Constitutional respect should not be reduced to optics

B.R. Ambedkar seems to have predicted today’s complete political disregard for constitutional morality

Updated - June 18, 2024 11:11 am IST

Published - June 18, 2024 01:11 am IST

‘In a parliamentary democracy, the Prime Minister is only the head of the Council of Ministers’

‘In a parliamentary democracy, the Prime Minister is only the head of the Council of Ministers’ | Photo Credit: AFP

Prime Minister Narendra Modi never stops surprising the nation with optics. On June 7, 2024, at the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance meeting of newly elected Members of Parliament, Mr. Modi, upon his arrival, paid his respects to the Constitution of India by touching the book to his forehead. Interestingly, the setting of the meeting was the Samvidhan Sadan of the newly built Parliament.

But does Mr. Modi respect the Constitution of India in letter and spirit? His actions so far as the Prime Minister since 2014, or for that matter as the Chief Minister of Gujarat, show otherwise.

In a parliamentary democracy, the Prime Minister is only the head of the Council of Ministers. Article 74 of the Constitution mandates: “There shall be a Council of Ministers with the Prime Minister at the head to aid and advise the President who shall, in the exercise of his functions, act in accordance with such advice.”

Highlights from PM Modi’s swearing-in ceremony on June 09, 2024

Pitching for ‘responsibility’

B.R. Ambedkar and his fellow framers wisely chose the parliamentary system over the presidential system because “Looking at it from the point of view of responsibility, a non-Parliamentary Executive being independent of Parliament tends to be less responsible to the Legislature, while a Parliamentary Executive being more dependent upon a majority in Parliament become more responsible.” It was hoped that the assessment of responsibility of the executive is both daily and periodic; the daily assessment is done by Members of Parliament in the form of questions, resolutions, no-confidence motions, adjournment motions and debates on addresses. Periodic assessment is done by the electorate every five years. Thus, the framers preferred “more responsibility to more stability”.

On June 9, 2024, the Prime Minister and the Cabinet Ministers were administered the oath of office and secrecy by the President of India. But it was only after the first cabinet meeting on the evening of June 10 that the portfolios of Ministers were announced. Yet, on the same day, the Prime Minister cleared the file that sanctioned the release of the seventeenth instalment of the Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi, the farmers’ welfare scheme, for ₹20,000 crore. Could the Prime Minister at all have done so? And was it within his purview under the Rules of Business? Such a scheme will be under the Ministry of Agriculture with its working regulated by the Ministry of Finance, Department of Expenditure.

So, why would the Prime Minister take pre-emptive and perhaps unauthorised action? It is optics.

The first cabinet, which met without the allocation of portfolios, also took the decision “to provide assistance to three crore additional rural and urban households for the Construction of houses under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana”. Could this at all have been done by a cabinet sans portfolios? Which was the Ministry that had initiated the proposal? Was the agenda circulated? Were Ministers aware of the details? Why this hurry? Optics.

Yet again, without reconstituting the Cabinet Committee after the formation of the new government, the Prime Minister extended the tenures of the National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, and P.K. Mishra as the Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister. This was done under the garb of the old “Appointments Committee of the Cabinet”, which, incidentally, comprises the Prime Minister and the Home Minister.

On constitutional morality

So, what happens to coalition dharma?

These events show a complete disregard for the Constitution by the Prime Minister. Regrettably, not one Minister or bureaucrat who is bound by constitutional details and controls raised any objections. Why?

B.R. Ambedkar was aware of these problems. On November 4, 1948, before the Constituent Assembly, he said that “Constitutional morality is not a natural sentiment. It has to be cultivated. We must realize that our people have yet to learn it. Democracy in India is only a top-dressing on an Indian soil, which is essentially undemocratic.”

So how did this Great Son of India predict today’s Modi? Because, to him, constitutional morality meant “a paramount reverence for the forms of the Constitution” and those forms of the Constitution must be sacred in the eyes of both those who are in power and his opponents. To ensure this, the framers provided administrative details in the Constitution of India.

Article 77, thereupon, provides that “The President shall make rules for the more convenient transaction of the business of the Government of India, and for the allocation among Ministers of the said business”.

In recent times, the functioning of the Government of India shows a complete negation of the cabinet system and collective responsibility to the President and Parliament. There is an extraordinary amassing of power in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) which is destroying the constitutional basis of “more responsibility”.

Pertinently, the Government of India (Allocation of Business) Rules, as they stand today, allocate only business to the PMO — “To provide Secretarial Assistance to the PM”. On the contrary, they provide that “The business of the Government of India shall be transacted in the Ministries, Departments, Secretariats and Offices specified in the First Schedule to these Rules”. Also, the distribution of subjects is provided in the Second Schedule. Even the Cabinet Secretariat is only to provide “Secretarial assistance to the Cabinet and Cabinet Committees” and enforce the “Rules of Business”.

So, why is there a complete breakdown of the constitutional framework and ethos? Bhakti.

The advent of constitutional dictatorship

B.R. Ambedkar did warn that Bhakti in life is good for the salvation of the soul. But in politics, it is the sure path to dictatorship. What we are witnessing is constitutional dictatorship, something that the framers were strongly against.

Manipur has been burning for over a year. Yet the Prime Minister has not found the time to visit the State much less resolve the existential threat to the State. Had there been an Opposition government in power in Manipur, President’s Rule would have been foisted on the State under Article 356 long back. Does the Prime Minister show any urgency to solve serious challenges such as poverty, ever increasing unemployment, inflation (actual) or even resolving the Kashmir situation? No. Why? These are thorny issues and do not provide instant optics.

The Prime Minister’s campaign in the recently concluded general election is living proof of a complete disregard for constitutional morality. While on the campaign trail, he repeatedly attacked the largest minority community in the country, forgetting that secularism runs through the foundation of the Constitution. He belittled the Opposition in every speech forgetting that under our democracy, the Opposition has a place of honour. Yet, not one institution or its guardian stood up to remind him, much less stop him. The Prime Minister, as election laws stand today, is liable to be disqualified from Parliament. But who has courage in a nation where there is fear stalking in every nook and corner? So much for democracy.

So, will the government’s coalition partners and the newly rejuvenated Opposition remind the Prime Minister of the need to adhere to constitutional morality? So far, they have failed us: the people, for whom the Constitution created the government of the people, by the people and for the people.

Let us wait in hope.

Dushyant Dave is a Senior Advocate and a former President of the Supreme Court Bar Association

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