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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India is not a monarchy! We urgently need to universalize the French concept of “citoyen”! (2009)

Each of the two sons of Feroze and Indira Gandhi died tragically  in his prime, years ago, and it is unbecoming to see their family successors squabble today. Everyone may need to be constantly reminded that this handful of persons are in fact ordinary citizens in our democratic polity, deserving India’s attention principally in such a capacity.

What did, indeed, Feroze Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sanjay Gandhi, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi “live and die for”?  It was not any one identifiable thing or any set of common things, that seems certain.

Feroze Gandhi from all accounts stood for integrity in Indian politics and journalism; it is not impossible his premature death was related to  his wife’s negligence because she had returned to her father’s side instead.  Jawaharlal Nehru did not do well as a father to promote his daughter so blatantly as his assistant either before 1947

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or after.

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Nehru did not achieve political power until well into middle age; his catastrophic misjudgment of communist ideology and intentions, especially Chinese communist ideology and intentions, contributed to an Indian defeat at war, and led soon thereafter to his health collapsing and his death.

He and Indira somewhat nonchalantly made a visit to Ceylon even as the Chinese attack was commencing; a high point of my own childhood was saying namaste on October 13 1962 at Colombo airport when they arrived.

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Feroze and Indira’s younger son evidently came to die in a self-inflicted aeronautical mishap of some sort.  What did Sanjay Gandhi “live for”?  The book Foundations of India’s Political Economy: Towards an Agenda for the 1990s created twenty years ago in America

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has a chapter titled “The State of Governance” by the political scientist James Manor which says:

“After 1973 or so, personal loyalty tended increasingly to become the main criterion for advancement in the Congress Party. People who appeared to be loyal often replaced skilled political managers who seemed too independent.  Many of these new arrivals did not worry, as an earlier generation of Congress officials  had done, that excessive private profiteering might earn the wrath of party leaders.  In 1975, Sanjay Gandhi suddenly became the second most powerful figure in Indian politics.  He saw that the parties of the left and right had strong organizations that could put large numbers of militants into the streets for demonstrations while Congress had no such capacity.  In the belief that Congress should also have this kind of muscle, he began recruiting elements from urban centres including the criminal underworld.  The problem of corruption was exacerbated by demands that State-level Congress leaders place large sums of money at the disposal not of the national party but of the persons who presided over it.  Congress chief ministers realized that a fulsome response to these demands went a long way toward insulating them from interference from New Delhi, and a monumental system of fund-raising sprang up.  When so many people were being drawn into semi-institutionalized malfeasance, which seemed to be condoned by higher authorities, it was inevitable many would skim off portions of the funds raised for personal benefit.  Corruption soared. The problem was compounded by the tendency for people to be dismissed from public and party offices abruptly, leading many Congress politicians to fear that their time in power might be quite short.”

I do not have reason to disagree with this  opinion  contained in the book  that I and WE James created  at the University of Hawaii twenty years ago.   If anything, Sanjay’s political model may have spread  itself across  other Indian  political parties in one way or another.

What does strike me as odd in light of current  political controversy is that  several  of Sanjay’s friends and colleagues  are now part-and-parcel of the   Sonia Congress – one must ask, were they such fair-weather  friends that they never  lent a hand or a shoulder to his young widow and her infant son especially against the cruelties Sanjay’s mother bestowed upon them?  Did they offer help or guidance to Sanjay’s son, have they tried to guide him away from becoming the bigoted young politician he seems to wish to be today?

Indira’s major faults included playing favourites among her bahus and her grandchildren with as much gusto as any mother-in-law portrayed on the tackiest TV-serial today.

What were her good deeds?  There was one, and it was an enormously large one, of paramount significance for the country and our subcontinent as a whole: her statesmanship before, during and to some extent after the war that created Bangladesh.  My father has preserved a classic photograph over the years of Indira’s finest period as an international stateswoman, when she visited Paris and other foreign capitals including Washington in the autumn of 1971.

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She tried to prevent the Yahya Khan/Tikka Khan  genocide in Bangladesh when many  Bangladeshis came to be sacrificed at the altar of the Nixon-Kissinger visits to Mao and Zhou.  She made a major diplomatic effort in world capitals to avert war with West Pakistan over its atrocities in East Pakistan. But war could not be averted, and within a few weeks, in December 1971, Bangladesh was born.

“Indira Gandhi’s one and paramount good deed as India’s leader and indeed as a world leader of her time was to have fought a war that was so rare in international law for having been unambiguously just. And she fought it flawlessly. The cause had been thrust upon her by an evil enemy’s behaviour against his own people, an enemy supported by the world’s strongest military power with pretensions to global leadership. Victims of the enemy’s wickedness were scores of millions of utterly defenceless, penniless human beings. Indira Gandhi did everything right. She practised patient but firm diplomacy on the world’s stage to avert war if it was at all possible to do. She chose her military generals well and took their professional judgment seriously as to when to go to war and how to win it. Finally, in victory she was magnanimous to the enemy that had been defeated. Children’s history-books in India should remember her as the stateswoman who freed a fraternal nation from tyranny, at great expense to our own people. As a war-leader, Indira Gandhi displayed extraordinary bravery, courage and good sense.” (From my review article of Inder Malhotra’s Indira Gandhi, first published in The Statesman May 7 2006.)

“She had indeed fought that rarest of things in international law: the just war. Supported by the world’s strongest military, an evil enemy had made victims of his own people. Indira tried patiently on the international stage to avert war, but also chose her military generals well and took their professional judgment seriously as to when to fight if it was inevitable and how to win. Finally she was magnanimous (to a fault) towards the enemy ~ who was not some stranger to us but our own estranged brother and cousin.  It seemed to be her and independent India’s finest hour. A fevered nation was thus ready to forgive and forget her catastrophic misdeeds until that time….” (From  “Unhealthy Delhi” first published in The Statesman June 11 2007).

What did Indira die for?  I have said it was “blowback” from domestic and/or international politics, similar to what happened to Rajiv Gandhi and Benazir Bhutto in later years.

“Indira Gandhi died in “blowback” from the unrest she and her younger son and others in their party had opportunistically fomented among Sikh fundamentalists and sectarians since the late 1970s.  Rajiv Gandhi died in “blowback” from an erroneous imperialistic foreign policy that he, as Prime Minister, had been induced to make by jingoistic Indian diplomats, a move that got India’s military needlessly involved in the then-nascent Sri Lankan civil war.  Benazir Bhutto similarly may be seen to have died in “blowback” from her own political activity as prime minister and opposition leader since the late 1980s, including her own encouragement of Muslim fundamentalist forces.  Certainly in all three cases, as in all assassinations, there were lapses of security too and imprudent political judgments made that contributed to the tragic outcomes.” From “An Indian Reply to President Zardari”.

And then there was Rajiv.  He did not know me except in his last eight months. It has now emerged that Dr Manmohan Singh’s first bypass operation was in 1990-1991, coinciding precisely with the time I gave Rajiv the results of the perestroika-for-India project that I had led at the University of Hawaii since 1986, an encounter that sparked the 1991 economic reform as has been told elsewhere. Dr Singh was simply not in that loop, nor has he himself ever claimed to have been in it — regardless of what innumerable flatterers, sycophants and other straightforwardly mendacious characters in Delhi’s high power circles have been making out over the years since.  Facts are rather stubborn things.

As a 35-year old newcomer to Delhi and a complete layman on security issues, I did what little I knew  how to try to reduce the vulnerability that I felt  Rajiv  faced from unknown lists of assassins.

“That night KR dropped me at Tughlak Road where I used to stay with friends. In the car I told him, as he was a military man with heavy security cover for himself as a former Governor of J&K, that it seemed to me Rajiv’s security was being unprofessionally handled, that he was vulnerable to a professional assassin. KR asked me if I had seen anything specific by way of vulnerability. With John Kennedy and De Gaulle in mind, I said I feared Rajiv was open to a long-distance sniper, especially when he was on his campaign trips around the country.  This was one of several attempts I made since October 1990 to convey my clear impression to whomever I thought might have an effect that Rajiv seemed to me extremely vulnerable. Rajiv had been on sadhbhavana journeys, back and forth into and out of Delhi. I had heard he was fed up with his security apparatus, and I was not surprised given it seemed at the time rather bureaucratized. It would not have been appropriate for me to tell him directly that he seemed to me to be vulnerable, since I was a newcomer and a complete amateur about security issues, and besides if he agreed he might seem to himself to be cowardly or have to get even closer to his security apparatus. Instead I pressed the subject relentlessly with whomever I could. I suggested specifically two things: (a) that the system in place at Rajiv’s residence and on his itineraries be tested, preferably by some internationally recognized specialists in counter-terrorism; (b) that Rajiv be encouraged to announce a shadow-cabinet. The first would increase the cost of terrorism, the second would reduce the potential political benefit expected by terrorists out to kill him. On the former, it was pleaded that security was a matter being run by the V. P. Singh and then Chandrashekhar Governments at the time. On the latter, it was said that appointing a shadow cabinet might give the appointees the wrong idea, and lead to a challenge to Rajiv’s leadership. This seemed to me wrong, as there was nothing to fear from healthy internal contests for power so long as they were conducted in a structured democratic framework. I pressed to know how public Rajiv’s itinerary was when he travelled. I was told it was known to everyone and that was the only way it could be since Rajiv wanted to be close to the people waiting to see him and had been criticized for being too aloof. This seemed to me totally wrong and I suggested that if Rajiv wanted to be seen as meeting the crowds waiting for him then that should be done by planning to make random stops on the road that his entourage would take. This would at least add some confusion to the planning of potential terrorists out to kill him. When I pressed relentlessly, it was said I should probably speak to “Madame”, i.e. to Mrs. Rajiv Gandhi. That seemed to me highly inappropriate, as I could not be said to be known to her and I should not want to unduly concern her in the event it was I who was completely wrong in my assessment of the danger. The response that it was not in Congress’s hands, that it was the responsibility of the V. P. Singh and later the Chandrashekhar Governments, seemed to me completely irrelevant since Congress in its own interests had a grave responsibility to protect Rajiv Gandhi irrespective of what the Government’s security people were doing or not doing. Rajiv was at the apex of the power structure of the party, and a key symbol of secularism and progress for the entire country. Losing him would be quite irreparable to the party and the country. It shocked me that the assumption was not being made that there were almost certainly professional killers actively out to kill Rajiv Gandhi — this loving family man and hapless pilot of India’s ship of state who did not seem to have wished to make enemies among India’s terrorists but whom the fates had conspired to make a target. The most bizarre and frustrating response I got from several respondents was that I should not mention the matter at all as otherwise the threat would become enlarged and the prospect made more likely! This I later realized was a primitive superstitious response of the same sort as wearing amulets and believing in Ptolemaic astrological charts that assume the Sun goes around the Earth — centuries after Kepler and Copernicus. Perhaps the entry of scientific causality and rationality is where we must begin in the reform of India’s governance and economy. What was especially repugnant after Rajiv’s assassination was to hear it said by his enemies that it marked an end to “dynastic” politics in India. This struck me as being devoid of all sense because the unanswerable reason for protecting Rajiv Gandhi was that we in India, if we are to have any pretensions at all to being a civilized and open democratic society, cannot tolerate terrorism and assassination as means of political change. Either we are constitutional democrats willing to fight for the privileges of a liberal social order, or ours is truly a primitive and savage anarchy concealed beneath a veneer of fake Westernization…..  the news suddenly said Rajiv Gandhi had been killed. All India wept. What killed him was not merely a singular act of criminal terrorism, but the system of humbug, incompetence and sycophancy that surrounds politics in India and elsewhere. I was numbed by rage and sorrow, and did not return to Delhi. Eleven years later, on 25 May 2002, press reports said “P. V. Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh lost their place in Congress history as architects of economic reforms as the Congress High command sponsored an amendment to a resolution that had laid credit at the duo’s door. The motion was moved by…. Digvijay Singh asserting that the reforms were a brainchild of the late Rajiv Gandhi and that the Rao-Singh combine had simply nudged the process forward.” Rajiv’s years in Government, like those of Indira Gandhi, were in fact marked by profligacy and the resource cost of poor macroeconomic policy since bank-nationalisation may be as high as Rs. 125 trillion measured in 1994 rupees. Certainly though it was Rajiv Gandhi as Leader of the Opposition in his last months who was the principal architect of the economic reform that came to begin after his passing.”

(I have had to say that I do not think the policies pursued by Dr Singh thus far have been consistent with the direction I believe Rajiv,  in a second term as PM, would have wished to take. See, for example, “India’s Macroeconomics”, “Fallacious Finance”, “Against Quackery”, “Mistaken Macroeconomics”, and other articles listed and linked at “Memo to Dr Kaushik Basu”.  See also https://independentindian.com/2006/05/21/the-politics-of-dr-singh/ https://independentindian.com/2008/04/25/assessing-manmohan-the-doctor-of-deficit-finance-should-realise-the-currency-is-at-stake/  https://independentindian.com/2013/08/23/did-jagdish-bhagwati-originate-pioneer-intellectually-father-indias-1991-economic-reform-did-manmohan-singh-or-did-i-through-my-encounter-with-rajiv-gandhi-just-as-siddhartha-shan/)

The treatment of Indira or Rajiv or Sanjay or their family successors as royalty of any kind whatsoever in India was, is, and remains absurd, reflecting stunted growth of Indian democracy.  I remember well the obsequiousness I witnessed on the part of old men in the presence of Rajiv Gandhi.

Tribal and mansabdari political cultures still dominate Northern and Western regions of the Indian subcontinent (descending from the Sikhs, Muslims, Rajputs, Mahrattas etc).

Nehru in his younger days was an exemplary democrat, and he had an outstanding democratically-minded young friend in Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah.

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But Nehru and Abdullah as Westernized political liberals were exceptions  in the autocratic/monarchical political cultures of north India (and Pakistan) which continue today and stunt the growth of any democratic mindset.

What we may urgently need is some French  Liberté, égalité, fraternité ! to create a simple ordinary citoyen universally in the country and the subcontinent as a whole!  May we please import a Marquis de Lafayette?

Bengal and parts of Dravidian India have long lost fondness for monarchy and autocracy —  Western political liberalism began to reach  Kolkata  almost two centuries ago after all (see e.g. Tapan Raychaudhuri’s  fine study Europe Reconsidered). Both Nepal and Pakistan have been undergoing radical transformation towards democracy in recent  months, as Bengali Pakistanis had done 40 years earlier under Sheikh Mujib.  I said last year and say again that there may be a dangerous  intellectual vacuum around the throne of Delhi.

Subroto Roy