Integrated development, politics and social empowerment in India and beyond

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Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

Not only was this the largest democratic election anytime, anywhere in the world – and remains so - but many at home and abroad were sceptical how an illiterate mass would read the ballots and cast votes in secrecy

Parliament: The Formative Years, 1952-72

India’s Parliament came into being with the first general election in 1952. The poll was a mammoth task and India proved the sceptics wrong.

By B G Verghese

Seminar Paper, 11 April, 2013

India’s sovereign Parliament came into being with the first general election in 1952 based on universal adult franchise. This followed the adoption of the Constitution in November 1949 by the Constituent Assembly (that had also doubled as a provisional parliament). The intervening period was taken in enactment of the Representation of the People’s Act, 1951, preparation of electoral rolls, formulating the electoral process and training personnel.

It was a mammoth task. Not only was this the largest democratic election anytime, anywhere in the world – and remains so - but many at home and abroad were sceptical how an illiterate mass would read the ballots and cast votes in secrecy. The previous election under the Raj had been held on a restricted franchise of about 11 per cent of the adult population based on educational, income and property qualifications.

The idea of voting on the basis of familiar symbols and marking the left forefinger of each voter with indelible ink, to prevent double voting, was a stroke of genius. It worked, and has since been copied around the developing world. More remarkable was the fact that India stood history on its head. Whereas adult franchise was the end product of 100-150 years of social and economic revolution in the West, here India consciously determined to adopt adult franchise as an instrument of social and economic transformation. The sceptics were many. They were confounded.

The task ahead was to translate the lofty promises of the Constitution into ground reality or, as Gandhi graphically put it, to wipe the tear from every eye. Ambedkar, the Father of the Constitution, emphasised the social dimension, and projected equal citizenship as the cornerstone of a cohesive, democratic India.

This then was the agenda given to the new Parliament. Many members were old stalwarts, lawyers, professionals and mature politicians of the freedom struggle, but a sprinkling of the new India also found representation – dalits, scheduled tribes, farmers and local small town leaders. It was a motley gathering of dress, tongues, occupations and cultures, but truly representative of the vast diversity of India.

Though predominantly populated by white khadi clad, Gandhi-topied Congressmen, reflecting a single party dominance that was to last until 1967, red, blue and saffron caps began to intrude before too long. The rise of the Jan Sangh saw the decline and demise of the Hindu Mahasabha and Ram Rajya Parishad while the Left was represented by the Communist Party of India and the Praja Socialist Party. All these parties gradually splintered and gave birth to new formations.

The Congress voted as one, but the views it reflected were many which made for the lively cut and thrust of debate. There were powerful and learned speakers to advocate a multitude of causes and though there was a clash of arguments, decorum and courtesy were seldom missing. Nehru encouraged this diversity and many distinguished personalities drawn from outside the Congress were inducted in his cabinet – Ambedkar, Baldev Singh, Jagjivan Ram, Shanmugham Chetty, K.C Neogy, John Mathai, C.H. Bhabha and C.D Deshmukh among them.

The Attorney-General was not unoften summoned to the House to explain legal niceties and assist the House. M.C Setalvad and C.K. Daphtary, the first two Attorney-Generals, were familiar figures in the Lok Sabha and were always heard with attention and respect. That practice has disappeared.

Listening to the debates, as I did as a reporter, was an education. The discussions were erudite and went to the fundamentals. Ambedkar, in particular, would come with a large bag full of references. He would trace the origins of particular laws and their legal and social implications, cite foreign examples, spell out alternative pathways and then commend the course he laid before the House. These were masterly performances and heard with rapt attention. Then there was the eloquence of Nehru himself, Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, Acharya Kripalani, Parushottam Das Tandon, Minoo Masani, Jaipal Singh, Pandit Kunzru, Govind Das, H.V Kamath and others including Maulana Azad in his chaste Urdu. The Speaker, the gentle G. V Mavlankar was greatly respected. In the Rajya Sabha, Dr Radhakrishnan’s stewardship was akin to that a loveable guru presiding over a gaggle of boisterous children.

The tone of both Houses reflected dignity and decorum. There was banter and repartee; but nothing could be said about those not present in the House and no charge could be levied without prior notice. Question Hour was eagerly looked forward to and as many as 20-30 questions would be answered in an exercise of daily accountability. There was no zero hour, but short notice questions were not uncommon. Private business on Fridays was taken seriously and a private member’s Bill moved by Fezore Gandhi to permit reportage of parliamentary proceedings was actually adopted. Parliament made news and its proceedings were widely reported in considerable detail.

Parliament met for perhaps 120-150 days in the year and all subjects – foreign affairs, planning, social policy - were regularly debated.

The initial years after the framing of the Constitution were devoted to giving its provisions legislative flesh and institutional backing. This was a time of nation-building and structural reform. Though the Congress had always favoured a decentralised, panchayat-oriented polity, the circumstances of Partition, the massive refugee influx, the tricky business of integration of princely states, the Kashmir war and incipient insurgency in the Northeast compelled a degree of centralisation not previously contemplated. Yet federalism was not abandoned. Many chief ministers, yeomen leaders of the freedom struggle in their own right, were no push-overs and held their ground, demanding more.

States reorganisation, language policy, the abolition of zamindari and the reordering of other property rights, the establishment of institutions and policy frameworks for land and forests, cooperatives, credit, industrial and scientific policy, the fashioning of the public sector and foreign policy centred on non-alignment and so forth were prime pre-occupations of governance and legislation. The civil and security services were refashioned. Social issues such as education and family planning, reservations, the three language formula, cow protection, the Hindu Code Bill – but, alas, not a uniform civil code – were taken up.

The community development programme and national extension service marked fundamental structural change. “Reasonable restrictions” on the freedom of speech and expression were introduced with the very first Constitutional amendment. And furious debates raged on translating the Directive Principles of State Policy, the nation’s social charter, into policy and programmes.

Socialist leanings to eliminate poverty and foster equality led to the formulation of a “socialistic pattern of society” with the commanding heights of the economy firmly in the hands of the State. This was later to lead to “garibi hatao” and a spate of nationalisation. Nibbling away at the constitutional edifice was to lead to a series of court cases and the formulation by the Supreme Court of the concept of an inviolate “basic structure of the Constitution”. All this stirred huge controversy in Parliament and in the country.

Issues of corruption came up occasionally, such as the so-called jeep scandal. This entailed the purchase of a few jeeps by Krishna Menon from the U.K for military use. Then followed the “housing scandal”. This concerned the establishment of the Hindustan Housing Factory to manufacture pre-fabricated structures to facilitate the rapid assembly of accommodation. Both were small-time issues but loomed large. A more serious crisis that shook the Government arose over the Mundhra-LIC deal that caused the resignation of the then Finance Minister, T.T. Krishnamachari and the Finance Secretary, H.M Patel following an Inquiry headed by the jurist, M.C. Chagla. The real slide began in the late fifties and sixties with a ban on electoral funding by corporate houses. The quip was that every MP and MLA was compelled to commence his or her legislative career with a lie with regard to election expenses. Issues of electoral reform gained salience – and remain.

Matters have since grown worse. The Congress split saw the principal sources of corruption moving from the local and state level to the national, with the tapping of more lucrative central sources such as import and export licensing and defence and other contracts. The reports of the Estimates Committee, the Public Accounts Committee and the Public Undertakings Committee were given considerable importance and keenly debated. One feature that stood out was a section in these reports titled “procedural lapses”. Implicit in this was an unwarranted hint of corruption with process being regarded as sacrosanct regardless of performance, a wretched by-product of the permit-licence raj. Thus firms that reported production in excess of licensed capacity, through efficiency measures, better technology or conservation measures, were considered offenders. The absurd process versus performance syndrome persists.

Nehru reigned supreme and was meticulous in attendance. His speeches on the nation’s secular fabric, the need for planning, the development of a scientific temper and, above all, foreign policy were seminars intended to exhort and educate. His clashes with Shayma Prasad Mukherjee and Purshottam Das Tandon electrified the House as he made no bones about his scorn for revivalism and conservatism. But he was a tired man by the late fifties and faced humiliation in the period 1958-72 when his somewhat woolly-eyed policy of Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai and dependence on Krishna Menon came a cropper. Parliament was stinging about what was a monumental failure of policy.

Consultative committees had been set up for each Ministry, but the more useful parliamentary standing committees that could examine any matter and take expert evidence only came later. The question arose as to whether these committees should be open to the media, as the press favoured. Fortunately this was not accepted, as members who discussed issues candidly irrespective of party affiliations or ideologies, would then start playing to the gallery as now increasingly happens in the House with the advent of TV coverage.

The Press Gallery played an important role in Parliament as it was the means of communicating proceedings to the Members’ constituencies and to the public at large. So Members would often look at the Gallery to see who was present and would thereafter come up to the Press Rooms on the first floor to brief absent newsmen. Parliament reporting has gradually lost ground and moved from straight reporting to opinion pieces and commentaries to the detriment of both Parliament and the Press.

The nadir of Parliament was the Emergency when opposition members were jailed or muzzled by censorship. Thereafter, standards have steadily deteriorated as proceedings have sometimes deteriorated into brawls, grandstanding or disruption, rules are flaunted and decorum has been thrown to the winds. This, however, is a passing phase as India is in transition and Parliament’s changing membership and proceedings represent some of that enormous churning from below. Parliament represents the country’s supreme institution and the first four Parliaments set the frame for building a democratic India.

This remains work in progress.

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