The Indian Republic

The Reality 

Countless people continue to reside in innumerable buildings that are not maintained, that have crumbling brickwork and damaged foundations. One day the inmates are caught unawares. The building collapses over their heads to cause death and destruction. Is this the state of the Indian Republic? Step back from the immediate and consider dispassionately its condition. Appraise its system and its structure. 

First, the system. The bedrock of democracy is the rule of law. Today law and order is in such disarray that more and more people are taking the law into their own hands. They commit violence, public lynching and even terrorism. One Mumbai victim was lynched for being North Indian! The police are corrupt, inefficient and demoralized. But more serious than police inefficiency is its loss of credibility. Even when police action is comparatively effective it is viewed with total skepticism by the public. In the recent Jamia Millia encounter not only was the police disbelieved even though one police officer was killed eight hours after he was shot; there was persistent denial that any of the accused could have had terrorist links despite a mass of accumulating evidence. 

Forget members of the lay public. Consider how senior political leaders of Bihar behaved when a distraught youth wildly shooting in a bus full of passengers was injured by the police in return fire to die in hospital. The Bihar CM demanded a judicial inquiry because the youth was killed and not captured alive. A union cabinet minister described the police action as brutal murder. Have these worthies who rule us lost their mental balance? When the youth was wildly shooting and threatening people, captured on camera, did the police know whether he was alone or there were others? Whether he had one gun or two? Or how many cartridges he had? Could they ignore the safety of other passengers ' one of whom incidentally was wounded? If police marksmanship was not effective in disarming the youth without serious injury, at best an internal police inquiry might be held to suggest improvements in performance. The Bihar leaders railed against Raj Thackeray, the RSS and the BJP. Let them do that by all means, even more than has been done. But why blame and demoralize the police? Especially when the honorable cabinet minister maintains a remarkably dishonorable silence over the conduct of the UPA Maharashtra government and the UPA Union government, of which he is a minister. The truth is these miserable apologies for political leaders seek electoral advantage even in such tragic events by inflaming parochial passions. 

Consider the judiciary. The very fact that jurists from the Chief Justice of India down are wrestling with the problem of making judges more accountable to end corruption in the courts exposes the depressing reality. It is safe to say that current public opinion has such little faith in the system of justice that democracy is rendered into farce. 

Consider Parliament. If it meets for only one month instead of four, it is a public blessing. Because when it does meet there is neither effective monitoring of the political situation, nor worthwhile debate on policy, nor even carefully considered legislation. There is shouting, invective and walkouts. There is revelation of crime committed by MPs themselves. Nobody, inside or outside Parliament, from the Speaker down, believes that Parliament is in the slightest manner fulfilling its required role. 

Consider the Executive. The Prime Minister proudly acknowledges that final decisions rest with an extra constitutional authority. The Leader of the Opposition is openly subservient to an extra constitutional authority functioning from Nagpur. In the UPA government cabinet ministers publicly air their differences while the PM watches helplessly, keeping one eye on 10 Janpath. While laws are brazenly flouted by politicians the government remains a mute spectator. Forget the intemperate illegal statements mouthed in Mumbai. In the last UP government a minister had actually announced a reward of Rs 50 lakhs for the head of a small time editor who had reproduced an offending cartoon of the Prophet. Till this day he not only roams free, but is sought to mobilize votes. The present CM of UP arbitrarily bars black clothing for spectators in cricket matches, prevents rival politicians from participating in university functions, and attempts scuttling approved development projects in constituencies of political rivals. These are random examples. There are innumerable instances that can be summoned to indicate that virtually no law exists in the land except when it is invoked through threat or bribe to harass or intimidate inconvenient opposition. The PM remains impotent. The President will not intervene. She has no power beyond her perceived role of merely taking the salute on Republic Day. Whatever happened to her solemn oath of office to preserve and protect the Constitution and law'? 

The system of the Indian Republic is therefore in complete shambles. What about its structure? Little is needed to demonstrate that it is even more fragile. A long swathe of spreading land mass known as the Red Corridor is under control of Maoists where the writ of the government does not exist. There are armed insurgencies and separatist movements in Assam, Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram that have continued for decades. There is a violent separatist movement alongside peaceful demands for autonomy in Kashmir that have continued since Independence. There continues to simmer disaffection in Tamil Nadu over our government's policies regarding the plight of Tamils in neighboring Sri Lanka. And now, of course, there is the new divide ignited by politicians of Mumbai that is rapidly escalating into hostility between different states of the Union, between different regions of the country. 

On any sober reckoning the system and structure of the Indian Republic faces a severe, unrecognized, unattended crisis. It is a crisis that requires just one serious jolt to bring down the Republic like an old dilapidated building. Serious thought therefore is required to devise measures that preserve and strengthen the Republic. What might those be? 

The Remedy 

When both system and structure of the Indian Republic are tottering it is time for a searching diagnosis. For that one must go back to basics. Why is Indian democracy collapsing? Why is the structure of the Indian Union beginning to fall apart? Both failures stem from our colonial mindset. One must begin from the start of Independence. Understand the underlying causes of the failures. Then seek remedies. Consider the system, then the structure. 

From its inception the Indian Constitution was misinterpreted because of our colonial mindset. Pandit Nehru, besotted with British democracy, tried to impose its Westminster model on India's democracy. The jurists, besotted with Pandit Nehru, fell in line against their better judgment. Both Nehru and the jurists in the process distorted the meaning and intent of our written Constitution which was an eminently workable document. Ambedkar himself was credited with the view that multilingual, sub continental India required a system more akin to America than to Britain. Our written Constitution clearly lays down a presidential system of government that seems closer to the French than to the British system. By reducing the President to a ceremonial head the check on the Union government against adopting a partisan, undemocratic approach to the States disappeared. The diminution of the President's role destroyed the spirit of federalism. Basic democratic principles were violated, especially after multi-party coalitions started to govern the nation. The inability of legislators to observe the nuanced conventions of Britain's unwritten constitution completed the wrecking job. Had Pandit Nehru become India's first President instead of Prime Minister, our system and history would have been different. So how can the system be retrieved now? 

Glib proposals for a new Constitution may be ignored. There is no constitutional provision to legitimize a new constituent assembly. Only a coup or a constitutional collapse can usher in a new constitution. The existing Constitution therefore must be made effective through its correct interpretation. How can that be immediately achieved? A start can be made by President Pratibha Patil discharging her responsibilities as outlined in the Constitution and not as perceived by tradition. It may be argued that she was not elected for an interventionist role. In the light of current realities she should act regardless of that. In future people will know the implications of selecting presidential candidates. 

Article 53 (1) states that executive power is vested in the President which may be exercised 'either directly or through officers subordinate' to the President. This Article is in no way negated by Article 74 (1) even after the 43rd Amendment which enjoins upon the President to act in accordance with the advice tendered by the Council of Ministers. There are duties and occasions when such advice is neither sought nor can be tendered. Instead, invoking Article 78 (a) President Patil can order the Prime Minister to regularly each week communicate to her 'all decisions of the affairs of the Union and proposals for legislation'. She can invoke Article 78 (c) and ask the cabinet to consider whether the rule of law has broken down in Maharashtra and Bihar due to the killings and the retaliatory destruction of public property, and to submit to her the report of their findings. She can invoke Article 86 (1) and (2) to address both Houses of Parliament and urge Members to review the Constitution in light of the current crisis and evolve appropriate reform. She can urge them to give substance to the unimplemented Article 263 and set up a permanent Inter-State Council which may settle disputes between States, or between States and the Centre, or between one State and the Centre. Clearly such a Council renders the President, as the only authority elected by Parliament and all the State assemblies, as the appropriate person to head it. Such an activist role by the President, which is in full conformity with the provisions of our written Constitution, would in the long term give impetus to a review of all the amendments to the Constitution that need to be scrapped. One hopes that President Patil will act sooner rather than later. One hopes that she is not deterred by the flawed Supreme Court judgment in the Shamsher Singh versus the State of Punjab case (1974) which ignored the text of our Constitution to arbitrarily rule that in our system the President is a constitutional head while real executive power vests only in the cabinet. 

What ails the structure of the Indian Republic? The absence of an effective Presidential role, and the power of a coalition Prime Minister who does not have the democratic mandate to rule certain States, have destroyed federalism. The Partition of British India was horribly flawed. It created two structures unitary in spirit that ignored the ground realities in States speaking different languages having powerful sub-cultures. Tensions, demands for autonomy and separatism were bound to grow. The absence of a legitimate authority to intervene effectively in inter-State disputes encouraged regional hostilities. Both India and Pakistan suffer acutely from this problem. The rot began with the artificial partitions of Punjab and Bengal. Today the contradictions between Punjab and NWFP in Pakistan are rapidly sharpening as terrorism in Lahore and Islamabad escalates. Punjab in Pakistan is culturally closer to Punjab in India than it is to NWFP. How can these structural contradictions be rectified? 

Fortunately there exists a model that offers a solution that precludes changing international borders. In the European Union a citizen of sovereign Germany has more rights to work, reside, buy property or do business in sovereign France than does an Indian citizen to exercise the same rights in the Indian State of Kashmir. 

In the forthcoming J&K polls rival parties, NC and PDP, are both demanding autonomy and access to Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. Like frogs in the well Kashmir leaders remain oblivious of the interests of the rest of India and Pakistan. How can such autonomy be realized unless Islamabad and New Delhi do not have complete understanding at their national levels? Why cannot NC and PDP unite to fight the polls and demand the establishment of an Indo-Pakistan confederation under which they would easily get the genuine self-rule they seek? Why cannot India's major parties form a national government to address this crisis? 

It may appear naive to expect the present politicians to rise to the occasion. But we have no other leaders. Ordinary men become great when as instruments of history they bring historic change. When crisis threatens the very survival of the Indian Republic, cannot our leaders unite to meet the challenge? 


More by :  Dr. Rajinder Puri

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