The present Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee has been chosen as the Presidential candidate by the ruling UPA combine. A lot of parleying is being done by the Congress Party to make sure that he wins the elections comfortably. Will the election of Pranab Mukherjee to the post of President make any difference to the lives of people?
The Presidential elections are happening at a time when prices of essential commodities are soaring, when unemployment among large sections of the people is rampant, when peasants are becoming bankrupt due to a severe crisis in agriculture, when blatant grabbing of land directly by the multinationals and by governments on their behalf is continuing, when the PDS is being dismantled to pave the way for privatization of the food chain, when shopkeepers are threatened by proposed entry of multinationals into retail trade, and when the purchasing power of the vast majority of people is being severely eroded by inflation, high interest rate and rupee devaluation. The people want immediate measures from the government to bring inflation under control, to ensure safety and security of livelihood for all sections, to put an end to the land grab and the looting of resources belonging to the people such as airwaves, minerals & mines, oil deposits among others.
In contrast, the top honchos of Indian and foreign multinationals are demanding an entirely different set of things. They want quick decisions on policies in the telecom, retail trade, insurance, banking, pension and allied sectors which will enable them to multiply their profits. They want speedy clearances for construction, mining and other infrastructure projects such as Posco where the rights of tribals, peasants and communities are at stake. They want a withdrawal of the retrospective tax legislation, under which big multinationals such as Vodafone have to return thousands of crores of unpaid tax to the treasury. They want immediate approval for FDI in multi-brand retail, insurance and other sectors. Several rating agencies and international banks have been complaining about a “policy paralysis” in the Indian economy putting pressure on the government to act quickly on these demands.
In this scenario the choice of Mukherjee as the Presidential candidate and the taking over of the Finance Ministry by Manmohan Singh — assisted by his ‘91 “economic reform” team mates, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Depty Chairman of the Planning Commission, and C Rangarajan, ex-governor of RBI – seems to be a move that exactly fits into the expectations of big business.
A day after settling down in the Finance Ministry, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced that he will take measures to “revive the animal spirits (of business interests) in the country’s economy”. This meant that he will introduce a slew of measures that will guarantee profits for business but will greatly increase the agony of the people.
At the other end, the election of Pranab Mukherjee as President will ensure that the plans of the UPA government to remove the “policy paralysis” will not end in a political crisis. The President has an important role in the Indian political system, notwithstanding the common misunderstanding that he or she is just a “rubber stamp”. The President is directly elected by an electoral college consisting of the elected members of both Houses of Parliament and elected members of the Legislative Assemblies of the States. He or she performs many constitutional functions. The President summons the two Houses of Parliament to meet from time to time. He or she can prorogue the two Houses of Parliament and dissolve the Lok Sabha if the need arises. The President’s assent is essential if a Bill passed by both Houses were to become a law. Not only that, when both Houses of Parliament are not in session, the President can promulgate Ordinances having the same force and effect as a law passed by the Parliament, when circumstances demand. The President has many other far-reaching powers.
So, it is clear that in the current political process, the President and Cabinet have to act in unison if the demands of big business were to be met and the demands of the people were to be kept under leash. This has become all the more important in the current situation of economic crisis and increasing demands by centrifugal forces in the ruling UPA combine, representing various state-level business interests, which want a share of the total pie.
It is also clear that the election of Pranab Mukherjee as the President and the taking over of the Finance Ministry by the Prime Minister and his associates have no positive implications for the plight of the people. If one were to interpret this move as a master stroke to remove the “policy paralysis” and let loose the animal spirits of looting and profiteering by big business, he or she will be right on dot.
The present political system is dominated by the interests of big business houses and monopolies. Investigations into various scams have revealed that it is the big monopolies who decide which party should rule to ensure their profits and who should be the President, Prime Minister and cabinet ministers.
Contrary to what is said in the Indian Constitution, it is not the people who are sovereign in India. Sovereignty, i.e. supreme power, is vested in the hands of the Executive, that is, the Cabinet headed by the Prime Minister, upon whose advice the President is bound to act. As long as the ruling party or coalition commands a majority in Parliament, it can do as it pleases, without having to seek Parliament’s approval for most of its decisions. The Executive is not subordinate to the Legislature nor are those elected to the Legislature subordinate to the people who elected them. They render accounts to their respective parties and follow the party whip when it comes to voting. The Judiciary is appointed by the Executive and is not accountable or answerable to anyone.
The people are entirely marginalized in this system. The political process and its mechanisms are designed to marginalize them while handing over decision-making power to a party or coalition that has majority support among those who get elected. The role of the people is limited to selecting, once every few years, among various party candidates in whose selection they have no say. Once elected, they have no influence over what their representative does; they do not have a right to recall their elected representatives if they fail to defend their interests. They have no say in deciding policy matters or in initiating legislation.
When elected representatives sitting in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha are not accountable to the people who elected them, the President who is elected by these unaccountable representatives is even farther out of reach of the people.
We do not gain by taking sides in this Presidential election. We cannot have any illusions that the new President is going to reach out beyond the present political system and compel the Cabinet to act in the interests of the people. At the same time we should not remain mere spectators. We should use this opportunity of Presidential elections to contest the mantra that there is no alternative to the existing system of democracy, which marginalizes the vast majority of people.
The times are demanding that we put forward an alternative system of democracy and strive to bring it into being. A basic underlying principle of that alternative is that the Executive must be accountable to the Legislature, which in turn must be accountable to the entire Electorate. There need to be mechanisms that empower the people to ensure that they have a say in selection of candidates before any election. The system must permit only such parties that are political in the modern sense; they must be able to harmonise their particular interest with the general interest of society, and thereby assist the empowerment of the people. Only such a system can ensure that people play a central role in selecting and electing the best among them, in keeping their representatives under their control and participate in setting the course of society.
We need such a modern democracy that will end the division of the polity between a minority of rulers and a marginalized majority of the ruled. This is the call of the times!