Parliament is supposed to control the Government, not be bullied or intimidated by it: Will Rahul Gandhi be able to lead the Backbenches in the 15th Lok Sabha?

Any Lok Sabha MP who neither sits with the Opposition nor is a sworn-in member of the Government is a Backbench MP of the Government party or its coalition.

Shrimati Sonia Gandhi is the most prominent of such Backbench MPs in the 15th Lok Sabha, just as she was of the 14th Lok Sabha, and has chosen to be in a most peculiar position from the point of view of parliamentary law. As the leader of the largest parliamentary party, she could have been not merely a member of the Government but its Prime Minister. She has in fact had a decisive role in determining the composition of the Manmohan Government as well as its policies. She in fact sits on the Frontbenches in the Lok Sabha along with the Manmohan Government. But she is not a member of the Government and is, formally speaking, a Backbench MP who is choosing to sit in the Frontbenches.

(Dr Manmohan Singh himself, not being a member of the Lok Sabha, may, formally speaking, sit or speak from among the Frontbenches of his own Government only by invitation of the Lok Sabha Speaker as a courtesy – such would have been the cardinal reason why Alec Douglas-Home resigned from being Lord Home and instead stood for a House of Commons seat when he was appointed British Prime Minister.)

Sonia Gandhi’s son, Mr Rahul Gandhi, is also a Backbench MP. From all accounts, including that of Dr Singh himself, he could have been a member of Dr Singh’s Government but has specifically chosen not to be. He has appeared to have had some much lesser role than Sonia Gandhi in determining the composition of the Government and its policies but he is not a member of it. He is, formally speaking, a Backbench MP, indeed the most prominent to actually sit in the Backbenches, as he had done in the 14th Lok Sabha, which, it is to be hoped, he does in the 15th Lok Sabha too.

Now Rahul Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi and their 541 other fellow 15th Lok Sabha MPs were declared winners by May 16 2009 having won the Indian people’s vote.

(Incidentally, I predicted the outcome here two hours before polls closed on May 13 – how I did so is simply by having done the necessary work of determining that some 103 million people had voted for Congress in 2004 against some 86 million for the BJP; in my assessment Congress had done more than enough by way of political rhetoric and political reality to maintain if not extend that difference in 2009, i.e., the BJP had not done nearly enough to even begin to get enough of a net drift in its favour. I expect when the data are out it shall be seen that the margin of the raw vote between them has been much enlarged from 2004.)

As I have pointed out here over the last fortnight, there was no legal or logical reason why the  whole 15th Lok Sabha could not have been sworn in latest by May 18 2009.

Instead, Dr Manmohan Singh on May 18 held a purported “Cabinet” meeting of the defunct 14th Lok Sabha – an institution that had been automatically dissolved when Elections had been first announced! The Government then went about forming itself over two weeks despite the 15th Lok Sabha, on whose confidence it depended for its political legitimacy, not having been allowed to meet. Everyone – the Congress Party’s Supreme Court advocates, the Lok Sabha Secretariat, the Election Commission, Rashtrapati Bhavan too –  seems to have gotten it awfully wrong by placing the cart before the horse.

In our system it is Parliament that is sovereign, not the Executive Government. In fact the Executive is accountable to Parliament, specifically the Lok Sabha, and is supposed to be guided by it as well as hold its confidence at all times.

What has happened instead this time is that Government ministers have been busy taking oaths and entering their offices and making policy-decisons days before they have taken their oaths and their seats as Lok Sabha MPs!  The Government has thus started off by diminishing Parliament’s sovereignty and this should not be allowed to happen again.

(Of course why it took place is because of the peculiarity of the victory relative to our experience in recent decades – nobody could remember parliamentary traditions from Nehru’s time in the 1950s.  Even so, someone, e.g. the former Speaker, should have known and insisted upon explaining the relevant aspect of parliamentary law and hence avoided this breach.)

A central question now is whether a Government which has such a large majority, and which is led by someone in and has numerous ministers from the Rajya Sabha, is going to be adequately controlled and feel itself accountable to the Lok Sabha.

Neither of the Lok Sabha’s most prominent Backbenchers, Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi, have thus far distinguished themselves as Parliamentarians on the floor of the Lok Sabha. In the 14th Lok Sabha, Sonia Gandhi, sitting in the Frontbenches, exercised the  enormous control that she did over the Government not on the floor of the House itself but  from outside it.

It would be best of all if she chose in the 15th Lok Sabha to actually physically sit in the Congress’s Backbenches because that would ensure best that the Government Party’s ministers in the Frontbenches will keep having to seek to be accountable to the  Backbenches!

But this seems unlikely to happen in view of the fact she herself seems to have personally influenced the choice of a Speaker for the 15th Lok Sabha and it may be instead expected that she continues to sit on the Frontbenches with the Government without being a member of it.

That leaves Rahul Gandhi. If he too comes to be persuaded by the sycophants to sit on the Frontbenches with the Government, that will not be a healthy sign.

On the other hand, if he continues to sit on the Backbenches, he may be able to have a salubrious influence on the 15th Lok Sabha fulfilling its responsibility of seeking to seriously control and hold accountable the Executive Government,  and not be bullied or intimidated by it. His paternal grandfather, Feroze Gandhi, after all, may have been India’s most eminent and effective Backbench MP yet.

Subroto Roy, Kolkata

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Why has the Sonia Congress done something that the Congress under Nehru-Indira-Rajiv would not have done, namely, exaggerate the power of the Rajya Sabha and diminish the power of the Lok Sabha?

We in India did not invent the idea of Parliament, the British did.  Even the British did not invent the idea of a “Premier Ministre”, the French did that, though the British came to develop its meaning most.  Because these are not our own inventions, when something unusual happens in contemporary India to political entities and offices known as “Parliament”, “Prime Minister” etc, contrast and comparison is inevitable with standards and practices that have prevailed around the world in other parliamentary democracies.

Indeed we in India did not even fully invent the idea of our own Parliament though the national struggle led by the original Indian National Congress caused it to come to be invented.  The Lok Sabha is the outcome of a long and distinguished constitutional and political history from the Morley-Minto reforms a century ago to the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms and Government of India Act of 1919 to the Government of India Act of 1935 and the first general elections of British India in 1937 (when Jawaharlal Nehru briefly became PM for the first time) and in due course the 1946 Constituent Assembly.   Out of all this emerged the 1950 Constitution of India, drafted by that brilliant jurist BR Ambedkar as well as other sober intelligent well-educated and dedicated men and women of his time, and thence arose our first Lok Sabha following the 1951 General Elections.

About the Lok Sabha’s duties, I said in my March 30 2006 article “Logic of Democracy” in The Statesman

“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.”

What about the Rajya Sabha?  I said in the same article:

“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 Canadian upper house is similar to ours in intent: a place for “sober second thought” intended to curb the “democratic excesses” of the lower house.   In the Canadian, British, Australian, Irish and our own cases, the Prime Minister, as the chief executive of the lower house has immense indirect power over the upper house, whether in appointing members or even, in the Australian case, dissolving the entire upper house if he/she wishes.

Now yesterday apparently Shrimati Sonia Gandhi, as the duly elected leader of the largest political party in the 15th Lok Sabha, accompanied by Dr Manmohan Singh, as her party’s choice for the position of Prime Minister, went to see the President of India where the Hon’ble President apparently appointed Dr Singh to be the Prime Minister of India – meaning the Prime Minister of the 15th Lok Sabha, except that Dr Singh is not a member of the Lok Sabha and apparently has had no intent of becoming one.

In 2004 Shrimati Gandhi had declined to accept an invitation to become PM and instead effectively recommended Dr Singh to be PM despite his not being a member of the Lok Sabha nor intending to be so.   This exploited a constitutional loophole to the extent that the drafters of our 1950 Constitution happened not to have explicitly stated that the PM must be from the Lok Sabha.  But the reason the founders of our democratic polity such as BR Ambedkar and Jawaharlal Nehru did not specify that the PM must be from the Lok Sabha was quite simply that it was a matter of complete obviousness to them and to their entire generation that this must be so — it would have been  appalling to them and something beyond their wildest imagination that a later generation, namely our own, would exploit such a loophole and allow a PM to be appointed who is not a member of the Lok Sabha and intends not to be so.

Ambedkar, Nehru and all others of their time knew fully well that the history and intended purpose of the Lok Sabha was completely different from the history and intended purpose of the Rajya Sabha.  They knew too fully well that Lord Curzon had been explicitly denied the leadership of Britain’s Tory Party in 1922 because that would have made him a potential PM  when he was not prepared to be a member of the House of Commons.  That specific precedent culminated a centuries’-old  democratic trend of  political power flowing from monarchs to lords to commoners, and has governed all parliamentary democracies  worldwide ever since — until Dr Singh’s appointment in 2004.

When such an anomalous situation once arose in Britain, Lord Home resigned his membership of the House of Lords to contest a House of Commons seat as Sir Alec Douglas Home so that he could be PM in a manner consistent with parliamentary law.

Dr Singh instead for five years remained PM of India while not being a member of the Lok Sabha.  Even if reasons and exigencies of State could have been cited for such an anomalous situation during his first term, there was really no such reason for him not to contest the 2009 General Election if he wished to be the Congress Party’s prime ministerial candidate a second time.  Numerous Rajya Sabha members alongside him have contested Lok Sabha seats this time, and several have won.

As of today, Dr Singh is due to be sworn in tomorrow as Prime Minister for a second term while still having no declared intention of resigning from the Rajya Sabha and contesting a Lok Sabha seat instead.   What the present-day Congress has done is elect him the leader of the “Congress Parliamentary Party” and claim that it is in such a capacity that he received the invitation to be Prime Minister of India.   But surely if the question had been asked to the Congress Party under Nehru or Indira or Rajiv: “Can you foresee a circumstance ever in which the PM of India is not a member of the Lok Sabha?” their answer in each case would have been a categorical and resounding  “no”.

So the question does arise why the Congress under Sonia Gandhi has with deliberation allowed such an anomalous situation to develop.  Its effect is to completely distort the trends of relative political power between the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha.  On the one hand, the Lok Sabha’s power is deliberately made to diminish as the chief executive of the Government of India shall not be from the Lok Sabha but from “the other place” despite the Lok Sabha having greater political legitimacy by having been directly elected by India’s people.   This sets a precedent that  might  get repeated in India  in the future but which contradicts the worldwide trend in parliamentary democracies over decades and centuries in precisely the opposite direction –  of power flowing in the direction of the people not away from them.   On the other hand, the fact this anomalous idea has been pioneered by the elected leader of the largest political party in the Lok Sabha while her PM is in the Rajya Sabha causes a member of the lower house to have unexpected control over the upper house when the latter is supposed to be something of an independent check on the former!

It all really seems an unnecessary muddle and a jumbling up of normal constitutional law and parliamentary procedure.  The Sonia-Manmohan Government at the outset of its second term should hardly want to be seen by history as having set a poor precedent using brute force.  The situation can be corrected with the utmost ease by following the Alec Douglas Home example, with Dr Singh being given a relatively safe seat to contest as soon as possible, if necessary by some newly elected Congress MP resigning and allowing a bye-election to be called.

Subroto Roy

Memo to the Hon’ble President of India (May 16, 2009)

H.E. The Hon’ble Shrimati Pratibha Patil

President of India

Your Excellency,

As India is fortunately a Republic and not a Monarchy, we do not have  a “Kissing Hands Ceremony”  where “the monarch invites the incoming prime minister to form a government and swear allegiance to the throne”.

While we do not have such a ceremony literally, we do have its republican equivalent in the well-established constitutional custom of the President of India after a General Election inviting one person to be Prime Minister and to form the new  Government.

It soon shall be your solemn duty to invite such a new Prime Minister of India to form the Government.

Given the results of the 15th General Elections to the Lok Sabha, that invitation may be extended only to the Leader of the winning coalition in the Lok Sabha, who is Shrimati Sonia Gandhi.

The outgoing Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, not having contested the Lok Sabha election, may not by  you be invited to be Prime Minister at this stage.

What happened in 2004 was that Shrimati Sonia Gandhi declined to accept such an invitation and instead effectively appointed Dr Singh to be PM despite his not being a member of the Lok Sabha nor intending to be so.

This exploited a constitutional loophole to the extent that our Constitution did not explicitly state that the PM must be from the Lok Sabha.

What may have been passable as the hurried exploitation of a loophole in 2004 is surely not acceptable in 2009.

Why the founders of our democratic polity such as BR  Ambedkar and Jawaharlal Nehru did not specify that the PM must be from the Lok Sabha was quite simply that it was a matter of complete obviousness to them and to their entire generation that this must be so — it would have been  appalling to them and something beyond their wildest imagination that a later generation, namely our own, would exploit this loophole and allow a PM to be appointed who is not a member of the Lok Sabha and intends not to be so.

Ambedkar, Nehru and all others of their time knew fully well that Lord Curzon had been explicitly denied the leadership of Britain’s Tory Party in 1922 because that would have made him a potential PM  when he was not prepared to be a member of the House of Commons.

That specific precedent (culminating a centuries-old  democratic trend of  political power flowing from monarchs to lords to commoners) has governed all parliamentary democracies  worldwide ever since  — until Dr Singh’s appointment in 2004.

In fact,  when such an anomalous situation once arose in Britain, Lord Home resigned his membership of the House of Lords to contest a House of Commons seat as Sir Alec Douglas Home  so that he could be PM in a manner consistent with parliamentary law.

I believe you are fully within constitutional law and precedent to invite Shrimati Sonia Gandhi to form the new Government of India after the 15th General Elections to the Lok Sabha.  If she declines and instead requests again the use of the loophole to appoint Dr Singh as PM,  I believe that parliamentary law and precedent requires him to resign from the Rajya Sabha and instead contest a seat in the Lok Sabha.

Respectfully submitted

Subroto Roy, PhD (Cantab.), BScEcon (London)

Citizen and Voter

Postscript: Please see also here “Inviting a new Prime Minister of India to form a Government: Procedure Right and Wrong”.