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Politicians need to grow up in a hurry

If you do not strengthen the institutional protection and safeguards of constitutional democracy no amount of curative institutions such as Lok Pal, Ombudsmen and the like will be of much use.

MN Venkatachaliah | April 26, 2011 | Updated 16:45 IST

Before I talk about Jan Lok Pal, I must make three observations as a background to the matter. First and the foremost is that in the last three decades, we have seen a precipitous decline of institutions of constitutional democracy. All institutional safeguards which sustain a constitutional democracy have crumbled. We have moved to a phase of populist democracy. The line of demarcation between a populist democracy and the mob rule is often thin and indistinguishable. One wonders whether we have obliterated the line of demarcation or we have not even been alert enough to recognise the difference and the consequences.

MN Venkatachaliah, former Chief Justice of India and Chairman of National Commission to Review the Working of Constitution
If you do not strengthen the institutional protection and safeguards of constitutional democracy no amount of curative institutions such as Lok Pal, Ombudsmen and the like will be of much use. We must take steps to ensure good health and efficiency of these institutional mechanisms such as choice of right judges to the courts, right personnel at the Election Commission, right members of elected bodies etc. Insisting on a powerful Lok Pal alone, is something like opening up new graveyards in anticipation of an epidemic outbreak.

Quite often in low energy democracies, prevention seems to be the only cure. The existence of a strong institution itself sends a clear message.

Second, the next decade of this century is going to be the most stunning decade of our civilisation. The tremendous exploits of science, particularly in biology, will, in a non-trivial sense, influence the future of man on this planet. Our contribution in this field is dismal. Take, for instance, how many Fellows of the Royal Society (FRS) are from Australia: 168. India is 50 times Australia's population but we have just 18. Without excellence in science, you will have no scientific and technological support for our economic development. We need at least 15 per cent of our population between 18 and 24 years in universities. We have now just about eight per cent. And, this does not factor in the poor quality of our university education.

Third, there is a marked deficit in the legitimacy of democratic representation in our Parliament and our legislatures. Sixty-eight per cent of our members of Parliament, it is said, are elected on a minority vote. The Election Commission is on record to say that in the state legislatures, if a candidate gets 25 per cent of votes polled, he has a fair chance of getting through the First-Past-the-Post. That means if a person gets 12 per cent of votes of the electorate, he has a chance of succeeding. More people have voted against him in his own constituency than the votes he has been able to secure.

There are about 1,200 political parties in India. Less than 10 per cent of them contest elections. Many of them are enjoying the benefits of tax exemptions which the government has afforded both to the donor and the donee. Unless there is a serious reform of law relating to formation of political parties and the way members of the legislatures are elected, there seems to be no hope for the future. There are tried and tested systems such as negative vote, power of recall, 50 per cent plus one vote as eligibility, among others, which may have to be tried out in India if we have to survive.

There is a growing disenchantment with the institutions of democracy. The analogy of a nuclear chain reaction is apposite. If 30 per cent of the population loses faith in the justice of their society and of their governments, there is a negative social critical mass which unleashes a chain reaction and a great power of destruction is born. When it is unleashed, it is impossible to control it. We are almost near that point in this country.

I may refer to the report of a Commission which President Nicholas Sarkozy set up in France. The remit to the Commission was to examine measurement of economic growth and social progress. The Committee which had Nobel laureates like Amartya Sen and Joseph Stiglitz on it produced a remarkable report in 2009. They say often there is a marked distance between the standard measures of important socio economic variables and the wide-spread public perception of the official versions of it. They add that both in France and in the UK, only a third of citizens trust official figures. In India, no one seems to trust them. In the measurement of economic growth, it is necessary to adopt a system which will shift emphasis from near-economic production to measuring people's well-being.

The upshot of all this omissions over the 60 years is there for all to see. In these volatile times, you cannot manage things by being clever. Politics must rise above politics of vengeance, politics of retaliation and politics of hoodwinking people. Political leaders need to grow up in a hurry. We badly need a handful of great statesmen who can steer the country from the mess that we have made of it. Hopefully there are still leaders in all political formations who can yet rise themselves above the rut and grow up to this stature of statesmen.

In this background, any Lok Pal set-up has its own limitations. It will survive only if it takes into account the need to strengthen every other institution of constitutional safeguards. Otherwise, to borrow the words of Nani Palkhivala, it would not take us to heaven but it might only serve to delay our precipitate descent to hell.

(MN Venkatachaliah is former Chief Justice of India. He also headed the National Commission to Review the Working of Constitution)

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