Another sting operation has exposed crime and corruption among politicians of various parties! The comforting refrain ' that India always muddles through ' is sounding increasingly thin. Our dreams of becoming a global power can be shattered by collapsing governance. The emergence of a genuine national alternative has become therefore a survival imperative. The alternative does not necessarily imply new people. It demands new thinking. It requires a new policy agenda.
Last week the CPI (M) released its election manifesto. It must have pleased Dr Manmohan Singh. The manifesto lauds all FDI projects pursued by the Chief Minister. These include modernization of Calcutta airport, a new airport, and a new township constructed at Rajahat. Good or bad, how is the CPI (M) different from other national parties? Opposition to America and a blind spot on China do not make a genuine alternative.
The great debate between Left and Right has always been unreal in India. The real debate is between centralization and decentralization of power. And the debate is perennial. It started with Krishna and Arjuna in the Bhagwat Gita. In history, it differentiated Ashoka from Chandragupta. In our own times it distinguished Sardar Patel from Nehru, Jayaprakash Narain from Indira Gandhi. In truth, both the consolidation of power and its dispersal have merit determined by current realities.
Today Indians need genuine self-rule. This forms the core of democracy. But in the name of democracy they get unaccountable bureaucracy. An alternative policy agenda is needed before a genuine national alternative can be created. The broad outlines of one alternative agenda can be offered, though space constraints prevent detailed presentation. This deals with governance reform and economic reform. Consider them in that order.
To reform governance certain systemic defects need to be removed constitutionally. These defects facilitate official crime and corruption. The Constitution will have to be amended following its correct interpretation.
The biggest defect is that the powers of the executive and legislature are not sufficiently separated to ensure accountability. Unless the government decides otherwise Parliament can discuss executive action only after it is taken. The recent demand of the CPI (M) and BJP that government should discuss all important issues in Parliament before formulating policy makes nonsense of the separation-of-powers principle.
The President of India should, instead, be provided a role commensurate with his mandate. Mr TN Seshan's tenure as Chief Election Commissioner brought out the fact that the Election Commission (EC) was not accountable to the Union Cabinet. The government itself was an interested party in electoral disputes. The EC therefore became accountable to the President. Clearly, in dealing with the EC the President could not be bound by the advice of the cabinet. The recent role of the Governor in Bihar has persuaded constitutionalists to reappraise the powers of the Governor. If they start doing this they would have also to reappraise the powers of the President.
The President, as in the case of the EC, can oversee other constitutional bodies too -- such as the Judicial Commission, the Human Rights Commission and the Minority Commission. The CBI could also be made a constitutional body accountable to the President. If this were done it would not require cabinet clearance to investigate or prosecute ministers and officials. It would require clearance by the President. Such separation of powers would ensure accountability, and help eradicate official crime and corruption.
Another major Constitutional reform should deal with decentralizing power. The present goal of Panchayati Raj remains hollow despite the exertions of Mr Mani Shankar Aiyer. As Harold Laski pointed out, the real exercise of power resides in the coercive power of the state. In other words, unless the law and order machinery is under control of the executive, the executive cannot exercise real power.
Federalism could be introduced by creating a five-tier system of governance. The five tiers would be federal, state, district, block and primary. Each district would conform to each parliamentary constituency. Each block would conform to each assembly constituency. The primary units would be the rural village and the urban colony covering a fixed number of polling booths. The three tiers below the state tier would each have its own elected council and executive committee. The area MP could preside over the district council, the area MLA over the block council, and an elected executive over the primary urban or rural council. Following the federal principle, executive powers related to problems faced solely by those residing in an area would devolve on their own elected body.
District tiers could have their own universities and medium of instruction. The residents of each district would have a say over use of natural resources in their area. The executive of each tier of governance, including the primary tier, would have control over the appropriate level of the law and order machinery. The primary unit, whether urban or rural, would be empowered with a new tier of the law and order machinery accountable to its executive. It would be much like the village chowkidar of old. He could be hired and fired by the primary executive. He could be promoted to higher tiers of the existing law and order machinery.
The elections to all bodies of the five tiers would be simultaneous, mandatory, time-barred, and under the authority of the Central Election Commission. Each higher tier would be empowered to curtail its immediately lower tier if law or executive brief were transgressed.
The States would interact in the activated Inter-State Council empowered to deal with intra-State and Centre-State relations. The President with an electoral mandate derived from Parliament and all State assemblies would be the natural choice to preside over the Inter-State Council.
Secondly, consider economic reform. In economic policy two issues have hogged attention: infrastructure and privatization. In popular perception infrastructure relates mainly to airports, harbours and highways. But the infrastructure requiring urgent attention is rural. Rural roads, healthcare, water management for potable and irrigation purposes, literacy, electric power: these need impetus. A Peoples' Plan focusing on rural infrastructure could generate enormous rural employment. It would exploit our greatest natural resource ' human talent.
The growth of the global corporate world has vindicated the worst fears of Karl Marx. The greed and relentless dehumanization of capitalism threaten humankind. But nationalized industry has failed as a model. The best antidote to capitalism would be the creation of a Workers' Sector different from both the public and private sectors. The Workers' Sector would be similar to cooperatives that ensure industrial democracy. Decades ago India's leading politicians toyed with this idea but then abandoned it. Amul and Mother Dairy offer proof of the idea's potential. The Gujarat Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation (GCMMF) controls these units. The Chairman, Mr V. Kurien said: "We can beat the Multi-National Corporations (MNCs) in milk products! GCMMF is India's largest food products marketing organization with annual sales turnover of Rs 2,750 crore. In competition with the best MNCs and domestic companies, it has emerged as the market leader in all dairy product segments including ice creams, earlier dominated by Hindustan Lever. We have half the overheads and expenses of MNCs and give the largest share of the consumer's rupee to milk producers.' Amul apart, Tata Tea Plantation provides another shining example.
When disinvesting an industrial enterprise the first option should be given to workers to make it part of the Workers' Sector. Only if they refuse, might private tenders be invited. Let the Workers' Sector compete with private and public sectors in fair competition. Performance would decide which model eventually prevails to become dominant. The wide ownership base of Workers' Sector units would ensure much greater social responsibility than exhibited by MNCs.
These are stray ideas, true. Based on them, a practical alternate agenda should not be difficult to summon. But its implementation would require political will. Any takers in India?