Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes?

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Who shall keep watch over the guardians?

Whoever Luvenalis was, he certainly had a knack for asking the right questions…
For any attempt at democratic governance to succeed, it needs be that the custodians of the society themselves should be above reproach. Unlike the Praetorian guards of Caesar, who could protect him from the common assassins but not from the plot that was hatched and executed by those he held dear, a failed experiment of governance simply cannot be washed away as the follies of a few.
This is Part I of a three-part series in which we shall examine the roles played by each of the three pillars of the Indian Democratic Setup.
The Legislative. The Judiciary. And The Media.

From the heady days of the Raj, when good ol’ chaps in the good ol’ Buckhingham Palace decided who should lead us, to the present-day situation when we have not yet proved our capability to lead ourselves – and yet claim that right as divine and inalienable – the Indian society has come a long way in recognizing the sentiments of its people. While India now claims the dubious distinction of being the most-populated democracy, there still remains quite a lot of excess baggage to be dumped before we can really call ourselves a deservedly-democratic nation.
For, when the British eventually lowered their Union Jack at the Red Fort and Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru raised the Tricolour, it was not, as much as we would like to call it such, the victory of Indian nationalism over British sovereignty but the pragmatic sensibility of a British Government under Attlee which properly placed its priority on a Kingdom that was on the verge of a total collapse. India, in 1947, was not a slave freed reluctantly from her chains but a liability that was shedded as quickly – and as clumsily – as possible.
Whether the Britons were even then so far-sighted as to impede India’s progress with a half-assed partition, or whether our previous generations were so overcome by the euphoria of sudden independence and a national identity that they gave vent to their excess energy by breaking the very bonds that had once held the Empire in trembling anticipation is a moot point. Conspiracy-theorists and doomsday-fatalists alike can have a field day, and the truth shall even then remain as unclear as JFK’s assassination.
Dr. BR Ambedkar, more revered in our country for his being a Dalit than for the fact that he gave us the Constitution, was an idealistic man – or so it seems in hindsight. Why else would a man have so much of faith in a class of men not normally known for their principles and sense of justice? Granted, this was in the fifties, there were a lot more cleaner men than there have been in the last ten years put together, but doesn’t that make our Constitution more of a statement-of-intent rather than a concise directive to the world and to those in the business of public representation?
Do not mistake me, for I bear no disrespect to the Constitution. What I do take objection to is the way we consider it sacrosanct to the point of leaving it untouched for years and the way sacrilege is committed when the same clauses are altered to suit the most influential lobbies of that time. As in Crichton’s ‘Congo,’ we remain the mighty apes that know not the worth of the diamond mines they guard fiercely.
In any democracy, the will of the people, though paramount, is interpreted through their representatives – and therein lies its strongest point and its greatest liability. It is arguably the USP of the system – a government of the people, by the people, for the people. And yet, for all its importance, there are no safeguards to ensure that the will of the people are interpreted properly – or, if the people are wrong, that the proper policies can be adopted. As of this moment, the political system of India stands convicted of failing to provide to those they are supposed to serve such safeguards.
When one indicts a political system, it does not, as justified as it sounds, criticise the representatives alone. We, the voters of this democracy, the cornerstones of this country, on whom Dr Ambedkar must have counted to make good, sensible decisions, have failed miserably to provide ourselves a credible system of governance. And, in typical Indian fashion – or any other civilization, for that matter, but we do practice it a lot more than others – we treat the symptoms and never the disease.
Consider the following points :
* In every election since Independence, the average turnout has been 51-60%
* Since 1980, seven governments have come to power through shoe-string majorities. Six failed to complete their terms. The seventh is called the UPA.
* Stock promises like free power, higher reservation, more Union rights, free toddy and communal security are sure short-cuts to electoral success (One thing you have to admit is that the politicians, contrary to popular belief, stick to their guns. Why, they said the same thing the last election and the one before that too!)
* Over 90% of the MP’s have incomes far exceeding known sources.
* Over 60% of the Cabinet Ministers are charge-sheeters. Some of them even hold their durbars within jails and threaten the wardens who try to restrain such victories of democracy.
So, when you hear someone whine that this country is not shining and is instead going to the dogs, stop him and ask, “Did you vote?”
Every other time, the answer would be, “Why? What for?”
Then, if that is the reply, please do us all a favor and ask that someone to shut up.
Just as you need salt for sambar or lassi, any democratic process in this country requires a basic ingredient which we, its citizens, often fail to provide. Our vote.
Why? What for?
In a rule of, by and for the people, it is not the individual citizen who is counted but the collective will of the citizenry. But that will, just as the chair you are sitting on is composed of millions and millions of atoms and molecules – which are in turn made of subatomic particles like protons, neutrons, electrons, quarks, positrons, etc etc – is determined as the sum of the parts reflecting the various parts of the sum.
In other words, it will take fifty 2’s to make hundred. Take a 2 away, and you’ll be stuck with 98. Which, obviously, is not the same as hundred.
To hammer it in, let me repeat an oft-quoted Malayalam proverb, ‘Pala thulli peru vellam’ (Small drops make an ocean)
Thus, if you seek the right to comment on the state of this country, you must have done your part, no matter how miniscule it may seem, in giving it the direction you complain it of lacking. When you lean back, stretch your feet, survey the land and proclaim your judgement without having done so much as making a simple choice – or exercising that choice – you lose that right. You can ask me what difference it makes and I’ll ask you what difference you’ve made.
As JFK put it, ‘Ask not what your country has done for you… ask what you can do for your country.
If you are unwilling to do something as simple as registering your vote, can you be expected to stand by your country when it really needs you?
And that brings us to the next question.
If I vote, have I done my duty?
Merely voting is not enough. Your vote, as insignificant as it seems, needs as much thought as buying a new car would. Just as you won’t go out and buy the worst product in the market just because the advertisement was great, don’t be swayed by the promises of politicians. Remember, they’ve been making them for a long time now and those promises have always remained promises. Of course, there are some other promises which are, in fact, fulfilled – like free power, cheaper petrol – populist measures that sound good in the short-term and tear you up when you eventually realise that you’ve sold your soul to the devil.
For all its talk of being ‘Aam aadmi ke saath,’ when they eventually capitalised on a variety of factors that led to the downfall of the much more progressive NDA, the UPA government has increased the cost of fuel five times, the cost of LPG cylinders thrice, the telecommunication charges once and so on. If the governments way back in the nineties had adopted some sort of austerity measures, instead of aiming for the vote-banks, we’d all still be paying twenty rupees for a liter of petrol and two hundred for an LPG cylinder.
UPA’s moves, coming in one big rush, have now turned some much needed reforms into really harsh – unreasonably so – impositions on the ordinary middle-class citizen.
For all of P Chidambaram’s financial genius, he will find the deck more than stacked against him in the form of the ever-antagonistic, ever-conservative Left allies who, because they know they can play on your selfishness over your patriotic sensibility, always sound a clarion call in ‘defence of the common people.’
While the principle of socialism is one worthy of implementation in a society where there exists a Rs. 90000-crore private company on one hand and people who work from 5 am to 10 pm for less-than-statutory wages on the other, our comrades have exploited it so often that Communism, to some people, has taken on a form of an anathema.
Unless you plan on dying within the next five years – or migrating to Canada or Australia – you have to look beyond this government and anticipate the next. Unlike the political rotation that takes place within the sacrosanct halls of the Assemblies or the Lok Sabha, you have to be there five years from now with the same requirements as you have now. And then, just as now, those requirements have to be met.
Thus, when you have a chance to express your vote, use it judiciously. Look beyond the five years and wonder whether free power and cheap petrol will still be available then, or would you have to pay a heavier price for them. And if such economic considerations fail to influence you but communal issues do, just ask yourself a question.
Would you rather have a secular and efficient government, or one staffed by members of your community and about as efficient as a banana republic in Africa? If we signal that it is okay to put in only half of our best, what does that bode for our future? The real cause for backwardness is the unavailability of proper education and financial support systems and it should not be an excuse for half-baked efficiency. Do we really have to reward a person who ran only 50m in a 200m race simply because he belongs to a backward community?
Is that the kind of system we should let our kids grow under?
Once you have established yourself as an active participant in your country’s future, then and only then, will the following measures guard us from the legislative guardians…
1) Recall Facility : Increase the term from five to six years, but with a catch. A recall facility once every year from the third year onwards (Remember how Arnie said, ‘I’ll be back!‘ to the Californian Governor and then kept his promise?) But here’s the twist – unlike the usual, poll-booth style voting on a single day as decided by the Election Commission, there will be a special, perennial booth of the EC at the local administrative headquarters where you can go any time you please and register an electronic vote as to whether you are satisfied or not with your representative’s performance. A minimum of three years will be allowed for every representative to realise his/her promises, after which he/she is on borrowed time. The opinions will be tallied every year on the anniversary of his/her successful election and should the ratings drop below 50% then, the resignation will be immediate and official. Fresh elections should follow within a couple of months. (For this, the EC will really have to mobilise its resources and provide each voter with a laminated identity card replete with a facsimile of that voter’s fingerprint, which can be used for verifying the identity, in addition to a secret barcode that will prove the card’s authenticity. They are providing the cards anyway, they might as well modify it so they don’t have to reissue it again – or, given our political standards, force the parties to issue the cards themselves!)
2) Enforce a retirement age for representatives : While the propagation of one’s political ideals should be a matter for personal discretion, there should be a retirement age for elected representatives. Not an original idea, I admit, but the age limit for active representatives should be set to 55 years. However, since it is an inherent part of Indian culture to honour elders no matter how geriatric or ambitious they may be, there can also be a council of Elders for those great leaders within the age backet of 55 to 65 years. Once they cross 65, though, it’s time to retire them – and if they refuse to go out silently, put ’em out to pasture forcibly. Personal violence is one tool you can always use to make your representative listen earnestly.
3) Make educational qualifications mandatory : When rank illiterates take charge of the Education portfolios in various cabinets across the country, it’s an unfortunate assuarance that something’s gone wrong somewhere. Hence, a basic educational qualification should be made compulsory so as to ensure that incompetency stays in its place – as far away as possible. What troubles me is the question of what would happen to the 230+ MP’s if a college degree is made a necessary qualification to the Lok Sabha…
4) Change the system of election : This is, by far, one of my most radical ideas, if I do say so myself, though it is in no way original. While it has been suggested more than a few times in the past, the critics – mainly consisting of the politicians themselves – have dismissed it as an idea lacking substance and a roadmap for implementation. Let me see if I can cross those hurdles…
* Remove the post of Prime Minister and let the President be elected directly from the people. Thus, whoever leads us will be a person acceptable to the entire nation – or at least most of it – which is what the system of democracy is all about. Then we can really see how the Vajpayee Vs Sonia battle would have turned out and there would have been a decided answer to the Swadeshi Beta Vs the Videshi Bahu question. In any case, there would have been no last-minute ‘sacrifices’ a la 2004 and compromises like Dr Manmohan Singh. Such a system exists in most countries already, vis USA and Sri Lanka (Granted, Bush and Kumaratunge aren’t exactly the choice of a sensible electorate, but they do reflect the public opinion and the people who vote them to power definitely deserve them)
* It was recently announced last week that the Opposition in Maharashtra will be forming a Shadow Cabinet along the lines of the British model of parliamentary practice. With our netas’ penchant for berths of any kind, it remains to be seen if a Shadow Ministry (sounds like something out of an occult) will see the same trading and moral degradation as the real ministries inspire. However, if such an innovation can be successfully adopted – and gracefully too – it will provide an opportunity for the public to sample what a particular representative can do with a particular portfolio instead of leaving it all in the hands of God. While the Shadow Ministers in the UK often get the same responsibilities when they come to power, there is no legislation to enforce such a sensible development. This will have to be written into the rulebook of Indian elections too as we really can’t afford to be ambiguous in this regard. Furthermore, when people vote for a person, they should know beforehand what role he is going to play in the new government. If, and the situation may arise, a Shadow Minister loses in his constituency but is widely regarded as the best possible choice for the portfolio, then the President can choose him as his minister under the agreement that he will be held for review in two years’ time. The selection of such a Minister will not annul the election of the representative he lost to.
* Convicted personalities – or those against whom there is a case sub judice – cannot contest an election. Pure and simple. Old snake in a new skin. Hey, if he’s innocent, he can try again in three years’ time, right?
* The bank statements of each and every member of a legislative body from the District level upwards should be made available at all times for public scrutiny. This should also include all aspiring legislators and councillors. The Accountant-General’s office can surely create an entire team to examine these statements from time to time. Also, to prevent people like the Leader K Karunakaran from mocking such measures by claiming that his worldly possessions amounted to a gold chain and four thousand rupees (while his son and daughter were worth over 30 lakh rupees) the bank statements of all spouses, children, grandchildren, nephews, nieces and siblings (oops, I forgot the in-laws!) should be available to the public if they are sought. If these people pay income taxes, that should be made possible too.
* The Lok Ayukta, which was formed as a special tribunal to deal with cases pertaining to representatives, should be strengthened and revitalised. Just as the FBI in the US buckles only to the President of the United States, so too should the CBI, the RAW and the Lok Ayukta defer only to the President of India. (A couple of months ago, there was an uproar over the Lok Ayukta’s intention to bring the PM under their purview. It was shouted down, but I ask this – if we vote in a corrupt President, do we have any right to displace him? That said, what if he becomes corrupt once he takes office? Hence shall there be a Committee formed by elected representatives and the Elders’ Council to constantly monitor the financial status of the President) Since the President himself will be bound to his Cabinet, duly elected by the people of India, there will be less leeway for him to be a maverick while leaving enough freedom for an imaginative leader.
As I said earlier, for any of this to succeed, we have to mature into the democratic setup. If we are still swayed by regional, communal or plain personal considerations, we deserve the government we elect. If, at the end of the day, we still remain as finicky about our choice as we are now, then it is time to look at alternate forms of government instead of one that facilitates our free fall towards anarchy.

3 thoughts on “Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes?

  1. Ram Reply

    What you call for is a complete overhaul of the Indian democratic setup that has been in place for the last 58 years of our independent existence. Even though the task seems far beyond limits to be even called Herculean, it seems to be the right way to ensure a truly democratic regime. But this kind of change would imperatively include the same people who we try to oust by making it a reality. So this task of changing the political and electoral setup will be nothing but a dream(trying my best not to be pessimistic or discouraging). Such an amemdment in the constitution will not only be scoffed at but the person to out forth idea will incur the wrath of the ones concerned. One reason for education not being a qualification for standing for an election is that any person who has enough common sense and who is sincere enough to the country can get elected. This loophole is being exploited by everyone. Todays politician, even with the lack of a fifth standard certificate is very shrewd and has an impeccable vocabulary that would trap innocent people in its web and make the english sahib cover his head in shame. They are great practicioners of Periphrasis. Such attitude is what makes people decide not to vote.

    From the inaugural speech of George W. Bush on his second term-

    “Across the generations,” he said, “we have proclaimed the imperative of self-government because no one is fit to be a master and no one deserves to be a slave.” He called upon a new generation to “make the choice to serve a cause larger than your wants, larger than yourself.”

    Failes promises are no reasons for people to stop voting, but what if everyone standing the the election are the same kind of people?Each election sees the politicians deliver the same “bland oratory” to get elected. The purpose of parliamentary immunity is to protect elected officials from politically motivated prosecution while they serve. But this is also used by politicians as a weapon against the opposition and also to immunize themselves against the fodder scams they masterminded. These high-rollers gamble with the economy of the country and are protected by the same laws that were made ensure justice. Sure, the country is going to the dogs, but the younger generation of politicians are our only hope of realizing India 2020 that Dr. Kalam dreamed of.

  2. RS Reply

    Granted, it sounds utopian… but let’s take it step by step. Learn to crawl before we learn to walk, so to speak. Your vote has a value, so use it up as and when you can. And convince others to do so too.
    I agree with your point about education inasmuch as it pertained to people with sense – but, in today’s political context when the dominant sense is Darwin’s survival of the fittest, we need some sort of criterion on which to judge people. Not that educated people are any better, but the balanced environment provided by any schooling should mitigate at least some of the inherent bigotry and ignorance…

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