In 2003, the BJP felt that popular support was slipping, and thought of amendments to the Constitution to make their hold more secure. Luckily, nothing came of the amendments. This column was published in Business Standard of 29 April 2003.
MAKING DEMOCRACY SAFE FOR THEMSELVES
The central cabinet has proposed three amendments to the Constitution. The first would overturn the amendment passed under Rajiv Gandhi, under which a member of Parliament or a legislature forfeits his seat if he defies the party whip, unless the defiance comes collectively from a group which has at least one third the strength of the party. Instead, it proposes that the member would forfeit his seat under all circumstances.
The second amendment would restrict the number of ministers to a tenth of the strength of the legislature or seven, whichever is higher. It is not clear whether the strength referred to is the strength of both houses together, where they exist, or only one; just now it looks as if it will be the strength of the lower house.
Under the third amendment, assembly seats would be delimited using the population figures from the 2001 census.
All three amendments are political dirty tricks. First, the amendment that would ban defections. It is really proposed to keep the BJP from shrinking into insignificance – of suffering the fate of the Congress – in UP. For UP today has a chief minister who proudly exhibits a shameless lack of scruples. She has been recorded as telling her MLAs to give a commission to her party from the bribes they would accumulate out of projects financed in their constituencies out of their budgeted quota. For exposing her, she has filed criminal cases against the leaders of the Socialist Party and set the stage for their imprisonment.
She has once before been in coalition with the BJP. At that time she had made a pact with the BJP that she would be chief minister for six months, and then give over the chief ministership to the BJP for six months. She reigned as chief minister for six months in which she made umpteen transfers for consideration that can be imagined, and then broke the pact and the government. The BJP leaders would have to be advanced amnesiacs to trust her an inch. Still, they have forced the state BJP into a coalition with the BSP to share in the loaves and fishes of power.
But in the intervening five years, Mayawati has gained in ambition and guile. She broke the Congress legislature party and lured away half its MLAs by offering them four seats in the ministry; just to underscore the signal that she is arbitrary and hence powerful, she left out the dissidents’ leader in the cold. She is in danger of losing the support of Muslims to the SP because of her cohabitation with the BJP. To prevent that, she has tried to put the leaders of the SP in jail. Although she was elected almost a year ago, she has called the assembly to session only once – when a cooperative speaker declared a vote in her favour without any vote having taken place. Even her most sympathetic observers must wonder: would she stop at anything? If they are in the BJP, they will wonder, will she hesitate to do to the BJP what she did to the Congress – lure away its MLAs, and then throw it away like an empty plastic bottle out of the coalition?
It is that thought, that fear, that has prompted the NDA cabinet to propose that anyone who votes against the party whip must lose his seat. Earlier, the BJP had shown much enthusiasm for a section in the German Constitution under which a government, even if defeated on the floor of the house, does not have to resign unless an alternative government is voted in. Then, when Mayawati showed her colours, the BJP lost its enthusiasm for this provision: if she chose to break the government by unmentionable means, she would arrange well in time to put another government in place.
It is ironic that an amendment to limit the size of ministries should come from a Prime Minister who created the largest ever cabinet in independent India’s history. Why he did so is well known: he wanted to reward as many footling parties as possible so that he could cobble together a majority. Just what Mayawati did when she gave what she felt was disproportionate representation to the BJP in an equally oversized UP cabinet. When it suits the BJP, it would put every MP or MLA supporter into the cabinet to form the government. And it does not have to do that. Narendra Modi has put a number of his MLA supporters into chairmanships of state corporations with ministerial status. That gives them a car, a house and chaprasis, as well as an empire to lord over. And those positions, which are ministerial in everything except in name, would be untouched by the amendment proposed by the NDA cabinet. These politicians are clever. Or they think the electorate is stupid.
And the amendment to delimit assembly constituencies on the basis of the 2001 census is in reality an amendment to delimit them on the basis of the 1971 census. For that census is the basis of the present constituencies; the results of the 2001 census will not be out till the end of this year, so all the state elections this year will be held on the basis of the 1971 election. Why? Because constituencies that have been the strongholds of BJP leaders in Delhi for decades will be redrawn and become marginal. That much is known; the leaders pointed it out to their central leaders. What is not certain, but likely, is that the BJP would get fewer seats in the assembly elections if the boundaries were withdrawn.
But this is nothing compared to a constitutional amendment this government has already got passed: right till the 2036 elections, parliamentary constituencies will remain the same, delimited on the basis of the 1971 elections. Why? Most leaders cultivate a constituency: the Gandhi family cultivated Phulpur and later Amethi, Vajpayee, a true backwoodsman from Madhya Pradesh, has cultivated Lucknow, and Advani, who does not know a word of Gujarati, is in the process of creating a fortress in Gandhinagar. They like the electorate they have cultivated to remain unchanged from election to election. They do not like redrawing of constituency boundaries. So the demographic changes in sixty years will not be reflected in election results till 2036.
I once went to see an ex-Prime Minister in Jamaica. He made me wait, because he was anxiously listening to the radio: there had been a gunfight between his followers and the police in his constituency. What they do over there is to recruit an armed gang; it throws out from a constituency all opponents of the politician – turns it into a garrison. Over here, we do it by “constitutional” means. But the impulse is the same: politicians want to make India safe for themselves, even if they make it unsafe for democracy thereby. They will try their worst to stick on to power – all we can do is to throw them out at the first opportunity. The Jamaicans almost never vote a party back into power.