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In the footsteps of Ayub Khan
By John Dayal

Atal removes another mask, wants guided democracy through fix term Parliament, indirect elections 

The nation once again owes a debt of deep gratitude to the President, Mr KR Narayanan. In measured, softly spoken but ruthless tones, the President used his Republic Day Address to the Nation -- marking also the conclusion of the Golden Jubilee year of the Republic and the adoption of a democratic Constitution -- to defeat a deep conspiracy to abort the republican character of Parliament and governance.

Referring to Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s statement calling for a fixed 5 year term for the Lok Sabha and State assemblies, and orchestrated arguments from the ill conceived ‘discussion papers’ Constitution Review Commission, for indirect elections, the President minced no words in comparing these to the brainchild of military dictators in nearby Pakistan. These suggestions, said the President, reflected the shades of political ideas of Ayub Khan, the father of military rule in Pakistan. Pakistan was born a day before India itself received Independence, but in its 52 years of existence, its people have never really had a taste of real, republican democracy. “We may recall that in Pakistan, Field Marshal Ayub Khan had introduced an indirect system of elections and experimented with what he called basic democracy or guided democracy.” Speaking in defence of the Indian people, and the farsightedness of the founding fathers of the Constitution, President Narayanan said adult franchise required a profound faith in the wisdom of the common man and woman of India. In turn, the flexible and spacious provisions of the Indian Constitution has proved that democracy has flourished during the last 50 years and that the country has achieved an unprecedented unity and cohesion as a nation and made remarkable progress in the social and economic fields.

Vajpayee is not going to like being compared to Ayub Khan, the field marshal whose love for wine, women and song made him some sort of a dubious legend in the Subcontinent till the 1965 war with India knocked out the foundations of his regime.

This is not the first of Presidential interventions since Narayanan, the first Dalit to rise to the highest offices the country’s public life has to offer, became President, succeeding Sanjiva Reddy. (Zail Singh was a tarkhan, of carpenter ancestry, but was never identified as a Dalit, unlike Buta Singh, who was reviled as a ‘choora’ by his village elders long after he had become a powerful central minister.) 

Readers will recall Narayanan’s sterling advocacy of the Dalit intellect, wondering why there was no one from this community thought fit to find a place in the higher echelons of the judiciary. The top judges struck back, arguing a now defeated accent on so called meritocracy. Narayanan’s strong language can not easily be forgotten when he took head on all those who had been arguing that promotion of judicial officers from the scheduled caste segment to the higher benches on the basis of reservation would in some way dilute or pervert the administration of justice. Narayanan slammed the concept of meritocracy as facile. Given equal opportunity and a level playing field, there would be no fears that Dalit judges would in any way be inferior, or their commitment less than those born in the more privileged castes and classes. 

It was Narayanan who called the brutal burning alive of Graham Stuart Staines and his sons Timothy and Phillips by Hindutva elements a blot on Indian civilization. It was the President once again who publicly expressed concern at the growing mood of intolerance in the country, reflecting on the aftermath of the Babri controversy and the continuing anti Christian violence. I recall the many times when I was among those – together with the late Archbishop Alan de Lastic and his successor Archbishop Vincent Concessao – who used to frequently call on the President at Rashtrapati Bhawan in the hope that there was one who would listen with compassion, and would not jump to the defence of the criminals. The President has lived up to his reputation, and his expressions of concern for the landless, the dispossesed and the poor have, to some measure even if small, helped reign in the galloping anti-people range of government policies.

One dwells on the President so much in an article meant to be on the Prime Minister because he cannot be accused of partisan motives in criticizing and condemning such policies. There are no more posts that can be given him, none that can be taken away. This gives real meaning to his oath of office to defend the Constitution of India.

This objectivity is crucial, for so sugar coated do the Prime Minister, and the orchestra of his cohorts, make their assault on the Constitution and the basic tenets of Indian democracy as to fool even well-meaning academics and the middle classes. The image of the Prime Minister as a liberal, the repeated harkening back to Jawaharlal Nehru’s ‘prophesy’ about young Atal becoming an able premier one day, the hype about his elocution and poetic talent, combine to hide the sting from his statements.

From anyone else, the nation would have instantly rejected the dangerous statements that Atal has made in recent weeks to alter basic structures of Parliamentary democracy. Speaking at the jubilee celebrations of the Election Commission of India, Vajpayee strongly commended his party’s stance – repeated by his hand-picked man in the controversial Constitution Review Commission Subhash Kashyap in the panel’s working paper – for a fixed five year term of the Lok Sabha and the state assemblies, saying it was undesirable to hold frequent elections. His main argument seemed to be to save public expenditure; the massive election process was admittedly costing a pretty penny to the national expenditure. For candidates and parties themselves, the cost of electioneering had become so prohibitive as to keep decent and talented candidates out of the process. “This”, Vajpayee said, “increases the dependence of both candidates and parties on moneybags with all attendant negative influences on the polity. I strongly believe that a fixed tenure (for Lok Sabha and assemblies) is essential for our democratic system to become more mature and deliver good governance.

Subhash Kashyap, a former secretary general of the Lok Sabha and considered to be a BJP acolyte though not a party member, quoting the policy paper, which is said to be largely written by him, has gone overboard in expanding this thesis. He calls it a Gandhian prescription, recalling the Mahatma’s argument on decentralizing power. The mahatma’s model moots the idea of decentralizing power down to the grassroots level and building multipliers of government from below in what Kashyap glibly calls a ‘bottom up instead of top-down’ approach as at present. According to Kashyap, the commission’s members feel that the only way to conduct a meaningful electoral exercise in this country is to have direct elections only at local levels with the upper tiers filled by representatives indirectly elected by an electoral college consisting of the representatives manning the lower tiers.

Direct elections should be held at the level of the panchayats and other local bodies. The panchayats could elect the Zila or district councils and they together could elect members to the state assemblies. These three, according to the working papers, could then elect the members of Parliament. The four tiers could jointly elect the President of the republic while the chief ministers and the Prime Minister could in turn be elected by their respective electoral colleges. The President, the Prime Minister and chief ministers, in order to be elected, would have to have more than fifty per cent of the votes cast. Once elected, the Prime Minister or a chief minister could be removed by a so called ‘constructive’ vote of no confidence.

Kashyap argues that this process will be cost effective as local elections are not very expensive. The candidates are in constant touch with the grass roots, and finally, this will eliminate the first past the post system. The local governments will handle local issues, the state government state issues, and in logical sequence, the national government will have the task of deliberating and acting on national and international issues. There will be direct accountability of candidates, deeper search of better candidates will be possible, true democracy, will prevail.

Kashyap and his friends obviously had written their paper before the American presidential elections exposed the shortcomings of electoral colleges. Mighty America made a laughing stock of itself in the world in the act of choosing its President – giving the crown not to the man who won the popular mandate but to one that actually lost it. Let that be, though.

As said earlier, Kashyap, Vajpayee and the rest of them are superficially pandering to common perceptions of educated comfortable urban middle classes and a consumeristic sense of moral outrage.

There of course is more than a little truth in the reasons that go to create such doubts about politicians. Political corruption is rampant; tens of lakhs of rupees are spent on assembly elections and often more than a crore on Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha polls. In the last Rajya Sabha elections, one candidate is said to have spent Rest. Five lakh to get elected from Uttar Pradesh, while in the Lok Sabha, several businessmen are known to have got the party ticket, and the votes, only after spending an equal amount of money.

Criminals too get elected in the nexus between money bags, underworld dons and political party leaders. Consider this about the current Lok Sabha: reports that have never been contradicted say that the Lower and more powerful house of the Indian Parliament has among its members of whom:
» 29 have been accused of spousal abuse.
» 7 have been arrested for fraud
» 19 have been accused of passing bad checks.
» 117 have bankrupted at least two businesses.
» 3 have been arrested for assault.
» 71 cannot get credit or loans due to bad credit histories.
» 14 have been arrested on drug related charges.
» 8 have been arrested for shop-lifting.
» 21 are current defendants on various lawsuits.
» 84 were stopped for drunken driving, in 1998 alone.

Reason enough for the common man to be worried. But there is much more than the matter of drunken driving. At stake is the concept of representation of the people, as exemplified in the Representation of the People’s Act which sets up the system of universal adult franchise instead of the feudal and colonial system of giving power of governance, direct and indirect, only to the rich, the landed, the educated or the well bred.

CPI-M Polit Bureau member Prakash Karat analyses the right wing and fundamentalist fear of universal franchise and its consequences as a ‘Deep suspicion and fear of the common masses’, the common people, an ‘Intrinsic fear of instability’ and its concomitant issues, and a false notion of stability.

To take up the major issues one by one. There is a feeling amongst the self righteous that the poor or the illiterate cannot reason for themselves, are bereft of native intelligence, in other words decisions of such import as politics and governance cannot be left to them, but instead must be taken on their behalf by a mai-baap father-mother) dispensation and people of higher intelligence. This is the basis of the concept of ruling classes, of the god-given right to rule lesser mortals. By extension, this is the Hindutva’s argument that tribals and Dalits can be lured to become Christians because they cannot think for themselves. This it says while co-opting the Dalits and tribals into its own fold, there to keep them in servitude.

I recall in my long career as a Parliamentary reporter listening to the speeches of illiterate MPs from UP and Bihar. They often spoke better sense than lawyers from their own state, or PhDs from the Rajya Sabha nominee list. The stone breaker woman MP from Bihar who was mocked at in the English press made possibly a greater contribution to the cause of women than the more sophisticated women from Mumbai and Mangalore. Statistics show that the membership of the first Parliament consisted of lawyers and rich farmers. Lawyers are fewer in number, framers hold their own, and the rich have proliferated, both as industrialists and as highly paid businessmen and political cronies from among journalists.

There is more dishonesty amongst the urban careerists now defending the BJP on television than amongst the poor, whether they are in the Samajwadi party or in the BSP. I am not defending Phoolan Devi, but I must say that she has paid her debt to society, spending more than a decade in jail. That cannot be said of L K Advani and Uma Bharti.

There is much more to say of stability and how dishonest the BJP is on this. Its cadres and supporters have no qualms on crying out for the abrogation of Article 370, for calling for the sack of the CPM government in Bengal and for resigning from Parliament to blackmail the Congress in the last decade. When they are not in control, they do not believe in five year terms. When they are in power, they want the full term.

Is it Vajpayee’s case that the government should not fall if it loses the confidence of the House and of the people? No one who has ceased to retain confidence of the people and their representative has the right to remain in power. The cost of elections is a myth. Much of the money spent is black money, and it is good that it is brought into circulation. The official costs include salary of staff, which would be paid regardless of whether they are on election duty or are just sitting and playing with files in offices. No loss there.

Let it be said loud and clear. Money is not an issue when the matter has to do with the tenets of democracy and with political honesty. In fact, one must go further. There must be the right to recall. As for Gandhi and grass roots democracy, the governments have never had the courage to implement land reforms, which could have empowered the grass roots, the poor farmers and the marginalized. It failed to implement land reforms because the former maharajas, the landlords and the powerful peasantry held sway first in the congress and then in the Swatantra Party and the Jana Sangh-BJP. A review of the Panchayati Raj election should be subject of a separate article.

The point is Vajpayee does not want to be sacked even if his government fails miserably to catch killers of Christians and Muslims, even if his education minister murders history and even if his political brothers work over time to wreck democracy. He would want his five years even if he sells India to multinationals.

That is all that fixed terms mean. Nowhere in the world have political leaders sought to give up their right to call snap elections and seek a fresh mandate from the people. That is the stuff of democracy.

The only instability that the BJP fears is its fear that it may not return to power. For many in this land, that would be the answer to their prayer..

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