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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 43, October 12, 2013

Signs of Disquiet

Monday 14 October 2013, by Nikhil Chakravartty

From N.C.’s Writings

New Delhi’s latest extravaganza is the all-in wrestling match between the President versus the Prime Minister, now being played with their respective supporters backing them with gusto.

But those who are not directly involved in this unseemly game are disturbed by the crisis situation created by this development. This confrontation that now looms large between the President and the Prime Minister has been building up for nearly two years now: what is amazing is that it was wholly unavoidable and what Rajiv Gandhi has to contend with today is really the wages of totally thoughtless negligence and indiscretion on his part.

There is no escape for him from the fact that throughout the last year, in particular, he systematically ignored the President, never caring to extend to him the courtesies and considerations that our Prime Ministers in the post always extended to the Head of State. There were no doubt sharp differences in outlook and over policies between the Prime Ministers of the day and the Presidents, whether it was Rajendra Prasad, Radhakrishnan, V.V. Giri and Sanjeeva Reddy, but no Prime Minister let the President feel that he was being sidelined or humiliated.

It is ironic that the letter the Prime Minister has just written (the latest uptodated) to the President was discussed and endorsed by the Cabinet. But did the Prime Minister care to consult the Cabinet, when for months he never bothered to meet the President, not to speak of keeping him posted with the thinking of the government or its appraisal of the situation?

Tension was allowed to be built up, and the first visible sign of rift came with the President withholding consent to the Postal Amendment Bill. Even at that stage, the danger signal was not heeded. Rather, the Prime Minister’s circle relished with glee a press exposure of the President’s objection to the Postal Bill, recalling Zail Singh’s role on the same issue when he was the Home Minister. Much is being made of nowadays about Zail Singh’s complicity with a section of the press that released his letter to the Prime Minister in March in which Rajiv Gandhi’s statement in Parliament on the state of his relations with the President was questioned.

But in the eyes of the public, this practice of making use of the press for instant gain was started by the Prime Minister’s side as most of New Delhi believed that the devastating exposure of Zail Singh by a newspaper on the Postal Bill issue sometime ago could not have been possible without the connivance of the Rajiv establishment. Not surprisingly, the very same newspaper later leaked out the letter that Zail Singh had written to embarrass the Prime Minister.

What is shocking is that this slanging match organised out of infantile petulance on the part of Rajiv Gandhi, has now assumed the dimension of a first-class constitutional crisis. Both the President’s camp and the Prime Minister’s are getting armed with legal opinions to buttress their respective cases. It is almost a state of belligerency between the Rashtrapati Bhavan and South Block, with both sides taking their shining swords out of the scabbard and brandishing them to the sound of war drums. Contingency plans are being openly discussed. Is the President going to dismiss the Prime Minister? Can’t the President be impeached? And so on and so forth.

There are no doubt grey areas in the Constitution, one of which is Article 78 which relates to the duties of the Prime Minister with regard to the furnishing of information to the President. The article in question, presupposes a level of sagacity between the holders of two highest offices in the Republic. Obviously, the framers of the Constitution did not provide for a contingency in which a cunning President and a mindless Prime Minister would be confronting each other.

Zail Singh’s elevation to the Rashtrapati Bhavan was no doubt the result of a grievous miscalculation on the part of Indira Gandhi, who had thought that a Sikh as the Head of State would help to neutralise at least to some measure the estranged mood in Punjab, while it would help to remove at the same time from active politics a person directly inovlved in dangerous intrigues in Punjab. She soon realised her mistake on both the counts, and in the bargain the presidential stature was greatly devalued by Zail Singh holding the august office. But thanks to Rajiv Gandhi’s mishandling, Zail Singh has emerged as the nightmare for the government.

If this dispute is not settled forthwith, the country will be faced with a serious crisis. A President, provoked and cornered, dismissing a Prime Minister will no doubt be madness let loose. At the same time, a Prime Minister, enraged at presidential prodding, cannot arrogate to himself and his Cabinet, the right to interpret any article of the Constitution, particularly when it has become a matter of utmost national concern. Either Rajiv Gandhi should place the entire dispute concerning Article 78 before Parliament or refer it to the Supreme Court for clear guidance.

Undoubtedly, the President is taking advantage of the embarrassing predicament in which the Rajiv Government has been placed by the spotlight on the hushing up of investigation into certain bank balances abroad of some persons in the Prime Minister’s close circle as also the suspicion of handsome payoff in some of the defence deals under him. It is quite obvious that Zail Singh is out to exploit this situation. At the same time, the public at large will wonder why the Prime Minister is withholding information about these deals to the President, who had also been entrusted at one time with the very important portfolio of Home Affairs. Rajiv Gandhi can of course claim, as he did rather strongly before a close-door meeting of the Congress coordinators last week, that there was nothing wrong in all these deals. But the public cannot be blamed for drawing its own conclusion when it finds that he is neither willing to set up a parliamentary investigation nor is he prepared to place the records before the President, while the Defence Minister has had to quit on having launched an enquiry into an allegation of large-scale kickback in a Defence deal under negotiation.

What Rajiv Gandhi and his colleagues have to clamly and dispassionately ponder over is that the Prime Minister’s rift with the President can hardly be tackled by constitutional niceties, and those too settled by the government’s own version of their meaning, just as the public misgivings about the Dfence deals and Swiss bank accounts cannot be removed by full-throated assertion of innocence nor by shouting about destabilisers. Political parties are not unaware of the danger of destabilisation as could be seen from their near-unanimous warning to the President not to dismiss an elected government with majority support in Parliament. At the same time, it is time for the Rajiv Government to realise that its own stubborn refusal to allay public misgivings itself helps the destabilisers.

The widening gap of alienation between the Rajiv Government’s stand and the public perception on these issues of concern, offers a godsend for the destabiliser, for the simple reason that no democratic government can be stable if it turns the deaf ear to the rumblings below. Nobody questions the government’s massive majority in the Lok Sabha, but certainly that does not insure it against the mounting distrust about its capacity to govern as also its unwillingness to subject to parliamentary scrutiny certain of its acts of omission and commission, acts which have attracted public uneasiness, to say the least.

Besides, Rajiv Gandhi and his colleagues have also to bear in mind that the electoral mandate which they got twentynine months ago was an extraordinary one—the fall-out of shock and concern at the killing of a Prime Minister by her own security guards. At the level of policy and programme, nothing was spelt out. What was assumed by the electorate at that time was that the strategy and policies pursued under Indira Gandhi would be carried forward and not repudiated. In actual practice, as any objective observer will bear out, the economic strategy was visibly changed despite all the full-throated rhetoric of recent days denying it. The foreign policy in some of the major sectors has been messed up in these two years; witness Sri Lanka, Pakistan and China. The much-boosted accords have not brought the results expected of them. An elected Ministry in Punjab cannot hide the grim realities on the ground—the secessionist forces are today no less strong than they were in October 1984. The only tangible fall-out of the Assam Accord appears to be the discredit and demoralisation of the Congress-I in the State where the question of the so-called foreigner is yet to be settled. The Mizoram Accord, mostly negotiated under Indira Gandhi, is no doubt welcome and so is the Kashmir Accord, undoing a mischief perpetrated under Indira Gandhi by the toppling of a duly elected Ministry with disastrous consequences.

Under Rajiv Gandhi’s stewardship, the Congress-I had made no headway anywhere. The recent election results have shown its decline in Kerala and West Bengal—even to a certain extent in Jammu and Kashmir. No Congress-I leader would be so recklessly bold as to claim that his party has gained ground in the Hindi belt or in its periphery in Gujarat and Orissa. If anything, the stocks are pretty low. The nervousness that has gripped its central leadership over the impending Haryana election speaks loudly of the state of things in that State. As most of Rajiv Gandhi’s Ministers candidly admit in confidence, the chain reaction of losing Haryana would be disastrous, and this does not make the Congress-I Raj at the Centre safe, despite the three-fourths majority it commands in the Lok Sabha.

A state of disquiet has come over many of the seasoned leaders of the Congress-I, some of them quite senior in the Rajiv Cabinet. But what they are not sure is if Rajiv Gandhi himself realises this. Sycophants and hangers-on are not the best weathermen.

(Mainstream, May 9, 1987)

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