Everyone could see that the role of the people of Karnataka began and ended on 12th May, the day they cast their votes. Once the votes were counted and no party had won a majority of seats, everything depended on the discretion of the Governor. The fate of Karnataka depended on what the Governor would do-who he would invite and how much time he would give for the invited party to prove its majority.
The official view propagated in the media and in school text books is that India is a democracy in which the people elect the government of their choice. The Preamble to the Constitution is written in such a way as to create the impression that the people of India are sovereign, that they have supreme decision-making power. However, life experience repeatedly shows that people have no power, no say in important decisions that affect their lives.
The people of Karnataka, many of whom stood in line and cast their vote on 12th May, went completely out of the picture after that day. Sovereignty, the supreme power to direct developments in Karnataka, was exercised by the Governor, who is an unelected nominee of the party in charge of the Central government. The Constitution gives this unelected nominee of the centre, under conditions of a divided vote for a state legislative assembly, the discretionary power to invite whoever he pleases to form the government.
The question is not whether the decision of the Governor of Karnataka this time was a good or a bad decision. The question is why an unelected nominee of the Central government should enjoy the power to decide the political fate of the people of Karnataka, or of any other constituent of the Indian Union.
The provision that the Governor will decide who gets the first chance to form the government in any province of India was part of the British colonial government of India Act, 1935. That Act stipulated that provincial governments would be elected in a multi-party contest, but they would exist at the pleasure of the Governor, who was appointed by the British rulers from London.
The Governor of a province of British India had the power not only to invite whoever he pleased to form the government. According to Section 93 of the Government of India Act, 1935, he also had the power to recommend the dismissal of an elected provincial government. This power exists till today. Article 356 of the 1950 Constitution empowers the Central Cabinet to recommend the imposition of President’s Rule in any state of the Indian Union, based on a report and recommendation from the Governor of that state alleging a threat to law and order. Numerous state governments have been dismissed using this provision over the past 68 years.
The extraordinary and arbitrary power enjoyed by the Governor over an elected state assembly reflects the fact that the Indian Union does not recognise and protect the rights of each of its constituents. It shows that the legacy of colonialism, of an overarching Central State with overriding powers over elected legislatures in the provinces, has been kept intact in independent India.
The decision of the British rulers to provide the Governor with overriding powers in relation to an elected state assembly was opposed by all political parties in our country during the anti-colonial struggle. After 1947, however, the Congress Party and its leaders who dominated the Constituent Assembly executed a 180 degree turn. From being strong opponents, they became strong advocates of retaining the powers of the Governor. They were eager to retain the entire colonial framework of political power.
The Indian big capitalists and big landlords, who inherited the supreme power from the British colonialists, decided to retain the colonial army and centralised bureaucracy, built to defend the system of exploitation and plunder. The political representatives of the big capitalists and big landlords dominated the Constituent Assembly. They adopted a Constitution that was for the most part a reproduction of the 1935 Government of India Act passed by the British Parliament. The colonial legal framework remained intact, that is, the “rule of law” laid down by the colonialists to rape and plunder our land and labour.
The theory underlying the existing State, Constitution and political process is that the people of India are unfit to rule themselves. In colonial times, it was openly proclaimed that it was God’s will that Britain’s royal family should rule over the Indian sub-continent. This theory of “royal prerogative” exists at the base of the post-colonial Indian Republic, in a modified form. Rival parties of the capitalist class, headed by the Congress and BJP, consider it to be their prerogative to divide and rule over the toiling majority of people.
The transfer of power that took place in 1947 did not change the nature of political power. Power was transferred from London to New Delhi and Karachi, into the hands of exploiting classes of capitalists and landlords and their political representatives, the Congress Party and Muslim League. Supreme power over post-partition India was held in the hands of a Governor General appointed by the British Government alongside an Interim Government headed by Nehru, until the adoption of the Constitution and election of a President. After that the President began to wield sovereign power, with the Constitution making him or her duty bound to follow the advice of the Cabinet headed by the Prime Minister.
Continuing with the alien and outdated ideas of the Royal Prerogative, the 1950 Constitution of India creates the conception of the State as an entity standing above the people, in the form of a trustee. The Directive Principles of State Policy proclaim the goal of providing for all. However, the main body of the Constitution vests supreme power in the Central Parliament. Within the Parliament it is further concentrated in the hands of the Cabinet headed by the Prime Minister. The President in the Central Parliament, and Governors in the state Assemblies, all act on the advice of the Central Cabinet. Those in control of the Central Cabinet have the power to decide the fate of state assemblies, and the fate of India as a whole.
Election of members of parliament and of members of state legislative assemblies, the entire political process, is a continuation and adaptation of the Westminster model of bourgeois parliamentary democracy. Compared to colonial times, the only advance was the adoption of universal franchise. That, by itself, did not change the fact that the political process serves to keep supreme power firmly in the hands of an exploiting minority.
People have no role in the political process except to cast a vote on polling day. Decision-making power is confined within the hands of a privileged minority, trained to maintain the system of capitalist exploitation and imperialist plunder. The process of periodic elections serves the most powerful monopoly capitalists to orchestrate a change in the management team, so as to more effectively pursue their interests. It serves to sort out contradictions among the exploiters and further divide the people, while making it appear as if the people are exercising sovereignty.
The fact that people have no real power in this so-called most populous democracy gets nakedly exposed, for everyone to see, during periods of political stalemate or “hung verdict” of an election, as happened recently in Karnataka. People can see that their fate is in the hands of a tiny clique.
We, the communists and all the progressive forces, must challenge the political theory and practice of the existing party dominated political process. We must challenge the lack of power in the hands of the people.
We must demand and fight for a Constitution that vests sovereignty in the people. We must fight for a new political process that is based on the principle that sovereignty belongs to the people.
People must enjoy the right to select the best from among their peers as candidates for election to decision-making bodies. Not just political parties but all organisations of the people must enjoy the right to nominate candidates for elections. From among all those nominated, the voters in every constituency must exercise their right to select the final shortlist, before election takes place.
People must delegate only a part of their decision-making power to those they elect. They must retain the right to demand a rendering of account and the right to recall the one they elected at any time. They must enjoy the right to initiate changes in laws and policies. They must have the right to amend or re-write the Constitution.
The role of political parties must be redefined. Instead of being electoral machines that bid for power, political parties must be assigned the role of providing a vision and program for society, and of assisting people in choosing their candidates, in setting the agenda and leading the people in holding elected representatives to account. Politicians will then be selected and elected by the people and subject to recall, instead of chasing or being chased by the power of money. The State must fund the entire process of selection and election, ensuring equal time and publicity for all contestants.
We must challenge the lack of Constitutional guarantee for human rights and democratic rights in the present system. The existing Constitution treats rights as things which can be given at one time and taken away by the State at another time. We need a Constitution which is based on the modern definition that human rights belong to every person by virtue of being human; and it is the duty of the State to guarantee that human rights are protected and not violated under any pretext. There are also democratic rights of all citizens, and rights that belong to particular collectives such as workers, peasants, women, youth, nations and nationalities, etc. The Constitution must recognise and protect all these rights.
We need to unite the broad masses of workers, peasants, women and youth around such a program of Navnirman – that is, the creation of a new political power and political process that vests sovereignty in the people and guarantee prosperity and protection for all.