Democracy is a funny thing. When you don’t have it you yearn for it. When you have it you are not happy with it. True. We had fought for nearly six decades to attain independence from the British. Yet, ask anyone who was born at about the time of independence and they would remember their elders yearning for the ‘good old’ British days when things were better. In 1975 when Indira imposed an internal emergency, for reasons that have nothing to do with any internal disturbance, there were sections of the populace – not affected by midnight knocks and summary arrests – who welcomed it, at least in its initial stages. Their reasoning was, there was discipline in government offices and ‘trains were running on time’. It could not be dismissed out of hand as silly, for trains used to run so late, if a train ran two to three hours behind schedule, it raised no eyebrows. In my home town, we used to joke that if the Bokaro Express (running between Bokaro in Jharkhand and Madras) was on time, it was probably the previous day’s train. There was an instance, when a gentleman was asked if his train was on time, he replied ‘yes it was on time; just twenty minutes late’. Funnily enough, ‘trains running on time’, was also one of the reasons officially adduced to justify the emergency. During the nineteen-month emergency Indira’s government used to issue large advertisements in newspapers, with the caption, ‘Let us consolidate the gains of emergency’, whatever it meant.
Coming back to democracy, in essence, it is rule by consensus. In India’s case the consensus was codified into a constitution, to draft which, many wise men expended hundreds of hours; each clause of which was then debated and finally adopted. The process took nearly three years, and produced the longest written constitution in the world, which accommodates the divergence and plurality of the constituents of the nation. However, codifying principles of governance is one thing and following it in letter and spirit, is another.
Leaders, however democratically minded they are, do not like to be tied down to a code of conduct however sacrosanct it may be, not necessarily because they are selfish or venal but because they have such immense confidence in their wisdom and their ability to determine what is good for their constituents. Therefore no sooner than the ink on the draft was dry we began amending it. The constitution was adopted on November 26, 1949 and the first amendment was made on June 18, 1951 barely fifteen months later. It was, incidentally, moved in the parliament by Jawaharlal Nehru, the epitome of democratic values and was intended to, among other things, ‘place reasonable restrictions on the citizen’s right to freedom of speech and expression’!
From then on, whenever the rulers found it difficult to adhere to the code of conduct prescribed by the constitution, they have been amending it with gay abandon. The amendments include the thirty-ninth, passed on August 10, 1975 which retro-actively placed the election of the empress of emergency above judicial scrutiny. Of course an amendment, in constitutional parlance means that ‘the said clause shall be deemed always to have been enacted’ – in the amended form.
In addition to amending the constitution whenever required to suit the express purposes of the executive, it has been resorting to other means, which, in so far as they were not mentioned in the constitution may be termed extra-constitutional. Jawaharlal Nehru’s government resorted to this course of action in right earnest in March 1950, by establishing the Planning Commission. The Planning Commission website tells you its history, but does not tell you whether it was constituted under an act of parliament, if any. It lists its members but does not tell you how they were selected. So how do they get into it in the first place, in a system in which there is a due selection process even for recruiting the lowest cadres of employees? Based on the whims and fancies of the government in power? The Planning Commission, we are told, functions under the overall guidance of the National Development Council. Now, what the hell is, the National Development Council? However, we are told that the lofty objective of the Planning Commission, functioning under the Chairmanship of the Prime Minister, was to ‘promote a rapid rise of the standard of living of the people by efficient exploitation of the resources of the country’. How well did it do so in the next fifty years needs no elaboration! Is it not possible for the Finance Ministry to perform the functions of the Planning Commission and any residual functions relating to other ministries transferred to them?
Fast forward to 2004 and we come to ‘Chapter II’ of governance by executive fiat. This time around, the institution of the Chairperson of the UPA is created. Though not stated, its intent was to bypass national resentment and objections to a foreigner becoming the Prime Minister of India. The new institution of Chairperson of the UPA wields untrammeled power – without responsibility – and, in fact functions as the Super Prime Minister. The Prime Minister was nominated by her and is all but a figure-head. The Chairperson of the UPA is neither responsible nor answerable to the parliament, the supreme political body of directly and indirectly elected representatives in the country.
In 2009, the ‘National Advisory Council’ (NAC) was established as an – hold your breath – ‘interface with civil society’. This time around we moved a step ahead because unlike the Planning Commission, and the invisible National Development Council, the duties of which were merely confined to executive inputs to the government, the NAC would provide ‘policy and legislative inputs’. We are told that the NAC ‘comprises distinguished professionals drawn from diverse fields of developmental activity’. We are, as before, not told whether there was any due process by which these ‘distinguished professionals’ were selected but that through them, the government will have ‘access not only to their expertise and experience but also to a larger network of Research Organisations, NGOs and Social Action and Advocacy Groups’.
NAC, the Super Prime Minister’s kitchen cabinet, which in fact is its latent function, comprises of a motley crowd of left-liberal intellectuals and sundry individuals who represented non-Hindu religious interests. It derives its power (again without responsibility or answer-ability to the parliament) from the Super Prime Minister but unlike the Planning Commission, whose sole function is allocation of resources, it drafts legislation. In view of its status in the scheme of things, its arbitrary nature of functioning is not questioned nor can be questioned by the sycophantic ruling party or its coalition partners. However the silence of the opposition in not questioning it or demanding its abrogation is strange.
Ever since its institution, the NAC got down to business without losing time and what gems did it draft? Thanks to its ‘Mahtama Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme’ (MNREGS), instead of producing an industrious work force, which a developing nation requires, we are spawning a breed of lazy layabouts. In rural areas farmers complain of shortage of labour because of this perverted scheme. Therefore, agriculture which forms the mainstay of our economy is suffering. So is the burgeoning construction industry.
As is clear from its many reviews, the Communal Violence Bill (PCTVB), drafted by the NAC is totally one-sided and dangerous in the extreme if ever it becomes an act. Under one of its far-reaching clauses, for example, if a Hindu male sexually assaults a woman of the minority community it is ‘rape‘. But if a male member of a minority community sexually assaults a woman of the Hindu community is not ‘rape’! A small – even informal – formation of Hindus is an ‘association’ whereas a ‘group’ could only be of members of a minority community. These definitions assume importance because under the proposed act members of an ‘association’ can only be assaulters and members of a ‘group’ are always victims. There is no bail available for offences cognizable under the act and the onus of proof is on the accused, not on the prosecution. A government official can be punished for ‘dereliction of duty’ by imprisonment of up to two years if he/she does not act on a complaint. You can imagine the consequences of such a provision. By the way, under the act, the executive has judicial powers too.
Another instance of over-reach by the NAC is the recent drafting and promulgation of internet regulation rules in April 2011. The entire exercise seems to have been done keeping in view only one small community, viz. the pejoratively called ‘Internet Hindus’. It is only because of its intolerance of criticism that the ruling cabal has gone to great lengths to control internet content. It flies in the face of the vaunted ‘freedom of expression’. If this isn’t an undemocratic act, one doesn’t know what else is! To give two instances of how the rules can be misused: Seema Mustafa can call a duly elected Chief Minister, the ‘ugly Indian’ in print, but to describe her as a ‘Pakistani Agent’ on the internet would be an offence. She can complain and the service provider should have to remove the offensive content. Similarly, Vir Sanghvi can describe the duly elected Chief Minister, a ‘mass murderer’ in print, but to call him a ‘political prostitute’ on the internet is an offence.
Yes, political parties do have ideological coteries but these do not have a direct hand in governance. Only in communist regimes do they overrun parliaments. For example in the erstwhile USSR, the CPSU, the Politburo and the Central Party Presidium were more powerful than the Duma, which was a rubber-stamp parliament. The creation of the two institutions discussed above appears to be a throwback to the USSR type of governance. The USSR has abrogated such institutions as anachronistic. But we seem to have put the clock back.
In western democracies there are such bodies but they function in an open and transparent manner and are answerable not only to the executive, but even the parliament. For example, the appointment of members to the Council of Economic Advisors (CEA) by the US President, need ratification by the Senate. The role of the CEA is limited to provide advice to the executive. It does not draft legislation.
Is the UPA’s NAC rule, dictatorship in disguise?
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