Beyond BJP versus Congress rivalry in Gujarat / Centre puts its man in opposition state / Verdict on appointment of Lokayukta in Gujarat

[ Daily News and Analysis, 15 Jan 2013 ; Millenium Post, 19 Jan 2013 ; Echo of India, 13 Jan 2013 ]

Last week, I attended a memorial event of the inimitable and now forgotten Rajnarain. It was socialists like him, communists and a whole plethora of ‘regional’ political formations, whose opposition to the Indira Congressl led to the suspended animation of Article 356, the draconian act used primarily by the Congress(I) to dismiss insubordinate state governments. Just when you thought that conspiratorial centres in Governor Houses across state capitals had folded up, filling empty time cutting ribbons and enjoying largely undeserved chancellorships of universities, the old disease has found a new victim. This time it is Gujarat. Who would have thought.

Gujarat governor Kamla Beniwal appointed RA Mehta as the Lokayukta of Gujarat, inspite of protests of the state government. The appointment was challenged in court. On January 2, the Supreme Court upheld the appointment. Predictably, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has reacted strongly to the verdict. Kamla Beniwal is a former Rajasthan unit of the Congress(I). The relationship between such governors and opposition ruled states have never been exactly rosy. But beyond the obvious Congress(I) – BJP rivalry, this appointment and its subsequent legitimization by the Supreme Court has far-reaching implications. The implications, unfortunately, are largely negative.

The problem is not about what kind of a person RA Mehta is and whether he is actually fit for the position. He possibly is. It is also not about the embarrassment that the Gujarat state government may face if an upright Lokayukta takes office. The question in a federal-democratic system like the one Indian Union claims to have is who will decide this fitness. It is in that context we need to understand what was happened. In effect, an unelected person who is a former member of the party in power at Delhi (a party that is by no measure an example of incorruptibility) has unilaterally chosen who will head the anti-corruption ombudsman organization in the state of Gujarat. She has done this without consulting and actually ignoring the popularly elected state government. Another unelected institution, the Supreme Court, has upheld this appointment that is political in all but name. So, as essentially political decision has been brought into the purview of the judiciary. This is an insidious encroachment into the powers of the legislature. For anyone who takes democracy seriously, this cannot be a happy development.

There has been another encroachment and in my opinion, is the more troubling one. No one can deny that neutrality and independence should be important characteristics of any Lokayukta. But where did we get this ridiculous idea that anything that is ‘central’ is also neutral. Who says that the government at New Delhi can select better specimens of humanity than Gujarat?

As I said, in this case, an unelected body is endorsing the unilateralism of another unelected person over a whole elected assembly. More importantly, for all practical purposes, the governor is the thikadar of Delhi to keep oppostion ruled states in check. This thikadari system has colonial roots – an extractive colonial system that wanted to retain the right to meddle into democratic political expression of people. In the post-partition subcontinent, governors represent just that – a person who is answerable to Delhi over the heads of the people in a state. During the heyday of the Congress(I), the dismissal of  elected state governments using Article 356 used to happen through the connivance of the Delhi agent in a state, the governor. Now, due to the demise of the ‘Congress system’, the usage of this undemocratic tool has become politically unviable. However, the ideological framework in which the states are considered fiefs of the centre has not died. It has in fact strengthened as the Centre launches frequent schemes to encroach on the few rights the states have – the NCTC scheme and the recent plans to make water a central subject are of this nature. The present impasse in Gujarat is yet another attack on the federal structure of the Indian Union.

Going back to the Rajnarain memorial event, there I saw that giant, the former Supreme Court judge Rajinder Sachar. People of this generation, whose baptism happened in politics before they became judges, had a intimate understanding and respect for democracy. They have also seen Delhi usurp powers from the provinces over the decades. In contrast, latter generations (and judges are not outside it) have increasingly grown up with an ‘idea of India’ that is same as a Delhi lording over the states. This ‘new normal’ no doubt makes people less sensitive to violation of states’ rights. All institutions that are dominated by the elite come with a certain ideology about nationhood, development, future, the ‘idea of India’ and other such things. This results in larger problems, especially when judiciary starts arbitrating political disputes.

BJP has been livid over this issue and it should be. However, its sensitivity on the curbing of federal structure should go beyond Gujarat. If it comes to power at New Delhi, it owes to the people steps on the implementation of the recommendations of the Sarkaria commission that sought to strengthen India’s federal structure. Otherwise BJP’s should not subject people to opportunist theatrics on federalism. People want action, not actors.

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