Why did Manmohan Singh and LK Advani apologise to one another? Is Indian politics essentially collusive, not competitive, aiming only to preserve and promote the post-1947 Dilli Raj at the expense of the whole of India? We seem to have no Churchillian repartee (except perhaps from Bihar occasionally)

Yesterday the PM is reported to have been asked by someone travelling on his aeroplane from Moscow “whether he had forgiven Advani for calling him a ‘weak Prime Minister’”.

The question was absurd, almost ridiculous, typical of our docile ingratiating rather juvenile English-language press and media, as if any issue of forgiveness arises at all about what one politician says during an election campaign about another politician’s performance in office.

Dr Manmohan Singh’s answer was surprising too: “I was compelled to reply to what Advani said…On May 16 when (Advani) telephoned me, he told me that he was hurt by some of my statements. He said he was hurt and regretted his statements… I apologised to him if I have hurt him. I am looking forward to a close relationship with the Leader of the Opposition.”

So LK Advani appears to have apologised to Manmohan Singh and Manmohan Singh to LK Advani for what they said about each other during the recent general election campaign! What is going on? Were they schoolboys exchanging fisticuffs in a school playground or elderly men battling over power and policy in modern Indian politics?

What would we have done if there was a Churchill in Indian politics today – hurling sarcastic insults at domestic opponents and foreign leaders while guiding a nation on its right course during turbulent times?

Churchill once famously said his parents had not shown him “The Boneless Wonder” in PT Barnum’s circus because it was too horrible a sight but now he had finally seen such a “Boneless Wonder” in his opponent on the Treasury Benches, namely, Ramsay MacDonald. Of the same opponent he said later “He has the gift of compressing the largest number of words into the smallest amount of thought”.

When accused of being drunk by a woman MP he replied “And you are very ugly, but tomorrow I’ll be sober”. Today’s politically correct world would scream at far less. Field Marshall Montgomery told Churchill, “I neither drink nor smoke and am 100% fit,” to which Churchill replied, “I drink and smoke and I am 200% fit”. That too would be politically incorrect today.

Churchill described Prime Minister Clement Attlee as “a modest man with much to be modest about”; also about Attlee: “If any grub is fed on Royal Jelly it turns into a Queen Bee”. Yet Attlee had enough dignity and self-knowledge and self-confidence to brush it all off and instead respect and praise him. In the 1954 volume Winston Spencer Churchill Servant of Crown and Commonwealth Attlee added his own tribute to his great opponent: “I recall…the period when he was at odds with his own party and took a seat on the Bench below the Gangway on the Government side. Here he was well placed to fire on both parties. I remember describing him as a heavily armed tank cruising in No Man’s Land. Very impressive were the speeches he delivered as the international horizon grew darker. He became very unpopular with the predominant group in his own party, but he never minded fighting a lone battle.”

Stanley Baldwin, who as PM first appointed Churchill as Chancellor of the Exchequer, once said “There comes Winston with his hundred horsepower mind”. Yet Churchill was to later say harshly “I wish Stanley Baldwin no ill, but it would have been much better had he never lived.”

Of Lenin, Churchill said, he was “transported in a sealed truck like a plague bacillus from Switzerland into Russia”. Of Molotov: “I have never seen a human being who more perfectly represented the modern concept of a robot.” Of Hitler, “If [he] invaded hell I would at least make a favourable reference to the devil in the House of Commons”. Of De Gaulle, “He was a man without a country yet he acted as if he was head of state”.” Of John Foster Dulles, “[He] is the only bull who carries his china shop with him”. Of Stafford Cripps, British Ambassador to the USSR, “…a lunatic in a country of lunatics”; and also “There but for the Grace of God, goes God”.

Decades later, that great neo-Churchillian Margaret Thatcher was on the receiving end of a vast amount of sarcasm. “President Mitterrand once famously remarked that Thatcher had ‘the eyes of Caligula and the lips of Marilyn Monroe’. Rather less flatteringly, Dennis Healey described her as Attila the Hen. She probably took both descriptions as compliments.” (Malcolm Rifkind in Margaret Thatcher’s Revolution: How it Happened and What it Meant edited by Subroto Roy and John Clarke, 2005).

Politics is, and should be, grown up stuff because it deals with human lives and national destinies, and really, if you can’t take the heat please do not enter the kitchen. The slight Churchillian sarcasm that does arise within modern Indian politics comes very occasionally from Bihar but nowhere else, e.g. about the inevitability of aloo in samosas and of bhaloos in the jungle but no longer of Laloo being in the seat of power. In general, everyone seems frightfully sombre and self-important though may be in fact short of self-knowledge and hence self-confidence.

What had Manmohan Singh said about LK Advani that he felt he had to apologise for? That Advani had no substantial political achievement to his credit and did not deserve to be India’s PM. Manmohan was not alone in making the charge – Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi and numerous other spokesmen and representatives of their party said the same. Has Manmohan’s apology to Advani been one on behalf of the whole Congress Party itself?

Was Advani’s apology to Manmohan one on behalf of the whole BJP too?

What had the BJP charged Manmohan with that Advani felt he had to apologise for?  Being a “weak PM”.

Hmmm. Frankly, thinking about it, it is hard to count who has not been weak as a PM in India’s modern history.

Certainly Vallabhai Patel as a kind of co-PM was decisive and far from weak back in 1947-48.

Lal Bahadur Shastri was not weak when he told Pakistan that a Pakistani attack on Kashmir would result in an Indian attack on Pakistan.

Indira Gandhi was not weak when she resisted the Yahya Khan-Tikka Khan tyranny against Bangladesh.

Had he not been assassinated, Rajiv Gandhi in a second term would have been decisive and not weak in facing up to and tackling the powerful lobbies and special interest groups that have crippled our domestic economic policy for decades.

But the number of such examples may be counted by hand.  Perhaps VP Singh might count, riding in an open jeep to Amritsar, as might AB Vajpayee’s Pokhran II and travelling on a bus to Lahore. In general, the BJP’s charge that Manmohan was “weak” may have constructively led to serious discussion in the country about the whole nature of the Prime Ministership in modern India, which means raising a whole gamut of issues about Indian governance – about India being the softest of “soft states”, with the softest of “soft government budget constraints” (i.e., endless deficit finance and paper money creation) etc.

Instead, what we have had thus far is apologies being exchanged for no real political reason between the leaderships of the Government and the Opposition. If two or three sellers come to implicitly carve up a market between themselves they are said by economic theory to be colluding rather than being in competition. Indian politics may be revealing such implicit collusive behaviour. The goal of this political oligopoly would seem to be to preserve and promote the status quo of the post-1947 Dilli Raj with its special hereditary nomenclatura, at the expense of anonymous diffused teeming India.

Subroto Roy

Postscript July 15 2009: Churchill’s mature opinion of Baldwin was one of the fullest praise at the 20 May 1950 unveiling of a memorial to him.  See his In the Balance, edited by Randolph S Churchill, 1951, p. 281

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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”.

Bengal Legislative Council 1921

This is a 1921 photograph of the Bengal Legislative Council with the Governor of Bengal, the Earl of Ronaldshay (later Secretary of State for India and  known as the Marquess of Zetland) at the centre. To his immediate right is Surendranath Roy, then President of the Council. Seated second to the left of the Governor is Surendranath Banerjee, the eminent leader of the Indian National Congress (and mentor of GK Gokhale and other “moderates” in the national movement); he and Surendranath Roy were friends and political colleagues.

1921legcouncil3

After the Verdict: Why the Executive Needed a Vote of Confidence

AFTER THE VERDICT

By Subroto Roy

First published The Statesman, October 20 2005, Editorial Page Special Article, http://www.thestatesman.net

The last and only time a Head of State of India “resigned” was when Edward VIII (uncle of the present Queen of England) abdicated in 1936 because he wished to marry Mrs Wallis Simpson, a twice-divorced American, and the British Government under Stanley Baldwin felt this was unacceptable to the public and told him so. To his eternal credit, Edward VIII chose true love over the vainglorious trappings of a constitutional monarchy, gave up the kingship, and went with his new wife into a quiet voluntary life-exile in France as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. India’s Presidents cannot act in state except upon advice of the Cabinet. That means they cannot even resign from office except upon advice of the Cabinet. A President may tragically die in office in which case the Vice-President would become the acting Head of State but there is no provision or precedent in India for a President to be made to resign except for Edward VIII’s abdication.

Richard Nixon resigned the office of the President of the United States in 1974 and more recently William Jefferson Clinton was brought under a lot of pressure to do so by the legislative impeachment proceedings against him. Nixon resigned (which made Gerald Ford President) because it had become impossible for him to stay in office having been proved to have lied to the people, and Clinton managed to stay on by the skin of his teeth for similar misdeeds. But the American system is different because the Head of State and Head of Government are united in the person of the President.

In our system, the Head of State embodies the sovereignty of India and does nothing more. Mountbatten as the first Governor-General imagined himself much more than that and caused damage to the subcontinent’s polity which has still to be repaired. But the first four Indian Heads of State, C. Rajagopalachari, Dr Rajendra Prasad, Dr S. Radhakrishnan, and Dr Zakir Hussain, were exemplary role-models. Unfortunately since their time the office of the President has suffered some of the shocks too that have been suffered by almost all our institutions. For example, retired Presidents really should vanish most gracefully into quietude to write their memoirs and help raise their grandchildren, yet we have had a former President say that an award received after retirement as President has been his most prized. It is not logically possible for such a thing to happen, since to become President of India is the ultimate honour for any citizen of our country. We elect someone among us to be a constitutional monarch for a period of five years and call that person President. Even if a former Indian President should receive the Nobel Peace Prize afterwards it would not mean his/her having embodied the sovereignty of our Republic was not the ultimate honour.

In our constitutional law, our Head of State cannot choose to resign any more than the sovereignty of India can be made to momentarily come to an end. If, to construct a hypothetical case, a President of India while in office became, heavens forbid, physically or mentally incapable of carrying out the duties of the office, the Government of India as represented by the Union Cabinet may well look to the Vice-President to fulfil the role of the Head of State temporarily but there would be no provision for the President to be made to demit office. The only precedent is that of Edward VIII where his personal love for Mrs Simpson compelled his abdication upon the advice of the Prime Minister.

Bringing ourselves back to Bihar, the Honourable Supreme Court’s finding of unconstitutionality is of grave import. On the positive side, what it indicates yet again is that India’s political institutions, no matter how battered and bloody they become by our self-inflicted wounds, still do work.

Furthermore, for the Honourable Court to have allowed the elections to go forward indicates how fine is the quality of our justice, for the Court has allowed the people of Bihar to speak again, and of course Mr Nitish Kumar and friends have been free to use at the hustings the Court’s finding in their favour. Certainly heads should roll and be seen to roll for all this. The Governor should have gone immediately but has not only not done so, he has let it be known that he was acting under orders himself. If so, the least that should happen is that the party-functionary responsible for this should be sacked.

For some press-commentators to demand that Sonia Gandhi should replace Dr Manmohan Singh reveals an appalling ignorance of constitutional norms; this is not a matter of a “High Command” replacing one acolyte by another as chief minister somewhere – if a Prime Minister resigns, so does the entire Cabinet he has appointed, and a new Government has to be sought to be formed. At the same time it is less than candid for the Leader of the Opposition to demand via the television cameras that the Prime Minister should resign, since the Opposition knows fully well that there is an institution called Parliament which can express its lack of confidence in a Government. And of course it also remains open for the Prime Minister himself to go to Parliament and seek to renew its confidence in his Government when the public confidence has thus come to be shaken.

In fact, the right course of action for the President is to summon the Prime Minister and say something like: “It would appear the Judicial Branch of the Government of India has found the Executive Branch to have breached the Constitution. Reference must now be made to the Legislative Branch, namely, to Parliament, to see if it still has confidence in the Executive. Please ask for a Vote of Confidence in the Lok Sabha as soon as possible.” Of course, Dr Manmohan Singh has been the first Prime Minister in Commonwealth history since Salisbury who has not been himself a member of the Lower House. Curzon had wished to be British prime minister after returning from India but was passed over in 1922 in favour of Baldwin in a decisive demonstration that a prime minister must be a member of the Lower House. That is why Alec Douglas-Home stopped being a member of the House of Lords in order to become British PM in 1963-64. India in the last thirty years has seen parliamentary traditions at the Union and State levels being ruinously weakened (or not even allowed to develop) being replaced all too frequently either by street-fighting or by discretionary bureaucratic decision-making by committee. The present moment is an opportunity for the rot to be stemmed. It may be too optimistic though to believe that it will be taken.

Margaret Thatcher’s Revolution: How it Happened and What it Meant

Margaret Thatcher’s Revolution: How it Happened and What it Meant, edited by Subroto Roy & John Clarke, London & New York: Continuum, 2005, 2006.