Friday, March 13, 2015

Mani’s 13th Budget and the Ruckus in Kerala Assembly

                Today is indeed a sad day for any Keralite who has any positive feelings towards democracy. Democracy is a delicate political system. Unlike other political systems that depend on the supremacy of a group or individual, the democracy depends purely on the respect for the rules of the game. If any side decides to refuse to respect those rule by which democracy functions, either that group has to be contained, or the democracy meets with an untimely death.
                Let us say, a political party that lost the elections refuses the elected members to meet and legislate or conduct other business of governance. What will happen to the governance? Will democracy survive without governance, for long? In democracy, it is not expected everyone to trust or support everyone else. The opposition is bound to distrust and attack the ruling party and its ministers. However, the system requires that the opposition should allow the ruling side to govern.
                Having said that, let us now consider what happened today, in Kerala assembly. There were certain allegations of bribery against the finance minister of Kerala, Sri KM Mani. The allegations were raised by certain bar owners who had an axe to grind against the government, in connection with the cancellation of bar licenses in the state. No direct evidences are placed in the public domain to the fact that Mani had indeed collected bribes from the bar owners. What have been presented as proof is the talks, telephonic and otherwise, among the leaders of bar owners and others. Be that as it may, the matter is under investigation and the High Court itself has examined the matter, stating that it will intervene in the investigations, if and when the need arises.
                The opposition took a stand that since the Finance Minister is tainted and alleged to have compromised the sanctity of budget making, he will not be allowed to present the budget. A legitimate demand, I must say, for an opposition to make. However, how should the ruling side have responded to this demand? Should they concede and ask someone else to present the budget, even as the FM is watching? Can that even be legally possible, considering the fact that FM is not supposed to disclose the budget, even to his colleagues? Should they ask the FM to resign? If the Chief Minister expresses a trust deficit in his FM by asking someone else to present the budget, can he allow that FM to continue? It is virtually impossible to do so.
                Next option is for the Chief Minister to ask the FM to tender resignation from the council of Ministers. But again, how can he do that? There are allegations against many ministers including the Chief Minister. As per the law, allegations alone does not disqualify anyone from acting as a Minister. We should remember, we have people accused of rape, riots, and murder serving as ministers even in the union council of ministers. Can the FM be singled out and asked to resign, based on mere allegations from interested parties? If the Chief Minister demands resignation from his minister wouldn’t that amount to accepting the veracity of the allegations? Please note, the Chief Minister is on record that the allegations are unfounded.
                A Minister can continue in power so long as the Chief Minister has confidence in him. A Government and Chief Minister can continue so long as they enjoy the confidence of the majority of MLAs in the assembly.  It is very clear in the present case that Kerala government enjoys the confidence of the majority of MLAs, and Mr. Mani enjoys the confidence of the Chief Minister.  In such a case, so long as Mani says he is innocent and not willing to resign, nobody can force him to resign at least until and unless a court decides to charge him for a criminal act.
               The opposition’s choices are limited. They can either bring a no-confidence motion against the government, or purse the allegations in an appropriate legal process. It is not a principle of democratic functioning that a minister should enjoy the confidence of the opposition to be able to continue or function as the minister.  If that was indeed the case, no minister or ministry will ever be able to function. Therefore, it was not democratic for Kerala’s opposition parties to declare that they will not allow Mr. Mani to present the budget. They can demand so, for sure, but they cannot enforce such a demand. After all, in a democracy the opposition should have its say and the government, its way. Otherwise, no government will ever be able to function.
            Raising an impossible demand is a sure way to ensure failure of a struggle. There was no way for the government (for reasons discussed above) to have acceded to the demand of the opposition.  That forced the opposition to resort to undemocratic means to achieve their unreasonable demand. The result was unprecedented violence and shame in the Assembly of Kerala.  In any legislative body, the chair of Speaker is deemed to represent the dignity and authority of the house. The opposition in Kerala, in order to prevent Mani from making the budget speech brazenly attacked the Speaker’s chair. The Speaker was prevented from entering the Assembly, his chair for removed and thrown, all his equipment and computer broken, in a display of utmost contempt for legislative assembly, the Speaker, and democracy!
            The situation forced the Speaker and the Government to adopt shortcuts in presenting the budget, by adopting undesirable tactics. Of course, one can blame the government for adopting those tactics like FM reading out a few words from a newly allotted seats in the second raw and then placing the budget on the table of the house and the Speaker giving permission to the FM through symbolic gestures. However, a government is left with no other choice but to adopt such measures under the situation as it can neither agree to the demands of opposition nor avoid presentation of the budget.
            The opposition did not even stop there. The lady MLAs from opposition ranks were seen physically pushing ruling party MLAs in their attempts to reach the FM to stop him from presenting his record 13th budget, in this 13th Assembly of Kerala, on this Friday, the 13th (I am glad that FM did not believe in the bad luck associated with 13th). In one case, a lady MLA was seen biting a ruling party MLA for blocking her from proceeding towards the Chief Minister’s seat!
           I must also state that the behavior of many ruling party MLAs was also not contributing to the dignity of the house. Taunting the rampaging opposition MLAs or celebrating their symbolic success was not in the good taste.
            The budget will eventually get passed, with or without a proper debate. The dignity of the House and democracy has suffered. Mani may or may not be guilty of the alleged acts, as the courts will eventually decide. But to try and countermand the popular mandate given to a government, for a period of five years, through violence and physical intimidation will only destroy the delicate democracy. It will not be in anybody’s interest including the opposition parties indulging in such acts.
             I sincerely hope the better sense will prevail among all, and the Kerala assembly will regain its decorum at the earliest. 

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Role of Political Parties and the Right to Direct their Elected Representatives

                During the UPA rule, it was often heard that the Prime Minister Mr. Manmohan Singh is a puppet in the hands of Congress Party’s President Ms. Sonia Gandhi.  Recently, we heard a lot of debates on the contents of Ms. Jayanthi Natarajan’s de facto resignation letter in which she accused Mr. Rahul Gandhi, the Vice President of her party having ‘interfered’ in the operations of her ministry, by forwarding some petitions from people and NGOs for consideration and necessary action. These debates that suggest any direction from the political party to a government formed by that party as something dangerous for our country have always amused me. However, I had discounted those views as mere political posturing against the ruling parties. Such ‘interference’ continues even today, in the form of dictates from RSS to its appointee and the current PM, Mr. Narendra Modi.
                When I read the news about a judge of Kerala High Court criticizing the Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee President Mr. VM Sudheeran about a circular that he had issued to his party’s elected representatives in the local bodies of Kerala, I was rather surprised. One cannot dismiss the comments of a constitutional court either as political posturing, or as blabbering of some ignoramus.  Those statements of the court are binding on the people of the jurisdiction as precedents. Therefore, it is necessary to look into the issue, a little more seriously.
                What is the role of a political party, in our democracy? Our system has recognized the political parties. The candidates in our elections are either duly authorized representatives of recognized political parties or independents.  The elected members of our legislative and local bodies are bound by the whips issued by the political parties. The anti-defection law also recognizes the primacy of political parties in our systems.
                That being the case, is it not necessary for a political party to coordinate with its elected representatives on various policy and administrative matters? When the people have voted on the manifestos of a political party, whose responsibility it is to ensure that the government in power adheres to the promises made in the manifesto? Shouldn’t a political party ensure that the government that it forms governs the country/state/ local body as per the programmes and policies of the party?
                If the answer to the above is yes, then what is the problem in a party president coordinating or even directing ministers or head of a government formed by that party? In the present case, Mr. VM Sudheeran had written to the elected representatives belonging to the Congress party not to support granting of any new licenses for liquor bars in their respective areas. Please note that Sudheeran did not write to the local bodies directly, but only to the representatives who are party members. How can this be termed as an extra-constitutional interference by the Party President?
                Is it the stand of the judiciary that once elected, the representatives should not be given any directions on policy matters, by their respective parties? If it is indeed the case, it will not be in the spirit of the multi-party democracy that our Constitution has adopted.
                I sometimes wonder if we people have internalized the essence of democracy, at all. Reportedly, even Rahul Gandhi, a Gandhi dynasty scion could not convince the Congress party about the need to have democratic elections within the party.  The current prime minister of India is also an outcome of the nomination by RSS and not of any genuine democratic selection or election within the Bharatiya Janata Party.  Same is the case with other parties. No party encourages genuine intra-party elections. Those who seek to benefit from the democracy are reluctant to adopt the same system for their internal affairs.  Yesterday I read the news about how the national leadership of Communist Party of India managed to avoid an election to the post of State Secretary of the party in Kerala! Incidentally, it was again yesterday that the news about the internal bickering and cutting to size within the newly formed Aam Aadmi Party, also came out! All these make me wonder about our real attitude towards democracy. Perhaps, our democracy is a result of the vision of the framers of Constitution, rather than anything natural to us.
                It is in this context that one should analyze the statement from the Kerala High Court.  If the right of political parties to direct their members who are representing them in the local bodies and government are curtailed, it will lead to very undesirable results in our governance. The civil society, political parties, and judiciary must apply their minds to the role of political parties in our democratic system and ensure a healthy balance between various components.