Questions about Democracy

Central Rule is not the default state of governance under the Indian Constitution
Questions about Democracy
A history of democracy in modern India, would begin with the British, but not any British. In 1880 the liberal leader Gladstone became Prime Minister. Flickr

Democracy seems to be a topical issue during foreign visits of Indian leaders. And in the context of J&K it is moot indeed. Representative government also sometimes called popular government (even if it is not actually popular) is what democracy should lead to. Unfortunately, it has not always worked out that way in India.

A history of democracy in modern India, would begin with the British, but not any British. In 1880 the liberal leader Gladstone became Prime Minister. He sent his liberal colleague Lord Ripon as Viceroy to India replacing the conservative Lord Lytton. Lord Ripon among many other reforms benefitting Indians decided that the best and brightest of Indians should train for administrative skills by participating in elections to local municipal councils and District Boards. Local Bodies are, of course, not representative government.

It must be remembered that this was before the creation either of the Congress Party, or of any demand for representative government. Democratic governance was an unfamiliar concept for Indians. Only a generation earlier they had mutinied for the restoration of the authority of Indian Princes and Mughal Raj. Participation in local elections whetted the taste for more. Soon Indians were demanding more.

It was another liberal leader John Morley who in 1909 introduced the Morley Minto Reforms. Under these reforms membership of the Imperial Legislative Council under the Viceroy, and of the local Legislative Councils in the Provines was to be through election. Executive authority however remained firmly in British hands, vested in members of the Indian Civil Service.

Eventually In 1919, in partial fulfillment of the assurances held out during World War 1, the Montague Chelmsford Reforms the British allowed a limited measure of executive authority to Indians with the dyarchy system of governance in the Provinces of British India. Under dyarchy ICS officials held on to Home and Finance departments under the Governor while Indians were allowed to run departments like Health and Education.

The next step in constitutional development was the Govt. of India Act of 1935. This Act provided for fully elected governments in the Provinces of British India but left open the question of a Federal Government at the Centre. This was ringed by so many contingencies that it never came into being. Fully elected Provincial governments came into existence under the Head of Government called Prime Minister or Premier in 1937. Once fully empowered representative governments came up, the Punjab and Bengal Premiers lost much of their enthusiasm for representative Federal government at the Centre.

The Princely States followed a different path. They were under no obligation to follow in the footsteps of British India. In J&K the Maharaja had to be dragged into conceding an elected legislative assembly, the Praja Sabha, as a result of the Glancy Commission. Sheikh Abdullah and his Muslim Conference won 14 of the 21 Muslim seats in 1934 and all 19 elected seats in 1938. The Maharaja eventually allowed a Ministry to be formed after WW 2 but it was not successful.

This brief recount highlights two aspects of democracy in India. First, local bodies are democratic but do not enable representative government. Second, election to Provincial (or State) and Federal Assemblies are the basis for democratic governance, not elections to Panchayats. And that is true of Jammu and Kashmir as well.

Field Marshall Ayub Khan tried to fob off democratic aspirations of Pakistani with something similar in the early sixties. He set up a system called ‘basic democracy’. It comprised elected urban and rural councils concerned with issues of local governance and grassroots development as a substitute for real democratic governance. The ploy did not work there, and, surely, our own administrators are too wise to think that it can be anything but a ploy in J&K.

It is over 3 years now since J&K had a popular government. Once before, in the nineties the State was under Central Rule, for 7 years almost. Then the excuse was that since the elected assembly had been dissolved by Jagmohan, and new assembly could not be elected because of militancy, there was no alternative to unrepresentative government. This time around no such justification is available. If democracy is absent, it is by intent.

The Election Commission of India had no difficulty in holding elections for Panchayats and District Boards, and for Parliament. Why did it not hold elections to the J&K Assembly along with the elections to Parliament in May 2019. Even after the reorganization of J&K and its conversion into a Union Territory an election to form a government was mandatory.

What we saw instead was the extraordinary response of the Commission to the mere reference to an election by Lt. Gov. Murmu. It angrily shot down the idea and claimed the sole right to decide when. Normally, the Election Commission consults the Executive on the feasibility of holding elections. But here was the Commission rejecting the very notion that the Executive Head of the Territory, who is best qualified to judge whether an election can be held, had any business expressing an opinion on the subject.

Democratic governance is a fundamental right, not a privilege or concession conferred at the discretion of the Commission. Central Rule is not the default state of governance under the Indian Constitution. The preamble says it clearly ‘The People of India have resolved to constitute India into a secular democratic republic.’ Nowhere is it said that it shall be a democratic republic subject to the whim and fancy of the Election Commission.

The States comprise the Republic. If any of the States is denied democracy for any protracted length of time it tells upon India’s status as a full-fledged democracy. Even if J&K is now a UT the question remains moot.

President’s Rule in J&K is imposed under Section 73 of the J&K Reorganization Act of 2019 according to which the President being convinced that the administration cannot be run according to the new law ordered that it should be administered by him – by the GoI in other words.

Why it cannot be so run is a subjective judgement of course. Perhaps the Supreme Court shall some day find the time to pronounce on this subjectivity along with other weighty constitutional issues, such as the very Act reorganizing J&K into two Union Territories and the curious behaviour of the Election Commission.

Democracy in our circumstances means not just democratically elected Government at the Centre, (the Federal or Union Government) but also a democratically elected State government. Elected Municipalities and Panchayats are all very well but can never be a substitute for real democracy. They are not representative governance.

Representative governance in the States (or UTs) concerns issues that affect the daily lives of people. It is about questions of Hospitals, Dispensaries, Schools and Colleges, Employment, Roads, Bridges, Electricity and Water Supply that people seek local remedy. It is the MLA that citizens approach for redressal of their grievances, not the Member of Parliament. When local government is absent in the States or UTs democracy is absent.

Under the Govt. of India Act of 1935, the British were willing to have a partially democratic system, i.e. to let Indians run the provinces but retain imperial control over Federal subjects such as Finance and Currency, Foreign Trade, Defence and Foreign Affairs. The Act also had an Article 93 that allowed Central Rule if the constitutional machinery in the Provinces broke down. President’s Rule under the Indian constitution is a direct import from that Act. During the constitutional debates there had been considerable opposition to incorporating the colonial provision for President’s Rule because it is inherently undemocratic.

Sovereignty in federal systems is divided. At present, because of the steady drain of authority from the States to the Centre the balance has swung in favour of the Centre even more heavily than envisaged in the Constitution. But while Indians States can claim to have a certain amount of undisputed power, even an elected government in J&K will, like the Government in Delhi, be subject to the overall control of the Lt. Governor – Democratic of course, but ineffectual.

People want to be in control of their lives. The closer the locus of power is to them the better control they have. It is relatively easier to make a fuss about something with your local politician locally than it is with remote unfamiliar figures who do not know your problems, do not speak your language, and do not care about your opinion The essence of democracy after all is to have your own representatives make the decisions that matter to you. It is little comfort If those you elect are unable to do that.

The author is a retired IAS officer

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