The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, January 23, 2000
Lead Article

The Republic at 50
Changes needed for better governance
By Subhash C. Kashyap

ON January 26, 2000, the Constitution and the Republic of India complete 50 years of their existence.

Measures taken to strengthen the democracy would be the best homage to the founding fathersHow have we fared during the decades gone by? What does the balance-sheet of our successes and failures look like?

We began well — full of hope and with faith in the future.

We had a vision to fulfil, a dream to realise. We were fortunate in having a galaxy of patriotic leaders of great calibre, competence and commitment during the early years of the operation of the Constitution. The system withstood the Chinese aggression in 1962, Prime Minister Nehru’s demise in 1964, wars with Pakistan in 1947-48, 1965 and 1971, Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri’s sudden death in Tashkent in 1965, another Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984, several severe floods and droughts, external and internal emergencies, Naxalite and terrorist onslaughts and a few secessionist threats. Parliament and state legislatures functioned all through despite the crises and through the periods of emergency.

  At one time, more than 100 countries acknowledged India’s initiative and leadership of the Non-Aligned Movement and the philosophy of peaceful co-existence in international affairs. Internally, there were many peaceful transfers of power between political parties and societal groups. We were able to preserve democracy, secularism and the unity and integrity of the nation and freedom and dignity of the individual.

We can take legitimate pride in the fact that some temporary aberrations notwithstanding, and despite very difficult and turbulent times, we were able to work a fully democratic Constitution in such a large and populous country with all its variety and diversity for so long. Whatever problems we faced, were sought to be solved within the framework of the existing system without its breaking down, getting abrogated or taken over by army generals.

After another war with Pakistan in 1999, we had the thirteenth General Election to the Lok Sabha. Inasmuch as a pre-election alliance — the National Democratic Alliance —was returned with a convincing majority, the Lok Sabha was no more a hung House and appointment of a Prime Minister or the formation of the government posed no problems.

The Constituent Assembly opened on December 9, 1946After Pokhran-II, India was an indisputable nuclear power with a considerable mastery over the state- of- the- art technology in the field of ballistic missiles and space research. As in late 1999, inflation was reported to be at an all-time low of near about 2 per cent, foodgrain production for 1998-1999 was estimated to touch an all-time high of 200 million tonnes and the country appeared poised to achieve the target of 6 per cent growth rate.

Nevertheless, when we look around, the national scenario is not very exhilarating. There is much that gives rise to distress and despair. The terrorist activities, bomb explosions and the recent hijacking of the Indian Airlines plane crowd our minds and cause concern.

The original sin perhaps was committed when we accepted independence in a hurry, at a time of British choosing and on their terms. Then, we decided not to discard the colonial model. Seventyfive per cent of the Constitution of India was an adaptation and reproduction of the Government of India Act, 1935, tempered with the Cabinet Mission Plan and the Indian Indepen-dence Act, 1947. The colonial form of government and the mai-baap administration continued.

One way of evaluating the working of the Constitution would be to look at the aims and objects that the founding fathers set out to achieve and to what extent these were fulfilled or realised in practice during the last half-a-century.

The vision of the founding fathers was enshrined in the Preamble, Fundamental Rights and Directive Principles of State Policy. These were to represent the soul of the Constitution and its quintessence. The 10 constitutional values highlighted in the Preamble as it stands today are those of (1) Sovereignty, (2) Socialism (3) Secularism, (4) Democracy, (5) Justice, (6) Liberty, (7) Equality, (8) Fraternity, (9) Individual Dignity and (10) Unity and integrity of the nation. The values have been further reinforced and elaborated under the enforceable Fundamental Rights and the unenforceable Directive Principles of State Policy and Fundamental Duties of citizens.

What has happened during the recent decades all over the country, most unfortunately, is a perfect antithesis of all these values enshrined in the Constitution. The founding fathers had hoped that those who were called upon to work the Constitution from generation to generation would be honourable men of character, competence, integrity and love for the nation. But, we have not only failed to implement the constitutional values or to concretize the vision and the passion of the framers of the Constitution, but knowingly and deliberately, reversed and debunked the provisions aimed at securing quality governance and assuring dignity of the individual citizen and the unity and integrity of the nation.

Instead of transcending divisive forces, developing an Indian identity and evolving a united nation, leaders of different hues became vote merchants busy in dividing the people for their vested interests of capturing and holding on to power.

Dr Rajendra Prasad, President of the Constituent Assembly, signs the new Constitution of the Indian Republic. The problems that have been thrown up are those of communalisation, criminalisation and casteism in politics and administration, emphasis on narrow identities and loyalties, widespread corruption, abject poverty, rampant illiteracy, overpopulation and the lack of quality leadership.

The system under which we live and the people who operate it, both have nurtured an axis between the businessman, the politician, the civil servant, the police and the criminal. They together manipulate the system and monopolise power for its own sake or for personal ends. The ordinary citizen does not feel secure while millions are spent by the state on the security of those who should be secure behind the bars.

In large parts of India, Marx seems to have been proved right. State appears to have withered away. There is no sign of administration. Mafia gangs rule. An ugly atmosphere of near anarchy prevails. The sceptre of civil war and caste and communal wars stare us in the face. Things have come to such a pass that the other day, in a column in a national daily, a writer had no compunction in advocating take-over of the nation’s governance by the armed forces as the only way out to stem the rot.

That we failed to stem the population explosion and after 50 years of working this Constitution we are counted amongst the most corrupt nations of the world and have the largest number of the illiterates and the poor in our country are matters of shame and a serious challenge to the basic norms of constitutionalism and parliamentary polity.

Today, there is a widespread realisation among the aware citizenry that the sovereignty of ‘we, the people’ stands grievously eroded by the way the political system and public administration have been operated. We are dismayed with the way the voice, interests, quality of life and dignity of the individual citizen have been relegated to the lowest priority in the scheme of things.

After trying to work the Constitution for half-a-century and in the light of experience gained, the case for a rethinking on the Constitution has become unassailable. That it is now a part of the national agenda is reason for hope. The time is ripe for a fresh look and for consid ering necessary systemic amends. If the present polity is found to have failed, it would have to be considered what reforms are most urgently required.

Some scholars and politicians go on repeating parrot-like that there is nothing wrong with the political system and there is no need for any rethinking on the Constitution as the fault for the failure lies with the people. They forget that the present breed is the product of this system, that the system is only a means for achieving public good and not an end in itself and that if the system fails to deliver, people cannot be changed or imported from abroad to suit the needs of the system. The system has to be modified or replaced to match the character and needs of the people.

If the men are good, yes, they would make even a bad constitution work. But should we keep waiting passively for good men to be born or angels to descend from heaven to make our Constitution work or should we get on with the job of reviewing the working of the Constitution?

Jawaharlal Nehru addressing the midnight session of the Constituent Assembly on August 14/15, 1947.Advocacy of the need for review and rethinking or of devising a mechanism for imperative changes does not at all mean that we should begin with preconceived notions. Also, there need be no apprehensions that anyone would seek to or get away with mauling the basic structure or foundational values of the Constitution.

As the law stands today, none of the provisions of the Constitution is unamendable in as much as Parliament can in some way amend, alter or repeal any provision of the Constituion and such amendments cannot be questioned in any court of law on any ground whatsoever unless they alter or violate what may be considered the basic features of the Constitution.

It is of utmost importance that the reforms agenda is not purloined by the professional lawyers, as in the words of Nehru, India’s Constitution "was purloined". It became a lawyer’s paradise. Also review or reform of the system does not necessarily imply constitutional amendments. Most of the desirable reforms could perhaps be brought about by ordinary legislation, by simple changes in rules and regulations, by correct interpretation or by better implementation of existing constitutional provisions and the laws.

Reforms most necessarily lead to restoration of some respectability to politics, legislatures and legislators. This would require, on the part of those in public life, willingness to make sacrifices for serving the people and making the lives of ordinary citizens better. It would come close to Gandhiji’s concept of politics for service of the people, instead of becoming their masters, indulging in shameless self-aggrandizement, fighting over ministerships and lucrative portfolios, amassing wealth and getting fabulously rich quickly through unethical means.

We should stop the fruitless and largely irrelevant debates on various western paradigms: presidential vs parliamentary, accountability vs stability, proportional representation vs first-past-the-post system of elections, fixed term for legislators, recall, negative vote and the like. We need to look at our own historical and cultural background and our experience of working various institutions now for nearly half-a-century and then decide freely and with an open mind. It is important that any reforms suggested are based on the widest possible national consensus and are acceptable to all sections of the people and all regions of the country. Also, the proposals must result from a holistic review and must be implementable.

Suggestions that need consideration with a view to strengthening the Indian democracy may include: 1. Review of Union-state relations-strong states, strong Union, smaller 40 to 50 states, three or four-tier governance, decentralisation of power down to grassroots according to the Gandhian ‘bottom-up’ instead of ‘top-down’ model; 2. direct elections only for panchayats and local bodies, multi-member constituncies, minimum 50 per cent plus votes for election, enlarged electoral college for the Presidential election; 3. Election of Prime Minister by the House and provision of a constructive vote of no-confidence; 4. Reform and regulation of parties -- internal elections, audit of accounts, etc.; 5. Making the Directive Principles like the right to a decent human living, the right to education and the right to work legally enforceable Fundamental Rights, under the reformed constitution.

If some such remedial meassures are not considered urgently and governance does not become citizen-friendly, nearly a billion people of India may lose faith in democratic institutions and processes even though any alternative would be most awesome.

It should not be left to a power-hungry dictator or a coup leader to abrogate the Constitution, nor should the people be so driven to the wall that they are left with no alternative means of changing the situation except by rising in revolt. It is a challenge for our judiciary, Parliament and the academic and professional community to find a legitimate and pragmatic mechanism for change. Perhaps, that would be the best way to celebrate the golden jubilee of our Constitution and Republic and our best homage to the founding fathers.

(The writer is a former Secretary-General of the Lok Sabha).