Financial Daily from THE HINDU group of publications
Tuesday, Apr 09, 2002
Columns - Wide Canvas
Of checks and balances
Ranabir Ray Choudhury
DURING the First World War, there was a well-known advertisement placed in the newspapers by the British Government which simply read "The Army Needs You", or possibly "The Country Needs You". Everyone knows that Britain is the role model for one type of democratic governance, its Parliament being widely acclaimed as the "Mother of Parliaments". Seen from this perspective, the advertisement (which was repeated in the Second World War though with a different graphic) reflected faithfully the fundamental ethos of a government of the people, for the people and by the people which was faced with the calamity of a great conflict thrust upon it by the inexorable progression of the ambitions and rivalries of three great European nations through the 19th Century.
The point that one wishes to lay stress on here is that the advertisement, placed by the British government of the day, was appealing to the public to join the war effort, in other words, the popularly-elected government was seeking the support of the electorate (which had given power to the government in the first place) for the continued prosecution of the war. Now let us take a different appeal (not quite an advertisement) along the same lines made much later in history and in a vastly different circumstance and try and fathom the very basic nature of the differences surrounding the two, in the process trying to understand what separates a democracy based on the people's franchise from a dictatorship based on the power emanating from the barrel of a gun.
On Friday, the military dictator of Pakistan (one in a relatively long line), Gen Pervez Musharraf, confronted the Pakistani people on television with the statement: "I want you, the people of Pakistan, to tell me whether I am required or not". Essentially, the question was directed at the Pakistani people who are expected to participate in a referendum later in the year on whether the General should continue to hold power. To quote the sole candidate for the job: "I am interested to find out what role I will have in the future political set-up of the country, and what environment the National Assembly will have after the elections in October".
It is, of course, a happy thought that the Pakistani dictator has sought the views of the Pakistani people on what his "future" should be. It is even more comforting to learn that the General is keen on introducing "checks and balances" on (as he says) "the authority of everyone", which, normally, should include himself. The obvious question is: to what extent will Gen Musharraf agree to abide by the "checks and balances" he is envisaging for the post-referendum set-up when he knows that it is only because there has been no such impediment whatever to his wielding of power that he has been able to cling on to the driver's seat in Islamabad. This is particularly important in view of the fact that the Pakistani Army chief usurped state power on the plea (supported by a handful of military colleagues who too relied solely on the barrel of the gun to have their way) that the popularly elected political leaders needed to be replaced because they were ruining Pakistan.
Since, by definition, a dictator cannot last a day if a system of "checks and balances" is imposed on his powers, one can perhaps safely assume that Gen Musharraf has, in the first place, agreed to a referendum after having "made sure" that the answer to his blunt question will be clearly in the affirmative. Indeed, even in his Friday TV appearance he clearly indicated that the "checks and balances" he was talking about would be crafted by him thereby, in one stroke, telling the people of Pakistan (and also of the world) that he would continue to remain the dictator that he has been ever since he forcibly unseated the popularly elected Pakistani Prime Minister, Mr Nawaz Sharif, a couple of years ago.
On Friday, the General is reported to have made "continuity of his reforms" the cornerstone of his campaign, making it clear that he expected the future elected government to stick to his agenda. The General has been quoted as saying: "He (the new Prime Minister) dare not reverse the reforms. This I will ensure".
So the "checks and balances", Musharraf style, are not the ones with which we in this country are familiar with, leave alone the "free world" in general. In fact, the system the Pakistani dictator has set up is terminally flawed in the sense that identical action (which he took to take over power) can be taken by any other military personnel against him, who then would be expected to impose "checks and balances" on Pakistan to prevent others from usurping power with the help of the gun. In India, on the other hand, there is a plethora of "checks and balances" which prevents any of the three arms of the state the legislature, the judiciary and the executive from becoming too powerful, the legislature perhaps enjoying a distinct edge over the others in view of the fact that the State embodies the people, and the legislature is the true reflection of the people's will.
It is of course an entirely different issue whether the system of governance that we have in India replete with "checks and balances" as outlined above is the best available to promote the fastest possible pace of economic and social development, particularly in a world that is running fast to keep itself from falling behind let alone make progress.
To take one example, the "checks and balances" within the NDA Government itself, led by Mr Atal.Bihari Vajpayee, are turning out to be irritating stumbling blocks in the path of rapid progress, the disturbing point being that the government in question is an accurate reflection of the splintered state of Indian public opinion as it exists today.
Since there is no certainty whatever that Indian public opinion will become less splintered politically in the years to come, and since there is no alternative at all to the nation's need for strong and purposeful governance, will it be too revolutionary to suggest that the form of Government in India should be altered perhaps to correspond to a Presidential system of governance but with the entire apparatus of the "checks and balances" system in place?
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