A crisis of voter’s conscience or of India’s Constitution?
Abracadabra By K. B. Ganapathy, Columns

A crisis of voter’s conscience or of India’s Constitution?

June 16, 2024

The old order changeth, yielding place to new, And God fulfils Himself in many ways… — Lord Tennyson

Lest one good Constitution should corrupt India! — With apologies to Lord Tennyson

There was a scholarly talk at city’s Mysore Open Forum (MOF) which is like Arcadia in Athens during the time of Socrates. Here periodically interesting and important subjects related to human affairs and our country are discussed following a talk by an expert, a scholar or a news-maker.

Yesterday, the talk was by Dr. Aditya Sondhi, an eminent advocate with many feathers to his Oxford cap. He almost became the High Court Judge, according to reports, but it turned out to be a lost opportunity that made many eyebrows go up. Who knows, the Bench may still beckon him.

I first learnt of him from my late friend R.N. Kulkarni, the retired IB Officer who had written a critical book on India’s intelligence service — Intelligence Bureau (IB) — ‘Sin of National Conscience.’

Kulkarni had approached the Court on an important issue concerning IB and Dr. Aditya Sondhi was his advocate in the High Court and Supreme Court. Kulkarni used to sing paeans about Dr. Sondhi’s humanity, humility and scholarship as a legal luminary. I thought this God of a lawyer would not fail my friend. But it was Judiciary that failed him, he rued.

No wonder Dr. Sondhi alluded in the beginning of his talk about the “gaping black hole in the Indian Constitution.” Kulkarni shared his disappointment with me when his case was trifled by the Court. Let it be.

A report on Dr. Sondhi’s talk on “Is the Constitution in crisis?” had already appeared in Star of Mysore last evening. However, I would like to critique his talk more as a common citizen of India and a Hindu than as a citizen of the world. When issues like this one is raised, I always think of a divided India. Its causes and never ending consequences on both India and Pakistan. Dr. Rajendra Prasad, first President of India, in his book wrote about a plausible solution for the Hindu-Muslim two-nation issue. But there were very few takers.

According to Dr. Sondhi, the crisis is existential and was of identity. This was first diagnosed when some BJP leaders (specially one MP from Karnataka) openly proclaimed that they would change the Constitution if they secured more than 400 seats. That is two-third majority needed for such an action by the Parliament. Even Prime Minister Modi, who religiously revered the Constitution, as we have seen on TV and read in newspapers, pleaded in his election speeches for giving “him” a 400-paar seats.

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Therefore, it is axiomatic that such passionate appeal must have some hidden agenda. Obviously, an ever alert Opposition led by Congress concluded that BJP’s intention is to change the Constitution. Of course, there was every reason to fear such a possibility. Not just that. There was fear of BJP bringing in some other laws too like Uniform Civil Code (UCC), One Nation – One Election, etc. Dr. Sondhi voiced his Opposition to this idea of India for his own reasons. We have not heard the ‘other,’ yet!

He said he was happy BJP’s 400-paar wish was not fulfilled and it was well reined in by the voters. But BJP is happy that its failure to cross the 400-paar bridge did not turn into a nightmare, rather it came up victorious crossing the needed 272-paar bridge riding on NDA. Didn’t Congress come up victorious in the past even when it got the seats much below the magic number 272 to hold the reins of power? Take 2004 when it got only 145 and in 2009 it got 206. Yet, it came to power riding on UPA. So why grudge if BJP has nudged I.N.D.I.A, the new avatar of UPA?

According to Dr. Sondhi, changing the Constitution is like reinventing the wheel. He said BJP portrayed India as a ‘Hindu Rashtra’ which he considered a worrying narrative. He had his own reasons for his worry. Wonder how he arrived at the conclusion that if it happens Muslims would be equal citizens but minus voting right! No. This is similar to the twisted and skewed narrative given to CAA intended to help oppressed minorities (Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists etc.) in the neighbouring Islamic State. We should exercise restraint in misleading the minorities in our country for the good of our country. Dr. Sondhi believes that our Constitution has served us well so far but regretted that some politicians have become bigger than the Constitution. Apparently, taking a potshot at Modi without naming him. Indeed Dr. Sondhi has made a pertinent point but it is not a new phenomenon sir. We have seen it in 1950s, in 1975 and from 2004 to 2014.

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When Dr. Sondhi spoke of ‘One Woman Show,’ apparently alluding to Mrs. Indira Gandhi, in some context, I thought of ‘One Man Show’ remembering Mr. Narendra Modi in the present context. Well, if it was ‘Sonia Gandhi Show’ from 2004 to 2013, it was ‘Narendra Modi Show’ from 2014 to 2024. But in political leadership, this is the truism, take any country in the world.

In a democracy there are four pillars bearing its weight, like Atlas carrying the globe on his strong shoulders — Parliament, Executive, Judiciary and the Press (media). The last one is like an appendix. Yet, it can injure the body politic. But these pillars rest solidly on the foundation of a Constitution.

Dr. Sondhi says if we change our Constitution, it will be like reinventing the wheel, a phrase often used for rhetoric by the speakers and authors. I do not see anything wrong in changing the old worn out wheel before it gets punctured causing accident and even death. A Civil War. Charles de Gaulle’s words might help.

In his over an hour’s eloquent talk on the subject, Dr. Sondhi presented his case persuasively to show that our Constitution was indeed in a crisis before the Election-2024 but now that the BJP is shown the place (not in AICC tea shop though), our Constitution is free of crisis. Thanks to voters!

After the talk, he agreed to take questions and as expected there were too many questions and too little time. I do not think Dr. Sondhi fielded them well. In fact there were some missed catches. One was the question I shot at him. In a concise format my question was: If a Democratic State is a sovereign power, where does its sovereignty  rest? In the Parliament or in the Executive or the Judiciary?

This question was asked because we have seen in the past a conflict (or call it overlapping) of power between these three organs of the Democratic State. We have seen the Judiciary undoing what is done by the Executive and the Parliament — The decisions being declared ultra vires to the Constitution. We have also seen the Parliament undoing (like unscrambling an egg) the decision of the Judiciary, for example in the Shah Bano case.

Dr. Sondhi did not field my question, he went after the next question instead.

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