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E-Mail this article to a friend Is the Constitution so sacred that it cannot be touched?

Krishna Prasad continues the Q&A on the Constitution Review...

   

What are the problem areas the government wants to look at?

L K Advani has named the anti-defection law, the strength of some state assemblies, and Centre-state relations. Jethmalani is talking of appointments, transfer and removal of judges, and the Supreme Court's notions of "misguided secularism". Ramakrishna Hegde is talking of electoral reforms. And still some others of empowering women. Venkaiah Naidu says it is appointment of governors, insufficient decentralisation of powers, appointment of governors, loopholes in the anti-defection law and a fixed term for the Lok Sabha.

Fixed term?

Yes, the BJP believes the main reason why we are like this only after 53 years of freedom is because we, the people, have been very parsimonious of late in showering any one party with all our trust. So minority governments, which have no chance of lasting the full term are being formed, which is leading to political instability, which is leading to economic uncertainty. A fixed tenure of five years, believes the BJP, will allow governments to function at full throttle.

When did the BJP begin thinking of "constructive vote of no-confidence" and fixed terms?

The fashionable view is: soon after AIADMK leader Jayalalitha withdrew support to the 13-month-old Vajpayee government last year and President Narayanan asked it to seek a vote of confidence, which it lost. But, as K K Katyal points out, the fact that the Constitution review proposal was mooted not only in 1999 but also in the 1998 address to Parliament by the President, shows that "the review plan is not to be seen in the limited context of the developments which led to its fall but as part of a bigger objective."

So President Narayanan is one big anti-BJP type then?

Depends. When he allowed the Kalyan Singh government to stay on in Uttar Pradesh in spite of the shenanigans of Mayawati, the same BJP was hailing the same Narayanan as a model-President. Now it is singing a different tune because he has taken a position not in sync with its own.

Is the Constitution so sacred that it cannot be touched?

The Congress believes so. It feels provisions like fundamental rights, secularism, the Westminster model of government and multi-party government cannot be tampered with. The party quotes the Keshavananda Bharati case in which the Supreme Court ruled that the basic structure and features of the Constitution could not be tampered with or amended. And it quotes the S R Bommai case in which the SC ruled that secularism was a basic feature of the Constitution.

Should a review be opposed for those reasons?

Jawaharlal Nehru told the Constituent Assembly that while permanence was desirable, "if you make anything rigid, you stop a nation's growth, the growth of a living vital organic people."

The BJP and its allies say the Constitution has been amended 79 times in the last 50 years (including one to proclaim the Emergency), so there is nothing sacrosanct about it. The Congress and the Left parties say the 79 amendments-which were made to bring in legislations like land reforms, abolition of privy purses, bank nationalisation, abolition of feudalism and panchayat-raj -- show why there is no need for a review. Any further changes the NDA needs can be incorporated through similar amendments.

Congress leader A K Antony says the failure to find solutions to the problems of the people, including that of unemployment, was not because of the lapses in the Constitution but because the failure of political leadership and the bureaucratic system.

What prompted the review in the first place?

Ostensibly the election promise. But there is a school of thought that the negative publicity that the handling of the hijacking crisis and the militants-for-hostages deal in Kandahar have brought the BJP has something to do with the decision. The former Kerala chief minister K Karunakaran, for one, believes the review is a ploy to divert the attention of the people from the government's failures. And K N Raj believes that the BJP is talking about a review because it has nothing else to offer. "The government is not ready to tackle the obvious problems like poverty. Instead, it talks as if a review of the Constitution would remove poverty."

Are all the 24 constituents of the NDA in favour of the review?

No one knows yet. The BJP, which swears by taking decisions through consultations and consensus, hasn't held talks with the allies although Union Minister of State for Consumer Affairs V Srinivasa Prasad says the review decision was a collective one of the NDA.

But the DMK and Shiromani Akali Dal, which are allies, and the Telugu Desam Party, which is extending unconditional support, have already stated they have no problems with the move. They say it is time to go into such areas as Article 356 relating to the imposition of President's rule, greater financial autonomy to states, greater devolution of powers to the states, enable states to determine percentage of reservations in jobs and educational institutions, and make all national languages, including Tamil, as official languages.

K M Mani of the Kerala Congress (Mani) believes all this could be achieved without a constitutional review if only the Centre implemented the recommendations of the Sarkaria Commission. S Jaipal Reddy of the Congress says if the government doesn't find the Sarkaria panel report satisfactory, it can implement the report of Raja Mannar Committee which was constituted by the then DMK government in 1967.

Who will conduct the proposed review?

The government wants to set up a multi-member commission comprising "experts" in the next week. But the manner in which the BJP-led government has staffed organisations like the Indian Councils of Historical and Cultural Research with "experts" whose views are in sync with its own has spawned a few doubts. V P Singh, therefore, is in favour of a panel of Members of Parliament. Sharad Pawar's Nationalist Congress Party says the move to set up a committee without elected representatives on board would be tantamount to "contempt of Parliament".

Harish Khare writes in The Hindu: 'The appointment of a Constitution Commission is being seen as a way of obliging certain individuals who have lent their presumed 'birpartisan credibility' to help the BJP and the sangh parivar cross over the respectability hump.'

Isn't a two-party system at odds with the greater federalism that the BJP is promising?

Precisely, yet the TDP, DMK and SAD have been quite vocal in their support for the review although it could spell finis to regional parties. Editorial writers have argued that a constitutional restraint on the number of parties will go counter to the fundamental rights of citizens. Jaipal Reddy points out that the BJP has always pleaded for a constitutional form of government even when the country enjoyed unassailable political stability under the Congress. Therefore, he says, the review proposal did not arise out of the recent political instability.

How will Opposition parties protest if the BJP-led government is successful?

Venkaiah Naidu says 'We cannot mesmerise Parliament into voting what the parties do not want.' But Sonia Gandhi has taken to the streets already. And the Janata Dal (Secular) leader Siddaramaiah says: 'If by changing the basic structure of the Constitution, the BJP is trying to build a Hindu state, there will be a blood-bath in the country.'

So review or no review?

N J Nanporia writes in The Deccan Herald: 'The point is often made that if the electoral system has failed, it is the people who are at fault. The system remains inviolate barring a few adjustments and the people are expected to rise to the standards that the system demands. This, in effect, is to condemn the nation to an indefinite acceptance of a structure that has perpetuated poverty, misgovernance and brought political activity to the disrepute it is now.

'The architects of the Constitution were eminent and honourable men but they were shaped by the ideas they held; and the spellbinding hold of these ideas was so strong that they hardly took into account the people on whom they were to be arbitrarily imposedů. Given the sea change that has occurred globally and internally since 1950, it is the "unthinkable" that has now to be seriously thought.'

And?

Human Resource Development Minister Murli Manohar Joshi says, 'Even if it is a human failure, as argued by some, we have to create a system least affected by human failures.'

EARLIER:

Yeh review, review kya hai?

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