Friday, May 27, 2011

Unwanted and discredited, Bhardwaj must go


Now that the central government has rejected Mr H R Bhardwaj’s recommendation to impose President’s Rule in Karnataka, the Governor must vacate the Raj Bhavan. He is unwanted, distrusted and discredited in the state. He said recently that he was a guest of Karnataka and thus deserved respect going by the Indian tradition that holds a guest as god. True, but when that god turns demon it is time to exorcise it. While rejecting Mr Bhardwaj’s suggestion, the government issued an ‘advisory’ to the BJP government in the state on the points raised by the Governor. This is a fig leaf that he can use to cover his political modesty, but it may not serve the purpose. He has been too widely exposed.

Mr Bhardwaj’s political misadventure may yet fetch him some reward. After all, no one seriously believes he created all the turbulence without an assured lifeline from influential people in the Congress party and the UPA government. He is no ordinary Governor. He was until very recently a key member of the Cabinet, and is considered close to 10, Janpath. So, the central snub notwithstanding, he has his admirers who will work to resurrect him if and when he leaves the state. Reports have it that he may even return to the Union Council of Ministers. If that happens, Karnataka’s gain can be the UPA government’s loss, because Mr Bhardwaj’s tenure as Union Law Minister was less than distinguishing.

There are only two ways he can shift out: either voluntarily or being recalled by the central government. The government has already ruled out his recall, because that would have been too much of an ignominy for a loyalist. Besides, the move would have been interpreted as the central government’s complete capitulation to the BJP. Mr Bhardwaj can quit gracefully – or as gracefully as he can after fruitlessly messing up the state’s politics – and leave it to posterity to be kinder to him. Of course, he can also hang on and continue to denigrate the Raj Bhavan till his admirers find him a suitable job.

The fact is, Mr Bhardwaj is the wrong person to be a Governor. He is a politician at heart and loves the skullduggery and intrigue associated with politics. He effectively converted the Raj Bhavan into a den of political subversion. Given his track record he is rather good at the game, if one excludes the Karnataka fiasco. He might just have succeeded here too if things had gone as planned by him and a few others who collaborated with him in the ‘oust Yeddyurappa’ campaign. To be fair to Mr Bhardwaj he failed not for want of trying but because certain events shot off in a new direction that he neither had plotted nor anticipated. For instance, he had not imagined that the 16 legislators with whom he had been so indulgent when they raised a banner of revolt against the Chief Minister, Mr B S Yeddyurappa, would conduct a U-turn just when the time came to deliver the Chief Minister the knockout punch. After their disqualification was set aside by the Supreme Court, these legislators had the opportunity to avenge the humiliation by voting against Mr Yeddyurappa in a trial of strength. But in a remarkable turn of events that took even the seasoned Governor by surprise, the MLAs threw their lot behind the very man they had gone to elaborate extents to dislodge.

Understandably, after – from his point of view disturbing – recent events, the Governor had neither the enthusiasm nor the appetite to ask the Chief Minister for a trust vote. He had loved the mechanism in the past, compelling Mr Yeddyurappa to demonstrate a majority in the Assembly on two quick days late last year. But then he had used those tumultuous occasions to argue that the Chief Minister had survived in a dubious fashion, after the Speaker had disallowed the rebel Legislators to vote and disqualified them thereafter. There was no such happy point to be made this time around, because the Chief Minister would have won with a more emphatic margin after winning over the rebels. So the Governor meekly admitted that a vote of confidence was unnecessary since Mr Yeddyurappa enjoyed a “huge majority”. For good measure, he added that the Chief Minister was his ‘good friend”.

It is not clear when this friendship developed or whether Mr Yeddyurappa reciprocates the sentiment. But since we do know that Mr Bhardwaj stands by his friends – recollect how he has backed all the way the rebels and the Karnataka leaders of the JD (S) and the Congress in their bid to displace the Chief Minister – we eagerly await his rendition of Yeh dosti hum nahin todenge. For now Mr Yeddyurappa is unwilling to add voice to what should be a duet. Perhaps it only a coincidence that the Governor should have developed such warm feelings for the Chief Minister after being mauled by legal experts and various political parties for recommending the dismissal of an elected government that enjoys the majority support in the House, and subsequent to getting gentle hints that the Centre was unwilling to accept his report.

The gush of warmth did not dry out with the unilateral announcement of friendship. The Governor applauded Mr Yeddyurappa for working ’18 to 20 hours a day”, for Karnataka’s welfare. Good Lord, if that is true Mr Bhardwaj has been pushing for the dismissal of a Chief Minister who has been toiling hard for the state’s development, not to mention the fact that he commands a huge majority in the Assembly. It is a defining contradiction, but then the Governor has been less than coherent ever since the Centre dumped his report and the Chief Minister won over the rebels.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Combating terror needs action, not words

(First published in The Pioneer dated May 18, 2011)


At the risk of being called a ‘US stooge’ — whatever that means for a commoner like me who has never entered a US embassy or consulate, or been ever contacted by any US official or mole, or enjoyed a US-sponsored junket — let me state that I am awestruck by the manner in which the world’s only superpower felled Osama bin Laden. It was a show of military precision and daring, backed by technological support and superior ground intelligence. But more than that, it demonstrated the unwavering resolve of a country hit by terror to extract revenge.

In the 10 years that it pursued the world’s deadliest terrorist who not merely led Al Qaeda but also spawned and became a source of encouragement for a host of affiliates — many of which have been targeting India — the US never lost sight of its goal, despite coming in for strong criticism from various quarters for the manner in which it had conducted its ‘war on terror’. It crossed borders and nailed the man it considered to be its enemy number one. That is how nations should fight terror, if it comes to that. Here, India has a lesson to learn.

But every time the issue of India duplicating the US approach to tackling terror is raised, it is brushed aside as unworkable. For one, Washington, DC had the support of the world’s most influential countries, with some being partners in the ‘war on terror’. New Delhi, we are reminded, will not find such allies if it decides to engage in hot pursuit of the terrorists holed up in Pakistan. Even the US, we are told, will not back India in that situation. Then there is the matter of geographical contiguity. Unlike the US, which is far removed from the scene of conflict, India shares its borders with Pakistan and any proactive military action to hit terror camps there will invite swift, and even perhaps a nuclear, retaliation from Islamabad. Finally, we are informed that while our armed forces are as good as any in the world when it comes to valour, they simply do not have the technological capability required to conduct audacious operations of the kind the US engaged in.

These are genuine concerns and cannot be brushed aside in the heat of the moment. But they are also possibly exaggerated. For instance, India is not without support. The UK, France, Germany, Russia, Israel and several others including the US are disgusted with Islamabad’s prevarication on acting against terrorists who have targetted India and find refuge in Pakistan. It may be true that those like the US have not really walked the talk from New Delhi’s point of view, but that is because we have ourselves not taken a hard stance. We will have reason to grumble only when we are firm on action (and not just speculate) and find no support from them.

The fact that Pakistan is our neighbour did not prevent us from going to war against it on three occasions, and engaging in the Kargil conflict which almost became a full-blown war. From all accounts, we emerged the better in these encounters. As far as the threat of a nuclear attack is concerned, Islamabad knows only well that any first-use of nuclear weapons from its end will mean its own denouement. India too would end up brutalised, but it will eventually recover; Pakistan is unlikely to do so because only that which survives will revive.

It is the third factor — not being technologically well equipped for across the border operations — that deserves closer attention. Our policy makers must hasten the process of modernising the armed forces to conduct such operations, which would be the last resort after all other methods of persuasion fail.

Eventually, the point is well accepted that these decisions have to be taken by the political executives based on expert inputs, and not by the ranting of lay commentators. That raises another disturbing question though: Does our Government have the spine to consider such daring options? The answer is ‘no’. Indeed, let alone demonstrate intrepidity, the UPA Government does not even have a clear stand on the recent developments. Osama bin Laden’s presence in Pakistan provided us with the perfect occasion to slam Islamabad for its duplicity, but Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, with his head buried in the sand, refused to seize the advantage and continued to harp on working for better relations with that country. Amazingly, he did not have one harsh word for Islamabad. It was left to Union Minister for Home Affairs P Chidambaram to do some plain-talking — he slammed Pakistan for sheltering terrorists.

But strong words for Pakistan from the Indian Prime Minister, even when all of the world barring usual ones like China have pounced upon it, is perhaps expecting too much spine from him. Mr Singh has after all revived the composite dialogue process with Pakistan halted in the wake of the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai. He did so despite Islamabad’s categorical refusal to act on the tomes of evidence New Delhi has provided it on the terror strike. Not only has Pakistan not acted, it has ridiculed the evidence as just some silly stuff on a piece of paper. Yet, our Government revels in cricket and hockey diplomacy, allowing Pakistani leaders to score public relations points. It is no wonder that Islamabad deals with our so-called stern messages with contempt at worst and a good deal of amusement at best.

That the Union Government is in a state of self-inflicted stupor is most remarkably evident in the manner it continues to drag its feet over the death sentence to the Parliament attack mastermind, Afzal Guru. His appeal for remission of the verdict confirmed by the Supreme Court has been pending with the President for years. Why, when it should have taken not more than a few days for the Government to advise the President to let the terrorist hang? It is because the UPA has developed cold feet over the likely ‘repercussions’. That alone tells the story of this Government’s resolve to fight terror.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The House is not in order


India’s Parliamentary Democracy on Trial
By Madhav Godbole
Rs 595

This book could not have come at a better time. As people watch in dismay and horror the campaign unleashed by a group of politicians and their handpicked agents to discredit the anti-corruption drive of Anna Hazare, one thing is obvious: These politicians are not really concerned with the credibility of those on the panel as they are with derailing the process. The reason is that, if the panel members nominated by Hazare get to work without distraction, the politicians will have a lot of answering to do. Madhav Godbole’s book must be read in this context. It lays down how our political class has failed over the decades — not merely to meet the people’s aspirations, but even to acknowledge in any concrete manner that they have such aspirations.

The title — India’s Parliamentary Democracy on Trial — itself gives away the purpose of the book. It is a critique of how those who claim to represent us have made a mockery of a system that was so lovingly and with lofty ideals crafted by our founding fathers. As one with a ringside view of the developments — Godbole served over decades with distinction in various senior positions in Government, capping his career as Union Home Secretary — the author has brought his understanding of the issues to not merely point to the strings of blunders but also suggest remedies. In truth, those remedies have been floating around for some time now and effectively ignored. If those suggestions still sound contemporary, it’s because they are even more relevant in the present situation, where crusaders for a change face a thinly disguised vilification campaign, ironically from those who are themselves short of credibility.

While it may be far-fetched to believe that had the suggestions proposed in the book been implemented, there would have been no Hazare movement, none can deny that the implementation of at least some of them would have greatly strengthened the credibility of the political class to combat the Gandhian. As of now, more people tend to believe him and his followers — tainted as some may be — than the political class. They will also find great merit in the contents of the book.

The narrative reflects the clinical precision of an expert and the anguish of the governed. There are, unfortunately, few Indian writers who write authoritatively on contemporary issues of governance. Godbole is one of them. In fact, this book is a sort of continuation of his earlier exhaustive work, The Judiciary and Governance in India, in which he hit the nail on the head when he said, “We have, from the perspective of the civil society, made a series of recommendations... However, there are no prospects in the near future of the executive and Parliament, lacking as they are in political and moral courage and stature, addressing them.” This was two years before Hazare burst on the Delhi scene, leaving the political class fuming over charges that it was generally insensitive to the aspirations of the people.

The author does well to base his arguments in the backdrop of the ‘glorious’ Nehru days of Parliament, when the Prime Minister went out of his way to ensure that the fountainhead of democracy was receptive to the needs and demands of the people. Though he does not agree with everything the first Prime Minister said or did, Godbole nevertheless admits that Jawaharlal Nehru did not have a pathological dislike for opposition. Indeed, he sought it. The author quotes him, “It is right that there should be criticism... I think it is essential for any kind of Government to have critics, the opposition.”

Since the manner in which politicians treat Parliament is reflective of how much concern they have for those who send them to the hallowed body, Nehru was obsessed with discharging his duties to it, and did his utmost to see that his colleagues in the Government followed suit. Today the Prime Minister goes on a foreign tour when Parliament is in session. This is what Nehru had to say, as the author quotes him, “As far touring is concerned, I have personally decided not to attend any of the large number of diplomatic functions that take place in Delhi or otherwise, as far as possible, also not to accept any engagements.”

These observations are relevant in the present context because the political class, with a few honourable exceptions, has been condemning the Hazare movement as the subversion of democracy and Parliament. The fact is, because the Members of Parliament over the years failed to bring about substantial reforms to enhance accountability and transparency in their functioning, ‘civil society’ was compelled to rise in protest. Godbole lays down in clear terms those failures, a number of which reside in the premise of electoral reforms. As we have said before, he offers suggestions. Among them are ways to decriminalise politics and abolish the first-past-the-post winner system. The author is under no illusion that these will be easily done, though he points out that genuine will across the political spectrum can do the needful. Until now, that commitment has come only in the form of high-sounding statements, not real action.

As Godbole remarks, the law prohibits a person from contesting an election only if he/she is convicted by a court for offences mentioned in Section 8 of the Representation of the People Act, 1951, and sentenced to imprisonment for more than the stipulated number of years. While accepting the dogma that a person is innocent unless proven guilty and simply because there is a case against him he cannot be barred from contesting polls, the author suggests a way out: Once a court frames charges against an individual, the framed person should stand disqualified from contesting. And, if the person is already a member of a legislative body, he has to step down. In both cases, the accused should not be permitted to hold any Government or quasi-Government office, or be part of Government panels till he is cleared of the allegations.

The author is especially disdainful of the first-past-the-post winner system, by which the candidate who secures the highest number of votes is declared the winner. With politicians promoting caste, religion and regional divides to garner votes, the author correctly says that “winning even with a minority vote has become common place”. He points out that in the last Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections, “96.53 per cent of the winners polled less than 50 per cent of the votes cast”. He adds that in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, the corresponding percentage was 59.85. With such fragment votes, how can the winner claim to represent the broad section of society in his constituency? And, knowing that he has won due to a particular section of the voters, why would he not bend backward to oblige that parochial group as a parliamentarian or a legislator? As a solution, Godbole says laws should be amended so that only that candidate who gets “50 per cent plus vote” is considered the winner.

Incidentally, the matter had also been raised by former Union Minister and senior writer Arun Shourie in his book, The Parliamentary System, where he pointed out how “unrepresentative” several of our elected representatives were.

It is worth reproducing Godbole’s dismay in the concluding part of the book’s introduction. He laments, “Except for the BJP, Communist or Left parties, almost all other political parties in India are family concerns... Who could have imagined that India, with its population of over a billion, would be so bereft of leadership, drawn from the masses, 60 years after practising parliamentary democracy?”


Thursday, May 5, 2011

Politicians as our 'representatives'


Among the charges levelled against social activist Anna Hazare and his supporters is that they arm-twisted a democratically-elected Government into including them in a Government panel to draft the Lok Pal Bill. This, the dissenters fume, cannot be tolerated, because no ‘civil society’ member has the right to subvert the Constitution by seeking to become a framer of public policy. That prerogative, the critics remind us, rests solely with representatives elected by the people through a transparent democratic process. It is difficult to fathom how the subversion happens if enlightened members of society want to influence policies in the larger interest of the people. But let us accept the charge for the moment to take the issue forward.

We would then have to assume that our representatives, on whom we place such trust, truly represent us. Can even the most ardent admirer certify with conviction that the representatives, barring exceptions, have served us well, and that they have demonstrated promise of doing so in the coming times? One can already imagine the critics’ retort: If the people are unhappy with their representative, they can vote him or her out. Another retort: The voters are responsible for the wrong kind of people coming in. The message is clear in both the lines of persuasion, and it is that the only window available for course correction is elections. This is anachronistic to a healthy democratic system in which the people’s participation does not end but begins with an election. In any case, the voters are not in a position to decide the timing of voting out a useless representative; even that is determined by Government agencies.

Moreover, this argument would have been valid if elections were fought and won on issues of good governance. But that rarely happens — the BJP Government in Gujarat and the NDA Government in Bihar are among the exceptions — and the Governments that assume power do not do so because they promise the people greater accountability and cleanliness in public life. Had that been the case, people behind bars for offences as serious as murder, rape and extortion would not be contesting — directly or through proxies — and winning elections.

To understand why we should not expect many of the elected representatives to reflect the aspirations and grievances of the people at large, we must acknowledge a harsh reality which is at the core of several of our problems. It is that these leaders often win with the help of a small section of society, many times located in a few pockets of the constituency. Thus, the people’s support for them is neither broad-based nor spread across the constituency. The first-past-the-post system ensures their victory even with minority votes, ie they can bag just a quarter of the total votes polled and yet be a victor. Why would such a representative bother even with issues like good governance, when all he has to do is to appease the small section of the people which has got him elected? In the end, that is the only mandate he has to honour, not petty matters like the Lok Pal Bill.

Let us look at some figures to better understand the rationale. In the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, just 40 per cent of winners were elected by polling more than 50 per cent of the total votes cast. The rest polled a minority number. The situation is even more alarming when one glances at the votes gained by winners as a proportion of the total electors. As former Union Minister and author Arun Shourie points out in his excellent book, The Parliamentary System, “99 per cent of the members got into the Lok Sabha by getting less than half the electors to vote for them.”

He provides another startling figure that really explains the disdain of many of our politicians to meaningful reforms like the Lok Pal Bill or changes in the electoral laws. In elections to the Uttar Pradesh State Assembly seats between 2001 and 2005, for instance, 62 per cent of candidates became the ‘people’s representatives’ by attracting less than 20 per cent of the votes.

Staying with Uttar Pradesh, should it surprise anyone that the highest votes polled by a winner as percentage of electors in the 2004 Lok Sabha polls was a mere 18 per cent — in Ballia — and that the lowest was an abysmal 11 per cent in the reserved seat of Basti? If these margins are all that are needed to win elections, why would a representative waste his energy on anything else other than to ‘manage’ his niche constituents for retaining the seat!

Recently, Madhav Godbole, former Union Home Secretary and now author of some remarkable books on contemporary subjects, comments in his latest offering, India’s Parliamentary Democracy on Trial that it would be best to discard the first-past-the-post system which is responsible for victors to emerge in elections despite polling a minority number of votes. He informs, “In the election to Uttar Pradesh Assembly held in 2007, 96.53 per cent of the winners polled less than 50 per cent of the votes cast.”

The Uttar Pradesh example should partly explain the recent conduct of the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party representatives on the Public Accounts Committee. They ganged up with the Congress and the DMK to stall the acceptance of the panel’s report that severely indicted the Prime Minister and other arms of the Government for the 2G spectrum licencing fraud. Winning on largely caste and community lines, the leaders of the two Uttar Pradesh parties do not have to even present a fa├žade of support for good and accountable governance.

They have to only ensure two things to remain relevant: One, get their caste and community calculations right, and two, humour the UPA Government to fob off the various cases against them pursued by central probe agencies. In their scheme of things, helping either to punish the guilty in the 2G scam or to get progressive legislations like a strong Lok Pal Bill are way down the priority order.