Parody of democracy

Published July 31, 2021
The writer is an author and a lawyer.
The writer is an author and a lawyer.

IN India, the fundamentals of parliamentary democracy are barely respected. The damage was done during the freedom movement. After the 1937 general elections in the provinces of British India, the Indian National Congress assumed power in what was supposed to be a form of responsible government in autonomous provinces. The federal part of the main constitution, the Government of India Act, 1935, was never enforced. The Muslim League led by Mohammad Ali Jinnah saw in it the seeds of a disastrous set-up and successfully opposed it leading eventually to the partition of India.

But what is called the ‘Congress system of governance’ in the provinces of British India from 1937 to 1942 came to stay. It was relaunched in 1946 when, after the general elections, Congress ministers assumed power in most of the provinces. It was not the culture of parliamentary democracy that they established but a parody of the parliamentary system as it is known in Britain, Canada, Australia and elsewhere. The Congress was less concerned about establishing the rules of the parliamentary system than consolidating its own power.

The ‘Congress system of governance’ came to stay.

The Congress leaders had achieved their purpose. They had absorbed the new provincial constitution into the Congress system, and thus to a great extent perverted it. It had been framed on the basis of provincial autonomy and responsible government. But neither of those two principles was allowed to operate as it was meant to operate. Though freed from the control of the centre, the provinces were subjected to far stricter control by the Congress; responsible government, as intended by the 1935 Act, was made impossible. Ministers were only in form responsible to the majorities of legislatures elected by the people: in fact, they were responsible to the working committee and the parliamentary sub-committee. No secret was made of it.

Writing in November 1937, Nehru said: “What was the responsibility of the electorate? That electorate plumped for the Congress candidates, not because of their individual merits, but because they represented the Congress and its programme. Nothing could be clearer than this. The vote was for the Congress. … It is to the Congress … that the electorate gave allegiance, and it is the Congress that is responsible to the electorate. The ministers and the Congress parties in the legislatures are … responsible to the Congress and only through it to the electorate.”

In 1937, Jawaharlal Nehru was elected president of the Congress. He broke the pattern of Congress and League talks in practice for over two decades. He would talk only to the masses and talk directly too without reckoning with the Muslim League. This is how Nehru behaved with a leader who was a national figure when Nehru met him as a student at Cambridge.

That apart, Nehru’s assertion in November 1937 that Congress ministers and Congress parties “are responsible to the Congressand only through it to the electorate” reveals a profound contempt for the parliamentary system.

As early as 1937-1939, the Congress revealed its outlook. K.F. Nariman, a popular figure, was refused the premiership of the Bombay Presidency. In his place, the submissive B.G. Kher was appointed; N.B. Khare was removed as the premier of the Central Provinces.

Post partition, two prime ministers, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, thought nothing of demanding the resignation of the chief minister of Karnataka, Veerendra Patil, twice. He was an upright man. One fine day in June 1951, prime minister Nehru told president Rajendra Prasad that the chief minister of Punjab, Dr Go­­p­i­chand Bhargava, should resign though he enjo­y­­ed a majority in the House.

The president’s note in his diary on this is of abiding relevance:

“I abhor the idea of suspending the constitution and taking over the administration of a state in this manner. The ministry in the state had the confidence of the assembly and it could have continued to rule the state if the Congress parliamentary board had not forced it to resign. ... the question arises whether the government should be run through persons authorised by the constitution or on the advice of the Congress which had no constitutional locus standi. It would be a dangerous precedent to run a government on the advice of an extra-constitutional authority when the constitutional apparatus was in existence. The Congressmen may like it today, but a time could come when a different set of people would be in power.” That came to pass.

The Janata era saw a different spectacle. The Bharatiya Lok Dal and the Bharatiya Jana Sangh constituents, struck a deal and had their nominees elected as leaders in seven states.

The crux of the matter is that awarding party tickets to candidates for elections is undemocratic. Organisational elections are not held. A party cabal controlling the party purse awards ‘tickets’ to its favourites unless the state’s leader has clout enough to get his men in.

The writer is an author and a lawyer.

Published in Dawn, July 31st, 2021

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