(Dr Pentapati Pullarao)
In India, there actually have been very few clashes between constitutional authorities and politicians. Our system has been carefully crafted to ensure harmony and Indians generally want harmony. By nature, Indians will try to compromise. In fact, when Mughals and other foreigners invaded India, we tried to compromise and survive. Similarly, when the British took over India, we again compromised to survive. This has helped our country survive and be a democracy.
Two recent events highlighted the need for very careful handling of appointing people to constitutional positions and how they conduct themselves and such appointments need very careful thought. One was the recent controversy involving the Andhra Pradesh Election Commissioner and his cancellation of local elections suddenly. The other was the nomination of the latest Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi as a Rajya Sabha MP.
The Constitution of India, like all other Constitutions, cannot foresee every event or predict every situation. The Constitution is a rule book or guide and people must carefully be guided and ensure that none goes beyond any reasonable action.
Countries like France holds a world record in the field of constitution-making. Since 1789, France has been changing her constitution after about every 12 years. Between 1789-1858, France had 16 constitutions, one of which, (1835), remained in force for only 21 days
Britain has no written constitution and laws passed by parliament, serves as the Constitution. The USA Constitution dates to 1777 and has had only 21 amendments to their constitution in the last 240 years. But that is because the people of the USA did not want to change their pro-slavery laws and the 1777 Constitution favored the white majority.
So the health of a Constitution depends on the people. In India, our Constitution is safeguarded and implemented by ‘Constitutional appointments “ or posts that have been defined in the Constitution. Posts like the President, Vice President, Governors, Speakers, Election Commissioners and Comptroller Generals of India are some such posts. In fact, such posts act like Referees or Umpires in games to ensure that there are Fairplay and justice. Such people ensure that no side gets an advantage and that is why such posts are sanctified.
To ensure that people and politicians respect people appointed to constitutional posts, they must be of the highest caliber and known for their honesty, excellence or gained stature doing their jobs. If mediocre people or people of dubious reputation or people appointed merely for their caste or religion, then both the posts and the people appointed get little respect. Governments should be very careful not to appoint undeserving people to such high posts.
In 1777, Benjamin Franklin was approached by a group of citizens asking what sort of government the Constituent Assembly of the USA had created. His answer was: “A Republic if you can keep it.” The short response should not cause us to under-value its essential meaning: democratic republics are not merely founded upon the consent of the people, they are also absolutely dependent upon the active and informed involvement of the people for their continued good health. This applies greatly to India.
In India, we generally leave it to the courts to decide such things and it is not a very healthy tradition.
Famous clashes involving Constitutional authorities
President Rajendra Prasad and Prime minister Nehru clashes:
Rajendra Prasad was the first president of India (1952 -1962). Nehru wanted C. Rajagopalachari elected President. But Sardar Patel over-ruled Nehru. There were immediate differences between Rajendra Prasad and Nehru over the role of religion in government. Rajendra Prasad opposed initially the Uniform law for Hindus. But Nehru won that fight. Then Rajendra Prasad insisted that the government fund the Somnath temple and it was done. There were many differences. But Nehru ensured that there was always respect and courtesy. It was only Rajendra Prasad who got 2 terms as President. Since then, no President got a second term.
Indira Gandhi and President S. Radha Krishna:
Radhakrishnan was an eminent intellectual. He became President in 1962. At the end of his first term in 1967, Dr.Radhakrishnan wanted a second term. But Indira Gandhi refused there was animosity between them. However, Indira Gandhi never betrayed anger and avoided a clash in the interest of the nation.
Frequent clashes between Governors and Chief ministers :
As long as the states were ruled by the Congress Party, there were no clashes between governors and Chief Ministers. But when the EMS Namboodripad Communist government in Kerala was dismissed in July 1959, clashes started between political parties and Governors. Such clashes later continued when BJP headed the central government and started appointing governors. But it is only in rare cases that Chief Minister goes to the Supreme court as Chief Minister Narayana Swamy of Pondicherry and Arvind Kejriwal fo Delhi did against their Lt. Governors.
Speakers and Chief Ministers
If a party enjoys majority in a Legislature, then there is no problem between Speakers and politicians. But when there are defections, then clashes start between Speakers and politicians. This is because we have anti-defection laws and it is very difficult to have them in a parliamentary democracy. There is no anti-defection law anywhere in the world except India and maybe Pakistan. In Britain, the Speaker is allowed to continue in his jobs even if the governments change. That is the ideal system.
President Giani Zail Singh and Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi :
Zail Singh was president from 1982 to 1987. Prior to his presidency, Zail Singh was Chief Minister of Punjab and Home Minister under Indira Gandhi. After the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984, Rajiv Gandhi became Prime Minister. But immediately differences cropped up. It was initially different due to personality clashes. This led to serious political differences and there was a stage when President Zail Singh felt so insulted that he wanted to dismiss Rajiv Gandhi and call someone else to form the government. But cooler heads prevailed and a difficult peace was arranged and Zail Singh retired in 1987. That was the most serious clash between constitutional authorities.
Bad appointments led to political disturbances :
Political parties use some constitutional authorities to achieve their ends. In India, there is always an attempt to sue judges to win legal cases. Such efforts lead to judges getting post-retirement jobs. Such trends started after Indira Gandhi became prime minister.
During Nehru’s time, he felt he needed outside talent for his government. Mohammed Currim Chagla was Chief Justice of Bombay high court for 9 years. Nehru made him a Cabinet Minister and then Chagla held other big diplomatic posts. But none criticized Nehru for such an appointment as Chagla was universally admired for his fairness, talent, and patriotism. Indira Gandhi also gave great posts to Mohammad Chagla during her first stint as prime Minister
But after Chagla, Indira Gandhi made Supreme Court Judge Baharul Islam a Rajya Sabha MP. This created controversy as it was a purely bad political appointment and left a bad taste in the mouth. M.P. Then later, Ranganath Misra was made a Congress party M.P from Odisha. Before that, Ranganath Misra as Chief Justice of India and then chairman of National Human Rights Commission. After occupying such high Constitutional posts, Misra became an MP..
Similarly, the Election Commission of India is a sacred constitutional body, which maintains our democracy and elections. Election Commissioners serve for 6 years and are expected to retire from public life after that. But M.S. Gill was Chief Election Commissioner from 1996 to 2001. When Manmohan Singh became Prime Minister, Singh was made an MP and Minister. This was a major shock to the system in India.
The appointment of Ranjan Gogoi as an MP has also sent a shock. It was not noel because of the various judgments he gave. The fact is that he retired just 4 months ago as Chief Justice. Such haste in giving appointments to a chief justice predicts a bad future for the country. .But the Congress Party also appointed 2 Chief Justices as MPs. Yet, such appointments cast a shadow on the Constitution.
Before that, another Chief Justice was also rewarded by the Modi government. Chief Justice P. Sathasivam retired from the Supreme Court in 2014 and was immediately appointed as governor of Kerala. Definitely , such appointments create a very bad precedent.
The Roman Empire was one of the strongest and longest-lasting empires in the world. The great writer Shakespeare made famous a saying of how fair and honest an emperor should be, referring to Roman emperor Caesar about 2100 years ago. . Shakespeare said that The integrity of the Emperor should like the reputation of Caesar’s wife. She should be above suspicion.
Similarly, the reputation of any person appointed to a constitutional post should be above question. Are we appointing such people to constitutional posts “ or we appointing corrupt officers? When Chief Justice Mohamamd Chagla was appointed, the entire country applauded. But when Judges with little reputation or retired officers are appointed to Election Commissions or other posts, there is shock and sadness. Are they protecting the constitution?
Regarding Justice Ranjan Gogoi’s nomination, his colleague Justice (retd) Madan Lokur has expressed dismay.:“There has been speculation for some time now about what honorific Justice Gogoi would get. So, the nomination is not surprising, but what is surprising is that it came so soon”.
What is happening is that there a class of officers, judges and others who flatter their political masters and do outrageous favors for them against the law. Then they get rewarded with post-retirement jobs. Many such people behave well. One great example is P.C. Alexander, who was governor of Tamil Nadu and then Governor of Maharashtra for 10 years (1993-2002). Though a Congress nominee, his behavior was so fair, that it was the Shiv Sena which demanded Alexander continue and also proposed him for Rashtrapathi.
But people like Alexander are very rare. Most bad appointments damage the system and the Constitution. One happy example is the selection of Abdul Kalam as President (2002- 2007) by near consensus. Kalam was such a great president that he won the love of India. Such good appointments repair the damage that politicians do by appointing shady and unqualified people to constitutional posts.
The Queen of England actually occupies a Constitutional post with great pomp and no power. She has been Queen (1952 -2020) for nearly 67 years. She has seen 14 Prime ministers during her time. Though she got a bad name during Princess Diana’s time, the Queen never showed partisanship and thus she has ensured that the British monarchy survives.
We don’t need a King or Queen. But we need people with the good qualities and example of the Queen of England to uphold our country in constitutional posts. Decency, fairness, honesty, and patriotism. Is it difficult to find such people amongst 135 crores?
(Dr Pentapai Pullarao is a New Delhi based economist and political commentator)