June 15, 2014

Claims of Good Governance are Suspect

AS we go to press, the current session of the parliament has been adjourned sine die. This first session held after the 16th general elections ended on the third day since it began with the customary rendition of the national song. This is probably the shortest parliament session in recent memory. The only agenda was the adoption of the customary motion of thanks to the president for his address to the joint session on the first day. The motion of thanks was moved in both the Houses on the second day and was adopted on the third day, thus ending the session. Thus, there was no regular question hour in either of the houses. No issue of public importance could be raised by the members. There were no special mentions on burning issues concerning the people, neither could any calling attention motions, i.e., calling the attention of the government to attend pending issues of peoples' concern could be considered. In recent memory, this had indeed been a parliament session that transacted no business normally associated with parliamentary proceedings other than the motion of thanks to the president's address. Again, it is customary that the president of India addresses the joint session of the parliament of India soon after general elections and after administering the oath of office and secrecy to the prime minister and his council of ministers. Thus, apart from paying respects to parliamentary customs and traditions practiced by our parliamentary democracy since independence, this session did nothing else. Normally when a new government assumes office, the president's address contains the agenda that the new government will seek to undertake to implement in its first year. It was therefore expected that this address should contain, if not a blue print at least a road map of the policy direction which this new government wishes to pursue. Further it was presumed that the president's address would prioritise the issues which the government considers important to be attended immediately. For instance, when the UPA-2 government assumed office, the then president's address detailed the priorities of the then government which it would undertake in its first hundred days. That the UPA government did not fulfill these promises is a different matter. On this occasion, the president's speech contained neither a road map, forget a blue print, nor did it detail any priorities of this government's agenda. This address was a compilation of the election slogans that were raised by today's ruling party during the election campaign and the rest of the speech was a rehash of the BJP's election manifesto. This left the country and the people no-wiser than they were during the election campaign. It looks like that we shall have to wait now for the next session of the parliament. This should normally be a regular budget session beginning sometime in early July. There have been no announcements so far and given the current experience, one cannot be reasonably sure when a regular budget session would be convened. This government has come on the basis of many a slogan including one on 'good governance'. Now, good governance has many attributes. First, there must be adequate information with both the people and the legislators on the agenda before them, apart from the all important assurance that their urgent problems will be attended to. Secondly, there should be adequate opportunity for a proper meaningful discussion in parliamentary fora. Thirdly, after due consideration legislative action must follow. Apart from many other attributes, good governance also means that the government is accountable to the parliament. In turn, the members of parliament are accountable to the people. This is our constitutional scheme of things, where the people exercise their supreme sovereignty on the affairs of the nation. Bypassing all these attributes, this government had begun to govern in a manner that sends very ominous signals. As noted in these columns last week, this government began its work by issuing ordinances. Worse, it did not even place these ordinances before the parliament-in-session for its consideration and approval. This, we are informed, will be done in the next session. Ordinances, by law, lapse if they are not endorsed and converted into law within six months by the parliament from the time of their decree. Rule by ordinances is usually considered as the anathema to parliamentary democracy. This government, despite its clear majority has chosen the route of the 'ordinance raj'. This surely is not 'good governance'. The claims of good governance became more suspect when an incumbent minister of state with independent charge, who was a former army chief of the country, openly opposed the new army chief appointed by the earlier government. In a parliamentary democracy, a government is a government, irrespective of the political party which holds its reins at any point of time. There are matters on which the decisions of an outgoing government are honoured by an incumbent government because on most such matters, these decisions are taken on the basis of well laid out procedures and in accordance with established rules and regulations. This new BJP minister of state questioned the appointment of the army chief-designate and publicly tweeted accusing the new army chief who earlier as the head of an organisation of the armed forces of “killing innocents” indulging in “dacoity”, “protecting criminals”, etc. Such severe condemnations by a former army chief, who is now a part of the union council of ministers against the army chief-designate naturally stirred a hornets' nest. An embarrassed BJP government had to field the defence minister in the parliament to assure the country that the government fully defended and backed the ascendancy of the incumbent army chief, fully defending his appointment by the earlier government. In ongoing legal proceedings in the Supreme Court, this government submitted a sworn affidavit on June 10 defending the appointment and describing the disciplinary ban imposed upon the incumbent army chief, by the then army chief and current minister as “illegal”, “extraneous” and “pre-meditated”. The affidavit also said that the disciplinary proceedings initiated by the current union minister against the incumbent army chief in May 2012 were “without any basis or material on record”. This is an extraordinary situation that is indeed going to test this new BJP government's commitment to 'good governance'. The defence minister's defence of the appointment in the parliament and the affidavit submitted by the central government to the Supreme Court clearly go against the views of an army chief who is currently a member of this government's council of ministers. Such serious admonishing by the government of one of its own union ministers is untenable. The minister concerned will either have to rescind his positions publicly or recuse himself from the council of ministers. Worse, the government's solemnly sworn affidavit in Supreme Court virtually condemns the minister's disciplinary action when he was the army chief by stating that that was “without any basis or material on record”. This new BJP government cannot hope to continue to go on with 'business as usual' approach unless this is resolved. Can it continue to retain this minister in the union cabinet? Its commitment to good governance is thus under critical scrutiny. Soon after this government was elected, we had warned through these columns that the people must brace themselves for a double whammy attack. First, on the score of economic policies, which, according to all indications, are set to impose further burdens on the people. The second, on the count of sharpening communal polarisation, which has intensified since the election results were declared in large parts of the country. The murder of a young Pune based technocrat by a rabidly intolerant Hindutva organisation is the latest gruesome attack in this growing list of communal violence. Additionally, such acts of grave omission and commission in the methods of its governance will only further accentuate the peoples miseries. It is only the strength of the powerful popular people’s mobilisations that can safeguard both the interests of the country and improve people’s quality of life. (June 11, 2014)