Parliament’s sovereignty has been diminished by the Executive: A record for future generations to know

Sad to say, Parliament’s sovereignty has been diminished, indeed usurped, by the new Executive Government.

Here is a brief record for future generations to know.

India’s people completed their voting in the 15th General Elections on Wednesday May 13 2009.

The results of how they had spoken, what was their will, were known and declared by Saturday May 16 2009.

There was no legal or logical reason why the 543 members of the 15th Lok Sabha could not have been sworn in as new MPs by the close-of-business on Monday May 18 at the latest.

On Tuesday May 19 the 15th Lok Sabha could have and should have met to elect itself a pro tem or even a permanent Speaker.

The Speaker would have divided the new House into its Government Party and its Opposition.

There would have been a vote of confidence on the floor of the House, which in the circumstances would have been in favour of the Government Party.

Observing this to have taken place, the Hon’ble President of India as the Head of State would have sent for the leader of the Government Party and invited her to form the new Government.

In this particular case, the leader of the largest political party, namely Sonia Gandhi, would have been accompanied perhaps by the Leader of the Lok Sabha, Pranab Mukherjee, as well as her personal nominee for the position of PM, namely, Manmohan Singh.

Sonia Gandhi would have respectfully declined the invitation of the President to be the new Prime Minister, and she would have also explained that she wanted Manmohan Singh to have the position instead.

The President would have said “Very well, Dr Singh, can you please form the Government?”

He would have said, “Yes Madame President it shall be a privilege and an honour to do so”.

The President would have added, “Thank you, and I notice you are not a member of the Lok Sabha at the moment but I am sure you are taking steps towards becoming one.”

End of visit.

Manmohan Singh would have been sworn in as PM and would have gone about adding Ministers at a measured pace.   Later, he would have resigned his Rajya Sabha seat and sought election to the Lok Sabha on the parliamentary precedent set by Alec Douglas-Home.

What has happened instead?

On May 18 2009, instead of 543 members of the 15th Lok Sabha taking their oaths as required by parliamentary law and custom, Dr Singh held a purported “Cabinet”  meeting of the 14th Lok Sabha — a long-since dead institution!

Some of the persons attending this  meeting as purported “Cabinet ministers” had even lost their seats in the elections decided a few days earlier and so had absolutely zero democratically legitimate status left. All these persons then submitted their purported resignations which Dr Singh carried to the President, stating his Government had resigned. The President then appointed him a caretaker PM and he, along with Sonia Gandhi, then went about “staking claim” to form the next Government — turning up at the President’s again with “letters of support” signed by some 322 persons  who were MP-elects but were yet to become MPs formally by not having been sworn in.

The President appeared satisfied the party Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh belonged to would command a majority in prospect in the Lok Sabha and invited him to be PM.   Some major public wrangling then took place with at least one of his allies about cabinet berths — and that is the situation as of the present moment except that Dr Singh and several others have been sworn in as the Council of Ministers even though the  new 15th Lok Sabha of 543 members has still not convened!  It has been all rather sloppy and hardly uplifting.

Parliament is supposed to be sovereign in India.

Not the Executive Government or the largest political party or its leader.

The sovereignty of Parliament required Sonia Gandhi and Dr Singh to have realised

first, that the 14th Lok Sabha stood automatically dissolved when elections were announced;

secondly, that the 15th Lok Sabha could have and should have been sworn in by Monday May 18;

thirdly, that there should have been a vote of confidence in the Lok Sabha immediately which would have gone in favour of the Government Party;

fourthly, that only then should the Executive Government have been sought to be formed;

and of course fifthly, that if that Executive Government was to be led by someone who happened to be a member of the Rajya Sabha and not the Lok Sabha, parliamenary law and custom required him to follow the Douglas-Home precedent of resigning from the former and seeking election to the latter at the earliest opportunity.

Let future generations know that as of today, May 25, the 543 persons whom the people of India voted to constitute the 15th Lok Sabha still remain in limbo without having been sworn in though we already have an Executive Government appointed!

The sovereignty of Parliament, specifically that of the Lok Sabha, has come to be diminished, indeed usurped, by the Executive.   It is the Executive that receives its political legitimacy from Parliament, not vice versa.  Nehru and his generation knew all this intimately well and would have been appalled at where we in the present have been taking it.

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

Addendum to *Modern World History, 2006*

Subroto Roy adds  at Facebook to his 2006 essay *Modern World History* as follows:

“Throughout the 19th Century and spilling into the 20th, from the rise of Napoleon to the start of WWI, first France and then Britain were in rapid ascendancy in the world – only to decline (into near nothingness in case of France) in WWII before recovering to return to the rank of respectable powers in the second half of the 20thC. The 20th C saw rise of Germany, Japan, Communist Russia & the USA to world supremacy; Germany and Japan then vanquished themselves into near nothingness by wars they created, and Russia too, perhaps less so, by the (Leninist-Stalinist) ideology it had adopted as a cost of progress; the victor in each case was the USA and its allies Britain and France. At the close of the 20th C, the USA was unquestionably predominant in the world – only to receive a sudden and near-blinding blow in the eye by way of the 9/11 attacks from which it has taken a decade to recover. China, India and the Muslim world remain, in the main, defensive powers, not seeking foreign dominions themselves so much as seeking to prevent further foreign domination as they have suffered in the past – in this China, both Communist and Non-Communist, may be more successful than the others. Israel and Iran are indeed the new kids on the block and their unruly conflict does indeed portend the gravest risk to world tranquility in the 21st Century. Martin Buber’s statement suggesting Israel should seek to be an Asian and not a European power “pursuing the settlement effort in Palestine in agreement, nay, alliance with the peoples of the East, so as to erect with them together a great federative structure, which might learn and receive from the West whatever positive aims and means might be learnt and received from it, without, however, succumbing to the influence of its inner disarray and aimlessness”, holds an important key.

Separation of Powers: India, the USA, Pakistan

SEPARATION OF POWERS

Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws outlined a doctrine that applies to India, the USA and all constitutional democracies: there is no monopoly of political wisdom.

By SUBROTO ROY
First published in The Sunday Statesman, The Statesman Editorial Page, Special Article Feb 12-13 2006, www.thestatesman.net

The Speaker’s noble office is that of the single member of the House, traditionally chosen by unanimity, whose task it is to self-effacingly maintain order in Parliamentary debate and proceedings, so that the House’s work gets done. C’est tout. Once chosen Speaker, he ipso facto retires from partisan politics for life. The Speaker neither contributes to the substance of Parliamentary debate (except in the rare case of a tie) nor has to feel personally responsible for Parliament’s conduct.

Our Parliament has tended to become so dysfunctional since Indira Gandhi and her sycophants destroyed its traditions 30 years ago, that supervising its normal work is an onerous enough task for even the finest of Speakers to handle.

The Lok Sabha’s incumbent Speaker has tended to see himself as the champion of Parliament.  He need not.  He does not command a majority in the Lok Sabha; the Government Party does. We have had the oddest peculiarity unfolding in India at present where the person who does command the Lok Sabha’s majority, and therefore who would be normally defined as Prime Minister of India, has chosen to nominate someone who is not a member of the Lok Sabha to act as Prime Minister, i.e. to command the Lok Sabha’s majority. (The Rajya Sabha was and remains irrelevant to most things important to Indian democracy, regardless of its narcissism and vanity). Someone with access to 10 Janpath should have told Sonia Gandhi in May 2004 that if she did not wish to be PM and wanted to gift the job to someone else, she should do so to someone who, like herself, had been elected to the Lok Sabha, like Pranab Mukherjee (elected for the first time) or Kamal Nath or Priya Ranjan (both veterans).

Manmohan Singh, a former Lok Sabha candidate, may as Finance Minister have been able to progress much further with economic reforms. But sycophancy has ruled the roost in the Congress’s higher echelons, and nobody had the guts to tell her that. Indeed as early as December 2001, Congress leaders knew that in the unlikely event they won the polls, Manmohan Singh would likely be PM by Sonia Gandhi’s choice (though he was not expected to last long at the top), and yet he did not contest the Lok Sabha polls in 2004.

The Government of the day, not the Speaker, is Parliament’s champion in any discussion with the Supreme Court over constitutional rights and Separation of Powers. And the Government has in fact quietly and sensibly requested the Supreme Court to set up a Constitutional Bench for this purpose. Such a Constitutional Bench shall have cause to ask itself how far Kesavananda Bharati needs to be tweaked if at all to accommodate the contention that Parliament has a right to judge its own members. The Court may well likely say that of course Parliament has a right to judge its own members but even that right is not an absolute right, (nothing is). Even Parliament’s right to judge its own members must be in accordance with natural law, with principles of justice, with due and clearly defined processes. E.g. the established Privileges Committee and not the ad hoc Bansal Committee had to do the needful.

Imagine a hypothetical case of fantastic fiction where half a dozen independent MPs are elected to a future Lok Sabha, and then take it upon themselves to expose corruption and shenanigans of all major political parties. Our fantastic super-heroes become whistleblowers within Parliament itself while remaining totally incorruptible as individuals — like Eliot Ness’s team who jailed Al Capone and other gangsters, and came to be depicted in Hollywood’s The Untouchables. These Untouchables would come to be feared and despised by everyone from Communists on one side of the political spectrum to Fascists on the other. They would upset everybody precisely because they were so clean and were not purchasable. The Government and Opposition of the day might wellgang up to expel such troublemakers and even fabricate charges to do so. (Now there’s a script for a Bollywood movie!)

What our Supreme Court’s Constitutional Bench decides now in the matter at hand will determine the fate of our super-heroes in such a future fantasia. The present case is a polar opposite — where MPs have been caught on camera with their sordid fingers in the cookie-jar, and then made to walk the plank immediately by their peers. Yet natural law applies here as it will to our fantastic future fighters, and this is what the Bench would have to speak on.

Why the present situation continues to be disconcerting is because the whole country heard all the holier-than-thou protestations, yet everyone continues to take a very dim view of what they see of politicians’ behaviour. There remain strong suspicions that only a few very tiny tips of very large icebergs were or can be caught on camera. Large-scale deals and contracts involve payments into invisible bank accounts, not petty cash into pockets or even suitcases filled with cash sloshing around Delhi.

What we have desperately needed in the situation is modern prime ministerial leadership which could intelligently and boldly guide national debate in the right direction on the whole matter of probity in public life. Why a distinguished parliamentarian like the Speaker has found himself in the limelight is because neither the de jure nor de facto Prime Ministers of India are anywhere to be seen thinking on their feet on these central issues of constitutional procedure and practice. They tend to use prepared scripts and may be temperamentally disinclined to do what has been called for by these unscripted circumstances. (Indeed the much-maligned H. D. Deve Gowda could be alone among the bevy of recent PMs who has been able to think on his feet at all.)

Collapse Before Executive Power

In the meantime, the United States is going through its own Separation of Powers’ crisis. As explained in these columns previously, the American system is distinctly different from the British, and our own system is midway between them. Yet similar principles may be discerned to apply or fail to be applied in all.

Winston Churchill once perspicaciously observed:

“The rigid Constitution of the United States, the gigantic scale and strength of its party machinery, the fixed terms for which public officers and representatives are chosen, invest the President with a greater measure of autocratic power than was possessed before (the First World War) by the Head of any great State. The vast size of the country, the diverse types, interests and environments of its enormous population, the safety-valve function of the legislatures of fifty Sovereign States, make the focussing of national public opinion difficult, and confer upon the Federal Government exceptional independence of it except at fixed election times. Few modern Governments need to concern themselves so little with the opinion of the party they have beaten at the polls; none secures to its supreme executive officer, at once the Sovereign and the Party Leader, such direct personal authority.”

America’s Legislative Branch has, on paper, strong powers of advice and consent to control errors, excesses or abuse of power by the Executive President. But (with rare and courageous exceptions like Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia) the Legislature cravenly collapsed before the father-son Bush presidencies in regard to the Middle East wars of recent years. America’s once-revered federal judiciary has also tended to lose its independence of mind with overt politicisation of judicial appointments in recent decades.

Bush the First went to war against Saddam Hussein (a former American ally against Islamic Iran) at least partly with an eye to winning re-election in 1992 (which he would have done as a result but for a random shock known as Ross Perot; Bill Clinton became the beneficiary). Bush the Second obsessively wished to follow up on the same, to the point of misjudging the real threat to America from Bin Laden and fabricating a false threat from an emasculated Saddam.

America’s Legislature palpably failed to control her Presidents. Now, late in the day, after all the horses have bolted, the Senate Judiciary Committee began tepid hearings on February 5 2006 into whether the President authorized laws to be broken with impunity in regard to wire-tapping some 5,000 citizens (doubtless mostly non-white and Muslim) without judicial warrants. Republican Senator Arlen Specter, the Committee’s Chairman, has said he believes the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act has been “flatly” violated, and “strained and unrealistic” justifications are now being offered. Bush’s men, from his Vice President and Attorney General to political intelligence operatives, have brazenly placed in the dustbin the traditional principle fiat justitia pereat mundus — let justice be done even if the world perishes — saying that the Sovereign can do just as he pleases to save the realm from external enemies as he might perceive and define them to be.

What this kind of collapse in current American practice reveals is a new aspect unknown at the time of Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws. In the modern world, Separation of Powers involves not merely constitutional institutions like Executive, Legislature and Judiciary but also the normal civil institutions of a free and open society, especially academic institutions and the press. In America, it has been not merely the Legislature and Judiciary which have tended to collapse before Executive Power in regard to the recent Middle East wars, but the media and academia as well.

“Embedded reporters” and Fox TV set the tone for America’s official thought processes about Iraq and the Muslim world — until it has become too late for America’s mainstream media or academics to recover their own credibility on the subject. On the other hand, unofficial public opinion has, in America’s best traditions, demonstrated using vast numbers of Internet websites and weblogs, a spirited Yankee Doodle individuality against the jingoism and war-mongering of the official polity.

Neither the press nor academia had collapsed the same way during America’s last major foreign wars in Vietnam and Cambodia forty years ago, and it may be fairly said that America’s self-knowledge was rather better then than it is now, except of course there were no Internet websites and weblogs.

Our Pakistani Cousins
Across the border from us, our Pakistani cousins are, from a political and constitutional point of view, cut from the same cloth as ourselves, namely the 1935 Government of India Act, and the Montague-Chelmsford and Morley-Minto reforms earlier. However, ever since Jinnah’s death, they have refused to admit this and instead embarked haplessly on what can only be called an injudicious path of trying to write a Constitution for a new Caliphate. The primary demand of the main scholars influencing this process was “That the sovereignty in Pakistan belongs to God Almighty alone and that the Government of Pakistan shall administer the country as His agent”. By such a view, in the words of Rashid Rida and Maulana Maududi, Islam becomes “the very antithesis of secular Western democracy. The philosophical foundation of Western democracy is the sovereignty of the people. Lawmaking is their prerogative and legislation must correspond to the mood and temper of their opinion… Islam… altogether repudiates the philosophy of popular sovereignty and rears its polity on the foundations of the sovereignty of God and the viceregency (Khilafat) of man.” (Rosenthal, Islam & the Modern National State, Cambridge 1965.) Pakistan’s few modern constitutionalists have been ever since battling impossibly to overcome the ontological error made here of assuming that any mundane government can be in communication with God Almighty. In the meantime, all normal branches of Pakistan’s polity, like the electorate, press, political parties, Legislature and Judiciary, have remained at best in ill-formed inchoate states of being — while the Pakistan Armed Forces stepped in with their own large economic and political interests and agendas to effectively take over the country and the society as a whole, on pretext of protecting Pakistan from India or of gaining J&K for it. Pakistan’s political problems have the ontological error at their root. Pakistan’s political parties, academics and press, have with rare exceptions remained timid in face of the militaristic State — directing their anger and frustration at an easier target instead, namely ourselves in India. The Pakistan Government’s way of silencing its few political, academic or press dissidents has been to send them into comfortable exile abroad.

Sheikh Abdullah Contrasted
Pakistan’s perpetual constitutional confusion deserves to be contrasted with the clarity of Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah’s thinking, e.g. his 5 November 1951 speech to the Constituent Assembly of J&K: “You are the sovereign authority in this State of Jammu & Kashmir; what you decide has the irrevocable force of law. The basic democratic principle of sovereignty of the nation, embodied ably in the American and French Constitutions, is once again given shape in our midst. I shall quote the famous words of Article 3 of the French Constitution of 1791:- ‘The source of all sovereignty resides fundamentally in the nation. Sovereignty is one and indivisible, inalienable and imprescriptable. It belongs to the nation.’ We should be clear about the responsibilities that this power invests us with. In front of us lie decisions of the highest national importance which we shall be called upon to take. Upon the correctness of our decisions depends not only the happiness of our land and people now, but the fate as well of generations to come.”

Contrasting the Pakistani views of constitution-making with those of Sheikh Abdullah may help to explain a great deal about where we are today on the delicate and profound subject of J&K. (See “Solving Kashmir”, The Statesman, December 1—3, 2005)

India’s current debate about Separation of Powers needs to keep at a distance the clear negative examples of our American friends, who have brought upon themselves in recent times a craven collapse of Legislature, Judiciary, press and academia to the Executive President (as Churchill had seemed to predict), as well as of our Pakistani cousins who have continued with general political and civil collapse for half a century. Because our universities are all owned by the State, India’s academics, from Communist to Fascist, have tended to be servile towards it. In respect of the press, the power of independent newspapers has been dwindling, while the new TV anchors have created their own models of obsequiousness and chummery towards New Delhi’s ruling cliques of the day. It thus becomes India’s Supreme Court which remains the ultimate guardian of our Constitution and the safest haven of our very fragile freedoms — besides of course our own minds and hearts.

Unaccountable Delhi: India’s Separation of Powers’ Doctrine

UNACCOUNTABLE DELHI

India’s Separation Of Powers’ Doctrine

First published in The Statesman Jan 13 2006 Editorial Page Special Article,

By Subroto Roy

The Speaker does not like the fact the High Court has issued notices questioning the procedure he followed in expelling MPs from Parliament. Sonia Gandhi’s self-styled “National Advisory Council” has demanded control over disbursement of 100,000,000,000 rupees of public money. The Manmohan Singh Government plans to quietly ignore the Supreme Court’s finding that it had breached India’s Constitution in imposing President’s Rule in Bihar.  All three issues have to do with application of India’s Separation of Powers Doctrine, i.e. the appropriate delimitation of Constitutional powers between our Legislature, Executive and Judiciary.

A constitutional crime was attempted in India during the Indira-Sanjay Gandhi political “Emergency” declared on 26 June 1975. On 10 November 1975 (a time of press censorship) a 13-judge Bench of the Supreme Court met to hear the Government plead for overrule of Kesavananda Bharati (A.I.R. 1973 S.C. 1461), a landmark Nani Palkhivala once called “the greatest contribution of the Republic of India to constitutional jurisprudence”. Within two days, the Government had failed in the Court, and Kesavananda held. What was upheld? That while India’s Parliament was sovereign and could amend the Constitution, the amending power may not be used to alter or destroy “the basic structure or framework of the Constitution”. And the Supreme Court decides for itself whether Parliament has exceeded its legitimate power to amend.

Basic structure
Palkhivala’s description of what constitutes the “basic structure or framework” of India’s Constitution is excellent enough: “the rule of law, the right to personal liberty and freedom from arbitrary arrest and imprisonment, the right to dissent which implies the freedom of speech and expression and a free press are… a part of the basic structure of a free democracy, and it is these priceless human freedoms which cannot be destroyed by Parliament in exercise of its amending power. Thus Kesavananda’s case ensures that tyranny and despotism shall not masquerade as constitutionalism.”

Palkhivala argued that, if anything, the aspects of Kesavananda that needed to be set aside were those that had over-ruled Golaknath (A.I.R. 1967 S.C. 1643) which said Parliament should not be held to have the power to abridge any fundamental right, indeed any amended article which abrogates any fundamental right is invalid.

Dicey said “In the principle of the distribution of powers which determines its form, the constitution of the United States is the exact opposite of the English constitution.” Kesavananda Bharati showed the midway point between the two in constitutional jurisprudence anywhere in the world. We are like the Americans and unlike the British first in being a Republic, and secondly in having an explicit written Constitution. We are like the British and unlike the Americans in being a parliamentary democracy where the Executive Branch of Government, namely the Prime Minister and his/her Cabinet is elected from within the Legislative Branch of Government, namely, Parliament, and must at all times retain the confidence of the latter, specifically the Lok Sabha, the House of the People.

The American Executive Branch has a directly-elected President who chooses his administration, and it is commonplace for him to not have the confidence of the Upper or Lower House of the Legislature, to the point that one recent president had to undergo impeachment proceedings and barely survived. There is no constitutional crisis in America if the Legislature loathes the President and wishes him out. The American President and his Executive Branch stay in office until the last minute of his fixed term.

PM answers to Parliament
In our system, the Prime Minister answers at all times to Parliament. Parliament in India’s democracy has normally meant the House of the People — where every member has contested and won a direct vote in his/her constituency. India’s current Lok Sabha has set a constitutional precedent not seen in more than a hundred years anywhere in electing an Executive led by someone not a member. The British Upper House used to have an aristocratic hereditary component which Mr Blair’s New Labour Government has removed, making it more like what the Rajya Sabha was supposed to be — except that by now our Rajya Sabha has tended to become a place for party worthies who have lost normal elections, superannuated cinematic personalities, perpetual bureaucrats still seeking office, and others who really should be at home helping to raise the grandchildren.  Parliament may not have fully recovered its health ever since that constitutional crime committed against the Republic known as the Indira-Sanjay “Emergency” (and at least one member of Sanjay’s coterie wields much power today).

Crimes and misdemeanours
The Supreme Court’s finding that the Government breached the Constitution by imposing President’s Rule in Bihar is a finding not of a constitutional crime but of a constitutional misdemeanour. (For reasons given already in these columns on 20 October 2005, it has nothing to do with the President, who merely embodies the sovereignty of our Republic.)  For an Executive Order or Legislative Act to be found by a competent Court as being unconstitutional means merely that it does not have to be obeyed by citizens. In the Bihar case, the Supreme Court found this consequence irrelevant because new elections were already in process, the result of which would come from the most authentic democratic voice possible, namely, the same people who elect the House of the People in the first place. India’s Executive has been found to have committed a constitutional misdemeanour, for which it needed to apologise to the Court and Parliament (who are its constitutional co-equals) and then ask the latter to renew its confidence — in which event, life goes on. If confidence was not renewed, the Government would fall and a new Government would have to be formed. But we do not have yet the idea of a backbench revolt —mainly because all the front benches themselves have tended to be in such confusion and disarray with regard to parliamentary traditions, processes and functions.

The Supreme Court as the ultimate protector of the Constitution would be well within its prerogative to oversee whether a Parliamentary Speaker has acted appropriately. Consider a hypothetical case. Once elected, a Speaker is supposed to have no party-affiliation ever more for the rest of his/her life. Suppose, hypothetically, a controlled experiment found a Speaker systematically biased in favour of his/her own former party-members and against their opponents. Where but the Courts could such arbitrariness be effectively remonstrated against? Even if the incumbent Speaker impossibly imagines himself the personal embodiment of the Legislative Branch, he is not beyond the Constitution and therefore not beyond India’s Separation of Powers’ Doctrine.

The Opposition had alleged that the Speaker failed to follow procedure which required the culprits in the expulsion case be referred to the Privileges Committee. But beyond that the Opposition was too confused and guilt-ridden to pursue the matter during the dying moments of Parliament’s Winter Session. In the clear light of day, the issue has now ended up in the Courts. If the Supreme Court eventually rules the Speaker had in fact failed to follow Parliament’s own procedures (and hence breached Constitutional practices), the Speaker would need to apologise to the Courts and the House that elected him, and perhaps offer to fall on his sword.

Finally, for the “National Advisory Council”, a wholly unelected body, to demand a say for itself over spending Rs. 100 billion in State and Union Government budget-making, would be another constitutional misdemeanour — unless its members are merely on the personal staff of the Hon’ble Member representing Rae Bareili, who may of course introduce whatever legislation on money-bills that any other Lok Sabha Member may do.

Transparency and Economic Policy-Making

Transparency and Economic Policy-Making

An address by Professor Subroto Roy to the Asia-Pacific Public Relations Conference, (panel on Transparency chaired by C. R. Irani) January 30 1998.

This talk is dedicated to the memory of my sister Suchandra Bhattacharjee (14.02.1943-10.01.1998).
1. I would like to talk about transparency and economic policy-making in our country. For something to be transparent is, in plain language, for it to be able to be openly seen through, for it to not to be opaque, obscure or muddy, for it to be clear to the naked eye or to the reasonable mind. A clear glass of water is a transparent glass of water. Similarly, an open and easily comprehensible set of economic policies is a transparent set of economic policies.

The philosopher Karl Popper wrote a famous book after the Second World War titled The Open Society and its Enemies. It contained a passionate defence of liberal institutions and democratic freedoms and a bitter attack on totalitarian doctrines of all kinds. It generated a lot of controversy, especially over its likely misreading of the best known work of political philosophy since the 4th Century BC, namely, Plato’s Republic .[1] I shall borrow Popper’s terms ‘open society’ and ‘closed society’ and will first try to make this a useful distinction for modern times, and then apply it to the process of economic policy-making in India today.

2. An open society is one in which the ordinary citizen has reasonably easy access to any and all information relating to the public or social interest — whether the information is directly available to the citizen himself or herself, or is indirectly available to his or her elected representatives like MP’s and MLA’s. Different citizens will respond to the same factual information in different ways, and conflict and debate about the common good will result. But that would be part of the democratic process.

The assessment that any public makes about the government of the day depends on both good and bad news about the fate of the country at any given time. In an open society, both good news and bad news is out there in the pubic domain — open to be assessed, debated, rejoiced over, or wept about. If we win a cricket match or send a woman into space we rejoice. If we lose a child in a manhole or a busload of children in a river, we weep. If some tremendous fraud on the public exchequer comes to be exposed, we are appalled. And so on.

It is the hallmark of an open society that its citizens are mature enough to cope with both the good and the bad news about their country that comes to be daily placed before them. Or, perhaps more accurately, the experience of having to handle both good and bad news daily about their world causes the citizens in an open society to undergo a process of social maturation in formulating their understanding of the common good as well as their responses to problems or crises that the community may come to face. They might be thereby thought of as improving their civic capacities, as becoming better-informed and more discerning voters and decision-makers, and so becoming better citizens of the country in which they live.

The opposite of an open society is a closed society — one in which a ruling political party or a self-styled elite or nomenclatura keep publicly important information to themselves, and do not allow the ordinary citizen easy or reasonably free access to it. The reason may be merely that they are intent on accumulating assets for themselves as quickly as they can while in office, or that they are afraid of public anger and want to save their own skins from demands for accountability. Or it may be that they have the impression that the public is better off kept in the dark — that only the elite nomenclatura is in position to use the information to serve the national interest.

In a closed society it is inevitable that bad news comes to be censored or suppressed by the nomenclatura, and so the good news gets exaggerated in significance. News of economic disasters, military defeats or domestic uprisings gets suppressed. News of victories or achievements or heroics gets exaggerated. If there are no real victories, achievements or heroics, fake ones have to be invented by government hacks — although the suppressed bad news tends to silently whisper all the way through the public consciousness in any case.

Such is the way of government propaganda in almost every country, even those that pride themselves on being free and democratic societies. Dostoevsky’s cardinal advice in Brothers Karamasov was: “Above all, never lie to yourself”. Yet people in power tend to become so adept at propaganda that they start to deceive themselves and forget what is true and what is false, or worse still, cannot remember how to distinguish between true and false in the first place. In an essay thirty years ago titled Truth and Politics, the American scholar Hannah Arendt put it like this:

“Insofar as man carries within himself a partner from whom he can never win release, he will be better off not to live with a murderer or a liar; or: since thought is the silent dialogue carried out between me and myself, I must be careful to keep the integrity of this partner intact, for otherwise I shall surely lose the capacity for thought altogether.”[2]

3. Closed societies may have been the rule and open societies the exception for most of human history. The good news at the end of the 20th Century is surely that since November 7 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell, the closed society has officially ceased to be a respectable form of human social organization. The age of mass access to television and telecommunications at the end of the 20th Century may be spelling the permanent end of totalitarianism and closed societies in general. The Berlin Wall was perhaps doomed to fall the first day East Germans were able to watch West German television programs.

Other than our large and powerful neighbour China, plus perhaps North Korea, Myanmar, and some Islamic countries, declared closed societies are becoming hard to find, and China remains in two minds whether to be open or closed. No longer is Russia or Romania or Albania or South Africa closed in the way each once was for many years. There may be all sorts of problems and confusions in these countries but they are or trying to become open societies.

Under the glare of TV cameras in the 21st Century, horrors like the Holocaust or the Gulag or even an atrocity like Jalianwalla Bag or the Mai Lai massacre will simply not be able to take place anywhere in the world. Such things are not going to happen, or if they do happen, it will be random terrorism and not systematic, large scale genocide of the sort the 20th Century has experienced. The good news is that somehow, through the growth of human ingenuity that we call technical progress, we may have made some moral progress as a species as well.

4. My hypothesis, then, is that while every country finds its place on a spectrum of openness and closedness with respect to its political institutions and availability of information, a broad and permanent drift has been taking place as the 20th Century comes to an end in the direction of openness.

With this greater openness we should expect bad news not to come to be suppressed or good news not to come to be exaggerated in the old ways of propaganda. Instead we should expect more objectively accurate information to come about in the public domain — i.e., better quality and more reliable information, in other words, more truthful information. This in turn commensurately requires more candour and maturity on the part of citizens in discussions about the national or social interest. Closed society totalitarianism permitted the general masses to remain docile and unthinking while the nomenclatura make the decisions. Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor said that is all that can be expected of the masses. Open society transparency and democracy defines the concept of an ordinary citizen and requires from that citizen individual rationality and individual responsibility. It is the requirement Pericles made of the Athenians:

“Here each individual is interested not only in his own affairs but in the affairs of the state as well; even those who are mostly occupied with their own business are extremely well-informed on general politics – this is a peculiarity of ours: we do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business; we say that he has no business here at all.”[3]

5. All this being said, I am at last in a position to turn to economic policy in India today. I am sorry to have been so long-winded and pedantic but now I can state my main substantive point bluntly: in India today, there is almost zero transparency in the information needed for effective macroeconomic policy-making whether at the Union or State levels. To illustrate by some examples.

(A) Macroeconomic policy-making in any large country requires the presence of half a dozen or a dozen well-defined competing models produced by the government and private agencies, specifying plausible causal links between major economic variables, and made testable against time-series data of reasonably long duration. In India we seem to have almost none. The University Economics Departments are all owned by some government or other and can hardly speak out with any academic freedom. When the Ministry of Finance or RBI or Planning Commission, or the India teams of the World Bank or IMF, make their periodic statements they do not appear to be based on any such models or any such data-base. If any such models exist, these need to be published and placed in the public domain for thorough discussion as to their specification and their data. Otherwise, whatever is being predicted cannot be assessed as being very much more reliable than the predictions obtained from the Finance Minister’s astrologer or palmist. (NB: Horse-Manure is a polite word used in the American South for what elsewhere goes by the initials of B. S.). Furthermore, there is no follow-up or critical review to see whether what the Government said was going to happen a year ago has in fact happened, and if not, why not.

(B) The Constitution of India defines many States yet no one seems to be quite certain how many States really constitute the Union of India at any given time. We began with a dozen. Some 565 petty monarchs were successfully integrated into a unitary Republic of India, and for some years we had sixteen States. But today, do we really have 26 States? Is Delhi a State? UP with 150 million people would be the fifth or sixth largest country in the world on its own; is it really merely one State of India? Are 11 Small States de facto Union Territories in view of their heavy dependence on the Union? Suppose we agreed there are fifteen Major States of India based on sheer population size: namely, Andhra, Assam, Bihar, Gujarat, Haryana, Karnataka, Kerala, MP, Maharashtra, Orissa, Punjab, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, UP and West Bengal. These States account for 93% of the population of India. The average population of these 15 Major States is 58 million people each. That is the size of a major country like France or Britain. In other words, the 870 million people in India’s Major States are numerically 15 Frances or 15 Britains put together.

Yet no reliable, uniformly collected GDP figures exist for these 15 States. The RBI has the best data, and these are at least two years old, and the RBI will tell you without further explanation that the data across States are not comparable. If that is the case at State-level, I do not see how the national-level Gross Domestic Product can possibly be estimated with any meaningfulness at all.

(C) Then we hear about the Government Budget deficit as a percentage of GDP. Now any national government is able to pay for its activities only by taxation or borrowing or by using its monopoly over the domestic medium of exchange to print new money. In India today, universal money-illusion seems to prevail. It would not be widely recognised by citizens, journalists or policy-makers that, say, 100,000 Rupees nominally taxed at 10% under 20% inflation leaves less real disposable income than the same taxed at 20% with 5% inflation. This is in part because inflation figures are unknown or suspect. There is no reliable all-India or State-level consumer price index. The wholesale price index on the basis of which the Government of India makes its inflation statements, may not accurately reflect the actual decline in the purchasing power of money, as measured, say, by rises in prices of alternative stores of value like land. The index includes artificially low administered or subsidized prices for petroleum, cereals, and electricity. To the extent these prices may be expected to move towards international equilibrium prices, the index contains a strong element of deferred inflation. One urgent task for all macroeconomic research in India is construction of reliable price-data indices at both Union and State levels, or at a minimum, the testing for reliability by international standards of series currently produced by Government agencies.

Without reliable macroeconomic information being spread widely through a reasonably well-informed electorate, the Government of India has been able to wash away fiscal budget constraints by monetization and inflation without significant response from voters. The routine method of meeting deficits has become “the use of the printing press to manufacture legal tender paper money”, either directly by paying Government creditors “with new paper money specially printed for the purpose” or indirectly by paying creditors “out of loans to itself from the Central Bank”, issuing paper money to that amount. Every Budget of the Government of India, including the most recent ones of 1996 and 1997, comes to be attended by detailed Press discussion with regard to the minutae of changes in tax rates or tax-collection — yet the enormous phenomena of the automatic monetization of the Government’s deficit is ill-understood and effectively ignored. Historically, a policy of monetization started with the British Government in India during the Second World War, with a more than five-fold increase in money supply occurring between 1939 and 1945. Inflation rates never seen in India before or since were the result (Charts 0000), attended by the Great Famine of 1942/43. Though these were brought down after succession of C. D. Deshmukh as Governor of the Reserve Bank, the policy of automatic monetization did not cease and continues until the present day. Inflation “sooner or later destroys the confidence, not only of businessmen, but of the whole community, in the future value of the currency. Then comes the stage known as “the flight from the currency.” Had the Rupee been convertible during the Bretton Woods period, depreciation would have signalled and helped to adjust for disequilibrium. But exchange-controls imposed during the War were enlarged by the new Governments of India and Pakistan after the British departure to exclude convertible Sterling Area currencies as well. With the Rupee no longer convertible, internal monetization of deficits could continue without commensurate exchange-rate depreciation.

The Reserve Bank was originally supposed to be a monetary authority independent of the Government’s fiscal compulsions. It has been prevented from developing into anything more than a department of the Ministry of Finance, and as such, has become the captive creditor of the Government. The RBI in turn has utilized its supervisory role over banking to hold captive creditors, especially nationalized banks whose liabilities account for 90% of commercial bank deposits in the country. Also captive are nationalized insurance companies and pension funds. Government debt instruments show on the asset side of these balance-sheets. To the extent these may not have been held had banks been allowed to act in the interests of proper management of depositors’ liabilities and share-capital according to normal principles, these are pseudo-assets worth small fractions of their nominal values. Chart 0000 shows that in the last five years the average term structure of Government debt has been shortening rapidly, suggesting the Government is finding it increasingly difficult to find creditors, and portending higher interest rates.

General recognition of these business facts, as may be expected to come about with increasing transparency, would be a recipe for a crisis of confidence in the banking and financial system if appropriate policies were not in place beforehand.

(D) As two last examples, I offer two charts. The first shows the domestic interest burden of the Government of India growing at an alarming rate, even after it has been deflated to real terms. The second tries to show India’s foreign assets and liabilities together – we always come to know what is happening to the RBI’s reserve levels, what is less known or less understood is the structure of foreign liabilities being accumulated by the country. Very roughly speaking, in terms that everyone can understand, every man, woman and child in India today owes something like 100 US dollars to the outside world. The Ministry of Finance will tell you that this is not to be worried about because it is long-term debt and not short-term debt. Even if we take them at their word, interest payments still have to be paid on long-term debt, say at 3% per annum. That means for the stock of debt merely to be financed, every man, woman and child in India must be earning $3 every year in foreign exchange via the sale of real goods and services abroad. I.e., something like $3 billion must be newly earned every year in foreign exchange merely to finance the existing stock of debt. Quite clearly, that is not happening and it would stretch the imagination to see how it can be made to happen.

In sum, then, India, blessed with democratic political traditions which we had to take from the British against their will — remember Tilak, “Freedom is my birthright, and I shall have it” — may still be stuck with a closed society mentality when it comes to the all-important issue of economic policy. There is simply an absence in Indian public discourse of vigourous discussion of economic models and facts, whether at Union or State levels. A friendly foreign ambassador pointedly observed an absence in India of political philosophy. It may be more accurate to say that without adequate experience of a normal agenda of government being seen to be practised, widespread ignorance regarding fiscal and monetary causalities and inexperience of the technology of governance remains in the Indian electorate, as well as among public decision-makers at all levels. Our politicians seem to spend an inordinate amount of their time either garlanding one another with flowers or garlanding statues and photographs of the glorious dead. It is high time they stopped to think about the living and the future.

[1] Renford Bambrough (ed.) Plato, Popper and Politics: Some Contributions to a Modern Controversy, 1967.

[2] Philosophy, Politics and Society, 2nd Series, Peter Laslett & W. G. Runciman (eds.), 1967.

[3] Thucydides, History of the Pelopennesian War, II.40.