooked one crucial point regarding the Constitution created by our founding fathers of "wisdom and foresight." The President of India can, you see, act only on the advice of his Council of Ministers called the Cabinet (Article 74). Moreover, as per Article 74(1), the President is bound to act in every case on the advice of the Cabinet. Thus, if Vajpayee were not the gentleman that he is, he could have by now sent his advice to the President saying: "Lie low."

Arvind Lavakare

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