The Supreme Court struck down the amended law by which the All India Medical Institute (AIMS) Director Dr Venugopal had been removed from office. The amendment was motivated to target one individual, Dr Venugopal. Health Minister Ramadoss was not getting on with him. The Supreme Court ordered the reinstatement of Dr Venugopal. This setback to the UPA government followed almost immediately the controversy involving the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) interceding in a ministry's affairs in an effort to help the business interests of Cabinet Minister Baalu's son.
The UPA government's tenure has been struck by one major scandal after another. Earlier, the cabinet's order to dissolve the Bihar assembly had been ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. Then there was the Amended Office of Profit Law which is being challenged for its constitutionality in the Supreme Court. The arguments have been heard and the judgment is reserved. Along with numerous other scandals, including the UN's Food for Oil programme and the closure of a case against Mayawati when it suited the Congress, the record of this government has been exceptionally tainted.
Nevertheless, this tattered, incoherent and ineffective apology of a government survives. Two reasons might be cited for this. First, there is on the horizon no other party or group of parties that offers the prospect of significantly better governance. Secondly, there is unspoken sympathy for the government's plight as it wrestles with a chaotic coalition. The logic is that if this government were to observe norms, it would fall. And if it falls, no better alternative is available. Therefore, as democratic norms continue to plunge, the tolerance level of the nation continues to rise.
Meanwhile, the credibility of major institutions has never been so abysmally low since 1947. The police, the bureaucracy, the judiciary, the polity and the media are all viewed by the public with skepticism and disbelief. Large areas of the rural interior have been virtually abandoned by the administration. Result: Maoism, organized local crime, and disorder prevail. Foreign-aided separatist insurgency continues to persist in several border states. Despite this, there is no air of impending crisis in the nation.
To some extent, the economy may offer an explanation: the vocal middle class is today enjoying consumerist spending as never before. Also, the diversions provided by Bollywood and cricket appear to have dulled all sense of crisis. The elite appear to view life complacently through drowsy, half-closed eyes. Is this scenario too alarmist? However, history tells us that a society in decay continues to drift until it is jolted by an event that exposes its hollow assumptions. In 1905 tiny Japan defeated mighty Russia to expose the decay of the Tsarist regime, ushering in the start of a revolution. Is India waiting in similar fashion to be rudely awakened by an event? What can be done to avoid this possibility?
First, let us recognize that the system has failed. Dozens of parties coalesce to rule the nation. Result: the fragile government is virtually paralyzed, unable to pursue policy or agenda with purpose. Secondly, the degenerate electoral process, relying on money power and muscle power, precludes hope of change in the foreseeable future. In other words, the system does not deliver. This could be because the Constitution is not suitable; or because Indian politicians are incapable of implementing it; or because of a mixture of these factors. To rectify the long term situation the Constitution needs to be reappraised. In the short term, politicians need to put on their thinking caps to find ways of ensuring stability and coherence of government.
India is said to have the world's longest written Constitution. It has been hailed for its sagacity. Yet it has been amended 94 times. Why so many amendments? Was the Constitution so inadequate that it failed to anticipate changing conditions which necessitated the amendments? Or were our politicians so opportunistic as to amend the Constitution whenever the prevailing law created an impediment to their designs? The best way to clarify this would be to reappraise one by one the 94 Amendments of the original Constitution. If the original Constitution were read with mind uncluttered by irrational preconceived notions sanctified by tradition, the political system that it recommends would be seen in an altogether new light. In the event, India's political system could change while its Constitution remained intact. There seems little point in recalling the findings of the Constitution Review Commission set up by the NDA government. Harassed by opposition parties of the day, that Commission failed to address the main weakness of the prevailing political system, which arises from the relationship between the executive and the legislature. The vociferous opposition to a constitution review, voiced by the Left at that time, may be recalled with amusement by contrasting it with its current approach. Just because the West Bengal Governor switched off lights in his residence for two hours to show sympathy for the plight of Kolkata citizens, the CPI-M leaders actually suggested that the Governor's post be abolished!
There is a simple remedy, if political parties would accept it, to acquire stability in the more immediate context. All that the parties need to do is to convert their coalitions into federations for electoral purposes. This would require pre-poll alliances that contest Lok Sabha elections under a common minimum programme and a common symbol. The candidates of each state might be selected by the allied parties, which would retain their identities. Despite their dual loyalties, elected MPs of the federations would be unable to blackmail the government or the federal opposition because of the anti-defection law. In other words, commitment to an agenda and to the observance of democratic norms would be compelled through discipline enforced by the anti-defection law.
There are huge challenges and great opportunities that await India just around the corner. To address them effectively a stable, purposive government is required. Its performance would be crucial. Will India's leaders wake up to this in good time?