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Dr Singh's govt marching in the wrong direction
July 28, 2006
I think age is mellowing me -- I find myself nodding in agreement all too often when Communist Party of India-Marxist leaders appear on screen. I thought the Marxists got it right when they pointed out that the Manmohan Singh ministry could spare us the rod by cutting excise duties on fuel.
And I agreed once again when CPI-M General Secretary Prakash Karat said that Parliament has a right to discuss international treaties in general, and the India-American nuclear pact specifically.
When you think about it, this is such an obvious facet of democracy that it isn't even worth arguing about. How can any democratic government bind a nation to a treaty unless the people -- through their elected representatives, or even directly through a referendum -- have had their say?
But Indian governments have always got away without any semblance of discussion. My mind goes back to 1994, when the Narasimha Rao ministry went ahead and made India sign up for the World Trade Organisation.
I don't want to initiate a debate on whether or not this was good or bad. (The answers would, I suspect, be all over the map depending on whether you ask, say, a farmer or a stockbroker -- and I don't mean just in India.)
My point is that joining the World Trade Organisation meant that India was taking on certain obligations, but that neither the costs nor the benefits were thrashed out in public through open debate.
The same opacity prevails a dozen years later. It is shameful but the best way to learn the fine details of the Bush-Manmohan Singh nuclear deal is to read the US Congressional Journal. The men who wrote the American constitution had a healthy skepticism for the machinery of government, and deliberately installed a system of checks and balances.
Article II, Section 2.ii of the US constitution puts it down perfectly explicitly: '(The President) shall have power, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, to make treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur...' The power can be, and has been, abused in the past.
The most famous occasion came in 1919, when a cabal in the US Senate refused to allow the United States to join the League of Nations after World War I. A majority of the Senators were in favour, but they were helpless because their constitution required a two thirds majority.
That may have been going too far but it is better than our system, which permits the Union Cabinet to sign any treaty without even bothering to refer it to Parliament. What happens if the US Senate agrees to the nuclear deal with India -- but adds some qualifications? Is India legally obliged to swallow the draft? Or will it tear up the Bush-Manmohan Singh treaty, and renegotiate with a clean slate?
The UPA ministry is so allergic to the principle of legislative supervision of the executive that Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee has, allegedly, told the Left Front that even taking a Resolution of the House would be tantamount to a No-Confidence Motion. (See this article.)
This is a weird statement coming from Pranab Mukherjee, who lest we forget happens to be Leader of the House in the Lok Sabha. He is admitting, if not in so many words, that the Union Cabinet took a decision that it knew flew against the wishes of Parliament. How on earth can you justify that in a parliamentary democracy?
I am reasonably certain that the CPI-M leaders shall step back in the face of the defence minister's threat-cum-appeal. But this mess would never have arisen in the first place had the ministers taken a sounding of the Lok Sabha's mood before signing on the dotted line with the United States.
The MPs are right to be angry. Ministers come and go but India will be stuck with the consequences of treaties -- any pact, not just the one with President Bush -- long after the men who signed it are gone. The best way to ensure that an accord succeeds is to build a broad consensus within the Indian body politic before sitting to negotiate with a foreigner.
Prakash Karat is right, anything that has the potential to affect the security of India must be considered by Parliament. It cannot be the decision of just a few men acting on their own initiative. But why should we stop there?
The American constitution does not restrict the Senate to approving treaties alone; the same Article cited above also insists that the President seek the 'advice and consent' of the Senate before appointing 'ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls, judges of the Supreme Court, and all other officers of the United States...'
We have borrowed a lot from the American constitution, is there any reason why we should not take this too? Everyone knows how much trouble there has been recently over the dismissal of Dr Venugopal as Director of the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences.
There has been no less furore over the appointment of Naveen Chawla to the Election Commission. Had we followed the healthy American practice, subjecting ministerial whims to the supervision of Parliament, these embarrassments could have been avoided. (Please remember that the Parliamentary Standing Committee on the health ministry rose above party lines to 'deplore' Dr Venugopal's dismissal.)
Every government would love to control what people get to know, or hear, or see. I don't just mean BJP or Congress ministers, those in other nations are just as bad in this regard. I am sure President Bush would love it if he didn't have to deal with all those pesky Senators! But a government's desire for secrecy must, in a democracy, play second fiddle to a legislature acting as a forum for full, free, and fair debate.
I thought the Manmohan Singh ministry took a significant step in making governance as transparent as possible with the Right to Information Act. (Which the BJP had promised but never delivered!) Barely a year later, as we know, it is buckling to bureaucratic pressure to dilute the provisions of the law.
From denying information to, say, a Residents' Welfare Association to diverting a debate in Parliament, I fear the Manmohan Singh ministry is marching in the wrong direction.
T V R Shenoy