How Opposition Loves Authoritarianism
As I write this I find an interesting spectacle in our Parliament, which is in session. The Lok Sabha is functioning normally, passing important legislations. But the Rajya Sabha is paralysed. Here, the opposition parties outnumber the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA). They are in no mood to allow the government to conduct its legislative business before a comprehensive “discussion” on the religious conversions takes place. Opposition leaders like Sitaram Yechuri (CPM), Anand Sharma (Congress), Mayawati (BSP) and Sharad Yadav (Janata Dal-U) have been emphatic that they will not allow any business in the House before this “discussion” on the topic because of which the whole nation, according to them, is in turmoil. For them, India has become an abnormal country ever since some Hindu zealots reconverted some Muslims in Agra by promising them some economic incentives. In fact, I have heard some Congress leaders for whom there is no difference between the brutal killings of 132 school children in Peshawar by terrorists the other day and reconversion of the poor Muslims by “Hindu fundamentalists”.
Without going into the merits of the issue that the opposition has raised in the Rajya Sabha, one fails to understand if India has become ungovernable over the conversion issue, then how is it that the opposition, particularly the Congress, is allowing the Lok Sabha, which has representatives directly elected by the people of India, to function normally? Does this mean that the Lok Sabha has lost its representative character and Rajya Sabha is the only democratic institution left for our law-makers? Unfortunately, going by our leading opposition parties, the answer is “yes’. This answer, in my view, has got some dangerous implications, which I intend to focus on.
First of all, the opposition is emphasising only “discussion” on but not prepared for the solution of the alleged communal problem over the conversion or reconversion issue by bringing about a suitable legislation. As it is, there are some states which have relevant laws that make it difficult for anybody or organisation trying to convert people from other religions under coercion or through allurements. It is not that the laws in these states are full-proof; but more or less they have been effective enough. It is logical, therefore, that every state should have similar laws and if that is not the case then the Parliament may legislate laws that can be applied all over the country. However, the opposition in Rajya Sabha is not in a mood to do so, even though Modi-government says it is prepared for such central laws.
It may be argued that normal or existing laws are good enough to take care of fraudulent conversions. These normal laws can be applied for ensuring normal law and order in the areas where fraudulent conversions take place or about to take place. But then, maintenance of law and order, under our federal arrangement, is the responsibility of states concerned. That means that the state government has got every right and power to not only punish the guilty but also prevent the situation from going out of control by taking preemptory actions. In this particular case, the case that led to the ongoing furor in Rajya Sabha, took place in Uttar Pradesh, a state ruled by the Samjwadi Party that is opposed to the NDA. And that being the case, one fails to fathom why the opposition is after the central government in Delhi. Do they want the Modi government to dismiss the Uttar Pradesh government and impose President’s rule there for its incompetence?
Secondly, though the opposition does not say it openly, it is an open secret that it intervened only because the Agra-incident (or the scheduled incident at Aligarh) involved conversion or ‘reconversion” of the Muslims into the Hindu fold ‘fraudulently”. But the same opposition has no problem if Hindus are converted “fraudulently” to other religions. It has not uttered a word over the conversion of 70 Hindus —here I am going by the front-page report in the Hindustan Times, dated December 19) – to Christianity in two districts of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh equally “fraudulently”. In fact, The Indian Express, dated December 19, also carries a front-page report that says how the Allahabad High Court has invalidated the conversion of five girls to Islam on the ground that they had converted just for marriage “without any real belief in the religion to which he/she is converting’’. In my considered view, this selective approach of the opposition parties leads to religious polarization in the country and hence is extremely dangerous to the secular fabric of the country, though paradoxically they attack the Modi government of indulging in communal politics.
Thirdly, in their demand for only “discussion’, the opposition in the Rajya Sabha has seriously jeoparadised the sanctity of two parliamentary principles. The opposition’s demand for discussion is “conditional’, something that the Chairman of the House Hamid Ansari and the Deputy Chairman PJ Kurien (incidentally a Congress member) have been repeatedly pointing out over the last few days. That the opposition is not accepting the rulings of the Chair in the Rajya Sabha and not allowing the Chair to conduct the legislative business, leading to frequent adjournments, is a very dangerous precedent. It strikes at the very root of our parliamentary democracy. And what is this “conditionality”? The opposition leaders say that they want discussion only if Prime Minister Modi is present and replies to their points. In fact, it is this “conditionality” that the opposition wants the Chair to ensure before the initiation of any “discussion’’, which has become the stumbling block on the path of the restoration of normalcy in the Rajya Sabha. And that too when it is the same opposition that demanded the “discussion” to take place in the first place!
I think Chairman Ansari suggested the best course of action on December 19, when he said that let the discussion start and the government answer to the points made by the opposition. If the opposition is still not satisfied with the answers of the government, then further necessary measures can be contemplated. Unfortunately, this also could not satisfy the unruly opposition which continued to demand that it only would hear the Prime Minister, no one else. Both the Chairman and Deputy Chairman’s repeated rulings that the government is a ‘collective body” and that the minister concerned , that is the Home Minister, is competent enough to answer or reply, and that the Chair cannot dictate who to speak from the government’s side as it is a collective entity have been utterly rejected by the opposition.
In other words, and I think it is another paradox, the opposition, which is otherwise obsessed with the “dangers” of an authoritarian Narendra Modi who is “centralising all the powers in his hands”, is actually legitimising what it is complaining of when it says that only Modi, not even the Union Home Minister, can say on matters pertaining to internal security vitiated by “fraudulent” conversions. And in so doing, the opposition is challenging the very principle of “collective responsibility” of the government, one of the most cardinal principles of a parliamentary democracy.
The doctrine of collective responsibility of the Union Executive to the House of the People and of the State Executive to the Legislative Assembly is specifically enshrined in the Article 75(3) of the Constitution. It lays down that the Council of Ministers shall be collectively responsible to the Parliament (particularly Lok Sabha). It means that the whole body of persons holding ministerial office collectively, or, if one may so put it, “vicariously responsible for such acts of the others as are referable to their collective violation so that, even if an individual may not be personally responsible for it, yet, he will be deemed to share the responsibility with those who may have actually committed some wrong.” Even the Supreme Court has ruled once that under collective responsibility, “all members of a government are unanimous in support of its policies and would exhibit that unanimity on public occasions although while formulating the policies, they might have expressed a different view in the meeting of the Cabinet.”
In fact, on occasions, when a minister concerned has differed with the majority viewpoint of the cabinet, he has tendered resignation. For instance, in the 1950s C.D. Deshmukh resigned from the Union Cabinet on the issues relating to States re-organization, John Mathai left the Cabinet as the Finance Minister on the question of setting up of Planning Commission and T.T. Krishnamchari, along with K.M. Munshi, quit the Nehru-ministry, questioning the nationalisation process and development of public sectors. Viewed thus, Home Minister’s views on the fraudulent conversions and how the government intends to meet the situation cannot be different from any other minister, including the Prime Minister.
Of course, it is a fact that over the years, particularly 1990 onwards, when the coalition governments became the norm of the day, the principle of collective responsibility has weakened. The Prime Minister, or the dominant party in the ruling coalition, has made a lot of compromises with the coalition partners whose representatives in the cabinet have spoken in different voices and acted in conflict. And the Prime Minister has been forced to remain a silent spectator. But the situation now has changed. Though we have a coalition government, the Prime Minister is not critical dependent on the allies’ support for the survival of his government (The BJP itself having more than the required majority in the Lok Sabha). That means that there is little likelihood of the Modi cabinet acting at cross- purposes. And this is something that anybody believing in parliamentary democracy should be happy about.
In contrast, mindless attacks on the principle of collective responsibility of the council of ministers by the opposition parties in the Rajya Sabha reflect their skin-deep commitment to the cause of parliamentary democracy. They do not want a responsible and restrained Narendra Modi as the Prime Minister. In the process, they are clamouring for a one man-rule in India. It may sound strange, but is true.
By Prakash Nanda