India’s Rulers and the Republic

By Inder Jit

(Released on 26 January 1988)

Several sharp questions are being asked at home and abroad as India celebrates its 38th Republic Day with traditional pomp and pageantry. Will Bharat continue to be a free democracy? Or, will our republic degenerate into a feudal, autocratic set-up behind a facade of democratic trappings? India’s top leaders have again reaffirmed on the occasion of the Republic Day their faith in parliamentary democracy and the values advocated by the Father of the Nation. But words and pledges have largely lost their meaning since life has increasingly therefore, persists, against the backdrop of severaldistressing developments during the year and the present environment of deep distrust and suspicion. No one is sure about what anyone might do for the sake of power and pelf at the Centre and in the States, the Constitution and conventions notwithstanding. One thing alone is clear. Our Republic today is in bad shape — worse than ever before. The system demands serious attention and remedy if it is not to collapse.

The founding fathers of our Constitution consciously opted for Parliamentary democracy and provided a delicate balance between the Legislature, the Executive and the Judiciary. But this balance has been upset further during the past year and more. Parliament continues to be under heavy assault. The Lok Sabha has been reduced by the Government to a mere rubber stamp on the strength of a two-thirds majority, ignoring the fact that the Opposition jointly polled over 49 per cent of the votes cast. Nothing reflects this more than the success with which Parliament has been prevented so far from getting at the truth in the Bofors and the Submarine scandals. Ordinance Raj, denounced by free India’s first Speaker, Mavalankar, as undemocratic, has become the order of the day. There are no qualms of democratic conscience in imposing fresh taxes by ordinance, wantonly ignoring the basic democratic principle: no taxation without representation. The Judiciary no longer inspires the respect and confidence it did during the first two decades of freedom. Some of the high judicial functionaries today are seen to even allow the Executive to play its politics through the Courts.

India is a Union of States. But the Centre has increasingly been undermining the federal set-up and functioning more and more as a unitary State, creating unnecessary tension and trouble. The Centre’s latest attitude to the non-Congress-I States and their well-being is a case in point. On December 15, seven Chief Ministers of non-Congress-I States comprising Mr Jyoti Basu (West Bengal), Mr Ramakrishna Hegde (Karnataka), Mr N.T. Rama Rao (Andhra Pradesh), Mr Devi Lal (Haryana), Mr P.K. Mahanta (Assam), MrNripenChakravorty (Tripura) and Mr E.K. Nayanar (Kerala), protested at Calcutta against the “unfair” terms of reference of the Ninth Finance Commission and sought from the Prime Minister an appointment on the subject any time between January 13 and 16. But the meeting did not take place. Worse, the Chief Ministers did not receive any reply to their joint letter seeking the appointment until January 16. In fact, New Delhi responded to the letter only after Mr Hegde had complained earlier on January 15 at a news conference about the Centre’s “increasing arrogance” vis a vis the States and its failure to extend to them even the bare courtesy of an acknowledgement!

The Prime Minister is no doubt frightfully busy. However, theseven non-Congress-I Chief Ministers took care to ask for an appointment almost a month later. The dates — Jan 13 to 16 — were proposed bearing in mind their decision to finalize their stand on the Ninth Finance Commission at Bangalore on January 11 after joining Mr. Hegde a day earlier in celebrating the fifth anniversary of the Janata Government in Karnataka. My enquiries show that Mr Gandhi could have found the time to meet the non-Congress-I CMs if he so wanted. On January 13, he attended a meeting of the Planning Commission in the morning and received the Kerala Chief Minister, MrNayanar, in the evening. On January 14, he addressed the Public Sector Chiefs in the morning and met the Kampuchean Prime Minister in the afternoon. On January 15, he flew to Haridwar in the morning, returned to New Delhi in the afternoon for the Army Day reception and left for Gorakhpur in the evening. On January 16, he flew to Calcutta from Gorakhpur and then proceeded to Shantiniketan. He returned to New Delhi on the night of January 17.

The substance of the complaint of the non-Congress-I Chief Ministers is even more important. The Statement adopted at their Bangalore meeting on January 11 and released thereafter at a Press Conference, where I was present, leaves little doubt on two points. First, the Union continues to encroach on the States autonomy and ride rough shod over their rights and interests. Second, there is urgent need to set up an Inter-State Council as provided for in the Constitution for a free, uninhibited and constructive dialogue between the Centre and the States — a point I have made time and again during the past many years. Mr Hegde, who chaired the news conference in the presence of the other Chief Ministers, helped to clarify matters and set the record straight by making available copies of his lucid and informative speech delivered at the CMs meeting and entitled: A Correct Approach. The speech asserts that while the political set-up provided for the Republic has come to be described as quasi-federal, the Indian Constitution has created a truly federal financial structure. This structure, he says, has been undermined creating major problems for the States.

Not only that. Democracy means rule of the people, by the people and for the people. This is made possible through time-bound elections which are free, fair and without fear. Yet there has been an increasing tendency since 1980 in the ruling Congress-I to avoid inconvenient elections, in sharp contrast to Indira Gandhi’s attitude in 1977, which brought her kudos from the visiting British Prime Minister, Mr Callaghan. The ruling Congress-I refused to hold a poll in Delhi for more than two years after its return to power at the Centre in early 1980 despite the Chief Election Commissioner’s repeated statements that he was ready to hold the poll at short notice. West Bengal’s Marxist regime, headed by Mr Jyoti Basu, however smartly outmanoeuvred New Delhi in 1981 by recommending the State Assembly poll in March 1982. The poll for the Delhi Metropolitan Council has been recently put off again by a year against strong and justified protests from the Bhartiya Janata Party, which is hopeful of victory. Further, there is no sign yet of several overdue byeletions to the Lok Sabha, including one from Allahabad.

One could go on and on. But suffice it to add that the Republic has also been greatly undermined by the manner in which the Centre has misused the provision relating to President’s rule and the appointment of Governors. The founding fathers provided for imposition of President’s rule in the event of breakdown of the Constitution. But it was clearly understood that the Assembly would be dissolved in such an event and fresh elections ordered soonest. This has been conveniently forgotten. Time and again, President’s rule has been kept going indefinitely. What is more, on occasions the Assembly has been kept in “suspended animation” to suit New Delhi’s politics in flagrant violation of both the letter and the spirit of the Constitution. The office of the Governor has also been grossly undermined and reduced to the position of an agent of the Centre, ignoring the fact that a Governor is the Constitutional head of the State and that he has certain basic responsibilities to his people. This may suit the spineless and the undeserving. But it has wrought havoc on the basic framework of our federal system.

How did Nehru visualise the Republic? On January 26, 1950, he said, “What we do with this fruit (of independence) depends upon many factors, the basic factors being those on which Gandhiji laid stress throughout his career —- high character, integrity of mind and purpose, a spirit of tolerance and co-operation and hard work… I can only suggest to our people that we should found our republican freedom on these basic characteristics and shed fear and hatred from our minds and think always of the betterment of the millions of our people.” Later, in a broadcast to the Nation on December 31, 1950, he said: “As Prime Minister, I am the servant of all our people… With the coming of independence, a great responsibility came to all Congressmen. That responsibility was not merely to occupy the seats of authority but… to continue to serve to the best of our capacity and to remember always the lessons that our Master taught us… We seek no power or profit for ourselves but only endeavour to serve our people, that we seek the co-operation of all others and avoid everything that weakens and disrupts…”

Clearly, the Republic today is not what was envisioned. However, all need not be lost provided Mr Rajiv Gandhi is prepared to take inspiration from his “Nana”. Nehru bent overbackwards to ensure the federal character of India’s Constitution and also sought to lay down healthy conventions. For instance, Nehru made it a point to consult Chief Ministers before appointing Governors. No Governor was thus thrust on any Chief Minister as came to be during Indira Gandhi’s time. Nehru was clear that institutions are infinitely more important than any individual, no matter howsoever great. As an ex-pilot, Mr Gandhi must appreciate that what helps a plane to take off, sustain in the air and land safely depends essentially on the health of the institution—the plane. Happily, the Prime Minister has again spoken in welcome Gandhian idiom. But words need to be translated into practice. India is not the Centre alone. Nor is it merely the States. Together, they constitute the Republic. Both must cooperate in harmony if our Republic is to enjoy good health — and forge ahead. — INFA