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E-Mail this interview to a friend 'We have made the President a dummy to be driven to the podium on Republic days'

Former finance minister C Subramaniam on the need to review the Constitution.


This was the third time in three years that Shobha Warrier spoke to former Union finance minister and governor C Subramaniam on the review of the Constitution. On April 19, 1997 he had said: "We should review the Constitution. Otherwise, we will continue to be in this mess." That was after Atal Bihari Vajpayee was invited to form the government and his subsequent defeat in Parliament.

Again, on June 16, 1998, he said: "We should not delay the review any further." There was an urgency in the voice of the man who had worked with people like Nehru and Rajaji. He also sounded quite disillusioned with the quality of today's politicians.

Now, in 2000, he is happy that the government is going ahead with the review and speaks his mind about the review commission.

In 1997, when I came to interview you, you said the time had come to review the Constitution. Again when we met in 1998, you stressed the need to appoint a review commission. Now that the BJP led government has gone ahead and formed a review commission, are you happy?

Yes, I am happy. And I still hold the same view. Now things are becoming little more clear. A review doesn't mean a changeover from the parliamentary system to a presidential system. It is only the functioning of the parliamentary system that needs changes. We have to see whether a constitutional provision requires amendment or any new article is necessary, taking into account the functioning of Parliament under the administration.

Why is it that the Opposition parties and many others are making a lot of noise about the very idea to the review commission itself?

It is rather unfortunate. Just because the review takes place and a report is submitted, it doesn't become the law. It has to be passed in Parliament. Ultimately it is Parliament, which has to decide, and the BJP does not have a two-third majority in the House. So, unless the Opposition parties also agree, you can't get through a constitutional amendment. I am unable to understand why people should get so agitated. They behave as if the committee report will immediately become a law.

Why do they act ignorant? Or, are they really ignorant about this simple fact?

Unfortunately, today in our country, the Opposition only thinks by opposing various issues so that they can promote their interest and become popular.

The Opposition parties and the critics of the BJP say they fear the 'saffronisation' of the Constitution.

How can they do that? Who can do it? Only Parliament can. And how can they do it in Parliament where the Opposition has adequate numbers to block it? Therefore, I don't see why they should get so agitated.

Why do you feel the President openly asked the prime minister to leave the Constitution alone?

He had also clarified it by saying that he was opposed to a change from the parliamentary system to the presidential system. He said so because that was the impression that had been created earlier. Once it is made clear that it is not the system that is going to be changed but the components of the system that are going to be reviewed, things have gone back to normal. You need to have a debate when the committee finds out that amendment is necessary in certain areas. So, you have to wait for the committee report. Whatever it is, the report is not the final word. So, you need a national debate first and then a discussion or debate in the Parliament.

Should the President have openly made such comments? It paved way for more criticism from the Opposition.

He has only cautioned that the system should not be tampered.

Do you feel the committee should first see what the Constitution has achieved in the last fifty years before looking for the areas that need changes?

No, we have to look at what we have not achieved! Because the Preamble says the Constitution is for the purpose of providing social, economic and political justice. Has it been done? If not, why? There are very many deficiencies, which have to be looked into.

Last time when we met, you said the electoral system itself is deficient and it needed changes urgently. Do you still feel the same?

Yes, this is the main area that needs to be changed because the working of the Constitution depends upon the quality of members in Parliament. And, I don't think anybody is satisfied with the quality of a majority of MPs. No doubt, there are good people also but the majority is not functioning properly as Parliament members. So, that is one area which requires very detailed scrutiny. Today, even if you get 25 per cent of the votes, you get elected because votes get divided. Even if a person gets minority votes, he gets elected. He may even lose the deposit but if he gets the maximum number of votes, he has to be declared elected.

How can we rectify this problem?

It can be done through a second election where the top two contest again.

We have so many political parties now. Is that not the reason why we have had hung Parliaments? Should we not try to reduce the number of political parties?

Yes. Countries like Germany have done it. Also, we should fix a minimum in the number of votes a party gets in an election. If they do not get the minimum number of votes, they should not be recognised.

Two years have passed since you last talked to us about the review of the Constitution. The situation also has changed a bit now. We have a stable coalition government at the Centre. Still, let me ask you what are the other areas, which need changes?

For example, we are talking of 33 per cent reservation for women. How do we do it? Are you going to increase the number? How are they going to be elected? Should they be elected from fixed constituencies? Everybody agrees that women should be given 33 per cent reservation. In my view, the number should be increased. In the past we had double member constituencies -- for those belonging to the scheduled castes and also for those from the general category. Then, we decided to have rotation but unfortunately it is fixed now so that one constituency remains as a scheduled caste constituency, which is not good.

What about Centre-state relations? It is not smooth at all when opposing parties are ruling.

That is another area, which needs attention. Centre and state are in a continuous tussle with regard to sharing of financial resources, power, etc. There are already reports of the problems that are lying unnoticed. These things should be examined again and then on that basis, they should find out the real problems and the answers to them. The tussle is not mainly between the Centre and the state, you have to include the panchayats too. So, what should be the relationship? Functions of the three need a little more scrutiny than what has been done so far.

Should there be more autonomy to the states and the panchayats?

We should find out what is the maximum autonomy we can give to the panchayats. If the beneficiaries themselves are in charge of the implementation of the plan, it will be much better. In my view, we should start from the bottom and autonomy can be safely delegated to the panchayat raj and then it can go to the state. The Centre should come only last.

What role do you see for the Centre then?

There are many important subjects,which can be taken care of only by the Centre. The first and foremost is defence. Then, there is currency, communications and keeping the country together. There are a lot of such subjects, which can't be done by the state.

Do you feel Article 356 should be scrapped?

Article 356 is a very contentious issue. Should there be a provision to dismiss a state government? Yes, there should be some provision, in my view. But in a country where parties are opposed to each other and when one party is in power at the Centre and another in the state, the tussle begins. One party wants to dismiss the other party. Instead of that, they can make a recommendation and in my view, the final decision should be that of the President or perhaps the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. They should take the final decision on whether there are grounds to dismiss a government or not.

When an order is made, the judiciary can be involved in it. The President and the Chief Justice can sit together and take a final decision and it should not be the Cabinet. These are all alternatives. There may be other alternatives, which other people may subject.

You told me the President should have more powers. Do you want a more active President?

Yes, particularly in matters relating to the state governments when the President's concurrence is necessary. The questions are, should he be guided by the central Cabinet or should he use discretion. The central government, because of party affiliations may not recommend or may recommend for acceptance of a blue print. Therefore, in matters relating to states, in my view, the President should have a discretion to differ from the decision of the Cabinet, particularly in controversial matters.

Just like that, the President forms a part of Parliament and Parliament includes the President and the two Houses. Now you have such disorderly behaviour in the two Houses but the President just can't do anything. So, what sort of powers should the President have? He takes an oath that he will defend the Constitution and protect the welfare of the people. Now, the oath has no meaning at all because he can't do anything.

When he has no powers whatsoever to take any initiative, why should he take an oath like that? As the Constitution is flagrantly being misused, it has to be scrutinised. Should he be just a witness to that? Or, should he have the powers to intervene? If intervene, how? On what basis? Should it be on his own initiative? Should there be any other body to advise the President in matters like this?

Why didn't the Constitution give him any such powers although he takes such an oath?

Unfortunately we have followed the British system. The British monarchy is not elected. Here the President is elected by the most representative electorate; Parliament members and members of the assembly. But we made him a dummy, an ornamental figure to drive to the podium on Republic days.

Should we continue with the way the confidence motion and no-confidence motion is conducted now? Or, should we follow the German model?

This is another important matter, which should be considered. We can follow the German model where you can't pass a no-confidence motion unless you name the successor. So, when one prime minister goes, another steps in. The question is, can we afford to have elections every year? What should be the safeguard in such a situation?

The BJP has been talking about a fixed five-year term for Parliament. Are you for that?

I think it is necessary considering the situation now. You can't afford to have elections every year or every alternate year. First of all, look at the cost? Then the administration suffers because of instability.

Are you happy with former Chief Justice of India M N Venkatachaliah heading the review commission?

Yes, he is a very eminent judge who is known for his integrity and knowledge. People like him should be there in the commission.

The BJP does not have two-thirds majority in the House and the Opposition is also not behaving responsibly. Won't the work of the review commission go waste if its suggestions are not passed in the House?

Then that will be the basis on which the next election will be fought.

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