Debating India

Vote For ’One India’

Prem Shankar Jha

Monday 14 July 2003, by JHA*Prem Shankar

Article paru dans Outlook India, ?dition du 14 juillet 2003.

Reuniting the terms of assemblies and Parliament will end wilful coalition politics.

About three weeks ago, BJP president Venkaiah Naidu surprised most of his listeners when he said that he was in favour of reuniting the parliamentary and state assembly elections. He did not explain (or the newspapers did not report) precisely what prompted him to say this. As a result, many political analysts jumped to the conclusion that this was nothing more than a variation on Vajpayee’s ( and the BJP’s) old theme of giving all legislatures a fixed term, as is the case in the US Congress and several western European parliaments. Since there is almost no support among other political parties for such a major amendment to the Constitution, this, they concluded, was Naidu’s second-best option.

Their analysis of Naidu’s reasoning may be correct, but that is no reason to give his suggestion such short shrift. For his proposal is a genuine response to a genuine problem. Only those who can think of a better way of resolving it have the right to sneer at him.

The problem is not peculiar to this government. In fact, it has been staring us in the face ever since 1996, when Congress dominance at the Centre finally came to an end. The end of dominant-party democracy laid bare a problem that the makers of the Constitution had not anticipated. What would happen to the political system if central and state elections got separated? That happened in 1971 when Indira Gandhi called a central election a year ahead of schedule.

Since then, there have been so many shortlived governments that all semblance of coordination between central and state elections has vanished, and there are state assembly elections in one or more states every year.

This frequency of state elections had begun to weaken the Centre even before Congress dominance ended. The most glaring example of this was former prime minister Narasimha Rao’s sudden loss of enthusiasm for economic reform when, to its (but not to any political analyst’s) surprise, the Congress lost the state assembly elections in both Andhra and Karnataka, in December 1994. As a result, when, early in 1995, industrial recovery turned into a powerful boom that pushed industrial growth up to 16 per cent per annum, but also pushed inflation into double digits, Rao forgot the millions of new jobs that it was creating and became obsessed with curbing inflation at any cost. The resulting tightening of money supply to bring down inflation killed not only inflation but also industrial development and the growth of employment. The stagnation that followed has still not ended. Today, the policymakers are happy if industry grows by 6 per cent. As for employment, in the organised sector it has been declining for the past four years!

However, this was only the beginning. The full impact of the separation of central from state elections was felt only after 1996 when shaky coalitions, composed of both national and state parties, became the order of the day. From then till today there has, effectively, been no central government outside the realm of foreign affairs and defence. Witness the relentlessly rising consolidated fiscal deficit of the country and the utter inability of the Centre to either cut its own subsidies-the main cause of the central deficit-or enforce constitutionally mandated limits on the states’ borrowing to cover their portion of it.

If the power vacuum at the Centre persists, it will only be a matter of time before India disintegrates. Those who do not believe this should hear Narendra Modi speaking of ’Gujaratiyat’ in lecture after lecture and calling meetings of Gujarati intellectuals to give this idea legitimacy. They should also read a seemingly innocuous feature story in the Ahmedabad edition of The Times of India (no less), which highlights the way large chunks of the city have turned into Oriya ghettos.Once state governments start putting up barriers against ’economic migrants’, India will, to all intents and purposes, cease to exist.

The answer is not to give the central and state legislatures fixed five-year terms: that will only destroy the remnants of discipline within ruling coalitions and complete the paralysis of the Centre. It’s to reunite the central and state elections. This will give every central government a full five years to plan for, and restore its capacity to take decisions that impose short-term costs for long-term gains.

Reuniting central and state elections requires a two-part constitutional amendment. The first part will bring any state where the government falls before completing its term under President’s rule till the next general election. This may pose no serious problem, but the second part of the amendment-which will have to make a dissolution of all state governments mandatory, if the central government falls prematurely-is, on the surface, a draconian, even undemocratic proposition. But a moment’s reflection will show that like Article 16 of the Constitution of the French Fifth Republic (the current constitution), the mere passage of this amendment will ensure that it is never invoked. What it will do is to remove every vestige of motivation, other than deep policy or ideological incompatibility, for any individual, group or party to defect from a central or state government after it has been formed. Today, every party or group that breaks one government ends up as ministers in the next one.

Curbing this menace was what Rajiv Gandhi’s Anti-defection Act of 1985 was about. What its failure showed was that it’s not sufficient to curb the supply of defectors. It’s also necessary to end the demand for them. That is what reuniting central and state elections will achieve.

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