Former Vice-President of India Hamid Ansari is deeply concerned about the state of India’s institutions, aggressive nationalism and erosion of values. He spoke to Amit Baruah and Sandeep Phukan of The Hindu in a wide-ranging conversation ahead of the release of his book Dare I Question .
In your speeches as Vice-President, you picked up critical themes that have defined India. What is your idea of India?
My idea is the same idea with which this country has lived for seven decades and more, which is an inclusive India. We are a plural society. This society was not created by the Constitution; that has existed for thousands of years. The Constitution makers took that existential reality as a given and created a structure which gave shape to it and to the aspirations of the public. Everything is spelt out clearly in the Preamble to the Constitution.
Are we seeing an unravelling of our institutions?
Our institutions are not performing as expected. There are three major pillars to the institutional structure – the legislature, executive and judiciary. Justice is not being delivered fast enough. There are good reasons, bad reasons. Justice is delayed is justice denied, that is coming through again and again. There is a backlog of cases in the High Courts and the Supreme Court.
Come to the executive. Mr. Fali Nariman [senior lawyer] has used a very fine expression – underperformance. You can see that everywhere. The pillar of our system, which we inherited from the British, was the district magistrate. The definition of a civil servant was that he could control a riot in the field and write a good minute in the secretariat. Since then, responsibilities have widened very considerably but still the district administration is not functioning as it should.
You can see that in any part of the country you go to. Therefore, with the best of intentions at the political level, if the machinery for delivery is not performing then the intended good is not delivered.
Is it that civil servants are taking a cue from their political masters?
I don’t know; I left the civil service a long time back so I can’t tell you. But I do know many civil servants of an older generation who would have stood up and said a wrong is a wrong. I’m not going to do it.
In your book, you have mentioned that the promotion of harmony and development of scientific temper is being challenged with particular frequency and ferocity.
You have a completely new ideology being purveyed. What was our ideology? It was that of the Preamble. It is the idea of composite culture, of promotion of scientific temper and harmony; rejection of bigotry. This is what the ideology was. Take any national leader in the last 70 years, they said the same thing – that is being questioned now. It is being undermined.
Would you say then that Atal Bihari Vajpayee fitted into the category of Nehruvian Prime Ministers?
It is not fair to comment on one Prime Minister or another Prime Minister but he certainly understood India better.
You have seen both governments. How would you compare the BJP government of 2014 with the Vajpayee government?
I don’t think it was so visible. It may have been their ideology but it was not so visible nor was it perceived to be so visible. Yes, bad things happened in that period also. But now it’s being done very deliberately, very blatantly.
You have stressed on scientific temper many times. But we see many personalities in the public domain peddling openly a non-rational view of things. Can this process be reversed?
It should be reversed because we have made ourselves the laughing stock of the world by saying things, which simply are factually incorrect and impossible to believe – that you had plastic surgery then, you had aeronautical excellence, missile technology and all the rest. Who would believe it? Our children won’t believe it.
We are being laughed at. Read what is being written about us in the foreign press. That is usually a good barometer.
In the book you have talked about the Congress idea of nationalism and how they avoided reference to language, culture and religion in the initial years and focused on anti-imperialism. Now, the emphasis has changed. Some would say this is a worldwide trend.
The idea of nationalism was not a Congress idea. It was the idea of the freedom movement. You have to read Rabindranath Tagore way back in 1915-1917 on the perils of aggressive nationalism. And this was understood.
This is a very mixed society. How can you run a steamroller over it. With this kind of diversity, how do you tell somebody who adheres to one faith that his faith is wrong. That he must not profess or practice his faith. This is contrary to every value and specific stipulations in the Constitution. The Indian way was a carefully calibrated way.
But has this degeneration happened only from 2014? Hasn’t it been steadily happening over a long period of time?
Some of the degeneration in institutional structures has been going on for quite some time. Look at the functioning of Parliament. It sat for a hundred days earlier, it sits for 50-60 days now. A few years back, I had collected data about the [State] Assemblies. There were Assemblies that were meeting for three days, five days or nine days in a year. Their only job was to convene the Assembly to present the budget, pass it; go. There were only one or two Assemblies that crossed the 50 or 60 mark. And they were an exception, not the rule. So, this process has been going on for some time.
The sole responsibility for this rests with the government of the day because it is the government that convenes a session of the legislature – be it a State Assembly or Union Parliament.
I said this to more than one Prime Minister that why don’t you make a calendar of Parliament like in Britain or the United States. You make a calendar that the Budget session will be from this day to this da, monsoon session from this day to this day. Then it becomes the primary calendar of the country. Then you won’t have such aberrations that the Budget session has to be moved because some State Assembly election is taking place.
The crucial point is that we are a successful electoral democracy. No question about it. But have we become a substantive democracy? That is the question. Substantive democracy means that actual functioning of the institution. If Bills are not being debated or being debated inadequately, governments of the day say pass it, pass it amidst the din, noise. That’s not a way in which a democracy functions. That is one of the reasons why you have so many pieces of legislation ending up in courts.
The argument is that many of these Bills are scrutinised in Parliamentary committees. Does that logic hold?
It [debate on the floor of the House] is no substitute. Discuss it in any committee you like. The ultimate decision is that of the chamber – whether Lok Sabha or Rajya Sabha.
When you proposed this calendar, what response did you get?
I got no response.
We saw you trying your best to stop disruptions. Or rather struggle with disruptors to bring order. Many had said that had there been a politician on the Chair, he may have done better. What’s your take?
It’s rather late in the day (laughs!). What would he have done? The Speaker or the Chairman of the Rajya Sabha is not a player but a referee in a hockey match, umpire in a cricket match. You are given a rulebook… You can’t become a player. You become a player; you become partisan. There is no third umpire. You don’t know the state of play on any particular subject between the government and the Opposition. You are not privy to it. What is decided in their party meetings is not reported to you. How do they negotiate with each other? Yes, one hears third hand, fourth hand rumours that there are some negotiations are on.
What will a politician do? He has to stop being a politician if he is a referee. Either he is a politician and a player or a referee. He can’t be both.
A number of cases, of late, have come which involve charges against members of the judiciary. When such cases before you, what was the approach you adopted?
Look, there is an Act of Parliament (Judges Inquiry Act 1968), which governs the process. That if a member of the higher judiciary, meaning High Court or Supreme Court Judge, is to be impeached, then a number is prescribed. In the case of Rajya Sabha, it was 50 MPs who had to give notice of a motion that they want impeachment proceedings against X, Y or Z. Now, the first thing when such a notice of a motion comes, the Chairman instructs his secretariat to verify. Whether these 50 names and their signatures are actually those of the signatories or somebody else just put it there.
The process of verification is important and the secretariat is good at that. Thereafter, the process kicks and the Chair doesn’t sit in judgment on the merits of the case because the Act provides for a Committee to be set up. The Committee consists of three persons (it’s all there in Act). One nominee of the Chief Justice of India (CJI), for which purpose, the Chairman writes a letter to the CJI saying ‘please nominate sitting judge of the Supreme Court.’ Then the same letter, pursuant to the same rule, asks for one sitting Chief Justice of a High Court, which is again nominated by the CJI. Once these two names come in, the Chair has to nominate an eminent jurist. That is the responsibility of the Chair. Once the Committee is constituted, it is set in motion.
Wearing your diplomat’s hat now, how and where would place India in the comity of nations?
Honest answer? Look at the way we are being pushed around. Look at the way the Americans have treated the visit of two ministers, which has been pending since the visit of the Prime Minister. Look at the way the Chinese behaved during Doklam. Russians also sent signals, which, I believe, have now been attended to. But above all, look at our relationship in our immediate neighbourhood. Knowledgeable people have candidly written about it. Our relationship in the neighbourhood is not in good shape. Yes, every country is a member of the United Nations. But Maldives? Seychelles? Even Sri Lanka! Nepal…that is supposed to be close to us in every sense! Total impasse with Pakistan. What do you do, Pakistan exists! You can’t wish it away. If you decide to go to war, that’s another issue. But if you don’t, what do you do with that troublesome neighbour? So, obviously this is not [how] one would wish it to be.
Which job did you enjoy more? Did you enjoy your innings as a diplomat or did you enjoy your 10 years spent as the Vice-President and Chairman of Rajya Sabha?
Firstly, you can’t compare. I was a diplomat for 40 years, from being the junior-most diplomat to a very senior one. I was in public office for 10 years and I enjoyed the 10 years. I didn’t have problems. Contrary to what people might have said then or later. And I recall on the first day in my first term, when I went into the Rajya Sabha chamber, the first hour or so was about welcoming you, starting with the Prime Minister. There was a very senior Lohiaite member, Mr Janeshwar Misra. He spoke in Hindi and said aaj ke baad aap bahut dukhi honge aur hum log aap se bahut si baate kahenge. Magar aap isko bura mat maniyega. Hum log desh drohi nahi hain. Hum apni baat kehna chahte hain. Aap hamari baat sun liya kijiye. Uske baad, aap agar ekbaar muskara denge to hum baith jayenge. ( You will be quite unhappy after today. We will be saying many things to you but you should not mind them. We are not anti-nationals but want to put across our views. Once we have spoken, you just offer a smile and we will sit down). I thought it was impeccable advice.
I didn’t have problems. I had no problems with members, senior or junior, government or Opposition.
You presented a copy of your book to Pranab Mukherjee, who has been your colleague for long. But as a former Head of State, his visit to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) headquarters has seen a lot of debate. What is your take?
Look one of your colleagues quizzed me and I said why should I comment? It is his call… first, he is no longer holding a public office and he is a free citizen. Two, as a free citizen, he is free to make his judgement. To accept an invitation, not accept an invitation is his choice. Why should I comment on it? It’s not my job.