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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 35, August 15, 2009 (Independence Day Special)

Our Nation’s Self-Enduring, Self-Correcting, Self-Renewing Impulse

Wednesday 19 August 2009, by Gopalkrishna Gandhi


The Constitution of India was made by the good for the honest. It is worked by the wise for the experienced. This marks a maturing of our Republic. It also tells us that the timber of our parliamentary functioning is being seasoned in varied waters.

Over six decades and 94 amendments after the people of India gave unto themselves that great enactment, it is not surprising that some feel: ‘Should we not take a re-look at the Constitution, it is quite old?’

Age is no weakness when the health is sound. Our Constitution has stood the test of time and has given us institutions and arrangements which have suited our genius quite admirably and have reflected our instincts.

I recall President K.R. Narayanan saying from the floor of the Central Hall of Parliament, at a time when a review of the Constitution had been announced: ‘Our Constitution has not failed us; we have failed the Constitution.’

It would be good for us to see how we can measure up to the ideals of the Constitution.

Elections are our pride; they can also be a privation.

They bring out the best in us; they reveal the worst.

They excite us; they exhaust us.

They can, like a good monsoon, bring hope.

They can, as in a failed monsoon, bring gloom.

This is not about who wins and who loses. It is about what wins and how; and what loses and why.

Elections generate faith; in some cases, they are known to have generated fear. Faith, in their power to reaffirm trust, or to re-position it. Fear, over their knack to uncork violence, unleash vendetta.

In an election, it is the candidate’s message of the manifesto that is supposed to win the vote. And so it does.

But, smiling in its sleeve, so does money. This, of course, is an universal fact and not an Indian phenomenon.

One cannot fight an election on good wishes. Expenses have to be incurred; they always have. But the flow of currency in elections has grown from a small stream into a river in spate.

Some election victories have been the progeny of intimidation. As undisguised as they are ugly. Murders in an election are an abomination. And yet they have become a reality.

The great majority of our legislators win clean. They win because they have persuaded their voters to vote for them, helped perhaps by a certain mood in the air, a hava. But some—not a microspic number—win under different auspices.

Certain victories can be more embarrassing than defeats, certain defeats more honourable than victories.

I said elections exhaust, they can be a privation. This is so because, apart from the quantities of money and energy used up, they also sap one’s emotions.

In many electoral contests, expletives oust argument, insults displace analysis. Most candidates in India’s election—all honour to them—have kept their heads above the din. They have fought clean, won clean. But some have authored dictionaries of slang the etymologies of which are best left unexplored.

Most slogans coined for elections are unobjectionable, even witty. It does not matter that they often elevate the candidate to a size larger than Nature’s intentions. But some slogans and statements hurt. There is a word in Sanskrit which describes the hurt caused by an arrow that goes so deep that even the feathers at its blunt end get lodged in the victim’s flesh.

As the seed, so the fruit.

AT times such as the present when global meltdown, global terror and global warming are distorting life as we know it, our public life cannot afford the luxury of acrimony, much less of violence, in the political arena.

We live in times of serious challenges—some of which are old, some new.
Whether we ascribe it to global warming or to more localised causes such as cyclone Aila, the hard fact is that the south-west monsoon is now all but lost. This means that, as a nation which has to find food and water for 1.2 billion people, we may well be facing a serious problem.`

Looking beyond the monsoon, but directly connected, we can see that our glaciers have shrunk dramatically, rivers across the country flow thin and our reservoirs hold half or even less than what they should. Supply lines for power and water are, therefore, panting to meet demands; electricity and water supply agencies draw irate crowds. The rising of sea levels could see climate-refugees coming into our country, triggering altogether new concerns. Scarcity and security are inter-related. Development and disturbed conditions go ill together.

Business can, therefore, no longer be ‘as usual’. And this includes the public life of our country. And yet it seems to be precisely that.

In a situation such as this, the making and hurling of ‘bombs’ and the use of fire-arms whether ‘pre-’ or ‘post-’ polls, or co-extensively with polling, the illicit stockpiling, circulating and use of such arms, politically motivated murders, the attacking and torchings of political offices, the obstructing of Ministers and public servants or the assaulting of elected representatives, the barter of abusive words and the calling of crippling bandhs and gheraos must cease. To lodge a protest against a decision or a move is the right of every citizen or a group of people. It only shows that our society is ‘alive’ and not ‘mechanical’. But the immobilising of an entire area or a State or citizen services by bandhs or blockades is unwisdom. Of the lowest and most dangerous kind.

It is time we, as a people, made an ecologically responsible citizenship and a politically responsible democracy a goal that cannot be compromised. That has to be the bedrock of our parliamentary democracy, of our nationhood. Without it, parliamentary democracy and the process of elections will lose meaning. It is time for sagacious leaders of public opinion, and for our legislators in particular, to work in the short-term, but for the long-term. Shri Somnath Chattopadhyay’s Speakership has shown the way.

I had spoken of our elections.

Parliamentary democracy in India is a tree that bears the sweets, the sours and the bitters of India’s elections, the honourable fight, decently won, and the opposite. Those fights, with all that is good in them and all that is not, carry victorious candidates onto their legislative seats. They also carry the tensions and the antagonisms. These should refract into healthy debate.

They do not always do so.

Naturally, therefore, Parliament set up an Ethics Committee! All credit to it.
To the tensions of the life of a legislature has been added the phenomenon of coalitions. Born, often, in the short-term, they can and do shape the long-term. The shape varies.

That is the kind of fluxion in which the House requires a still-centre.

And this is where the last Lok Sabha found its still-centre in the Speakership of Sri Somnath Chattopadhyay. His has been the gift of balance to excess, of measure to abandon, of ballast to turbulence. Combining the acumen of the first Speaker G.V. Mavalankar, the effectiveness of the second Speaker Ananthasayanam Ayyangar and the mastery of rules that characterised the third Speaker Sardar Hukam Singh, Somnathbabu brought to the Speaker’s Chair the pre-eminence it is meant to have. Between the hour hand of discussions, the minute hand of adjournment motions, and the pulsating needle that ticks excitably, second by second in terms of reactions, Somnathbabu was the steady pendulum. Somnathbabu knew, through and through, the parliamentary method as a so-called ‘ordinary’ member of many terms—and a fairly vociferous one at that. This only helped his naturally-confident incumbency of that high office.

In the acoustic requirements of his office Somnathbabu was helped by his strong vocal chords. But that facility would have availed little had it not been but an aid to his uncommonly agile mind and his legislative reflexes.

A Speaker hasto be fairly unforgiving from the Chair. But he can be very forgiving in his Chambers. And that Somnathbabu has been. Only he knows how many times those that defied him in public, sought his indulgence in private. Only he knows how many of those who made promises to him in his Chambers broke them on the floor of the House. And came later to apologise.

We in our beloved State can be proud that one so steeped in the political and legal life of West Bengal and in its cultural and educational dimensions, should have crowned his legislative career with a Speakership that will not be forgotten by the country as a whole.

I will conclude by saying that our country is altogether unique in the way, as a parliamentary democracy, it copes with its despondencies, its disappointments, its crises. I do not know of any other country which can alternate between crisis and catastrophe as ours does—and overcomes the challenge. How many countries in the world are plagued as ours is, by terrorism—cross-border and home-grown? How many countries face up to natural disasters, in which thousands are affected, like ours? Where else can we find an example of one billion and more people, of varying backgrounds, multi-lingual and multi-religious in a multi-party scene—and thanks to improved health services, multiplying and coming together in the spirit of democracy, as a mahasagar that Rabindranath sang about? Where else can we find the tremendous advances made by a nation in a system that is not just in form democratic but vibrantly so? And where else in the world will a government be bold enough to work towards a unified identification number to give to each of its citizens. We can be proud.

Our Parliament and legislatures have also given us a formidable body of legislation, the like of which can hardly be found anywhere. The last Lok Sabha itself, presided over by Somnathbabu, has given us enactments which can re-shape our national life. I will mention just three, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, the Right to Information Act and the Act against Domestic Violence. These are not just pioneering but, in my opinion, epoch-making. They are the products of our parliamentary democracy, reflecting the deepest social introspection.

India can be Achal like the middle ages but it can also be Nirmal and Shital as befits a new millennium, reflecting not the multiple confusions of a fractured India but the self-enquiring, self-correcting, self-renewing impulse of our nation which is also a civilisation. And the credit for that has to go, in no small measure, to the perennial stream of our elected legislators which flows from that Gomukh of our Republic that can never shrink.

[Speech by the West Bengal Governor at a National Seminar on Indian Parliamentary Democracy, orgsnised by the West Bengal Federation of United Nations Associations, coinciding with former Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chattopadhyay’s eightieth birth anniversary, at Gorky Sadan, Kolkata, July 25, 2009]

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