Big idea for 2014
A senior government official urgently sought me for a meeting. A trifle mystified I met and discussed with him for an hour. He took it on himself to speak for the government. He conveyed the government’s displeasure over my persistent criticism of President Pranab Mukherjee for not asserting himself to enforce the constitution when it is frequently violated across the nation.
On July 25, 2012 the President in his ‘Assumption of Office’ speech had assured the nation that his focus would be to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution. My frequent criticism against him was that as the only official in India’s democratic system under oath to do so he had failed to assert himself to enforce it on several occasions. At the end of our hour long discussion the senior official differed on some things and concurred on others.
Our difference arose over how to implement the Constitution.
The President it seems to me is constrained by the system as it operates. I believe that a distorted interpretation of an explicitly written Constitution cannot debar the President from action sanctioned by the written word. I further believe that if the Supreme Court on occasion has also misinterpreted the Constitution, as it did in a judgment describing the President as a titular head without any basis for doing so, the President by action should contradict the Supreme Court. But the official described eloquently about the practical consequences that would flow if the President acted as I suggested. He said that it would plunge our tottering nation into fatal chaos and instability. He said that armchair criticism might be right in theory but disastrous in real time politics, especially at this most critical state of the nation. I did concede that if a change of system within the parameters of the present Constitution is to be attempted, it must be preceded by a change of prevailing public perception about the President’s role and responsibilities in order to avoid a fatal constitutional crisis. In other words there must be popular public awareness about correctly interpreting the Constitution if practical reform is sought.
That is where discussion ended.
That does not mean that the effort to change the system should be abandoned. President Mukherjee may be content with the status quo. The rest of us are not. There is widespread public recognition that the present system of governance has failed. The situation is ripe for a meaningful initiative. A short while earlier it had been pointed out in these columns that there was absence of any Big Idea to exploit the current situation in which a dangerous political vacuum exists. To further expand on that idea, let it be understood that in the prevailing critical context an idea would not be big if it merely helped change the government. To be big the idea must change the system. After all there is qualitatively nothing to differentiate the government from the opposition except that one is in office and the other is not.
Nor will it serve much purpose to blame the political class for the decline in values and public conduct. Political conduct is conditioned by the political system. The system is influenced by political conduct. There is cause and effect between the two. Over the years that the requisite check and balance mechanism to ensure accountability in our political system was subverted, inevitably permissiveness escalated resulting in a massive decline of performance. That is why our system has ceased to deliver. That is why our nation is in its deepest crisis.
That is why India’s first Republic is virtually dead. That is why the time has come to create a New Republic. The widespread public disenchantment with the prevailing state of affairs renders radical change feasible provided it relates to a credible agenda.
What might that be, and how might it be introduced?
The next general election in 2014 offers the opportunity. Obviously in order to introduce systemic change a mandate from the public would be required before parliament and government can introduce it. This can be accomplished if a political party or a group of parties espouse the Big Idea of ushering in a New Republic by propagating a credible agenda to realize it after assuming power. There is prime need therefore to launch a nationwide movement to introduce systemic reform and usher in India’s New Republic. Fortunately this can be done easily because to create the New Republic we would need to change the system without changing the Constitution. We would need only to amend the Constitution. Ironically, we would not need to introduce new amendments but to scrap many old amendments. If the original un-amended Constitution of 1950 is followed in letter and in spirit our political system would become Presidential.
After the Constitution was framed there were differences voiced publicly between Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and President Rajendra Prasad regarding its interpretation. Nehru as an Anglophile was determined to follow the Westminster parliamentary system of government. President Prasad as an astute lawyer rightly pointed out that our written Constitution did not render the Indian President akin to the British Sovereign. He also questioned the basis on which Westminster conventions could be introduced in our system without sanction by the explicitly written text of our Constitution. Famed jurist and Attorney General MC Setalvad initially supported President Prasad. After Nehru expressed his view Setalvad somersaulted to support Nehru. C. Rajagopalachari with his uncanny practical wisdom offered a simple solution. He suggested that Nehru should become the President leaving Prasad to become the PM! Had he been heeded, history would have been different.
It is a common fallacy among Indian jurists that in order to wrongly support the Westminster system that runs counter to our written Constitution, they frequently quote what any legal luminary might have spoken in the Constituent Assembly debates. No statement by any luminary is relevant or required provided the written text of the Constitution is clear and explicit. Outside opinions are only required if the written text leads to any ambiguity. However, it would not be out of place to quote the late BR Ambedkar who is recognized as the biggest contributor to the framing of the Constitution. On November 4, 1948 Ambedkar said in the Constituent Assembly:
“Under the non-parliamentary system, such as the one in the USA , assessment of the responsibility of the Executive is periodic… It is done by the electorate… In England , where the parliamentary system prevails, the assessment of responsibility of the Executive is both daily and periodic … and far more necessary for a country like India .”
Again, on September 2, 1953 while discussing the role of Governors, Ambedkar said in parliament:
“We have inherited the idea that the Governor has no power at all, that he must be a rubber stamp…If a minister puts up a proposal before the Governor, he has to ditto it. That is the conception about democracy we have developed in this country…my friends tell me that I have made the Constitution. But I am quite prepared to say that I shall be the first person to burn it out.”
In the light of these two statements is there any doubt that Ambedkar envisioned an executive President accountable to parliament on a daily basis? Surely Ambedkar could not have considered the powers of the President any less than those of a Governor who is appointed by the President?
On conclusion therefore what India needs and what political parties might consider is to launch a nationwide movement and obtain public endorsement for its aims. The Big Idea for the movement could rest on two basic goals that would change the fate of this subcontinent.
The first would be to change the system by correctly interpreting and following the original Constitution.
The second would be to create a South Asian Union that unites the peoples of the subcontinent without diluting sovereignties or altering international borders.
Both these goals are feasible. Both these goals are necessary if India and its immediate neighbours want to secure their future.
The present system has failed. India’s first Republic is dying. It is not a utopian dream to reclaim our identity and cultural nationalism by establishing a South Asian Union, or to reclaim the integrity of our democratic system by correctly interpreting and implementing our Constitution. It is a dire necessity. The survival of India’s unity and democratic system depend on it.