When one sees the breakdown of the three pillars of democracy—parliament, judiciary and executive—one can’t help but feel nostalgic about our founding fathers who kept the country above everything else
By HK Dua
The health of our democracy depends on the functioning of our constitutional institutions—parliament, judiciary and the executive—whether they have lived up to the lofty expectations of the founding fathers and served the country in meeting various challenges as it went about finding its way through the last 67 years.
It will also be worth examining whether these organs of the state are equipped for meeting the challenges at a point when the country is poised for taking major strides to emerge as a power to reckon with during the next 30-odd years.
(Above) Unlike the past, MPs and MLAs today have no respect for parliament, and resort to frequent and unruly disruptions
Our constitution was framed by wise men and women who steered it through the constituent assembly as they did the freedom struggle. They dreamt high and tried to bequeath to posterity their aims, ideas, and these vital institutions for the governance of the new nation.
Have these institutions lived up to their hopes and proved their fears and trepidations wrong? Such questions need to be examined so that we can correct the mistakes we may have committed. Or, have we been walking on the right path or got deflected from it? Or do we need to carry out a course correction during the next few years?
“The first thing…is to hold fast to constitutional methods of achieving our social and economic objectives… we must abandon the bloody methods of revolution.”
—Dr BR Ambedkar
For the first 25 years, India and the three organs of the state mentioned above did well. Despite the post-Independence uncertainties facing the country and the trauma of parti-tion, influx of refugees and an immediate war over Kashmir, its major institutions stood up to the challenges.
During the later years, however, these organs of the state have been increasingly coming under strain. Public concern about the functioning of the parliament, judiciary and executive has naturally been steadily growing, and lately, some sections of society have been questioning the validity of these institutions in the present times. Some of them want the constitution to be replaced by a new charter.
Public concern over their functioning is understandable. Personally, I believe it is not the constitution that is to blame, but the way we have tried to use it in states and at the center for partisan ends. Why blame the charter and not those who willfully ignore its underlying constitutional morality.
The founding fathers wanted to ensure we remain united as one country and at no cost should unity be allowed to come under strain. It should also be a democratic country where every community—irrespective of religion, region, language, race—will have equal rights. Also, there should be universal adult franchise, where every citizen, rich or poor, educated or otherwise, has equal rights to vote.
MEN OF VISION
There were major challenges confronting the leaders who had spent effective years of their lives in British jails. But they were men of great vision, steeped in idealism, and determined to come out with a constitution befitting a great country. They came from different backgrounds and often, their differences came to the fore during debates in the constituent assembly. They thrashed out their differences in open debates. They resolved even fundamental issues while adopting the constitution and evolved the historic document based on national consensus.
The Emergency in 1975 was the first major blow to the constitution of India
Jawaharlal Nehru was keen on evolving a modern nation state, Sardar Patel thought that whatever the cost, India after partition cannot be allowed to fall apart. They all agreed to have a parliamentary form of government based on universal adult franchise, independence of the judiciary and an executive that was expected to be accountable to the people through parliament. The three organs, parliament, the judiciary and the executive, thus, emerged from the labors of the constituent assembly as the three main pillars, which were to ensure that India will be a democratic country, united, secular and marching towards a new destiny.
To give meaning to democracy, the founding fathers provided for the Directive Prin-ciples of State Policy and also sweeping Fun- damental Rights that have remained the bulwark of the basic rights of the people.
The makers of the constitution were aware of the challenges that would arise in a diverse society, full of divisions of caste and class, social and economic inequality and the new expectations that Independence generated. There was a fear that democracy itself might turn out to be fragile unless the constitution, and the three organs it had created, functioned on the principles laid down for them in the constitution.
Dr BR Ambedkar and his colleagues were aware of these challenges. In his last speech in the constituent assembly which adopted the constitution, Dr Ambedkar as chairman of the drafting committee said: “If we wish to maintain democracy not merely in form, but also in fact, what must we do? The first thing…is to hold fast to constitutional methods of achieving our social and economic objectives. It means we must abandon the bloody methods of revolution. It means that we must abandon the method of civil disobedience, non-cooperation and satyagraha. When there was no way left for constitutional methods for achieving economic and social objectives, there was a great deal of justification for unconstitutional methods. But where constitutional methods are open, there can be no justification for those unconstitutional methods. These methods are nothing but the Grammar of Anarchy and the sooner they are abandoned, the better for us.”
He went on to say in what was one of his most remembered speeches: “On the 26th of January, 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics, we will have equality and in social and economic life, we will have inequality. In politics, we will be recognizing the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one value. How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions? How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life? If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril. We must remove this contradiction at the earliest possible moment or else, those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy which this Assembly has so laboriously built up.
“If hereafter, things go wrong, we will have nobody to blame except ourselves. There is great danger of things going wrong. Times are fast changing,” said Dr Ambedkar. He was clear in his warning. But we as a nation did not listen to him.
Constitutional institutions need continuing nurturing for growth and strength in their sinews. Unfortunately, after the first 25 years, we forgot about the basics of constitutional morality and began fiddling with the essentials of constitutional institutions. The Emergency was the first major blow to the constitution, and then, the demolition of the Babri Masjid. The damage done to the constitution by these two major blows has not been fully undone. These two post-Independence events led to the widespread impression that the statute and its legal and moral underpinnings are no longer sacred.
The Babri Masjid demolition in 1992 violated the rights of the Muslims
I can understand occasional frictions and turf wars between the three organs in a democracy, despite the separation of powers provided in the constitution. Lakshman rekhas, at times, get blurred in day-to-day work. But these problems are inherent in a growing democracy and can be sorted out.
What I cannot understand, however, is why constitutional institutions should not do their duty prescribed in the constitution. Parliament, for instance, failed the people when Emergency was imposed in June 1975 by not protecting the rights of the people. Fundamental Rights were thrown out of the window, press freedom was suppressed, lakhs of political workers were sent to jail, courts came under pressure, citizens felt choked. Also, when Babri Masjid was demolished, the religious rights of the minority community were rudely violated. So were the moral principles woven into the constitution.
Over the years, parliament has lost respect among the people. The best of leaders, men and women, people like Jawaharlal Nehru, BR Ambedkar, GB Pant, Jagjivan Ram, Hiren Mukherjee, Indrajit Gupta, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Acharya Kripalani, Dr Ram Manohar Lohia, Madhu Limaye, Nath Pai, and HV Kamath were some of the ablest parliamentarians who represented the people with selfless dedication. They, too, had political differences, but they treated parliament with reverence. Not now. Disrupting parliament, going into the well of the house and displaying placards have replaced reasoned debate and discussions and policies of the government. Often, Question Hour has been dispensed with, further diluting government’s accountability to parliament.
The constitution came into being in 1950. But we forgot the basics of constitutional morality and began fiddling with its institutions after the first 25 years.
The time lost because of frequent disruptions is made up by passing legislation without much thought and discussion. At times, vital laws and budgetary grants are passed without debate and often, voting takes place in the raucous commotion.
After centuries, democracy comes to a country and a parliament comes into existence. It is the job of those sitting in the opposition benches to oppose the government in parliament by parliamentary means, and outside, by mobilizing and educating people and at times, with peaceful protests. But during the last few years, we have seen in parliament, as also in state legislatures, that they are fighting parliament—and not the government—by disrupting it. They have chosen “to wreck it from within”, with the result that people have lost respect for parliament and state legislatures and also, politicians as a class.
The Mandal protests in 1990 exposed the designs of the politicians to manoeuver caste dynamics for political gains
Also, the sight of criminals getting elected to parliament and assemblies and law-breakers making laws is edifying neither for parliament nor India’s demo-cracy. The Supreme Court, the Election Commission and political parties have not found effective ways to block the entry of criminals into parliament and state legislatures. They do not realize that this can lead to the mafia hijacking the entire political system.
Kachehri is the last hope of the common man, but the state of the judiciary is causing a great deal of worry to the people.
CORRUPTION IN COURTS
The weight of over three crore cases pending in lower courts, high courts and the Supreme Court can only delay the delivery of justice for years. There are reports of growing corruption in courts at different levels. Justice can be bought and sold in many parts of the country. Even the apex court is increasingly getting into the news for the wrong reasons.
I won’t be surprised if the Supreme Court sooner or later strikes down the recent Constitution Amendment Bill passed by parliament for setting up the Judicial Appoint-ments Commission. The Judicial Standards and Accountability Bill is still pending before parliament and can add to the friction bet-
ween the government and the judiciary. The judiciary feels that the executive is always keen to cut into its independence, guaranteed by the constitution.
The Supreme Court, however, has already come out with a landmark judgment in the Keshavanand Bharati case to lay down that parliament cannot pass any law that violates the basic structure of the constitution. The court has not defined the basic structure, but has often thrown the hint that independence of the judiciary is a part of this basic structure. It can use this as a shield to protect its independence against any encroachment by the executive or parliament.
The Khalistan movement in the 1980s put a question mark on India’s unity as envisaged by the constitution
The less said about the executive the better. Administrations in states and at the center have not worked with the kind of efficiency and commitment required of them after Independence. The bureaucracy in India is bloated and the red tape too long to permit quick decision-making and delivery to the people. Exceptions apart, the administration is distant from the people, indifferent, and callous. Elections are held and political rulers change in the states and at the center, but the attitude towards the people does not change.
Civil servants are happy to be in cahoots with political masters, and serve their interests and their own, unmindful of the interests of the people whom they both are supposed to serve. The nexus between political masters and the bureaucracy is a major reason for slow progress in different fields. This nexus is also the reason for corruption that has over the years spread like cancer in the body politic.
The rich and the powerful and the peddlers of influence can get things done according to their wishes, while the poor, the illiterate and all those who have no influence, continue to suffer. The local mafia in many states also knows which string to pull and when to use the muscle. The “Rule of Law” in many parts of the country remains a subject for only classroom discussion.
No easy explanation is available from the leaders of different political parties as to why after 67 years of Independence we have crores of people who are illiterate, without primary health care, safe drinking water, jobs or a little house for shelter. It has taken 67 years to wake up to the need for toilets in the country.
The accident of birth still decides the fate of a child. Birth in a dalit or in a tribal family leads to life-long suffering because of the unrelenting weights of social and economic inequality. This is despite the constitution of the republic, which provides equality before law and equal opportunity for all. It looks like it will take several decades before the constitutional mandate can be translated into our daily lives.
Let all of us work for an India where the poorest of the land, “the loneliest and the lost” in Gandhiji’s words, does not feel lonely and lost. It is possible to wipe out his or her tears, if we all work for a country that cares. The constitution cares. Do we?
— The writer is an eminent journalist and Member of Parliament