A couple of weeks ago, I attended a memorial event of the inimitable and now forgotten Rajnarain. It was socialists like him, communists and a whole plethora of ‘regional’ political formations, whose opposition to the Indira Congress led to the suspended animation of Article 356. This draconian Act was used primarily by the Congress (I) to dismiss insubordinate state governments. Just when you thought that conspiratorial centres in governor houses across state capitals had folded up, filling empty time cutting ribbons and enjoying largely undeserved chancellorships of universities, the old disease has found a new victim. This time it is Gujarat.
Gujarat governor Kamla Beniwal appointed RA Mehta as the Lokayukta of Gujarat, despite protests from the state government. The appointment was challenged in court. On January 2, the Supreme Court upheld the appointment. Predictably, the BJP has reacted strongly to the verdict. Kamla Beniwal is a former Rajasthan unit leader of the Congress (I). The relationship between governors and opposition-ruled states has never been rosy. But, beyond the obvious Congress (I)-BJP rivalry, this appointment and its subsequent legitimisation by the Supreme Court has far-reaching implications.
The problem is not whether RA Mehta is actually fit for the position. He possibly is. Neither is it about the embarrassment that an upright Lokayukta may cause to the Gujarat state government. The question is: Who will decide this fitness? In effect, an unelected person who is a former member of the party in power in Delhi (a party not famous for incorruptibility) has unilaterally chosen who would be the chief anti-corruption ombudsman in Gujarat, ignoring the popularly elected state government. Another unelected institution, the Supreme Court, has upheld this decision. So, an essentially political dispute has been brought into the purview of the judiciary. This is an insidious encroachment into the powers of the legislature. This cannot be a happy development for democracy.
There has been another encroachment. Neutrality and independence should be important characteristics of any Lokayukta. But, where did we get the ridiculous idea that anything that is ‘central’ is also neutral? Who says the government in Delhi can select better specimens of humanity than Gujarat?
As I said, in this case, an unelected body is endorsing the unilateralism of another unelected person over a whole elected assembly. More importantly, for all practical purposes, the governor is the thekadar of Delhi to keep opposition-ruled states in check. This thekadari system has colonial roots – an extractive colonial system that wanted to retain the right to meddle into democratic political expression of people. In the post-partition subcontinent, governors represent just that – a person who is answerable to Delhi over the heads of the people in a state. During the heyday of the Congress (I), the dismissal of elected state governments using Article 356 happened through the connivance of the Delhi agent in a state — the governor. Now, due to the demise of the ‘Congress system’, the usage of this undemocratic tool has become politically unviable. However, the ideological framework in which the states are considered fiefs of the Centre has not died. It has, in fact, strengthened as the Centre launches frequent schemes to encroach on the few rights the states have – the NCTC scheme and the recent plans to make water a central subject — are of this nature. The present impasse in Gujarat is yet another attack on the federal structure of the Indian Union.
Going back to the Rajnarain memorial event, there I saw that giant, the former Supreme Court judge Rajinder Sachar. People of this generation, whose baptism happened in politics before they became judges, had an intimate understanding and respect for democracy. They have also seen Delhi usurp powers from the provinces over the decades. In contrast, latter generations (and judges are not outside it) have increasingly grown up with an ‘idea of India’ that is same as a Delhi lording over the states. This ‘new normal’ no doubt makes people less sensitive to violation of states’ rights. All institutions that are dominated by the elite come with a certain ideology about nationhood, development, future, the ‘idea of India’ and other such things. This results in larger problems, especially when judiciary starts arbitrating political disputes.
The BJP has been livid over this issue and it should be. However, its sensitivity on the curbing of federal structure should go beyond Gujarat. If it comes to power in Delhi, it owes to the people, steps on the implementation of the Sarkaria commission’s recommendations that sought to strengthen India’s federal structure. Otherwise, the BJP’s should not subject people to opportunist theatrics on federalism. People deserve action, not actors.
Garga Chatterjee is a postdoctoral scholar, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.