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Saturday, November 08 1997

Leader, amend thy mind

T.V.R. Shenoy

There are seven deadly sins to which the Indian body politic is heir. Taken collectively, they negate the basic premise of democracy the fundamental right of a people to govern themselves through their duly elected representatives.

The rot began very early in the day. In 1952, the Congress won only 152 of the 375 seats in the Assembly of undivided Madras. With Kamaraj throwing in the towel, the venerable figure of Rajaji was recalled. He became Chief Minister by being nominated to the Upper House, and soon after obtained a majority (200-151) in the Assembly.

Nehru was furious. But today, both principles -- a chief executive in the Upper House and defections are regarded as standard practice.

Some good may come of the recent drama in Uttar Pradesh if we are forced to make fundamental reforms. Unfortunately, political and media attention has focused almost exclusively on the lacunae in the Anti-Defection Law. But the question of defections is only one of several thrown up in Lucknow and in Delhi.

Who should be an MP/MLA? How many ministers should there be? What are the precise duties of a Governor? How can the defects in the Anti-Defection Law be fixed?

Each of the four is important. In fact, unless all four are tackled, there is little point in tinkering with just one.

If the right people are elected in the first place, defections become a moot issue. If the size of ministries is strictly limited, an incentive to defection immediately goes out of the window. If Governors can be impeached, it provides a disincentive to fish in troubled waters.

And there are other questions too relating to the choice of a chief executive. The United Front and the Congress, however, are content to babble about defections alone.

I remember the circumstances under which the Anti-Defection Bill was brought forward in January 1985. It was conceived in fear and delivered in haste. Rajiv Gandhi was worried about whipping his 420-odd MPs into line over a full five-year term. Today, Sitaram Kesri fears that his 140-plus lambs are about to stray. These are scarcely ideal circumstances in which to enact or amend laws.

If the talk about political reforms is something more than the usual United Front balderdash, here are some suggestions for a truly comprehensive overhaul of the system.

One: Amend the Constitution so that any defector, whether MP or MLA, can't assume any ministerial office, unless he resigns and is subsequently re-elected. This draws a line between power-hungry defection and principled dissent, while neatly avoiding number-games of one-third or one-half. I do not claim that this is an original suggestion. It was the brainchild of Loknayak Jayaprakash Narayan, made in disgust at the Aya Ram, Gaya Ram tactics introduced by the Congress.

Two: Amend the Constitution so that the size of a ministry can't exceed 10 per cent of the total strength of the responsible legislature (if unicameral), or 11 per cent (if bi-cameral). Again, I make no claims to originality. This happens to be the recommendations of the Administrative Services Commission. Made over 25 years ago, it has been cheerfully ignored ever since.

Three: Amend the Constitution to prevent criminals from contesting elections. This provision can, I realise, be abused very easily. An unscrupulous Prime Minister or Chief Minister can easily slap false cases on his rivals as Narasimha Rao did in the Jain Hawala case. But surely men charged with capital crimes (murder and the like) have no place in the electoral arena.

Four: Amend the Constitution so that it becomes mandatory for a Prime Minister/Chief Minister to be a sitting member of the Lok Sabha/Vidhan Sabha.When Deve Gowda and Gujral moved their motions of confidence, they had no say in their own survival. This is ridiculous. When Britons opted for Labour, they were effectively voting for a Blair premiership. When Americans went for the Democratic ticket, they were voting for a Clinton presidency. Did anyone vote for either Deve Gowda or I. K. Gujral as Prime Minister?Five: Amend the Constitution to scrap the provision permitting men who aren't already sitting MPs/MLAs to be Prime Minister/Chief Minister.This licence has been sorely abused. More often than not, it is just a red carpet for politicians to fight from the security of the secretariat. (In 1984, Narasimha Rao lost in Andhra Pradesh in the face of a Congress wave; in 1991, fighting as Prime Minister, he won a record majority).Six: Amend the Constitution to define the powers of the Governor more clearly, and the procedures to remove one as well.

At the moment, we have a ludicrous situation. Governors are the only officers of the Constitution whose position is delightfully vague. It is possible to remove a President or a Supreme Court Justice by due process of impeachment. A Prime Minister can be removed by a simple majority in the Lok Sabha. But Parliament has no real say in the appointment or removal of a Governor. As to their powers, the only document spelling these out are the instructions given in 1937. These were intended to give the first popularly-elected ministries in the various provinces as little freedom as possible. I don't understand how they can be cited today.

Seven: Amend the Constitution to make voters' identity cards mandatory within a certain period.

Laloo Prasad Yadav was able to stymie T.N. Seshan's efforts by appealing to the Supreme Court. But that is no reason to prevent attacks on democracy at the grassroots.

I can't help wondering, however, if the bumbling United Front is actually serious about reforms. Is it just trying to placate a nervous Kesri?The idiotic suggestion that a Presidential ordinance be issued on defections just drives home the point about our leaders not applying their minds. Will someone please inform the Union Cabinet that you can't amend the Constitution with an ordinance!

Pidilite

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Ceat Financial Services Ltd.

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