June 08, 2014


ADMITTEDLY it is too early to comment upon the functioning of the new government. The president of India, as is customary after every general elections, will address the joint session of the parliament after the newly-elected MPs are administered their `oath’ and the Lok Sabha elects its speaker. This address is scheduled only on Monday, June 9, 2014. In this speech, the president of India outlines the general blueprint of the work that `his’ government intends to do. This usually prioritises the government’s promises that will be undertaken/fulfilled during the first 100 days. Normally, one would have to wait to comment on both the programme and the style of functioning of the government only when this is completed. But the initial signals emanating from the government, some decisions and others reported in the media on the basis of `informed’ leaks, cause some degree of concern suggesting that the RSS/BJP not only conducted the election campaign as though we are in a presidential form of governance but now intends to extend this to modify our system of parliamentary form of governance. On the morning following the swearing-in ceremony of the new government, the Rashtrapathi Bhavan issued a press communiqué giving details of the allocation of portfolios amongst the members of the union council of ministers (cabinet) as advised by the prime minister. Naturally, this list begins with the prime minister’s responsibilities. Amongst various portfolios, the list includes “All important policy issues”. This is unusual. In the cabinet form of governance, individual ministers who have been allocated specific ministries take necessary decisions while the cabinet as a whole approves such decisions and the set of policies and programmes that the government will pursue. This combines a democratic form of collective functioning with individual responsibilities assigned to each member of the cabinet. If the PM alone is responsible for `all important policy issues’, then clearly our system is being nudged towards a presidential form of governance. Media reports also suggest that the government has asked all secretaries to directly report to the prime minister and not only to the concerned ministers under whose charge is a particular portfolio. Further, `informed leaks’ to the media suggest that this government has decided to dispense with the practice of setting up `groups of ministers’ and `empowered groups of ministers’. This was an intermediate mechanism that was evolved to consider some important matters and report its suggestions to the full cabinet for appropriate decisions or in the case of EGoMs to the PM for appropriate decisions. Now all authority would flow directly to the PM or the PMO. These developments would have to be watched closely as the parliamentary form of governance was preferred to the presidential form by the Constituent Assembly after long deliberations. This was decided given India’s rich diversity and plurality and in accordance with the primacy given in the Indian Constitution to the people as the final sovereign authority – “We, the people….”. The people exercise this sovereignty through their elected representatives to whom the executive (government) is accountable to. The elected representatives, in turn, are accountable to the people which is re-affirmed through a general election every five years. Any tinkering with this system has the danger of authoritarian tendencies negating the foundations of our democracy. In this context must be seen the reports that this new government is also preparing a ten year agenda. It needs to be reminded that we need to re-elect our parliament every five years, unless, of course, the Constitution is amended, like it was in 1975 facilitating the imposition of internal Emergency. It was a determined struggle by the Indian people that defeated such authoritarian tendencies and restored democracy in the country. Also of concern is the fact that the government has begun its work by issuing ordinances. The first was to facilitate the appointment of its choice of a person as the principal secretary of the PMO. Changing the law to facilitate a personal choice is, indeed, unprecedented. (Elsewhere in this issue is a detailed report on this matter.) The second ordinance re-drew the boundaries of the recently-divided state of Andhra Pradesh. Following the parliamentary discussion over the proposed legislation sanctioning such a division, the UPA-2 government agreed to a suggestion that the catchment area of the Polavaram irrigation project should not be divided between the new states. An ordinance to this effect was not sanctioned by the president of India then, as the general elections were due. Now this has been done through this ordinance on the eve of the convening of the parliament. Only under exceptional circumstances can the issuance of ordinance be acceptable, otherwise all matters of law, must be subject to parliamentary scrutiny and sanction. Why this decision could not wait for a week for the parliament to thus decide upon remains a mystery. The CPI(M) had always, in principle, opposed the rule by ordinances. Even the BJP was very vocal in the past in opposing such an `ordinance raj’. Controversies surround new cabinet ministers' educational qualifications. Both the HRD minister and, now sadly the late minister for rural development (who died in a tragic road accident in the capital) have allegedly given wrong information in the voluntary affidavits while filing nominations. All of us are proud that much before many so-called mature western democracies, the Indian Republic, since its birth, gave universal suffrage irrespective of caste, creed, sex, educational or property qualifications etc., adopting the principle of 'one person, one vote'; 'one vote, one value'. The question here, therefore, is not of levels of educational competence. The question is of stating untruths. Such alleged 'deception' does not augur well for 'good governance'. Worse, media reports that five Delhi University officials were suspended for 'giving true information' regarding the minister's degree. Notwithstanding feeble attempts at official denial, this is atrocious, unacceptable in this age of RTI. The new government’s definition of `good governance’ is, indeed, perplexing. As far as the much hyped election campaign around the slogan of `development’ is concerned, people hoping for relief from economic burdens from this new government – acche din aane walen hai – now face another diesel price hike fuelling the cascading inflationary spiral. Policy pronouncements favouring foreign capital, including in areas of defence production, can adversely affect domestic industry and national security. The CPI(M) had all along maintained that inflow of foreign capital can be beneficial to the country and the people only when it meets the following requirements: when it expands our existing production capacities; generates additional jobs and upgrades India technologically. Any FDI that does not satisfy these three objectives is not in the interests of our country or the people. The CPI(M)’s opposition to permitting 100 per cent FDI in retail trade was based on the established fact that this would lead to a reduction in employment currently existing in this sector. That it will shrink existing jobs is why even the BJP opposed FDI in retail trade in the past apart from satisfying an important element of its social support base. Such stumbling at the start of a five year race by this government on its declared intentions of `development’ and `good governance’ is accompanied by a flurry of activity relating to its undeclared intentions, as noted in this column last week. This relates to an aspect that constituted the strongest undercurrent of its electoral victory – sharpening of communal polarisation. These initial signals coming out from this government – sharpening of communal polarisation, on the one hand, and the imposition of further burdens on the people, on the other – are, indeed, ominous. It is clear that if people’s hopes and aspirations are to be fulfilled, then the urgent necessity is to build sufficient popular public pressure on the government, so that the promises of `development’ and `good governance’ actually translate into tangible benefits. (June 4, 2014)