Saturday, 6 August 2016

Parliamentary system of democracy subverted in India

Jawaharlal Nehru, first Prime Minister of India, signing the original Constitution of India

During debates in the Constituent Assembly on the system of government the country would adopt, the chief architects of the Constitution made it abundantly clear that though the term ‘parliamentary democracy’ was not mentioned in the Constitution,  they were adopting the British parliamentary system of democracy (also known as the Westminster model) and expected that healthy conventions that developed in Britain to ensure the smooth functioning of the unwritten constitution there would also develop in India to take care of what was not put in black and white. 

Even after the Constitution came into force, debates, interpretations and clarifications continued for quite some time. In a landmark judgement in “Rai Sahib Ram Jawaya Kapur & Others vs The State of Punjab” (12 April, 1955), the Supreme Court held that “Our Constitution, though federal in its structure, is modelled on the British Parliamentary system.”

Prima facie, our parliamentary system is very much like the British system. Prime Minister (PM) is the elected leader of the political party or coalition of parties that commands majority, Council of Ministers is responsible to the Lower house comprising directly elected MPs, not to the ceremonial head of the state and the head of the state is bound to act according to the advice of the Council of Ministers.

Adopting the British system is one thing but practising it is quite different. The unwritten constitution in Britain evolved and became more democratic. Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, better known as Lord Salisbury, was the last British PM (1895-1902) who was member of the House of Lords. Thereafter a convention developed that PM must be from the House of Commons. In 1963 Alec Douglas Home, a member of the House of Lords, was elected leader by the Conservative party and appointed PM but he immediately resigned his peerage. After remaining PM for two weeks without being member of either house, he got elected to the Commons in a by-election. Another healthy development in Britain is that gradually politics ceased to be dominated by political families. In the present House of Commons not even one dozen members can claim membership of political families.

Despite the best intentions of the chief architects of our Constitution, our political leaders including those who were members of the Constituent Assembly decided to  Indianise the Westminster model. Over the years our parliamentary democracy has developed its unique features which are unthinkable in Britain and the founding fathers of our constitutional could not have imagined even in their wildest dream. Parliamentary democracy has got adulterated with old and new dynasties, of course with people’s consent. Even two centres of power either at the centre or in any state are considered natural. The Representation of People Act, 1951, disqualifies   convicted persons from contesting elections but there is no law to prevent such a person from playing active and even decisive role in politics.

The first major deviation from the Westminster model was appointment of C Rajagopalachari as Chief Minister (CM) of Madras. Despite a CPI-led coalition getting clear majority in 1952 assembly election, Governor Sri Prakash nominated Rajagopalachari to the legislative Council and appointed him as CM to form a Congress government. The Governor as well as the CM just ignored Nehru’s strong protests. Rajagopalachari refused to contest by-election to enter the assembly and remained CM for two years (April 1952-April 1954). He proved his majority in the assembly by luring opposition MLAs to Congress.

After Lal Bahadur Shastri (I consider him ‘interim’ PM while Indira Gandhi was getting ready) suddenly left (or was he dispatched to, as his family members believe?) for his heavenly abode from a foreign land and vacated the political space back home, there was widespread jubilation over the defeat of Morarji Desai and election of Jawaharlal Nehru’s daughter as PM in the only leadership contest at the Centre. Soon she became darling of the majority of people. Always feeling insecure, she did not care two hoots about parliamentary democracy and used the written provisions of the Constitution to impose her and her son’s personal rule. 

Incidentally, Indira Gandhi who was Information and Broadcasting Minister in the Lalbahadur Shastry Cabinet, never give the Prime Minister the respect he deserved. She did not bother  to attend Cabinet meetings called by the Prime Minister.

In the night of  June 25, 1975, Indira Gandhi, who, for reasons now well-known, had been feeling insecure and was afraid of losing the post of Prime Minister, imposed her personal rule in the guise of "President's Rule" under Article 352 of the Constitution. The Article, before the 44th Amendment of the Constitution in 1979, provided for the declaration of Emergency powers on the ground of threat to India or any part of the territory by war or external aggression or internal disturbance. The 44th Amendment replaced "internal disturbance" by "armed rebellion". Indira Gandhi sent the  proposal to the President even without consulting her Cabinet colleagues. They were informed only in the morning of June 26. Indira's childhood friend Siddharth  Shankar Ray (they were on first name terms though Ray was three years younger to her) had been persuading her at least since January 1975 to assume dictatorial powers. It was Ray who drafted the resolution to declare Emergency,  carried Indira Gandhi's letter and the draft resolution to the Rastrapati Bhawan, woke the sleeping President and got his signature on the dotted lines to declare that he was satisfied that Emergency should be declared. This is how Indira Gandhi treated the Constitution of India.

In 1974, Ray had written to Indira Gandhi: "Dear Indira,… I think Mr. Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed is our best bet. Apart from being a Muslim, he is also from the Eastern region, and we have never had a president from that region. He will be completely loyal and Mrs Ahmed is eminently presentable…. I think the CPI will fall in line in the end…".

Thus, Indira and her childhood friend Ray made a totally pliable person  President of India.

After her assassination, President Zail Singh, whose servility to Indira Gandhi was well known, administered oath of office of PM to her son Rajeev Gandhi though he was neither a member of any house of the Parliament nor elected leader of the Congress parliamentary party. Later, people gave him more support than they had given to his mother.

In 2004 when President Dr. A.P.J. Kalam told Congress President Sonia Gandhi that he was waiting to administer oath of office of PM to her, the unquestioned leader of the Congress, she stunned him by announcing that not she but her nominee Dr. Manmohan Singh  would be the next PM. For a decade she and her son ruled over the country through remote control over the nominee who did not mind being called ‘Mauni Baba’ (The Silent Sage). For him the key to maximise his stay in power was to speak to the minimum. He had no courage to contest election to the Lok Sabha or  to resign when Rahul Gandhi publicly tore an ordinance duly approved by the Cabinet.

Sonia Gandhi constituted her own parallel 'Council of Ministers', officially called National Advisory Council comprising yes-men, a situation to which neither the Union President Dr. Kalam nor the 'de jure' Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh had any objection.

Presently, in UP, we have a Chief Minister who holds office during the pleasure of   his father, the supreme leader of the ruling party which is actually a family party. 

The latest example of the unique features comes from Bihar. On November 6, 2015 Laloo Yadav’s eldest son made three forecasts: (1), “we are completely sweeping the elections – BJP is going to lose very badly.” (2), “Laluji will be Nitish’s guardian in Bihar”. (3), “after defeating BJP, Laluji will head to Delhi.”

 Within two days the first forecast came true and Laluji did not take much time to make the second forecast true. With more seats than in the JD (U) account, RJD supremo occupied the commanding position from the day one. As promised earlier, Laloo allowed Nitish Kumar to continue as CM but the CM had to take Lalu’s both the sons in the Cabinet, one as Deputy CM and the other as Minister in charge of a profitable Ministry. Tejaswi Yadav became the youngest Deputy CM in India.

Laloo Yadav’s conviction in the fodder scam – 17 years after the case started –debarred him from contesting election but also promoted him from the rank of ‘King’ to the rank of ‘Kingmaker’. The law to prevent convicts from contesting elections and becoming lawmakers does not debar them from campaigning and canvassing in the elections and from deciding the fate of the country.  Lalu actively campaigned to ensure victory of his family members and followers and emerged as the ‘kingmaker’.


With two sons settled comfortably, the ‘Grand Alliance’ leader Laluji  started playing the role of ‘guardian’ not only of his minister sons but also of the Nitish government and soon came to be known as ‘Super Chief Minister’. He is openly taking keen interest and interfering in the affairs of the government. He has been seen visiting a government hospital for a reality check and directing the authorities to annul the retrenchment of some health workers at Darbhanga Medical College Hospital. There is nothing the hapless CM Nitish Kumar can do. An ambitious politician who knows when to dump old allies and make old enemies his friends, he is trying to save his face by asking those questioning Lalu’s authority a counter question: “What is wrong if the people’s representatives talk to the government officials for a good cause?”  

By posing this counter question, Nitish Kumar has given a very clear message to the constitutional pundits: ‘Law can prevent convicts from becoming lawmakers but cannot prevent them from remaining people’s representatives.’ Really, how can law stop people from selecting anyone as their leader? If the leader cannot be ‘king’, he can be ‘kingmaker’ and ‘guardian’.

The suspense remains about Tejaswi Yadav’s third forecast. Will Laluji head to Delhi? One thing is certain. Even if his appeal against conviction is rejected, Laluji will go ahead with his mission.  If he succeeds in reaching Delhi, he will play the role of ‘kingmaker’ and ‘guardian’. He may install his wife Rabri Devi who has the experience of being CM, or son Tejaswi, who has the experience of being Deputy CM, of the third most populous state in the country.

Will the law makers of India ever think of making a law that debars convicts from taking part in politics in any form? Perhaps NO.

There is enough material for writing a PhD thesis on the evolution of parliamentary democracy in India since 1950.

Devendra Narain
January 2016