LOGIC OF DEMOCRACY
By SUBROTO ROY
First published in The Statesman, Editorial Page Special Article, March 30 2006, www.thestatesman.net
Parliament may unanimously vote for a bill on the “Office of Profit” issue but this will have to be consistent with the spirit and letter of the Constitution and with natural law if it is not to be struck down by the Supreme Court. It is thus important to get the logic right.
India is a representative and not a direct democracy. We the people constitute the Electorate who send our representatives periodically to legislative institutions at national, state and local levels. These representatives, namely, Lok Sabha and Legislative Assembly Members and municipal councilors, have a paid job to do on behalf of all their constituents, not merely those who voted for them. They are supposed to represent everyone including those who voted against them or did not vote at all.
In view of this, if the question is asked: “Was India’s interest served by Sonia Gandhi peremptorily resigning as the Lok Sabha Member from Rae Bareli and then immediately declaring she will fight a fresh election from there?”, the answer must be of course that it was not. Mrs Gandhi had been elected after an expensive process of voting and she had a duty to continue to represent all of Rae Bareli’s people (not just her party-supporters) for the duration of the 14th Lok Sabha. Instead she has given the impression that Rae Bareili is her personal fiefdom from where she must prove again how popular she is as its Maharani.
What needed to be done instead was to abolish the so-called “National Advisory Council” which, like the “Planning Commission” is yet another expensive extra-constitutional body populated by delusional self-styled New Delhi worthies. The NAC has been functioning as Mrs Gandhi’s personal Planning Commission, and she lacked the courage to scrap it altogether — just as Manmohan Singh lacks the courage to tell Montek Ahluwalia to close down the Planning Commission (and make it a minor R&D wing of the Ministry of Finance).
Lok Sabha’s duties
What are Lok Sabha Members and State MLAs legitimately required to be doing in caring for their constituents? First of all, as a body as a whole, they need to elect the Government, i.e. the Executive Branch, and to hold it accountable in Parliament or Assembly. For example, the Comptroller and Auditor General submits his reports directly to the House, and it is the duty of individual legislators to put these to good use in controlling the Government’s waste, fraud or abuse of public resources.
Secondly, MPs and MLAs are obviously supposed to literally represent their individual constituencies in the House, i.e. to bring the Government and the House’s attention to specific problems or contingencies affecting their constituents as a whole, and call for the help, funds and sympathy of the whole community on their behalf.
Thirdly, MPs and MLAs are supposed to respond to pleas and petitions of individual constituents, who may need the influence associated with the dignity of their office to get things rightly done. For example, an impoverished orphan lad once needed surgery to remove a brain tumour; a family helping him was promised the free services of a top brain surgeon if a hospital bed and operating theatre could be arranged. It was only by turning to the local MLA that the family were able to get such arrangements made, and the lad had his tumour taken out at a public hospital. MPs and MLAs are supposed to vote for and create public goods and services, and to use their moral suasion to see that existing public services actually do get to reach the public.
Rajya Sabha different species
Rajya Sabha Members are a different species altogether. Most if not all State Legislative Councils have been abolished, and sadly the present nature of the Rajya Sabha causes similar doubts to arise about its utility. The very idea of a Rajya Sabha was first mooted in embryo form in an 1888 book A History of the Native States of India, Vol I. Gwalior, whose author also advocated popular constitutions for the “Indian India” of the “Native States” since “where there are no popular constitutions, the personal character of the ruler becomes a most important factor in the government… evils are inherent in every government where autocracy is not tempered by a free constitution.”
When Victoria was declared India’s “Empress” in 1877, a “Council of the Empire” was mooted but had remained a non-starter even until the 1887 Jubilee. An “Imperial Council” was now designed of the so-called “Native Princes”, which came to evolve into the “Chamber of Princes” which became the “Council of the States” and the Rajya Sabha.
It was patterned mostly on the British and not the American upper house except in being not liable to dissolution, and compelling periodic retirement of a third of members. The American upper house is an equal if not the senior partner of the lower house. Our Rajya Sabha follows the British upper house in being a chamber which is duty-bound to oversee any exuberance in the Lok Sabha but which must ultimately yield to it if there is any dispute.
Parliament in India’s democracy effectively means the Lok Sabha — where every member has contested and won a direct vote in his/her constituency. The British upper house used to have an aristocratic hereditary component which Tony Blair’s New Labour Government has now removed, so it has now been becoming more like what the Rajya Sabha was supposed to have been like.
The corruption of our body-politic originated with the politicisation of the bureaucracy thirty five years ago by Indira Gandhi and PN Haksar. The Rajya Sabha came to be ruined with the “courtier culture” and “durbar politics” that resulted. This bad model which the Congress Party created and followed was imitated by the Congress’s political opponents too. Our Rajya Sabha has now tended to become a place for party worthies who have lost normal elections, superannuated cinematic personalities, perpetual bureaucrats still seeking office, and similar others. The healthiest course of action for Indian democracy may be to close it down completely for a few years, then recreate it ab initio based on its original purposes and intent (but this may not be constitutionally possible to do).
Holding Executive accountable
It is a forgotten platitude that in a representative democracy what elected legislators are supposed to be doing is represent the interests of the Electorate. Along with the Judiciary, the Legislative Branch is supposed to control the Executive Government, which is the natural oppressor of the Electorate. That is why the Legislature must be independent of the Executive — which is the precise intent behind Article 102 (a) of the Constitution of India: “A person shall be disqualified for being chosen as, and for being, a member of either House of Parliament… if he holds any office of profit under the Government of India or the Government of any State…”
In other words, if you are a Lok Sabha MP or State MLA who is supposed to be a part of the august House which has elected the Executive Government and by whom that Government is supposed to be held accountable, then it is a clear conflict of interest if you are yourself in the pay of that Government. As a legislator, you are either in the Executive or you are not. If you are in the Executive, you are liable to be held accountable by the House. If you are not in the Executive, you are duty-bound as an ordinary Member of the House to hold the Executive accountable. The logic is ultimately as clear and simple as that.
It is inevitable that the delineation of the appropriate boundaries between Legislature and Executive will have to be pronounced upon by the Judiciary. The “Office of Profit” issue has opened an opportunity for a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court to speak on the rights and duties of the Legislative and Executive Branches of Government. And no Constitution Bench has ever spoken unwisely.