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A safe little back door to power

April 25, 2009 16:37 IST

In earlier times, India's politicians were pretty old-fashioned. Those who wanted to be in government did what was expected of them: they stood for elections. That was considered the basic requirement, like taking the bar exam if you wanted to be a lawyer. If the general election was distant, they fought the first by-election on their radar.

Sometimes they were given 'safe seats' where the party could guarantee a victory. If the seat was represented, the party high command would ask some hapless member to vacate his seat -- in return, of course, for some compensatory office -- to ensure that the politician they considered important to their agenda was elected, invariably by a huge margin.
This was not merely a parliamentary convention; it reinforced the principle that the people's verdict carried weight.

Indira Gandhi, for one, threw herself into the rough and tumble of elections with gusto soon after she was made prime minister in 1966. She was then sitting pretty as the information and broadcasting minister, who drew her strength from the Rajya Sabha. But as soon as the Third Lok Sabha was dissolved, she stood for election from Rae Bareli and returned to Parliament as a clear leader of the party and the House, all in a matter of 15 months.

P V Narasimha was no less prompt in establishing his credentials in 1991. When he was made prime minister in the wake of Rajiv Gandhi's assassination Rao was a member of neither house. Before the six-month grace period ran out, he had got the Nandyal Lok Sabha seat vacated for him and won it with over 88 per cent of the votes, a feat that still remains a record.

It would be unfair to expect the political shrewdness, charisma or the ability to work crowds as Indira Gandhi could. She could win as easily from Medak in Andhra Pradesh as from Chikmagular in Karnataka or her pocket borough of Rae Bareli -- and lose unexpectedly, too.

Lose or win, as did Rao and A B Vajpayee and a host of others, politicians have to take their chances with the electorate. But our parliamentary conventions are changing, and in a marked way. Absolutely unelectable 'leaders' -- even safe seats presumably are not safe enough for this lot -- are now masquerading as the people's representatives and, worse, setting the course for the nation on every critical issue.

Everyone, from party-affiliated journalists, industrialists, shrill ideologues, fixers, defeated ministers and the prime minister himself, has found a safe little back door to politics -- the Rajya Sabha, which has become an easy conduit to power and influence.

This has been made easier after the Representation of People Act was amended in 2003 to allow people residing anywhere in India to be elected to the Rajya Sabha instead of having to be normally resident in 'that State or territory'. That did away with the need to produce fake rent receipts to prove a candidate's eligibility.

The outgoing government of the United Progressive Alliance has 18 of its ministers -- 19 if you count the minister of state for power and commerce who quit in February to attend to party work -- from the Upper house, a number that has grown substantially since the previous National Democratic Alliance strung together by the BJP began to fill key portfolios (foreign affairs, disinvestment, etc) with Rajya Sabha members.

This is as dismaying a prospect as a prime minister seeking office without facing the electorate.

Congress president Sonia Gandhi's declaration that Manmohan Singh, an RS member since 1991 when he was inducted as finance minister in Rao's cabinet, is the Congress Party's prime ministerial nominee has serious implications for India's parliamentary system that has been held up as an example to struggling democracies elsewhere.

True, there is no constitutional or legal bar to Dr Singh continuing as the PM if the Congress does return to power. But it is a far from happy situation for the country not to have a popularly elected PM.

Clearly the criticism is getting to Dr Singh who is responding tetchily and not very convincingly to questions about his inability to contest the elections. For Dr Singh to claim that other PMs before him -- Indira Gandhi, Inder Kumar Gujral and H D Deve Gowda -- were not directly elected is poor defence.

Indira Gandhi established her supremacy very quickly, while Gujral and Gowda lasted for one year and 10 months, respectively, in a shaky United Front regime. There is no fig leaf here for Dr Singh.

Nor is the lack of a constitutional or legal barrier to his continuance as PM much of an argument in his favour. Dr Singh has suggested that the BJP should get the Constitution amended if they wanted him to stand for the Lok Sabha. That shows little political finesse or regard for parliamentary convention.

The National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution had indeed recommended in 2002 that the PM should be a member of the Lok Sabha, but it is one of those suggestions that have been disregarded so far.

That might change as sticky issues crop up in Parliament. Last year, the Speaker of the Lok Sabha had disallowed a notice of a privilege motion against Dr Singh for not fulfilling an assurance he had given to the house on the India-US nuclear deal for the simple reason that the PM was from the Rajya Sabha. Therefore, the Lok Sabha could not claim or exercise any authority over him, the Speaker had ruled.

The privilege motion had been moved against Dr Singh because he had promised the Lok Sabha that the nuclear agreement "after being endorsed by the IAEA and NSG would be submitted to this august House for expressing its views". Instead, the agreement was finally sealed and made operational without coming to the house, the notice had pointed out.

"The inability of the Lok Sabha to challenge the Prime Minister on a point of privilege is a constitutionally incomprehensible irony," Ernakulam MP Sebastian Paul has pointed out in a March 2009 letter to Sonia Gandhi.

Paul, a constitutional expert, has asked the Congress Party chief to get Singh elected to the Lok Sabha to avoid such situations. In any case, says the parliamentarian, the prime minister can only continue in office as long as he enjoys the confidence of the Lok Sabha.

That's common sense and a parliamentary convention that Indian democracy has grown up with. Should this change to accommodate an unelectable PM?

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