INTERVIEW WITH R. VENKATARAMAN

Former President of India

THE CONSTITUTION NEEDS CHANGES

On February 1st, 2000, the Indian Cabinet adopted a resolution calling for the setup of a Constitution review commission " to examine in light of experience of the past 50 years as to how far the existing provisions of the Constitution are capable of responding to the needs of efficient, smooth and effective system of governance and socioeconomic development of modern India and to recommend changes, if any, that are required to be made in the Constitution within the framework of parliamentary democracy without interfering with the basic structure or basic features of the Constitution."

While Prime Minister Vajpayee justified the setting up of a review of the Constitution on the grounds that there was a need for political stability and that there was the "pressing challenge" faced by modern India, the President of the country, Mr. K.R. Narayanan countered the arguments by opposing any tinkering with the basic structure of the Constitution, that of a parliamentary system, rather than a presidential one. He also pointed out that the recent political instability was not sufficient ground for changing the system.

It seemed that at the time. to neutralize the current President's influence, the government had decided to name his predecessor, former President R. Venkataraman, a strong advocate of electoral reform, as the head of the Constitution review panel. But opposition from one member of the National Democratic Alliance, the regional Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) which governs the State of Tamil Nadu, led to the dropping of his name in favour of Mr. Justice M.N. Venkayachalaiah. The last minute opposition of a regional party to the former President's nomination is not surprising. In a controversial lecture delivered in early January 2000, former President R. Venkataraman strongly criticized the multi-party system, saying that the smaller parties in a coalition blackmail the larger parties . He then suggested that a de-recognition of the regional parties was necessary. Such a statement was bound to inflame the regional powers such as the DMK, the largest Tamil party. Nevertheless, his considerable influence stands. We ask him to explain why the Constitution should be amended.

 

Neerja Chowdhury.- The present government has set up a commission to revise the Constitution of India (1). It would not be the first revision, yet such a move led to a lot of criticism. As a former President of the country, do you agree that the Constitution needs to be looked at thoroughly?

R.Venkataraman.- I have always been saying that the Constitution is a fairly good document. Any attempt to replace it is unthinkable. Nevertheless the country changes and to accommodate these changes, a revision of certain parts is necessary. The Constitution must ensure stability. In the last 10 years there have been 7 governments. I myself have appointed 3 Prime Ministers and dealt with 4 in 5 years. No program, economic, social or political, is possible unless there is a stable government and stable policies.

 

NC.- Surely the frequent fall of governments is not a constitutional problem? Many political analysts are quick to point out that it is the sign of a healthy democracy.

RV.- The present Constitution and the current electoral system does not ensure a stable government. For instance, in a multi party system someone who gets say around 30-35% of the votes is elected, whereas the other 65% of the voters are not in favour of the winning candidate. A Parliament gets elected with this kind of minority. It is not representative of the people. Democracy is supposed to be a representative government but it cannot be representative of a minority of voters. This system itself is wrong and that is why we all have problems.

 

NC.- But isn't it the case, in other modern democracies, that the ruling party is always a minority party with less than 50%? In the US, the Congress is divided and Germany, France, Italy, Spain or even the United Kingdom are not governed by parties that enjoy an absolute majority among the electorate. How is India in any way different?

RV.- If 30-35% of the voters can elect a government, then any dominant community can get representatives elected and this spreads casteism. In 1984, the Congress got a massive 415 seats out of 543, yet polled only 48% of the votes! The Janata Government got 296 seats and polled 43% of the votes. In the last 50 years we have been governed by a minority of voters and by minority governments, whereas in a two party system in the United Kingdom, one or the other party gets a majority and the House is represented by a majority of voters.

 

NC.- Are you suggesting that India should opt for the list system?

RV.- The list system has many weaknesses. The lists are prepared by the parties and may include all sorts of people. A candidate may be a criminal and undesirable but, in such a system, the voter cannot vote against him. I have suggested something different. If nobody gets a majority, you have a runoff between the two top candidates, so that one of them gets more than 50% of the votes. He will then be representative of the people. This is a scheme followed in France. It may of course entail a second election. But after 10-15 years, people will get to understand and the system will correct itself.

 

NC.- The current government of the National Democratic Alliance has been talking about fixing the term of the Lok Sabha(Lower House) to five years to ensure that even if a government falls, Parliament does not get dissolved leading to an election. Do you think that it would be a first step in the right direction towards a more stable government at the centre?

RV.- If one wishes the present parliamentary system to continue, one of the best things to do is to have electoral changes in which there will be a second vote if no one gets a majority in the first round. But this alone will not do. In my view, a parliamentary system stands on two parties. So you have to eliminate other parties till you have two recognized parties. My suggestion is that in the next general election, every party which gets less than 10% of the votes should be eliminated. Thereafter, we can eliminate the parties which get the least number of votes till we are left with only two parties (2).

 

NC.- Isn't it a bit drastic? One might argue that it might restrict the choice of the voters. Can democracy be reduced to a single yes or no vote?

RV.- The two party system works well in four countries: UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, where the Westminster model exists.The success of the British system assumes the prevalence of a two party system. Ivor Jennings, the great British constitutional authority, said that if the two party system breaks down, the Crown assumes greater importance.

 

NC.- We will come to the role of the Crown in a moment. Unlike the countries you have mentioned which are small and homogeneous by India's standard. Isn't India an extremely diverse and heterogeneous society where, looking at the past, no one party, not even the Congress during its 45 year rule, was able to represent and synthesize the interests of various segments of the society? With everyone having a vote, and the rise of consciousness, the mushrooming of parties representing sectional interests which could not be taken care of by the mainstream Congress seemed to answer a need. The corollary is of course that it leads to coalition politics, which is a new concept for the political establishment of India. Don't you agree?

RV.- The mushrooming you mention is only taking place because small parties think they can get elected in a multi party system. If there are two parties, the minor groups will join one or the other party which will take care of their interests. Competitive politics will be corrective.

 

NC.- To me it looks like the Japanese system, where factions are as powerful as parties, but India is made of many states. How to reconcile regional interests with national interests in such a two-party system?

RV.- Another alternative would be for the Prime Minister to be elected by the House of the People on a single transferable vote. If no one gets over 50% of the votes, there would be a run off between the top two candidates.

 

NC.- But then, what about the Cabinet?

RV.- The Cabinet would be elected by the House on the basis of proportional representation of parties. In any case the Prime Minister cannot dissolve the House. And anything passed by the House would be binding on the Prime Minister.

 

NC.- What you are suggesting would contain features of the Presidential system?

RV.- Yes, it has features of the Presidential system in so far as it would have a fixed legislature and a fixed executive. You see, the whole western idea of governance has distorted our thinking. In the earlier system of governance, in panchayats, people had to come to a compromise. In the present party system that we adopted from Britain, there is confrontation between the ruling party and the opposition; in the judicial system between the plaintiff and the defendant and on the industrial front between the management and the trade unions. In the past we ruled by consensus. After all, the Public Accounts Committee of Parliament,which has every party in it, including ruling party members, looks at the lapses of the Government and most of its reports are unanimous. The country's problems today cannot be solved by one party. The National Government is the best scenario. But nobody will agree to it because no party wants to share power with others.

 

NC.- What about the issue of decentralization?

RV.- There are advantages and disadvantages. Devolution of power to the panchayats is good (3). The disadvantages are that the developed states like Maharashtra, West Bengal, Gujarat will leap forward, and the less developed ones will languish. We have to keep in mind that India consists of more backward states than forward ones. Unless India develops as a whole, it might break up. It is my view that, under such circumstances, there must be a strong Centre which pools resources and distributes them equitably, so that all areas develop in harmony.

 

NC.- But then, the liberals argue that the advanced states might be dragged down by the backward ones and it is a powerful argument for the foreign investors.

RV.- The advanced states might suffer, but I feel strongly that Indian unity cannot be preserved if we leave the states to depend on their own finances.

 

NC.- Another contentious issue is the one about judicial appointments and who should make them, the Government or the Chief Justice or both working in tandem?

RV.- This is an administrative matter. Judicial reform is more important so that people get justice quickly and appropriately.

 

NC.- India amended its constitution in the Seventies to include a commitment to socialism in its preamble. Today, even before we have been able to provide the minimum education, health, nutrition, employment to people, Law Minister Ram Jethmalani has called for the right to property to be made a fundamental right under the constitution, claiming it will help the poor. What is your view about his demand?

RV.- I don't want to say anything on it. It is a matter of opinion. But there are other points of view on this matter.

 

NC.- President K.R.Narayanan, your successor, described himself as a "Working President" while you never claimed to be a 'working one" but a "copybook" one. What did you mean?

RV.- It is up to each President to function according to his discretion. All I can say is about myself. Dr Ambedkar (4) said that the President is exactly like the Crown of England. He reigns, he does not rule. He is the symbol of the state, not its executive head. He pointed out that the entire power rested with the executive, represented by the Prime Minister. I have said that the President is like an emergency lamp. It comes into operation when there is no power, and by that I mean political power. As soon as it is restored, the President becomes dormant. This is what the Constitution-makers had envisaged. If you want to change the Constitution, you may. But you cannot read into the Constitution what you want.

 

NC.- You have worked with six PMs, first with Nehru, then with his successor, L.B. Shastri and after that with Indira Gandhi. You were President during the prime ministership of Rajiv Gandhi, V.P.Singh, Chandra Shekhar and P.V.Narasimha Rao. In other words, you have worked with all the leaders of India since independence, except the current Prime Minister, Mr.Vajpayee. What is your view of the leadership of India, yesterday and today?

RV.- How can I sit in judgment of them? The problems that Atal Behari Vajpayee faces today are not what Panditji(Jawaharlal Nehru) faced. All we can say is that apart the mixed economy Jawharlal Nehru introduced, India would not have been able to change over to a market economy so smoothly. Take the Soviet economy. What is the result of the sudden change? But we had a private sector side by side with the public sector. During the first 15 years of independence,there was enormous development in industry. We were one of the ten countries in the volume of manufacturing because the policies were right at that time. The mistake we made was to not remove controls in 1965. The control of industry ceased to be beneficial after that. Today there is no need for a public sector except in strategic areas like communications and atomic energy. Of course, it is also true that the public sector's biggest contribution is in the development of the infrastructure and the private sector would not have grown without that help.When (Lal Bahadur) Shastri was Prime Minister, I made a suggestion to review the schedule to the Industrial Development Regulation Act. Shastri asked the Cabinet Secretary to sit with me and draw up a list of industries which need not be regulated. But he died soon after that.

 

NC.- After Shastri, there was Indira Gandhi, who was a controversial figure. For some reason she did not exercise the option of opening up the economy, the need for which you saw in the mid sixties.

RV.- She had political compulsions. The split in the Congress threw her into the arms of the communists. She had advisors like Mohan Kumaramangalam. Instead of liberalizing, she started imposing more controls. She introduced the Monopolies and Trade Restrictive Practices Act. When in 1980 she came back to power, she did not undo many of these things.

 

NC.- I would like to come back to the Constitution. Do you feel there is a need to look at the chapters on Fundamental rights and the Directive Principles?

RV.- I would like to transfer compulsory free education from its Directive Principles to the Fundamental Rights chapter so that it can then be statutorily enforced (5).

 

NC.- What are the challenges before India at the start of the 21st century?

RV.- The biggest challenge India faces is her population explosion (6).

 

Winter 2000 - Indian Express

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Notes:

1.- The Commission has 11 members. It is chaired by Mr. Justice M.N. Venkatachaliah. The other 10 members are: Mr. Justice B.P. Jeevan Reddy, Chairman of the Law Commission and former Court judge, Mr. Justice R.S. Sarkaria, former Supreme Court judge who became well-known as chairman of the Sarkaria Commission on Centre-State relations, Mr. Justice Konpadali Punniah, former Supreme Court judge, Mr. Soli Sorabjee, Attorney-General, Mr. Parasaran, former Attorney-General, Mr. P.A. Sangma, former Speaker and leader from the northeast, Mr. Subbash Khasyap, former Secretary-General of the Lok Sabha, Mr. C.R. Irani, editor-in-chief of the Statesman (a Calcuta based newspaper), Mr. Abid Hussain, who has served as India's Ambassador to the United States, and Mrs. Sumitra Kulkarni, former MP.

The Commission does not have on it a representative of any political party, Mr. Sangma, leader of the Nationalist Congress Party, being considered a member in his capacity as former Speaker and a tribal Christian. Mr. M.N. Venkatachaliah is a former Chief Justice of India and former chairman of the National Human Rights Commission and a resident of Bangalore.

The Congress (I) and the CPI (M) reacted sharply to the inclusion of the Nationalist Congress Party MP, Mr. P.A. Sangma, saying that his views on many issues, including a fixed term for Parliament and the Constitution review, were close to the ruling party's position. (Ironically, while critical of the leader of the NCP leader, the Congress (I) remains its coalition partner in Maharashtra!).

The CPI (M) said that the appointments of Mr. Subhash Kashyap and Mrs. Sumitra Kulkarni were politically motivated, the former "openly toeing the BJP line", the later being at one-time a BJP member.

2.- It is only in the post independence period that the political parties in true sense made their appearance in India. However, the first political grouping can be traced back to 1885 when the Indian National Congress was founded. At the turn of the century, the Muslims under Sir Sayyed Ahmad Khan, a leader of the Aligarh school of Muslim Politics) evolved their independent political party (the Muslim League). This party was open only to Muslims. As a reaction, the Hindus set up the Hindu Maha Sabha. During the subsequent years, more parties like the Schedule Caste Party, the Justice Party, the Krishak Praja Party of Bengal, the National Agriculturist Party of Uttar Pradesh, the Unionist Party of Punjab, the Democratic Swaraj Party of Bombay, the Communist Party, etc… appeared. It is today estimated that over 200 political parties have existed in India since independence. Linguistic, caste and religious consideration encouraged the formation of multi-parties and factions within the same party.

The Election Commission recognized the parties along two criteria: a national one and a State one. A national party is one which has the support of four per cent of the electorate in any four states of India (currently there are 25 States and 7 Union territories). A State party is one which gets at least 25 seats from a state, or one seat in the Lok Sabha (the Union lower house) or one state assembly seat for every 25 assembly seats, or 6% of the statewide votes in a national election. Although the classification of a party may fluctuate from election to election, there are currently 7 national parties (including BJP, Congress (I) and the Communist Party Marxist (CPI-M) and 33 state parties. Since the demise of the Indian National Congress (I), it is said that not a single nationalist party is actually a recognized force in each and every state and territory. Therefore it can be argued that there is no longer a single true national party in India.

3.- Panchayat is a Hindi word which means "the village's council". Panchayati Raj, the system of governance at the village level, is as old as the Indian culture. During the Muslim rule, the system continued unobstructed but the British ignored it as it was contrary to their policy of centralization. By 1907, however, a Commission pointed out that "in ignoring the village as the primary unit of local self-government, the (British) government began with a false step. However, no one paid any serious attention to the recommendations of the Commission.

After the Independence, Article 40 of the Constitution of India directed the government to take necessary steps to organize village Panchayati and endow them with such power and authority as may be necessary to enable them to work as units of self-government. In 1957, the government appointed a team of experts to study and report on how to achieve such goals. Upon recommendation of the Mehta Committee, a three-tier structure from village to district was set up, but as the Committee did not at the time favour introduction of a uniform system throughout the country, only a number of States created the three-tier system of rural local self-government institutions. Some went on creating a drastically different system as well.

Broadly, the Panchayat, which forms the basic unit of the three-tier structure, is an executive body of the village. It chiefly consists of representatives elected by the people of the village. The Panchayat has an elected chairman, known as Sarpanch. As regards the main functions performed by the village Panchayat they include maintenance of roads, wells, schools, burning and burial grounds, public health, street lighting… The Panchayats also keep records of births and deaths. Minor disputes among residents of village are also settled by the village Panchayat. The Panchayats can levy certain local taxes and duties to meet their expenses (on animals, vehicles, houses, vacant land and professions.

The second tier is the block, which consists of 20 to 60 villages, depending on the location and population. At this level exists a body called the Panchyat Samiti which consists of about twenty members elected by and from the Panches of all the Panchayats falling into the block area plus a number of members coopted by reservation. The chairman of the Panchayat Samiti is know as Pradhan.

The main function of the body is to coordinate the work among the various Panchayats and to look after the development work within its area. For this purpose it is responsible for the preparation of plans for development. The plans have to be approved by the State. Then their implementation will be supervised by the Panchayat Samiti. Those functions give the impression that the body is vested with very extensive power. But in reality they play a very limited role as they have no independence regarding suggestion for allocation of priorities. As a result, the very purpose of associating the rural people with the administration is defeated. The third tier is the Zila Parishad. Their organization differs in different states.

The Panchayat Raj system has not been an success mainly because the distribution of functions between the structures at different level is not consistent or rational. because there is a tendency to treat the lower structures as subordinates, because the structure itself does not have adequate finances, because of the permanent meddling of the State officials. Furthermore the lack of serious electoral rules makes the undemocratic composition of the Panchayat Raj institutions a breeding field of corruption and inefficiency.

In 1989, the government tried to reinvigorate a crumbling structure with an Amendment Bill, but the House was dissolved before the Bill could be passed. The Constitutional Amendment was not passed until 1992. It reorganized the Panchayat structure, making it a constitutional body. Nevertheless the process of devolution of power and decentralization of administrative power, while in motion, is marred by a lack of uniformity throughout India and poor organization at all levels. The failure of the Panchayat structure is part of the reason why compulsory education at the primary level cannot be enforced.

4.- Born on 14th April 1891 in a Mahar (untouchable family), Dr B. R. Ambedkar became a barrister. He was the first Minister of Law of the first government of India and is considered the architect of the country's Constitution. Dr Ambedkar fought untiringly for the untouchable caste (today know as Dalits) and he was more important to them than Mahatma Gandhi. At the end of his life, embittered by the Hinduist attitude, he encouraged the untouchables (Gandhi called them the harijans - children of God) to abandon Hinduism which had enslaved them and to turn to Buddhism. He died on 6th December 1956. He is now honoured by the dalits as a quasi-deity.

5.- As it stands under the Constitution, education is a State matter, and therefore the Union government does not have the authority to enforce a national policy at the primary level. The national literacy rate of India is estimated to be about 64% for the males and only 30% for the females. While some States as Kerala and Mysore can claim to have solved the problem with a 99% literacy rate among males, poor States as Bihar or Uttar Pradesh have a dismal rate of 20% to 30%. The government statistics show that India has about 550,000 primary schools. Just to cope with the current birth rate (48 000 births a day), India would need to build on average 90,000 schools a year.

6.- Until now, there has been only lip service to the cause of population control. The reasons, linked to the caste and class structures of India are outlined in the interview with Professor Jain in this issue. However, there is a growing realization among politicians that the problem can't be ignored. In particular, the BJP suggests immediate and comprehensive measures to "control" the population growth. The Congress party seems to be on the same wave-length, at least in theory. So far, the commonality of approach was based on the axiomatic principle that development be regarded as the best contraceptive, since the most developed states, such as Andhra Pradesh, Karnatak, Maharashtra and Punjab have curbed their population growth.

Winter 2000

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