Showing posts with label Democracy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Democracy. Show all posts

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Murder of Democracy

Legend has it that Bombay was given away as dowry for a Portuguese princess when she married an English prince in 1661. Thus was Bombay or at least a part of the original seven islands that comprised the city was transferred to the English. Those were colonial days during which the Portuguese, the French and the English were vying with each other to establish empires in the East.

But, would a democracy in the first decade of the twenty first century carve out a new state as a birthday gift? It would seem to be so! Haven’t the Indians willy-nilly brought back a type of colonial rule about sixty years after establishing a republic? Isn’t it ironic that they did so, especially because the republic was established after a fight with a colonial power for about sixty years?      

Things have begun to go wrong since P. Chidambaram made the fateful announcement that ‘the process to carve out India’s 29th state would soon begin’ on the chilly midnight of December 9, 2009. The issue had been contentious and saw see-saw battles depending on which politician was out of work, for forty years till it was renewed afresh in 2001. The demand for creating the Telangana state was only partly conceded by the Congress party just before the 2004 election when it agreed to set up a new ‘states reorganization commission’. It was a political ploy to trump the Telugu Desam. The party did nothing to keep its promise of even setting up a new ‘states reorganization commission’ for the next five years.

Chidambaram’s announcement on the chilly December midnight caught everyone by surprise. If it buoyed the spirits of the protagonists of the new state, the events that followed the announcement sent shivers down the spines of its antagonists. They too did not contend with the amount of public anger that surfaced in the thirteen Seema-Andhra districts. Some political analysts saw that there was more than meets the eye in Sonia’s ‘birthday gift’ that Chidambaram meted out. On the face of it, it was to arouse grateful feelings in the minds of the people of the new state for her forever. As a politician from a neighbouring southern state – one which competes with Andhra Pradesh for resources and in development – Chidambaram might have had more in his mind.

As things stand today, Andhra Pradesh shares the fourth spot with Bengal in the number of members it sends to parliament (after Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Maharashtra) and is ahead of the other three southern states. After the division, Chidambaram’s state, Tamil Nadu, with thirty nine members packs more punch and power in the parliament. As a columnist in The Hindu opined, the group of ministers (GoM) constituted to chart a course for the division might have had the same ulterior motives to ensure it as they are from the southern states and Maharashtra which compete with Andhra Pradesh for resources and in development. They never set foot on the soil of the state nor did they deliberate much. The length of all their meetings could be measured in minutes, not even hours, let alone days! They did their job much as Cyril Radcliffe did some sixty years before, in 1946-47, chopping states to create India and Pakistan, drawing their lines on a map! The GoM did its job with appalling perfunctoriness. The entire sordid drama scripted from above and enacted by the servile GoM appears to have been done with a single objective: contriving electoral arithmetic to somehow bring back the Congress party to power and anoint the party’s Crown Prince as the King Emperor!

The principal opposition party has expressed its willingness to go along in the division of the state. It too might have had its cynical electoral calculations. The moot question is why was the Congress party in such an unseemly hurry to ramrod its way through parliament? Could it not have allayed at least some of the fears that the antagonists of the division harbour in their minds? The British drew lines in the sand (or on maps) to create several states when they abdicated their empire triggering conflicts worldwide, conflicts which are not resolved till today.

The blame for the ugly scenes that the Lok Sabha saw last Wednesday – described by the Speaker as a blot on our democracy - must fully lay with the Congress party. It was quite obvious that it was playing to a script that in the end murdered democracy in the nation’s vaunted legislative body. Parliamentary Affairs Minister Kamal Nath allegedly arranged about a hundred MPs who have nothing to do with Andhra Pradesh to block the protesters. Would any democratically minded government resort to such a nefarious game of fixing parliamentary proceedings? The government could have brought all stakeholders on to a common forum and fecilitated a healthy debate that would have settled the issue. But it didn’t! Instead, it reduced parliamentary proceedings to an ugly charade. 

The presiding officer has an onerous responsibility now to restore at least a part of the dignity that the parliament shed, by instituting an impartial enquiry, to identify the culprits who reduced proceedings of the nation’s highest legislative body to a gangland brawl, and punish them. Speakers (or presiding officers) of legislative bodies in evolved democracies renounce allegiance to the parties to which they belong, on election to the great office. They never take sides. One hopes India as a ‘vibrant democracy’ – as it is often described - will not find itself wanting in such high values. Fortunately the job of the Speaker or any committee she constitutes is made simpler by modern technology. The proceedings of the house are reportedly monitored by twelve movie cameras. All that is needed to be done is to review their footage – impartially ­- and make the report public. That alone is the test of a mature democracy. Will India stand it?   

Friday, June 17, 2011

UPA’s NAC Rule Dictatorship In Disguise?

Democracy is a funny thing. When you don’t have it, you yearn for it. When you have it, you are not happy with it. True. India fought for nearly a century to attain independence from the British. Yet, ask anyone who was born at about the time of independence and they would remember their elders yearning for the “good old” British days when things were better! 

In 1975 when Indira Gandhi imposed an “internal emergency”, for reasons that have nothing to do with any internal disturbance, there were sections of the society—not affected by midnight knocks and summary arrests—who welcomed it, at least in its initial stages. Their reasoning was, there was discipline in government offices and “trains were running on time”. It could not be dismissed out of hand as silly, for trains used to run so late that if a train ran two to three hours behind schedule, it raised no eyebrows. In coastal Andhra Pradesh there used to be a joke about the Bokaro Express running between Bokaro in Jharkhand and Chennai (then Madras). If it was on time, so went the joke that people said “it was probably the previous day’s train!” There was an instance, when a gentleman was asked if his train was on time, he replied “Yes it was on time; just thirty minutes late.” Funnily enough, “trains running on time”, was also one of the reasons officially adduced to justify the internal emergency. 

During the nineteen-month internal emergency, Indira’s government used to issue large advertisements in newspapers, with the caption, “Let us consolidate the gains of emergency”, whatever it meant. 

Coming back to democracy, in essence, it is rule by consensus. In India’s case the consensus was codified into a “Constitution”, to draft which, many wise men expended hundreds of hours; each clause of which was then debated and finally adopted. The process took nearly three years, and produced the longest written constitution in the world, which was expected to accommodate the divergence and plurality of the constituents of the nation. However, codifying principles of governance is one thing and following it in letter and spirit is another.

Leaders, however democratically minded they are, do not like to be tied down to a code of conduct, however sacrosanct it may be, not necessarily because they are selfish or venal but because they have such immense confidence in their wisdom and their ability to determine what is good for the general public. Therefore, no sooner than the ink on the draft was dry India’s nascent “Constitution”, than its “altruistic” leaders began amending it. The “Constitution” was adopted on January 26, 1949 and the first amendment was carried out on June 18, 1951 barely fifteen months later. It was, incidentally, moved in the parliament by Jawaharlal Nehru, “the epitome of democratic values” and was intended to, among other things, “place reasonable restrictions on the citizen’s right to freedom of speech and expression”! 

From then on, whenever the rulers found it difficult to adhere to the code of conduct prescribed by the “Constitution”, they have been amending it with gay abandon. The amendments include the thirty-ninth, passed on August 10, 1975 which retro-actively placed the election of the “empress of emergency” above judicial scrutiny.  Of course, an amendment, in constitutional parlance means that “the said clause shall be deemed always to have been enacted” – in the amended form.    

In addition to amending the “Constitution” whenever required to suit the express purposes of the executive, it has been resorting to other means, which, in so far as they were not mentioned in the “Constitution” may be termed extra-constitutional. Jawaharlal Nehru’s government resorted to this course of action in right earnest in by establishing the “Planning Commission” in March 1950. The “Planning Commission” website tells you its history, but does not tell you whether it was constituted under an act of parliament, if any.  It lists its members but does not tell you how they were selected. So how do they get into it in the first place, in a system in which there is a due selection process even for recruiting the lowest cadres of employees? Based on the whims and fancies of the government in power? The “Planning Commission” we are told, functions under the overall guidance of the “National Development Council”. Now, what the hell is, “National Development Council”? However, we are told that the lofty objective of the “Planning Commission”, functioning under the Chairmanship of the Prime Minister, was to “promote a rapid rise of the standard of living of the people by efficient exploitation of the resources of the country”. How well did it do so in the next fifty years needs no elaboration! Is it not possible for the Finance Ministry to perform the functions of the “Planning Commission” and any residual functions relating to other ministries transferred to them? 

Fast forward to 2004 and we come to ‘Chapter II’ of governance by executive fiat. This time around, the institution of the “Chairperson of the UPA” is created. Though not stated, its intent was to bypass national resentment and objections to a foreigner becoming the Prime Minister of India. The new institution of “Chairperson of the UPA” wields untrammelled power—without responsibility—and, in fact functions as the Super Prime Minister. The Prime Minister was nominated by her and is all but a figurehead. The “Chairperson of the UPA” is neither responsible nor answerable to the parliament, the supreme political body of directly and indirectly elected representatives in the country. 

In 2009, the “National Advisory Council” (NAC) was established as an—hold your breath—"interface with civil society”. This time around we moved a step ahead because unlike the “Planning Commission”, and the invisible “National Development Council”, the duties of which were merely confined to executive inputs to the government, the NAC would provide “policy and legislative inputs”.  We are told that the NAC “comprises distinguished professionals drawn from diverse fields of developmental activity”. We are, as before, not told whether there was any due process by which these “distinguished professionals” were selected but that through them, the government will have “access not only to their expertise and experience but also to a larger network of Research Organisations, NGOs and Social Action and Advocacy Groups”. 

NAC, the Super Prime Minister's kitchen cabinet, which in fact is its latent function, comprises of a motley crowd of left-illiberal intellectuals and sundry individuals who represented non-Hindu religious interests. It derives its power (again without responsibility or answer-ability to the parliament) from the Super Prime Minister but unlike the “Planning Commission”, whose sole function is allocation of resources, it drafts legislation. In view of its status in the scheme of things, its arbitrary nature of functioning is not questioned nor can be questioned by the sycophantic ruling party or its coalition partners. However, the silence of the opposition in not questioning it or demanding its abrogation is strange. 

Ever since its institution, the NAC got down to business without losing time and what gems did it draft? The first one was to institute the ‘Mahama Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme’ (MNREGS). There is some criticism that the MNREGS or MNREGA as it is generally known, has been generally doling out wages for unproductive work and spawning governmental corruption. In rural areas farmers complain of shortage of labour because of it. Therefore, agriculture which forms the mainstay of our economy is suffering. So is the burgeoning construction industry. 

As is clear from its many reviews, the Prevention of Communal and Targeted Violence Bill (PCTVB), drafted by the NAC is totally one-sided and dangerous in the extreme if ever it becomes an act. Under one of its far-reaching clauses, for example, if a Hindu male sexually assaults a woman of the minority community it is “rape”. But if a male member of a minority community sexually assaults a woman of the Hindu community is not “rape”! A small—even informal—formation of Hindus is an “association” whereas a “group” could only be of members of a minority community. These definitions assume importance because under the proposed act members of an “association” can only be assaulters and members of a “group” are always victims. There is no bail available for offences cognizable under the act and the onus of proof is on the accused, not on the prosecution. A government official can be punished for “dereliction of duty” by imprisonment of up to two years if he/she does not act on a complaint. You can imagine the consequences of such a provision.  By the way, under the act, the executive has judicial powers too.

Another instance of over-reach by the NAC is the recent drafting and promulgation of internet regulation rules in April 2011.[1] The entire exercise seems to have been done keeping in view only one small community, viz. the pejoratively called “Internet Hindus”. It is only because of its intolerance of criticism that the ruling cabal has gone to great lengths to control internet content. It flies in the face of the vaunted “freedom of expression”. If this isn't an undemocratic act, one doesn't know what else is! To give two instances of how the rules can be misused: Seema Mustafa could call a duly elected Chief Minister, the “ugly Indian” in print, but to describe her as a “Pakistani Agent” on the internet would be an offence. She can complain and the service provider should have to remove the offensive content. Similarly, Vir Sanghvi could describe the duly elected Chief Minister, a “mass murderer” in print, but to call him a “political prostitute” on the internet is an offence.

Yes, political parties do have ideological coteries but these do not have a direct hand in governance. Only in communist regimes do they overrun parliaments. For example, in the erstwhile USSR, the CPSU, the Politburo and the Central Party Presidium were more powerful than the “Duma”, which was a rubber-stamp parliament.  The creation of the two institutions discussed above appears to be a throwback to the USSR type of governance. The USSR has abrogated such institutions as anachronistic. But we seem to have put the clock back.

In western democracies there are such bodies but they function in an open and transparent manner and are answerable not only to the executive, but even the parliament. For example, the appointment of members to the “Council of Economic Advisors (CEA)” by the US President, need ratification by the Senate.  The role of the CEA is limited to provide advice to the executive. It does not draft legislation. 

Is the UPA’s NAC rule, dictatorship in disguise?

[1]The Supreme Court mercifully struct down the relevant Sec. 66A of the IT act in March 2015. See “SC strikes down Section 66A of IT Act, says it violates freedom of speech”, “India Today”, March 24, 2015.