Posts Tagged ‘Constitution of India’

Checks and Balances – A Must for a Democracy

Recently, I had a brief skirmish with the Indian Army: on Twitter. I happened to view a 15 second video of a Commanding Officer (CO) of an army unit in Arunachal Pradesh issuing a warning to those messing with his troops, after these troops had vandalised public property. In the context of reports that some of his men had allegedly been thrashed by the local police, who was being threatened by whom was quite clear. I merely pointed out that this was not behaviour expected of a commissioned officer. For the next twenty four hours and more, I was subjected to a barrage of criticism. What was a little unexpected was that two retired generals seemed to find nothing objectionable in the CO’s conduct. Possibly, the involvement of the Indian Civil & Administrative Services (IC&AS) Association in this issue rankled with them. The incident has also been viewed by military veterans as “arrogant bureaucracy and a sulking army”. I finally clarified that, in my view, while the guilty must be punished, the rule of law must be respected at all times, even under grave provocation.

What is a matter of growing concern is the erosion in India of the system of checks and balances that make for a healthy democracy, where there is respect for the rule of law. The much-maligned IAS has been engaged in a forty-year tug of war with the uniformed forces for primacy in the decision-making hierarchy. Whether it was the DGP vs. the Home Secretary or the DM vs. SP controversies, a lot of bad blood spilled out, even as law and order situations became increasingly challenging. Recent years have also seen a gradual watering down of the position of the Defence Secretary vis-a-vis the service chiefs, starting with their relative pay scales (the usual comparison of hierarchy in a status-conscious society). I am not here going into the issue of civilian-uniformed force relationships, except to reiterate that each service has its role to play in the governance structure. Weakening one at the expense of the other (or casting unnecessary aspersions) can be inimical to our democracy.

Where the problem arises is when any institution (or individuals in that institution) fail(s) to exercise a voluntary check on its/their exercise of power, mindful of the provisions of law and the Constitution of India. Just as the Constitution separates the respective roles of the executive, legislature and judiciary, the functions of different wings of the executive are also clearly defined. When differences arise among them, the political executive is tasked with the duty of resolving them and ensuring harmonious functioning of the executive machinery.

The Parliamentary system of governance diffuses power among those elected to its legislatures to prevent the concentration of powers in any one person. The leader of the ruling party (PM/CM) has to command the confidence of a majority of legislators. The existence of a Council of Ministers, elected by the people, implies the presence of alternative centres of countervailing power. Till the early 1970s, this was the pattern, which was overturned by the centralisation of powers in the Indira Gandhi years. Over the years, CMs became supplicants and Ministers were gradually reduced to decorative roles, a process that has become pronounced in recent years.

The trend towards centralisation of power has been accentuated by the growing importance of non-elected officials in decision-making processes and the bypassing of established systems of accountability. The emergence of the PMO and the CMO (in states) as alternative power centres beholden only to the Numero Uno has severely curtailed the scope for reasoned deliberation on matters of public importance. Which is why one had reservations about the reconstitution of the Strategic Policy Group (SPG) under the NSA, a non-elected official, with no indication as to whether its recommendations/decisions would be reviewed by a group of elected officials such as the Cabinet Committee on Security.

Five momentous events in independent India indicate the adverse consequences of the absence of collegial decision-making: the Indo-China War (1962), the Emergency (1975), the Shah Bano-Ram Mandir episodes (1986), the Babri Masjid demolition (1992) and the demonetisation bombshell (2016). Not for nothing have Cabinet Committees been set up at the centre for important subjects like security, economic affairs and political affairs. Given that the members of these Committees are answerable to the people, the expectation is that they will take reasoned decisions after discussion, utilising the expertise available in their respective Ministries.

Former RBI Governor Raghuram Rajan likened the role of the RBI to a seat belt in a car. When the political executive sets off on a course of action without the seat belt, a caution is sounded. To this, I would add the analogy of a pressure cooker: the colleagues of a PM/CM in the Council of Ministers are the safety valves telling the boss when the cooker is in danger of exploding, when a policy is likely to be harmful to the common man.

This is why conflicting opinions ought to be welcomed in a democratic system of governance. Since no one person or group of persons is blessed with divine perspicacity, it always helps to know whether one has worked out all the potential pitfalls in the execution of a policy, however good it may sound in theory. Packing institutions with yes men and treating contrarian views with hostility or disdain are likely to yield suboptimal outcomes. Any democratic government needs that child which innocently says “But he isn’t wearing anything at all.”

 

Promote Unity, Not Divisiveness

India, the world’s largest democracy, is fast imitating the century-old experience of the world’s oldest democracy, the USA, where lynchings are concerned. The spokesmen and apologists of the political party which is in power at the centre and in most of the states (‘the ruling party’) where these reprehensible, horrifying incidents have taken place in the past few years, will no doubt insist that this phenomenon predates their accession to power, notwithstanding the growing frequency of these incidents since the accession to power of the ruling party, as clearly brought out in the IndiaSpend Report. They will blame social media for the spreading of rumours and disown responsibility of any group patronised by them. What gives the lie to such protestations of innocence are the statements made by members of the ruling party in the electronic and social media when such incidents take place. The most recent case of vigilante extralegal violence involves the assault on Swami Agnivesh, the social crusader, at Pakur in Jharkhand, a state known for its peaceable residents but now bidding for top place in Lynchistan’s Hall of Shame. Who can foretell what unfortunate consequences could have arisen from one or two more ill-directed blows at a man in his eighth decade of life? And yet, two members of the ruling party had the gall to openly comment on how the Swami had it coming to him, apart from trotting out false reasons for his visit to Jharkhand. But then, consistency in speech and action has never been the forte of the ruling party.

Nor have the ruling party spokespersons distinguished themselves in panel discussions on national television programmes. After fifty former civil servants (including yours truly) issued a public statement condemning the felicitation by a Union Minister of convicts out on bail in a lynching-murder case, his party apologist (an advocate to boot) sought to justify the act by harping on the need to honour public sentiments, however vile they might be. After the Swami Agnivesh episode, another advocate-apologist for the ruling party sought to highlight “provocation” as an extenuating circumstance. Even in the surreal atmosphere we exist in today, their arguments strain the bounds of one’s credulity. As a law graduate and a former civil servant who has decided innumerable quasi-judicial cases, I have to take recourse to the self-defence provisions in the Indian Penal Code (IPC) to rebut their fatuous contentions.

Since they are not claiming (hopefully) that the lynchers are under twelve years of age, of unsound mind or have been intoxicated against their will, the only protection from punishment for causing death or serious injury under the IPC arises where the right of self-defence is exercised against offences aimed at causing harm to body (one’s own or others) or property. Even here, Section 100 of the IPC qualifies the use of force in self-defence, restricting it to instances where death, grievous hurt, rape, kidnapping, etc. are reasonably apprehended by the one who exercises the right of self-defence. In no case of lynching reported over the past four years have any of these provisions of the IPC been satisfied. Even if there has been any violation of any other law of the land, no legal provision allows one human to cause death/injury to another, except in the very limited instances mentioned above.

Which is why the Supreme Court came down heavily on the union and state governments for their failure to curb the growing incidents of lynching, ironically on the very day Swami Agnivesh was attacked. But the problem is that, in this case, it requires three (not two) hands to clap. The Supreme Court has clapped, but there are two more hands which must join in if any sound is to be heard. Parliament has to find time, aside from its internecine wranglings, to pass legislation that effectively tackles the menace of lynching, whether by adding sections to the IPC or by enacting a separate Act. But it is the third hand that will determine if the clap is heard loud and clear. This is the thoroughgoing implementation of anti-lynching provisions by the criminal justice system in the various states of India. Notwithstanding the confidence being exuded by our Union Law Minister, only one lynch case seems to have concluded so far (in Jharkhand) but other cases like the Dadri and Alwar cases are still going on. That cases have been lodged against the victims is testimony to the perversity of state action and to its lack of will in checking murderous mobs. Given shoddy police investigations, interminable trial processes and innumerable appeals, there is every reason to apprehend that future lynchers are unlikely to be deterred, more so when they see the support they are likely to get from the state and political formations.

The saddest consequence of state apathy, if not connivance, in condoning lynching incidents is the licence it gives to any group to resort to assault and murder. The recipients of this vigilante “justice” are innocent persons, often from minority and disadvantaged groups. The mob has been brainwashed to see their victims as the dreaded “other”, fed by the poison of irresponsible media reporting and cynical political manipulation. It started with alleged beef-eaters/cow-smugglers (Dadri, Alwar, etc.), moved on to alleged child-lifters (Dhule, Bidar, etc.) and now extends to critics of the present dispensation (Pakur). That there exists a poisonous streak in Indian society is borne out by the reports of the Karwan-e-Mohabbat, spearheaded by that tireless crusader, Harsh Mander. This poison has been fanned and spread by the intemperate, deliberate use of language to deepen public insecurity. When politics ceases to be a mission (as it was for the first generation of independent India’s politicians) and becomes an amoral business, power and pelf dictate all actions and the devil take the hindmost.

Drawing on American experience of nearly a century ago, three responses are crucial if India is to stop its descent down the slippery path of private vengeance. Firstly, the moral authority of the state (which has suffered grievously in recent decades) needs to be reasserted. As a former district magistrate, I can safely assert that where the District Magistrate and Superintendent of Police (or Commissioner of Police in metropolitan areas) were determined not to let anyone take the law into their hands and where they enjoyed public respect because of their honest, impartial conduct, riots rarely happened, or, if they did, were promptly nipped in the bud. I have personally observed how the no-nonsense conduct of a Chief Minister like Vasantdada Patil in Maharashtra ensured almost no violence against the sizeable population of Sikhs in Maharashtra in the aftermath of the Indira Gandhi assassination, even while Delhi burnt. The pogroms in 1984 (Delhi), 1993 (Mumbai) and 2002 (Ahmedabad) are illustrative of what happens when the state is complicit, covertly or overtly, in the commission of violence by one section of society against another. Firm administrative actions, followed by quick convictions of the guilty, reassure the victims that justice has been done while sending a message to hate-filled groups that extralegal violence will not be tolerated.

The second effort has to focus on the expression of revulsion at such acts in a way that discourages those who encourage, silently or openly, their commission, while pontificating on their commitment to the rule of law. The mass media has an important role to play, by highlighting the violation of law by lynch mobs rather than indulging in whataboutery or “victim fault finding”. Opinion makers and, indeed, civil society has a role to play as well. Channels and publications that seek to justify or whitewash such horrendous incidents should be exposed and patronage to them should be withdrawn. Society should clearly indicate to certain of its influential members that their condonation of such illegitimate violence will lead to their exclusion from public fora and social gatherings. Election campaigns should highlight the track record of prospective candidates with regard to their encouragement of criminality in sections of society.

But the final, and most important, step lies in the change in attitudes in those who govern. The phrase यथा राजा तथा प्रजा has never had a greater resonance than today. Unless those chosen to govern model their thoughts, words and actions on the Constitution they have sworn by, they will never be able to set an example to society. Let us not forget that the Preamble to the Constitution seeks to secure justice, liberty, equality and fraternity for all citizens aimed at assuring individual dignity and the unity and integrity of the nation. At every step, those in power must measure their actions against the touchstone of the values enshrined in the Preamble. They must take their cue from the Vedas and Upanishads which stress the oneness of the universe and the priceless verse of Sant Kabir:

 

कस्तूरी कुंडल बसे, मृग ढूँढत बन माहि |

ज्यो घट घट राम है, दुनिया देखे नाही |

(The musk is in the deer, but it seeks it not within itself; it runs through the forest in its quest. Similarly, God (humanity) is everywhere but the world is not able to see this)

No Shades Of Grey for India

I am not, as you might think, advocating the banning of the erotic book and film which have titles similar to the headline of this blog. But I am getting increasingly convinced that operating in grey areas is something Indians revel in. The new millennium has offered adequate proof that Indians abhor convention and thrive on discretion. While departing from the former allows for abominable behaviour even in the temples of Indian democracy, adhering like blood-sucking leeches to the latter enables the growth of the rent-seeking economy and polity. Where laws exist, bend them to suit oneself and one’s clan (even if discreetly) and, where they are silent, may the devil take the hindmost, decencies be damned.

Let us start with the legislatures, the roots of democracy in India. Over the last decade, we have seen the top two legislative organs of the country, the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha, apart from a number of state assemblies, being held hostage by elected representatives. Rushing to the well of the House, disrupting legislative business, indulging in fisticuffs and even grabbing the Speaker’s mace have been par for the course. A very far cry from the conventions in the British Houses of Parliament, where the Speaker’s word is law and where, once the Speaker has risen from her chair, all members on their feet must resume their seats. Of course, the farce commences even before the assembly commences its first sitting. Karnataka 2018 is its latest and most dramatic example. After a rather dubious decision by the Governor, the Supreme Court (SC) stepped in to order an immediate trust vote on the floor of the House. Flouting established convention, the Governor departed from the established procedure of appointing as pro tem Speaker the senior most elected member, generally from the opposition, to conduct the proceedings prior to election of the regular Speaker. This was obviously done to smoothen somewhat the winning of the trust vote by the newly sworn in Chief Minister (CM). Unfortunately, for the BJP, the SC fettered the discretion of the pro tem Speaker such that the CM had to resign within thirty-six hours of being sworn in.

But conventions have died a painful death in India over the years, assisted by constitutional functionaries. At the behest of whichever party is ruling at the centre, Governors of states have twisted the provisions of the Constitution of India, notably Article 356A, to help dismiss elected governments of a political hue different from the centre. As India steps squarely into the era of hung Parliaments/Assemblies and coalition governments, Karnataka and, before it, Goa, Manipur and many other instances represent the जिसकी लाठी उसकी भैंस (he who holds the stick controls the buffalo) mentality that dominates the Indian psyche. “Show me the Governor and I’ll show you the government” seems to be the prevailing motto. This blog does not have the space to go into the Sarkaria Commission recommendations on government formation in the states or the SC rulings in the SR Bommai and Rameshwar Prasad cases. But common sense would dictate that, after a tiring, costly election process, that government is sworn in which has the best chance of lasting the next five years. When the largest party falls well short of a majority and there are not enough independents and members of other small parties to help it cross the half-way mark, the logical course of action would be to invite post-poll coalitions of other parties, which have affirmed their joint intention of government formation, and give them a chance to prove their majority on the floor of the House. The Governor does have discretion but, as a functionary who has sworn to uphold the Constitution, (s)he is duty bound to act in a manner which does not reek of political partisanship.

Governments of all political persuasions have never been respecters of conventions. Recently, the Income Tax (IT) department raided the Badami (Karnataka) resort owned by an MLA-hopeful of the Congress during the election process. Nothing wrong in this, except the timing! Did the raids by the IT department and the subsequent attention supposedly lavished on him by the Enforcement Directorate have anything to do with his recent switch of loyalties from the BJP to the Congress? This worthy, after many twists and turns in the saga, appears to be as yet with the Congress, but who knows what the morrow brings? There were also disquieting media reports that loyalty of some MLAs was sought to be bought by promising leniency in investigation of economic offences in which they were allegedly involved. With the reputation of central investigative agencies already at an all-time low, efforts at their subornation are a cause for worry.

In the prevailing gloom over the functioning of the legislature and the executive, the performances of the Election Commission of India (ECI) and the SC give cause for cheer. In what was a bruising election, the ECI ensured the free exercise of franchise, though the role of muscle and money power in influencing voters is still a disease that requires remedy. The SC moved swiftly to check efforts to influence legislators and its eagle eye ensured that no attempts were made to monkey around with the trust vote process.

In the final analysis, however, it is the moral fibre of individuals that will determine the development of healthy practices in a democracy. We had the newly sworn in BJP CM of Karnataka announcing a farm loan waiver, transferring key police officials and seeking to augment his party’s strength in the trial of strength by nominating a legislator from the Anglo-Indian community (until restrained by the SC). We had the top legal functionary of the Central Government, the Attorney-General, foregoing his beauty sleep to appear in the predawn SC hearing and advancing ludicrous arguments that effectively encouraged horse-trading (man-trading??). We had the newly-elected MLAs apparently so vulnerable to inducements and threats that they had to be shepherded like preschool children, with no guarantee that they will not play truant in the coming months. To this date, government formation by the JD(S)-Congress combine has been bedeviled by the chase after lucrative portfolios. We had electronic media representatives treating this entire episode as a chess game and speculating on who will bring money and muscle to bear on government formation. And, finally, there is the ordinary citizen, inured to the reality that, to get ahead in life, you need to jump the red signal, help your wards cheat in examinations and part with mamool to grease your way through government. Where is the sense of shame and probity in all these individuals, and countless others? One senses no sadness or weariness in witnessing the repeated drama, just another Roman circus for the masses.

At least for the near future, we seem to be in a situation where it may be necessary to codify important conventions to get over the Indian aversion to following commonly accepted norms. There is already a code of conduct for elections. Similar codes need to be evolved for, among other things, procedures of government formation at the centre and in the states, conduct of legislative business, appointment of governors, powers of investigative agencies once elections have been announced and conduct of private activities of legislators that conflict with their public roles. These codes need to be implemented rigorously with salutary penalties for their infringement which could range from public shaming to loss of office.

However, nothing will really change until the educated thinking classes assume the responsibility for setting our derailed democracy back on the rails. Let us not forget that a diverse group of thinking Indians, seventy years ago, drafted one of the most glorious modern-day Constitutions. Keeping it alive, and enriching it further, is, alas, a task our present generation has failed in miserably. Karnataka is the latest manifestation of the terminal disease afflicting our democracy, which needs skilful doctors, not butchers. We ignore this at our own peril.