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February 8, 2000


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E-Mail this column to a friend Arvind Lavakare

An open letter to Rashtrapati Bhavan

Dear Congressman Narayanan

At the outset itself, let me request you not to take umbrage at my addressing you as "Congressman". That label is not to make you out as a member of the US Congress under the Presidential system which, at your age of 79, you seem to distrust and disdain, going by your address to Parliament the other day. However, judging by your activist role in the last couple of years --- holding up the suspension of the Bihar government under Article 356, insisting on judicial appointments for the backward class etc --- it seems that when you were 20 years or so younger, you may well have been a votary of a Clinton type raj.

It is, therefore, quite strange that you did not speak out, as you now do often enough, against the social, economic and political ill of the days of the long Congress raj when you were a civil servant first, a minister next and an ambassador thereafter. One doesn't quite recall you making a memorable speech on the state of the nation even when you were the country's vice-president from 1992 to 1997. Why? Wasn't it because of the servility bred by the Indira Gandhi clan? Wasn't it because you have at heart always been a member of the post-Nehru cult, a pucca Congressman of the swadeshi variety?

And after the BJP-led coalition came to power in 1998, a year after you became the nation's President, you have continued to play the role of a true Congressman. That seems the only plausible explanation of why you have hardly ever let go a chance to ruffle the feathers of Vajpayee's government, to embarrass it and hurt it as well at the slightest opening available.

Thus one recalls how on Republic Day of 1999, you chose to express activist inclinations through a confirmed leftist editor of a magazine rather than honouring the tradition of directly addressing the nation. In that same month we learnt how you had displayed your annoyance, in black and white, about certain top judicial posts recommended by the Vajpayee government on the basis of the selection made by a collegium of Supreme Court judges; you had wanted some from the Scheduled Castes/Tribes to be included in that list.

It was in that same month of January 1999 that that you had issued an emotionally surcharged statement on the murder of Graham Staines whom you lauded without knowledge of his connection with unlawful conversion activities. Your intention seemed clear: humiliate the Hindutva BJP in the eyes of the western world as a follow-up to your unconcealed feelings based on the one-sided publicity given by the pseudo-secular Congress and the English language press to the alleged atrocities on the Christian community in the Dangs district a month earlier.

Next, in March of that year, after the AIADMK had withdrawn support to the BJP-led coalition in Delhi, you readily acceded to the demand of the Opposition and instructed Vajpayee to seek a vote of confidence. With the annual Budget of the nation having been presented only a few days earlier, Constitutional propriety demanded that you should have asked Sonia Gandhi & Co to undertake the difficult exercise of moving a motion of no-confidence and defeating the passing of the Budget.

Instead, you chose to play the complete Congressman, eager-beaver to topple Vajpayee and hoping to somehow crown Soniaji --- perhaps as a repayment of the various favours granted to you by her grandfather-in-law and mother-in-law. When Soniaji got her arithmetic wrong of 272 supporters wrong, you even gifted her grace marks of a few more days to get her sum right.

Your role during the Vajpayee government's caretaker status wasn't exactly immaculate either. You felt it was in the spirit of the Constitution to cross-examine government bureaucrats and Cabinet ministers on some policy decisions when dignified behaviour demanded that you get all your clarifications from the PM himself over a personal discussion. Instead of playing the copybook President, you continued to play the pucca Congressman, allergic to the BJP.

And now have come your two national addresses --- one sarcastic about the BJP coalition trying to hasten economic reforms and the second being cynical about the BJP's move for a review of the country's Constitution of half a century ago with its 79 amendments.

Let's take your attack on the pace being set currently in economic reforms. You moaned the social upheaval caused by uneven economic growth in our economy, lambasted the vulgar consumerism among the wealthy and pleaded for "safe pedestrian crossings for the unempowered Indian". Noble and poetic words, undoubtedly, but forgotten in that pious sentiment is that even the USA, the globe's most prosperous nation built on unhindered free enterprise with a social security system in place, has ghettos aplenty with beggars seeking alms on the sidewalks of New York. And you know what happened to the miserable masses of the Soviet Union.

In any case, as an alumnus of the famous London School of Economics, you should tell our nation how economic justice is to be brought about along with economic growth for a billion people of whom, after 53 years of freedom, nearly 40 per cent are below the poverty line. Come down to brass tacks, from Raisina Hill to the Dharavi slum --- that's what we request you.

Before you decide to do just that --- if at all ---a word of caution. It was your patron saint, Jawaharlal Nehru, who harped on socialism with a capital S during the Constituent Assembly debates and, after the Constitution became effective, quickly proceeded to abolish the zamindari system, introduce the five-year Plans and a licence raj government. His daughter abolished the privy purses of the erstwhile princes, nationalised commercial banks --- just as her father had nationalised the insurance business --- thundered "Garibi Hatao" to win power in Delhi and proceeded to become a dictator ostensibly to implement that grandiose vision.

All this and more in over four decades of proclaimed socialism and planned economy. What has been the net result? Not even zebra crossings in the metro cities leave alone drinking water in thousands of villages.

That brings us to your second address --- on the BJP move to review the Constitution.

Like a pucca Congressman you quote a foreigner first to defend your viewpoint that a review is not necessary. You approvingly cite Professor Granville Austin, the American constitutional authority who lauded our Constitution as "perhaps the greatest political venture since that originated in Philadelphia in 1787" and as being "first and foremost a social document" If you had sought the view of an internationally acknowledged constitutional expert from India itself, you would have found the printed assessment of Subhash C Kashyap that "The vision of the founding fathers was that of building a united nation, an integrated society, removing poverty, backwardness and illiteracy, ensuring human dignity and an Indian fraternity. The Constitution failed to achieve any of these aims. We failed to fulfil any of those aspirations." (Reforming The Constitution, UBS Publishers Distributors Ltd 1992.)

As for your allusion to the inviolate vision and wisdom of our Constitution's founding fathers, --- most of whom were Congressmen and surrogates of princes, let me, in turn, quote you a foreigner, also an American. He said, "Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence and deem them like the Ark of the Covenant too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human and suppose what they did to be beyond amendment…As new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also and keep pace with the times." The name of the man who spoke those words? Thomas Jefferson, one of the makers of the US Constitution and twice President of America.

In support of your view that a review of our Constitution seems unnecessary considering the possibility that it is the people who have failed the Constitution rather than the other way around, you quoted Dr Rajendra Prasad in your address to Parliament on the occasion of our Constitution's golden jubilee. As president of the Constituent Assembly, Dr Prasad, you told us, said that "If they (the people who are elected) are not capable men of character and integrity, the Constitution cannot help the country."

Ah, that's begging the question. What if the Constitution itself provides for a system that enables such "vile" men to be elected? Doesn't the Constitution then need to be reformed so as to eliminate and prevent the evils of that system?

That is precisely the situation today. Universal adult franchise --- so very hastily granted by our Constitution framers --- has meant that vast illiterate masses have become victims of caste, sub-caste, community and language. Politicians as a class have created vote banks among these illiterates and thereby become parasites on society, living on their ministerships, legislative memberships etc with nothing else to fall back upon.

An allied evil has been the perverse meaning attached to "secularism". Instead of the State being totally irreligious in its dealings with citizens as demanded by the meaning of a "secular State", the State in India has permitted favours to minority communities, reservations to castes, sub-castes and tribes, and court judgements based the litigants' religion etc. Religion and politics have become more interlocked than ever before. Even in your appointment as head of State, there was shameless discussion on caste considerations just as was the case with communal weightage given to your predecessors, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, Dr Zakir Hussain and Zail Singh.

Hence it would appear imperative that fraudulent secularism and meaningless adult franchise are two of the topmost priorities in any serious Constitutional reform exercise. As for the goal of socialism, a major step forward would be to make the right to work, shelter, education and medicare legally enforceable fundamental rights instead of leaving them as decorative, non-enforceable pieces that they are in the existing Constitution. A corollary of this additional burden on government would be that it would have to get out from the many businesses it is now engaged in.

All of the above and much more needs to be done. If Subhash Kashyap, a former secretary-general of our Lok Sabha, is just summoned to Rashtrapati Bhavan, he will explain to you the whole gamut of the matter as no foreigner can. Since you still have two full years to go in office, I implore you to take this suggestion seriously, and let your lately activated activism inspire as well as direct a truly national movement that will help give us people of India a Constitution that is not a mere piece of registered paper.

But for that to happen, you must first shed the label of Congressman Narayanan. We await that happening.

Yours in fellow citizenship

Arvind Lavakare

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