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|August 22, 2001||
T V R Shenoy
From Rajaji to Jayalalithaa
'Where do you want to go today?' a Microsoft advertisement asks me in a computer magazine. It is a good question, but here is another piece of American wisdom: 'You can't know where you're going until you know where you've been!'.
So where does Jayalalithaa wish to go? Well, to the Tamil Nadu assembly of course, as she must do within weeks to retain her chief ministership. But with cases hanging over her head, that isn't possible. So there was plenty of speculation that the AIADMK boss would be suitably creative -- for instance, resigning a day before her six-month tenure runs out, and then getting herself sworn in again.
Alas for Jayalalithaa, the Supreme Court has thrown a spanner into the works. Last week, it denounced such actions as undemocratic, laying down that the leeway giving ministers six months to be elected was a one-time affair within the life of a house. Will Jayalalithaa be so desperate that she will demand a dissolution of the assembly?
Well, actually that won't help a bit. She will still be disqualified under the rules of the Election Commission. If she goes out, then who shall replace her? Sasikala is her closest confidante, but she is in at least as much trouble with the law. It is possible, that Jayalalithaa would then prefer the chair go to some relative nonentity -- say some former civil servant with little experience of politics.
All this is fascinating but it ignores the larger issue. The Supreme Court, however, faced it squarely when it denounced any 'creative' interpretations of the six-month rule as "undemocratic." And the irony of the situation, though Jayalalithaa herself might not appreciate it, is that the genesis of the mess goes back to Madras.
I refer here not to the city now called Chennai, but to the old state. In the early years of Independent India, Madras was one of the largest states in India. It included not just what is now Tamil Nadu, but also the Rayalseema and Coastal Andhra divisions of Andhra Pradesh, South Kanara, and the northern third of Kerala. It was, a state that the Congress couldn't afford to lose. But the election of 1952 threatened to do just that...
This election, the first in Independent India, threatened to be a disaster for the Congress. It could win just 152 of the 375 seats in the assembly. It won a meagre 4 seats from the 29 in Malabar, just 43 of the 143 in the Andhra areas, and 96 of the 190 Tamil constituencies. Only the Kannada-speaking seats stood by the Congress, giving the party 9 of its 11 seats. It was a complete rout, with even the sitting chief minister, Kumaraswami Raja, losing.
A key figure in Madras was T Prakasam, who had left the Congress to join Acharya Kripalani's Socialists. He was backed by the 61 communists in the assembly, and many others, including independents. The Congress in Madras, led by Kamaraj, despaired of ruling.
In this hour of crisis, the Congress turned to the most venerated Congressman in Madras. Chakravarti Rajagopalachari had given Madras its first Congress ministry in 1937. Since then, he had gone on to join Jawaharlal Nehru's interim ministry in 1946, guided West Bengal as its first governor since Partition, become the governor-general, and, finally, succeeded Sardar Patel as Union home minister. He was 73, and a very tired man.
But the old fox had lost none of his cunning. When he finally got around to asking the house for a vote of confidence, he won handily by 200 to 151. (Much to the Opposition's fury, Prakasam was persuaded to rejoin the Congress.) The rub was that Rajaji also refused to stand for a by-election. Instead, the governor, Sri Prakasa, nominated him to the upper house. Of course, Rajaji was perfectly qualified for such an accolade. (He would have been renowned for his literary efforts and for social service even if he had never entered politics.) But it was also totally undemocratic.
We should applaud the Supreme Court for making this issue -- the democratic principle rather than some dry law -- the focus. And this, I must confess, is a chief bugbear of mine. I hate the stupid fashion in which the Constitutional provision giving a minister six months to be elected has been misused.
What had begun in Madras with Rajaji reached an obscene peak in Assam with Anwara Taimur. She was chosen by Indira Gandhi as chief minister, and ruled for six months without once facing the assembly or going through an election. (This was in the early days of the Assam agitation, and winning a poll would have been tough.) When six months were over, Indira Gandhi put Assam under President's Rule. Next, the assembly was revived -- with Taimur once again chief minister!
In a democracy, we, the citizens, must know who our chief executive shall be following an election. At the same time, living in a democracy means living under the rule of law, where no individual can claim special privileges.
Jayalalithaa was frank in her desire to be chief minister. But she was disqualified by the law. It is a very silly argument to say that she has been cleared by the 'people's court'. By that logic, she should have been imprisoned the moment she lost in 1996!
Jayalalithaa is trying to eat her cake yet have it too. She cannot claim due process in the courts in 1996, and then appeal to a mythical 'people's court' five years later.
I am sorry that Tamil Nadu seems all set for another bout of political uncertainty. But the voters of Tamil Nadu cannot blame the Supreme Court for upholding fundamental democratic principles. What began with Rajaji should end in the same city with Jayalalithaa.
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