Constitutional roots of India's crisis
|(Courtesy: Organizer Weekly)|
Constitutional roots of India's crisis
Dr. Gautam Sen
There are many reasons why India is facing an extraordinary crisis of governance today despite being on the threshold of the greatest material advance in its history. One critical underlying reason for the huge contemporary crisis is fragile national social solidarity. It is not totally absent, especially on an inter-personal level, but failing to manifest itself in the political life of the country. Such solidarity amounts to a willingness to share one’s good fortune and fate with others and postpone gratification for the greater good of society and unborn generations. Instead, a desire to achieve selfish, immediate personal goals, without regard for their wider societal consequences, has become dismayingly established in India.
This callous predicament is widespread among the governing classes of India, with criminality the norm at all levels of political and administrative authority, from local structures to the highest level of the federal polity. In fact, India’s ruling elites have no shame and do not apologize for their dishonesty and corruption when detected. Unfortunately, underlying this phenomenon is India’s great diversity and the essentially localized interaction among its people. They institute a propensity towards self-regard that limits the evolution of bonds of mutual concern beyond caste, community and religious affiliation. Societies with the greater social solidarity tend to be small in size and relatively homogeneous. Scandinavian countries are examples, but their experience is also replicated elsewhere, within closely-knit communities that harbor parochial ties.
Societal diversity and heterogeneity cannot be wished away, but institutions that govern a country profoundly influence how people actually behave. Regrettably, India has inherited political and constitutional structures that exacerbate the negative spin-offs of its innate variety and tendency towards fissiparousness. A Presidential system of government and executive authority is better able to govern diverse countries with greater wisdom and factor in the long-term consequences of policy options. Presidential executive authority may not unfailingly guarantee superior governance, as experience around the world demonstrates, but it is far less likely to routinely amplify divisions and fault lines in society. By contrast, the history of post-independence India confirms that is exactly what parliamentary government, which controls the executive authority of a Prime Minister, invariably achieves.
Voting for an electoral representative in a restricted geographical location will inevitably impute greater weight to parochial interests and trivial issues like the compatible ethnic, linguistic or religious identity, etc. of the candidate. As a result, narrow concerns automatically become prominent in elected chambers because voters chose the member to articulate them. Such an outcome matters less in a regional assembly or panchayat setting because they are intended to deal with questions that are essentially local. But in a national legislature, it is acutely unhealthy for policy making if narrow parochial concerns displace truly overarching and long-term issues. Unfortunately, India’s fractious electoral system, thoughtlessly adopted by its leaders on independence, exaggerates and amplifies divisions rather than providing a basis for wiser national perspectives. And the unduly competitive voting behavior reinforced by such a situation across the country predisposes the political system towards even greater short-term thinking.
By contrast, a Presidential system of government would immediately prevent the instinctive preference for a supreme elected representative primarily on the basis of partisan considerations. It would be problematic for any candidate to organize a national political coalition on the basis of caste, religion, etc., alone and expect to win a poll involving all adult citizens. No single community has such dominant overall numbers in the country and the support of several communities would be necessary for any candidate to emerge victorious. However, they are unlikely to share sufficient criterion of sectarian motivation in common to ignore all other qualifications when considering a candidate as their supreme national executive authority.
A Presidential form of government would not be a complete political solution to India’s manifold divisions and numerous problems, but it would, in one single stroke, prevent the decisive automatic impact of the nation’s multiple fault lines on electing the supreme national executive. Indian voters would be forced to think nationally and reflect with greater sobriety since instant parochial gratification of whims and prejudices could no longer be easily pursued. They would be compelled to become a nation. The candidate for President would surely need to identify grievances affecting particular communities, but issues that promise everyone opportunity to achieve some common goals would thrive in national political discourse. Egregiously unfair caste quota politics and the blatant communalization of politics to appeal to minority voters would encounter resistance across the country from others empowered by a collective national vote to articulate it.
On a practical note, it is clear that constitutional changes required to create a Presidential form of government in India are insuperably constrained by past choices. Instead, the election of the prime minister directly by the entire electorate at the time of national parliamentary elections might be feasible. It would still require constitutional change, but that would be less radical in perception though dramatic in potential impact. The elected President should be allowed to pick a Cabinet from among parliamentarians of both national legislatures, regional assemblies and civil society though parliament might be allowed to scrutinize latter nominees before their assumption of high office. Members of both houses of parliament should be empowered in a new constitutional compact, perhaps a variant of the role of the US Congress and Senate, to create the necessary constraints on Presidential prerogatives that elected representatives should possess.
The process of selecting candidates who can offer themselves for election as Prime Minister would need to be designed to prevent a chaos of numbers in an open-ended system. It would be prudent and practical to only allow groups in the national legislature with 5 per cent of the votes or an appropriate percentage to nominate candidates. In addition, political parties in control of regional assemblies, which did not have a presence in the national parliament, could select a potential aspirant though such a situation is unlikely in practice. In addition, there can be provision for candidates from carefully delimited underprivileged groups if one was not already selected through other stipulated means.
Constitutional change, electing a Prime Minister with presidential prerogatives can become the occasion for enunciating major economic principles alongside it. The two guiding doctrines informing such economic aspirations can be reinforcement of the twin social bonds of family life and community solidarity. The family unit is facing transformative pressures owing to the emergence of a highly mobile labour market that compresses society to the minimum viable for biological reproduction, which is the nuclear family. It also puts the nuclear family itself under huge strains, determinedly curtailing its size and undermining its ability to function by placing extraordinary demands on it. The outcome at the end of the spectrum seems to be the single parent family, supported by the state. The experience of its socio-economic and devastating psychosocial consequences in the so-called advanced economies should provoke alarm.
Economic incentives to facilitate joint families, despite the sacrifices required by them in terms of privacy and individual liberty, should be considered. Individual dwellings of sufficient size or proximity to each other that encourage joint families should be promoted. Despite unavoidable administrative complexities property tax exemptions and tax subsidies for offspring, if parents live with them, might be an additional innovation. The labour market entails geographical mobility and cannot be avoided in modern economies, but it is not a divine creation and the trade-off between the material advancement it apparently promotes and personal and social well-being should not be ignored. In addition, all forms of social ownership of assets, especially of quoted companies, should be aggressively facilitated.
All taxes on insurance, which happen to constitute voluntary mutual help, should be eliminated, including taxes on dividends from equity. Trade unions and other specified charitable social organizations should be exempt tax on equity assets they own. Similar provisions should be extended to education and health care organisations that assure equitable treatment to all. Pension funds, in the form of annuity investments, providing an income that ceases on death are also appropriate beneficiaries of similar treatment. Particular attention must be paid to ensure that the underprivileged are organized to benefit from the social ownership of assets that enjoy tax privileges. The benefits of such provisions need systematic reflection and the model of predominantly charitable ownership like Tata Inc is surely worthy of examination for emulation. In time, India’s economy will become socialized without the abolition of market mechanisms to allocate resources and price them.
An economy organized on this basis could be the underpinning of a tolerant Hindu social order that eschews unbridled private greed, although governed by regulated markets. The question of India’s Hindu identity underlies the paradox of a divided people, at odds with themselves, which was posed in lamentation at the outset. The governing elites of independent India have made it their goal to keep Indians divided in order to use their differences to rule them and plunder. This is how the colonial British and their iconoclastic imperial predecessors had sought to control India. India’s contemporary rulers they have, in addition, taken to inciting novel communal fractures and tensions at every conceivable juncture. In recent years, outrageous benefits have been offered to undeserving minorities, purely on a sectarian basis, as well as guarantees of immunity from culpability for any violence they instigate.
The Hindu foundation for the cultural unity among an overwhelming majority of Indians has been spitefully neglected by Jawaharlal Nehru and his successors, a tradition contrived by Mahatma Gandhi, who capriciously misinterpreted Hindu ideals. Its comprehensive extirpation is now sought by an alien dynasty, implanting quasi monarchical rule in India. This massive constitutional subversion of India is proceeding apparently without serious challenge from India’s political class or its bankrupt intelligentsia. Hindus need to resist this diabolical threat and revive the faith that unites them across the length and breadth of India. This faith inheres in India’s historic memories of struggle and survival against genocidal predators and ageless consciousness of sacred rivers, mountains and an awesome landscape teeming with numberless places of worship. They should stir unfathomable emotions in Hindus who need to congregate for a final roll call in their honor and defence.
(The writer is president, World Association of Hindu Academics)