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Home > India > News > Columnists > M R Venkatesh

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How the UPA devalues democracy

February 13, 2009

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In a remarkable string of coincidences over the past fortnight or so, the United Progressive Alliance government has successfully and repeatedly denigrated our democratic institutions. Naturally, if the silence of our intellectuals on this issue has left me intrigued, the response by the opposition parties to the same has left me completely flummoxed.

Denigration of democratic institutions has virtually become a way of life in the country ever since the sixties when the then prime minister Indira Gandhi [Images] went on to subvert every single institution for her narrow political gains. Over a period of time, this became the norm for all political parties, whenever they occupied power.

But the UPA government seems to have done one better. It seems, like many of its predecessors not only denigrate democratic institutions for political expediencies, it has gone to develop an unhealthy contempt for democracy itself. This is the crucial difference between the UPA government and its predecessors. Let me elaborate.

A PM who is selected, not elected

The prime minister is still a member of the Rajya Sabha and not the Lok Sabha. That he was handpicked by the Congress leadership to lead the government and continues even after five years enjoy its confidence and trust is a different matter. But that does not mean that he enjoys the confidence of the people of the country. And that can be tested only when he prefers to contest for the Lok Sabha.

Nevertheless, the practice of denigrating institutions and devaluing democracy by the UPA government begins at that point in time. What mattered were personal loyalty and political considerations, not constitutional propriety and healthy democratic traditions. What would explain the idea of the UPA to exploit a constitutional technicality -- of allowing a Rajya Sabha member to lead the government -- to the maximum?

The net consequence -- we had a selected PM; not an elected PM. This reduced the office of the prime minister into that of a vice-chancellor of a university or to that of a government appointed director of a company like Satyam [Get Quote]. In short, the manner in which the Dr Manmohan Singh [Images] became PM and continues to occupy the high office may not be illegal, but surely does not make him a morally legitimate PM either.

Be that as it may, let me turn to the events of the past fortnight. First was the prime minister's surgery. As the septuagenarian alternated between being anesthetised and sedated in the past fortnight, the UPA did not think it even necessary to even announce a number two to the cabinet. World over, democratic conventions has it that at-least in such circumstances the number two in the cabinet is formally announced.

Naturally, the reasons for which the UPA has denied naming number two in the cabinet is the subject matter of intense speculation in New Delhi [Images]. Mostly, it points to intense unease of the UPA leadership in trusting even senior cabinet members of its own party for a limited period of time!

Unfortunately, the functioning of the PMO, cabinet, government and more importantly, the constitution has been reduced to the personal likes and dislikes of the UPA leadership. And that is the crux of the issue which seems to have escaped the attention of most analysts.

A split Election Commission´┐Ż.

For the UPA, such constitutional impropriety is not an exception. Rather, it would seem to be the rule. The second instance, concerning the spat between the Chief Election Commission and the Election Commissioner, is equally serious, perhaps more serious than the technical issues raised above. After all we are talking of the institution that would conduct polls in a few weeks from now.

Naturally, one should not and cannot handle the situation casually as the UPA government has sought to do. In contrast to the demanding situation, the response of the UPA government has been appalling. The Election Commissioner in question, Navin Chawla [Images], has a chequered past. Commentators have repeatedly brought out this fact even while he was appointed a few years back as they have done now.

Therefore the crucial question remains -- why appoint someone who has even a hint of taint in his character? Or is it a prerequisite for an appointment to the high constitutional office in the UPA regime? And remember, more than 200 MPs had petitioned against his appointment to the President. Yet, this did not agitate the collective conscience of the UPA government.

If the appointment of a person with an allegation of taint was appalling, the response of the UPA government to the allegations of CEC -- was outrageous. What would explain the fact that the government alternated between two stands -- one, to dismiss the allegations of CEC without even a cursory examination and two, to dwell on the technicalities as to whether CEC had the suo moto powers under the constitution or not.

The arguments by the UPA legal luminaries possibly could be constitutionally right -- the CEC may well lack the suo moto powers to suggest the dismissal of his colleague.  After all, it is a matter of interpretation and hair splitting technicalities. But this argument beats common sense too -- does that mean that a police inspector has to wait for a formal written complaint from a victim before proceeding to act?

Crucially, by refusing to act and by imputing motives to the CEC, the UPA has, as it has done to several democratic institutions across the country, undermined its independence. Surely, with elections scheduled shortly, we are in for a torrid summer.

And a partisan CBI

Given this state of the nation, can the comrades be far behind? But for a change this time around they are at the receiving end from the UPA government. The issue is one of referring a corruption case involving a politburo member from Kerala [Images] who was involved in awarding the contract to a company while he was a power minister of Kerala in the mid-nineties.

What is interesting to note here is that the investigating agency of the state government under the Congress party in 2006 had virtually exonerated Pinarayi Vijayan, the minister and politburo member in question. Yet, the matter was subsequently referred to the CBI by the then Congress government in the state.

Strangely, the CBI did not choose to act between 2006 and now. It was only last fortnight that the CBI deemed it fit to approach the governor and seek his permission to proceed and file a charge-sheet against Vijayan.

In a classic case of misuse of the CBI, when the Left supported the UPA government, the case was kept in hibernation. When the Left withdrew support and threatened not to support a future Congress-led government at the Centre, the knives are out.

Similarly, Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati [Images] has been facing active CBI probe ever since her party parted ways with the UPA. In contrast, when Mulayam Singh Yadav [Images] came forward to support the UPA, the pace of the CBI probe against him seemed to have slowed considerably as evidenced by the stand of the CBI in the Supreme Court recently. The use of CBI could never have been more blatantly political as it has been under the UPA regime.

The strange silence of the opposition, intellectuals and media

As stated at the outset, it may be recalled that all that is stated above have been issues that are engaging the attention of the nation for the past fortnight. In a nutshell this is the report card of the UPA government for the past fortnight. Yet, the opposition, notably the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Left parties, seem to have been strangely silent on these developments, perhaps not realising the consequences.

It is not only the silence of the political parties that is inexplicable -- equally the silence of our intellectuals (who otherwise seem to be preoccupied with the ugly events in Mangalore) is intriguing. It is often said that such issues attract maximum attention of our intellectuals. The events of the last fortnight only confirm the adage.

One reason why opposition parties are silent is perhaps they feel that they could use these precedents to their advantage should they come to power. In the alternative they are completely oblivious and innocent of these developments. Whatever be it, it does not speak highly of our opposition parties.

What is worrying is that our intellectuals and sections of media have rationalised these developments. The reluctance of nominating number two was rationalised as Indian democracy having sufficient institutions that could take care of any situation, not otherwise!

The politicisation of CBI is so complete that no one expects anything better from it. In case of the spat in the Election Commission between the CEC and his colleague, it is invariably seen as a proxy war between the BJP and Congress, not otherwise!

By repeatedly denigrating our democratic institutions, the UPA government has explicitly demonstrated its complete disdain for healthy democratic traditions. But what should worry the nation most is the fact is the silence of our intellectuals, media and our opposition parties.

Once we rationalise all these negative developments or remain silent, democratic institutions may still remain, only we would have killed democracy.

M R Venkatesh is a Chennai-based Chartered Accountant. He can be contacted at mrv@mrv.net.in


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