By Inder Jit
(Released on 5 January 1988)
India is at the cross-roads again. Time alone will tell what the New Year will bring — peace and prosperity or more tension and trouble. Two years ago, a wave of optimism swept the country. The outlook was bright and hopeful. On December 31, 1985, I wrote: “We have much to be thankful for. India is stronger, more united and self-reliant than a year ago — both as a democracy and as a country”. Sadly, the outlook has undergone a sea change. Cynicism and despair today sweep the country. Things have started slipping once more.The problem is not one of diagnosis. Nor is it one of finding remedies. It is essentially one of crying a halt to double talk and deception. Character and accepted norms have taken a nose dive. We preach one thing. We practice another. We pledge to fight corruption. But we do precious little to curb or end it. We swear by socialism and simple living. Yet we practise ostentation, denounced by Nehru as vulgar. We talk of strengthening our democracy. However, we do not hesitate to undermine it and to move towards authoritarianism.
Unavoidably, thoughts of my generation turn to Mahatma Gandhi on important national occasions or at the turn of the year. The Mahatma struggled hard to put some character back into us. But we have recklessly cast away whatever little we had gained. Public morality has touched a new low. Appearances were once sought to be maintained, at least outwardly. Even the pretence is now shed. Conscience is no longer troubled in doing something wrong. There is no sense of shame in being found out. Lies are told brazenly and at times even hawked as truth in Parliament — the country’s highest temple of democracy. Might is once again right and, as boldly stated by Mr B.K. Nehru, we have degenerated in one single generation from an honest society into a dishonest one.Statusand position today are determined not by the character, calibre and culture of an individual but by his wealth, howsoever amassed. Unbridled pursuit of money has consequently become the be-all of all activity. India seems to be fast losing its soul in the rat race for material progress and in joining what Yehudi Menuhin aptly described as the suicide gallop of the West.
Nothing reflects the myth and reality of the moment more than what the Prime Minister said at the recent Golden Jubilee Celebrations of the U.P. Assembly in Lucknow and what came to pass during Parliament’s last session. Mr Rajiv Gandhi, who inaugurated the two-day celebrations on December 20, fervently appealed to the people to preserve and strengthen democracy, and at the same time foster and cherish the ideals and principles of the great men who laid the foundation of a free and independent India. “We should constantly make efforts to reaffirm that democracy in the country is alive and well,” he said and added: “Democracy in our country is strong”. But the delicate balance between the legislature, the executive and the judiciary, basic to any healthy democracy and wisely provided for in India’s Constitution, today is more gravely disturbed than ever before. The executive has become all powerful pushing a big question mark over the future of our democracy. Parliament continues to be under major assault and has been largely reduced to a rubber stamp on the strength of a two-thirds majority in the Lok Sabha.
The Direct Tax Laws (Amendment) Bill, 1987, adopted by the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha during the winter session, is a case in point. Importantly, the Bill and the manner in which it was rushed through has brought much-needed criticism not only from a person of the eminence of Mr. Nani Palkhivala but also from a Deputy Leader of the Congress-I Party in Parliament, Mr N.K.P. Salve, who is also the Chairman of the Ninth Finance Commission. MrPalkhivala candidly stated last Friday: “The Bill makes a mockery of Parliamentary democracy… The Bill, which tax experts would take several days to digest, was carried in 15 minutes in the Lok Sabha by a mindless majority, as if the passing of a law by Parliament is an idle formality”. Mr Salve’s reported remarks in the course of an hour-long address at the three-day annual conference of the Indian Economic Association in Jaipur on December 28, were no less an indictment. He disclosed that the amending law was rushed through Parliament “without even the majority of the ruling party MPs knowing much about it!” At one stage, he denounced a “stringent provision” as “a mockery of justice”.
The father of the Constitution, Dr B.R. Ambedkar, seems to have foreseen what might possibly happen before very long. In his masterly speech on the concluding day of the Constituent Assembly, which deserves to be recalled, he said: “Will India lose its independence a second time, through the infidelity and treachery of her own people? Will Indians place the country above their creed or will they place creed above the country? What would happen to her democratic Constitution? Will she be able to maintain it or will she lose it again?” India, he said, was not new to democracy. Time was when India was studded with republics and even where there were monarchies, they were either elected or limited. They were never absolute. Again, it was not as though India did not know Parliaments. Not only were there Parliaments but the Sanghas knew and observed all the rules of parliamentary procedures known to modern times. “They had rules regarding arrangements, rules regarding motions, resolutions, quorum, whip, counting of votes, voting by ballot, censure motion, regularisation, resjudicata etc.”
India had lost this democratic system, Dr Ambedkar added and asked: Will she lose it a second time? Significantly, he answered: “I do not know. But it is quite possible in a country like India where democracy from its long disuse must be regarded as something new — there is a danger of democracy giving place to dictatorship. It is quite possible for this new born democracy to retain its form but give place to dictatorship in fact. If there is a landslide, the danger of the second possibility becoming actuality is much greater.” He next asked: “If we wish to maintain democracy not merely in form but also in fact, what must we do?” The first thing, he said, “we must do is to hold to constitutional methods of achieving our social and economic objectives.” It meant that “we must abandon the method of civil disobedience, non-cooperation and satyagraha.”Where constitutional methods were open, there was “no justification for unconstitutional methods.” These methods were nothing “but the grammar of anarchy.”
Dr Ambedkar added: “The second thing we must do is to observe the caution which John Stuart Mill has given to all interested in the maintenance of democracy, namely, not to lay their liberties at the feet of even a great man or to trust him with powers which enable him to subvert their institutions.”There was nothingin being grateful to a great man. But he quoted the Irish patriot, Daniel O’Connel, to assert: “No man can be grateful at the cost of his honour, no woman can be grateful at the cost of her chastity and no nation can be grateful at the cost of its liberty.” This caution, he pointed out, was far more important in the case of India than of any other country. For in India, bhakti or heroworship was “a sure road to degradation and eventual dictatorship.” The third thing, he said, we must do is to make our political democracy a social democracy as well. Political democracy could not last unless there was at the base a social democracy as well. Social democracy implied recognition of liberty, equality and fraternity as the principles of life.The three formed a union of trinity.
Equally important was what Dr Rajendra Prasad had to say as the President of the Constituent Assembly. “We have prepared a democratic Constitution. But successful working of democratic institutions requires in those who have to work them willingness to respect the viewpoints of others, capacity for compromise and accommodation. Many things which cannot be written in a Constitution are done by conventions. Let me hope that we shall show those capacities and develop those conventions. The way in which we have been able to draw this Constitution without taking recourse to voting and to divisions in lobbies strengthens that hope. Whatever the Constitution may or may not provide, the welfare of the country will depend upon the way in which the country is administered. That will depend upon the men who administer it … If the people who are elected are capable and men of character and integrity, they would be able to make the best even of a defective Constitution. If they are lacking in these, the Constitution cannot help the country…India needstoday nothing more than a set of honest men who will have the interest of the country before them.”
The spreading rot can yet be stemmed. Fortunately, all the national parties stand for democracy. (Some 125 BJP legislators, including MPs, expressed concern at their three-day national conference at Dhanbad on September 30 last at the “steep and continuing decline of parliamentary institutions” and adopted a welcome resolution suggesting steps to strengthen them.) Equally fortunately, we have in the President, Mr R. Venkataraman, and in the Vice President, Dr Shankar Dayal Sharma, Congressmen who are deeply committed to freedom, democracy and Gandhian norms. Dr Sharma’s extempore address at the concluding function of the Golden Jubilee Celebrations in Lucknow, which I was pleased to attend, was like a breath of fresh air. He not only called for strengthening democracy but spelt out the basic democratic norms and practices required for its survival and growth, which few today care to remember. Clearly, there is need to give ourselves a code of conduct and promote democratic thought and temper instead of mere resolutions. An ounce of practice is better than a tonne of precept. —- INFA