It is the People, Stupid
Posted on 1-September-2008
“Even God will not be able to save this country…Our country’s character has gone”
Justices B.N. Agrawal and G.S. Singhvi of the Supreme Court of India,
as reported by The Statesman, Delhi, August 5, 2008
“Le Pouvoir, c’est l’impuissance” * *
General Charles de Gaulle
In July 2007, Dr Manmohan Singh, the Prime Minister of India, talking of the proposed agreement for cooperation between the United States of America and India in the field of peaceful uses of nuclear energy, said that if the Left Front (a coalition of four Marxist political parties) which ensured that the Manmohan Singh government had the necessary majority support in India’s parliament, wanted to withdraw support from his government over the issue, so be it. It should have been clear to any disinterested observer at that time that Manmohan Singh was trying deliberately to provoke the Left Front into withdrawing their support. However, because of the calculations of other political players, Manmohan Singh’s Congress Party and the Left Front spun out inconclusive ‘negotiations’ on these questions for one full year, until once again, in July this year, Manmohan Singh delivered another provocation to the Left Front which, this time round actually withdrew its support. Another group of parties and individuals announced their support for the government. But according to by now established practice, the government had to go to the lower house of India's parliament to seek its confidence. Amidst widespread reports about bribery of individual members of parliament or of groups of them the government won a vote of confidence and survived. One incontrovertible fact was that of those who voted for the government, there were three who had been convicted on charges of murder, were doing time in jails and were brought out of jails so they could vote.
Some two years ago, the Manmohan Singh government engineered the premature dissolution of the legislative assembly of Bihar (the equivalent of the house of representatives of the state ). The Indian supreme court judged that action unconstitutional. No heads rolled other than that of the appointed governor of the state who was hardly doing anything in this instance other than acting on instructions. A few months later the same government overrode the objections of the President of India to enact a law to list forty-four different offices across India to which appointments are made by the federal government or by governments of states as not being offices of profit, in order to bypass a constitutional bar on members of parliament holding offices of profit under the federal or state governments. This measure achieved two results: it mocked at the principle of separation of powers and it saved the government from any danger to its majority in parliament. These are the most recent examples of politicians setting aside all considerations of political morality. To be fair, the record of the present government is not much worse than that of its many predecessors.
A prevalent cliché of current discourse about politics in India is that while the politicians in government or in parliament are causing grave damage to the institutions of government and to society at large, the judiciary, especially the higher judiciary, 'offers the last beacon of hope'. But a closer look at the judiciary, even the higher judiciary, suggests that that beacon is becoming dimmer by the day. Not long ago, a judge of the supreme court said in the course of a hearing that different kinds of economic offenders should be hanged from the nearest lamp post. Another judge of the same court said more recently from his judge's bench that some senior officials from state governments should be 'huntered'**. The same judge said around the same time in the course of another hearing, one about allegations that some judges including two high court judges of a state had misappropriated money from the provident fund (something like social security contributions) of employees, that a certain senior counsel was arguing like a 'street urchin'. Such statements, though popular at a certain level, have done nothing to enhance the prestige of the court of which the honourable judges are members. Verbal excesses of this kind, in the end no more than minor aberrations, are not the only problems of the judiciary.
One of the more serious problems of the judiciary is the increasing frequency with which there break out stories about financial malfeasance by judges of the supreme court and of state high courts. A few years ago the law minister of India talked publicly about a less than honest land deal by a former Chief Justice of India. More recently a judge of a high court tried to use the law about contempt of court to silence a newspaper which had printed a story about the alleged financial misdeeds of another retired Chief Justice of India. A few years ago an enquiry by a committee of fellow judges found the chief justice of a state high court guilty of a number of financial wrongdoings but he could not be removed because of the failure in parliament of the impeachment motion against him. There have been numerous other occasions when serving or retired senior judges have been caught breaking the law.
Another serious problem, commented on by practically every serving or outgoing Chief Justice of India in at least the last two decades, is the large and growing number of cases pending before Indian courts. Practically everyone who has talked about this has with befitting pomposity repeated the cliché 'Justice delayed is justice denied'. A related problem is the long time it takes--criminal cases can take up to ten years to decide and property disputes can often take a life time to settle--to decide cases. Lecturers, participants in seminars, and government appointed commissions have all proposed solutions to these problems but nothing concrete ever seems to be done. Obviously, the paucity of judges that judges love talking about is not the only problem. Procedures and attitudes are also part of the problem. In spite of all the talk about the courts being overburdened, high courts and the supreme court often find themselves dealing with issues that do not belong to the realm of the judiciary. Not long ago, a judge of a high court was dealing with the question whether under the sixteenth century mosque in Ayodhya which had been knocked down by a mob in 1992, there had existed a Hindu temple and busied himself giving instructions to the Archaeological Survey of India about excavations to be undertaken. Another judge was engaged in deciding whether a state government's decision about realigning some administrative districts was correct. The judge of a high court pronounced solemnly that the geographical formation between India and Srilanka known as Adam's Bridge, also known as Ramasethu, seemed on the face of it to be a man made structure. Currently, the supreme court of India is trying to decide whether a project to dredge a shipping channel across the Adam's Bridge should be allowed to go ahead (vide Monkeys' Bridge ) over the objections of some people who claim the project hurts their religious sentiments. It is not clear why the supreme court of India should busy itself with this matter--this project violates no constitutional principle, it does not infringe any individual's or groups's property rights, nor, according to its opponents, does it violate any law. Religious sentiments cannot be a justiciable matter unless they are invoked in order to violate an existing law.
Indian intelligentsia, when discussing the dysfunctionality of the institutions of governance in the country, typically responds by suggesting reforms of the institutions. When, for example, the Manmohan Singh government, patched together in July this year, more by crook than by hook, a parliamentary majority in order to survive in power, scores of people expressed shock and disgust and suggested changes in laws and practice; some people even proposed changing the constitution root and branch or at least marginally. But the sores probably run deep and cannot be treated on the surface. I shall risk being a bore and quote myself. In a letter in Januaray 2001 to the gentleman who happened at that time to be India's external affairs minister (vide chapter Krung Thep Mahanakhon in The Waste Sad Time ) I wrote:" No human, social or political institution has yet been invented which can be above the people who run it. The ultimate solution to all management problems lies in intangibles of human behaviour." In other words it is people who make (or mar) political and social institutions and not the other way round.
To look for the removal of shortcomings of governance one has to look at people. I do not suggest chasing the mirage of the perfectibility of human nature. People, ordinary people, patricians and plebs, will remain the same: a mixture of selfishness and altruism, peaceableness and violence, meanness and high-mindedness, by and large glad to be left alone to live their lives. It will also be their expectation that those to whom they give the authority to manage public affairs will exercise their authority wisely. In brief it is people in positions of leadership in any society who make a crucial difference. Heads of the executive branch in a modern government, or for that matter senior judges, even in established democracies, can for long periods function, if they are so minded, in violation or disregard of formal institutional checks on their authority. Politicians in power can for months ignore popular protests or public criticism, secure in the knowledge that the ultimate popular sanction in the form of rejection in an election will come only some years later. Good leaders--head of government, ministers, members of parliament, senior judges-- will, like Charles de Gaulle know that there are constraints that come with political power. There must for them be moral and ethical lines that they would voluntarily keep inside of. People who do not or would not understand this will destroy whatever institution of governance is devised. And that precisely is what has been happening in India.
India, a large, populous and diverse country, has many unresolved and grave social and economic problems which no amount of vainglorious talk about shining India, India being at the point of becoming an economic superpower, an international player to reckon with, can hide. Its problems are too big for small men and women with small minds and even smaller ideas to solve. India's tragedy is that it has been cursed to be led for the last several decades by people as devoid of idealism and moral fervour--Gandhi and probably Jawaharlal Nehru were the last ones to have both--as they are full of skills at amoral political manoeuvres if not also of kleptocratic zeal. The result is that the country looks every once in a while to be exactly where it was half a century ago: Kashmir burning, Bihar under water, Hindus inciting trouble against Christians because of 'forced conversions', every linguistic, caste or religious group against everyone else. No overhaul of the institutions of governance can help cure the many social, political and economic ills of the country. Only a change in the attitudes and the values of the people in control of those institutions, if not their complete replacement by another kind, will work.
* *Power is powerlessness
**A 'hunter' in Bollywood dialect means a whip