Photograph of Anil Chawla

Author - Anil Chawla

Republic of India turned fifty on 26th January, 2000. On 27th January in the Central Hall of the Parliament, at a celebratory function held for 50 years of India's Constitution, the President and the Prime Minister differed sharply on the question of reviewing the Constitution. The next morning all the general newspapers dutifully carried this as the first headline on their front page. However, the financial dailies chose to publish on their inside pages this clashing of swords of the topmost constitutional heads. To further add emphasis, a leading financial daily published a cartoon on the front page where a politician is telling his secretary "I'm worried Moonswamy, Beauty queens and cricketers are making the front page and popular politicians like me are confined to the jokes page." The cartoon is the most poignant comment on the farcical debate that deserves to be put in the jokes pages of history.

The review of Constitution of India came into sharp focus after the ruling alliance made noises about appointing a Commission for the purpose. The opposition dutifully opposed the move. Some politicians have even tried to look in this a caste angle. The Chairman of Drafting Committee of the Constituent Assembly, Dr. Ambedkar was a lower caste person. Any attempt to change the Constitution has been seen by some as an attempt to insult the great memory of a lower caste leader. Emotional outbursts and calculations of political mileage have replaced all sense of responsibility that such an exercise should have involved.

It is necessary to look at ground realities before getting lost in the din created by men who consider it their profession. An amendment of the Constitution can be made only if more than two thirds of the Members of each house of Parliament support it. For major changes ratification is needed by one-half of the legislatures of the states. Given the present numbers in the Parliament and in Legislative bodies of states, there is absolutely no possibility for the ruling alliance to get any Constitution Amendment bill cleared. Getting approval for major changes is an unachievable dream. The ruling alliance as well as the opposition is well aware of it.

Appointing a commission in such a situation can at best be described as an exercise in futility. The report of the commission will have no legal sanctity and will in all probability gather dust in some corridor in Delhi. Leaders of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the main partner in the ruling alliance, are still keen to appoint such a commission for reasons best known to them.

Political parties are generally supposed to provide leadership by floating new ideas that are ahead of their time, build public opinion in favour of such ideas and act as change agent for implementation of such ideas. In any democratic society, change or review of Constitution is a long term issue that needs vision, commitment and perseverance on the part of its votaries. BJP seems to lack all three and instead of offering a party vision on the subject developed over years by men of glorious intellectual capabilities, it has chosen to avail the services of a commission.

The Law Minister Ram Jethmalani said a few days back that the fathers of the Constitution took three years to draft the Constitution but the Commission to review it will finish the job in six months. The Prime Minister in the celebratory function in the Central Hall of Parliament hinted that the need for stability will be the focus of the review of the constitution. It almost seems that the Prime Minister and his cabinet colleague have made up their mind on the changes that need to be made in the constitution and are looking for a rubber-stamp-like commission to just give their ideas some sanctity. If this is indeed the case, it needs to be pointed out to the Prime Minister and his Law Minister that any change in Constitution does not need report of a commission - it needs a two third majority in each house of the Parliament. On the other hand if the purpose is to just generate debate, it is neither necessary nor advisable to use a Commission for this purpose.

The President is well aware of these facts. Even in the most unlikely event of both houses of Parliament approving amendments to the Constitution, there is no way that a Constitution Amendment Bill can be passed without the signature of the President and there is nothing to force the President to act against his will. By joining the debate at this stage, he has lowered the dignity of his office. Further by opposing a review of the Constitution, he has assured himself a place in history as a status-quoist who opposed all change without giving any cogent reason for opposing change.

But even worse than the damage done to the personal image of the present occupier of the Honourable chair of President, is the affront to the people of India. He said that it is not the Constitution that has failed but it is the people of India who have failed the Constitution. In effect the President has conceded failure of the system but he believes that what needs to be changed is the people and not the system. The President has shed no light on the way he plans to change the people or get a better set of people. If due to a physical handicap or for any other reason one's feet cannot reach the pedals in one's car, one does not change one's legs - one changes the car by either modifying seating or by getting a car specially designed for people with such problems. It is difficult to read the President's mind. But, it seems logical to conclude that the President has only two options to offer (a) Let things go as they are. Things are not good for the people and the nation is not doing well, but he is having a nice time in his palatial house and he has a nice future carved out, so why change things (b) Indian people have failed to govern as per a Constitution which is really good, so it is high time that some foreigners are called in to govern and show results. Needless to say that both the options are highly objectionable and no right-minded Indian will accept any of the two. It is most unlikely that even the President (for whom everyone has great regard) would accept any of the above options, but he gives no other option. Most likely he has not thought logically about what he spoke and coming from such a high functionary that is really sad.

Indian polity today faces a bankruptcy of the mind. It has become a theater of the absurd where even the most serious debate degenerates into a ridiculous frivolous farce. Review of the Constitution is a necessity but the members of the present day polity are least equipped to carry it out. If the members of the present Government were really serious about starting a debate on the subject and initiating a process of long term change, they would have involved the academic community of the country in serious research on the subject, instead of trying to appoint their chosen sycophants as a Commission. Research studies can be sponsored into various aspects of the functioning of the polity and Constitution of India as well as of other countries. These research studies can lead to a series of books that start a healthy debate culminating into a broad consensus for change. All this requires long term vision and perspective. Isn't that asking for too much from politicians whose only worry and concern is getting space in the columns of tomorrow morning's newspaper (even if it be on the jokes page).


29 January, 2000

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ANIL CHAWLA is an engineer by qualification but a philosopher by vocation and a management consultant by profession.

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