Friday, January 18, 2008

Time to oust socialism from the constitution

Countries where socialism was the only political ideology of the state inevitably degenerated into dictatorship. At stake is the democratic and political process, which includes campaigning and convincing the people of any particular political ideology, I write in the Mint on 17 January 2008, that "‘Our’ socialist agenda: the time to oust it has come".

The world has come to admire India’s democratic institutions. However, many may be unaware that in this, the largest democracy, all political parties have to profess the same political ideology—socialism. The Supreme Court has now asked the government and the Election Commission to explain this apparent paradox. Under the Representation of the People Act, all political parties in India have to pledge allegiance not only to the Constitution and integrity of India, but also to socialism.

The socialist intent of the Preamble has been extended by law to the Representation of the People Act, 1951, (RP Act) through an amendment in 1988. Section 29 A (5) of the Act now states that the application for registration “shall be accompanied by a copy of the memorandum or rules and regulations of the association…shall bear…allegiance to the Constitution of India…to the principles of socialism, secularism and democracy, …uphold the sovereignty, unity and integrity of India.”

Rajiv Gandhi’s government introduced this amendment when the ruling Congress party enjoyed three-fourths majority in Parliament. The amendment was carried without any dissenting vote.

But at the root of this change, was the infamous 42nd Amendment to the Constitution, enacted by the Congress government under then prime minister Indira Gandhi during the days of national emergency, in 1976. The Bill had proposed nearly 60 amendments—one of these amended the Preamble to the Constitution to term India a “sovereign, secular, socialist democratic republic.”

When the Janata Party formed government after the Congress lost the 1977 election, it sought to undo a lot of the draconian provisions of the 42nd Amendment, but retained the section that pertained to socialism and secularism in the Preamble. While Indira Gandhi wanted to lean towards socialist policies and diluted protection of property rights in order to pursue a more active intervention in the private sector, Morarji Desai’s government actually deleted the right to property as a fundamental right from the Constitution in 1978. Clearly, there was an almost unanimous opinion in Indian politics that socialism was the preferred path for the country.

However, B.R. Ambedkar, the man who helped draft the Constitution, specifically gave his reason for the non-inclusion of the word “socialism” when it was sought to be inserted into the Preamble by another member during the deliberations. Ambedkar did not want the Constitution to tie down future generations. He said in the Assembly on 15 November, 1948 : “(H)ow the society should be organized in its social and economic side are matters which must be decided by the people themselves according to time and circumstances. It cannot be laid down in the Constitution itself, because that is destroying democracy altogether… It is perfectly possible today, for the majority people to hold that the socialist organization of society is better than the capitalist... But it would be perfectly possible for thinking people to devise some other form...which might be better than the socialist organization of today or of tomorrow.”

In 1950, when the Constitution was adopted, the Preamble read: “We, the people of India, having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a sovereign, democratic republic and to secure to all its citizens…”

Six decades after Ambedkar’s caution, three decades after the amendment which added socialism in the Preamble and two decades after the change in the election law that made it mandatory for all political organizations in the country to affirm to the cause of socialism, there is now an opportunity to seriously reconsider this whole issue. The Supreme Court recently issued a notice to the government, in response to a public interest petition questioning the validity of the affirmation of socialism. The court wanted to know the practical and legal implications of having a socialist intent in the Preamble, as reflected in the RP Act.

The Swatantra Party in Maharashtra has been trying to challenge this provision in the high court for more than a decade, with little success. If all political parties are to have the same ideology, we would hardly need multiple parties. If we don’t have parties, there would be no need for contested elections. If we don’t have free and fair elections, we won’t have representative democracy. If we don’t have democracy…does this path sound familiar?

What is at stake is not whether one believes in the tenets of socialism or secularism. At stake is the democratic and political process, which includes campaigning and convincing the people of any particular political ideology; and the freedom of the people to choose from the competing policies.

Democracy is not just about majority rule, it is also about the freedom enjoyed by those who hold a minority opinion today to win over their fellow citizens. Without that freedom, democracy cannot have any substance. It is no coincidence that countries which had incorporated socialism as the only political ideology of the state inevitably degenerated into one-party dictatorship. This can’t be the goal of the most vibrant multiparty democracy in the world—India.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Should India continue to be socialist?

Should we continue to hold that socialism as one of the cherished Constitutional goals of the Indian Republic? In this article, I discuss how "socialism" was discussed at the time of the making of our constitution, and why it was rejected. And then, I look at how it crept in to the constitution during the Emergency Days in 1976, and ask, what is its relevance of this anachronism today? A version of this article appeared in the Ananda Bazar Patrika (Bengali) on 17 January 2008, under the title "Should we be tied to socialism?"

Last month, the Supreme Court issued notice to the Government of India and the Election Commission in response to a petition questioning the constitutionality of India being a socialist state. The judges wanted to hear about the practical and legal implications of having a socialist intent in the preamble which has led to the changes in the Representation of People Act, making it mandatory for all registered political parties in India to affirm to socialist ideals.

In 1976, the preamble to the Constitution was amended to make India a "sovereign, secular, socialist, democratic republic". Thirty years later, a new generation of Indians, want to undo that historic mistake.

Dr. B. R. Ambedkar specifically explained the reason for the non-inclusion of the word "socialism", when it was sought to be inserted into the preamble by another member. He stated in the Assembly on 15th November, 1948:
"What should be the policy of the State, how the Society should be organized in its social and economic side are matters which must be decided by the people themselves according to time and circumstances. It cannot be laid down in the Constitution itself, because that is destroying democracy altogether. If you state in the Constitution that the social organization of the State shall take a particular form, you are, in my judgment, taking away the liberty of the people to decide what should be the social organization in which they wish to live. It is perfectly possible today, for the majority people to hold that the socialist organization of society is better than the capitalist organization of society. But it would be perfectly possible for thinking people to devise some other form of social organization which might be better than the socialist organization of today or of tomorrow. I do not see therefore why the Constitution should tie down the people to live in a particular form and not leave it to the people themselves to decide it for themselves."
[Source: Constituent Assembly Debates, Vol. VIII, pp.401-402]
In 1950, when the people of India adopted the Constitution, the Preamble read:
"We, the people of India , having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a Sovereign, Democratic Republic and to secure to all its citizens:
o Justice - social, economic and political;
o Liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship;
o Equality of status and of opportunity before law."
A quarter Century later, the Congress government under Prime Minister of Mrs Indira Gandhi, during the dark days of emergency rule, passed the 42nd Amendment to the Indian Constitution in 1976. Among many other things, the Preamble to the Constitution was amended to include - secular, socialist, - to state India to be a "sovereign, secular, socialist democratic republic".

The purpose of the amendment to include "socialist", was stated in the Statement of the Objective -
Addition of the word 'socialist' indicates incorporation of the philosophy of socialism in the Constitution and may enable the courts to lean more and more in favour of nationalization and State ownership of industry.
Thirty years later, a PIL is seeking to question the constitutionality of amending the Preamble. There are major legal grounds for such a question.
  1. Inclusion of "socialist" in the Preamble is against the original intent of the founding fathers
  2. By including socialism, democracy, which has been accepted as one of the "basic features" of the constitution is being violated.
  3. Democracy gives the people the freedom to choose the nature of social organisation of the state under which they want to live, and change that order if they deem necessary. So it unconstitutional to tie the future generations to only a particular type of social organisation - socialism.
  4. If the objective of the 42nd amendment is to be accepted, then either the Indian state, which over the past two decades, has been trying to withdraw from many economic activities, is no longer following that socialist objective; or that times have changed, and that objective is no longer desired by the people, and has become obsolete.
  5. All most all the major countries of the world, which had incorporated "socialism" as the only political ideology of the state, had turned in to one party, dictatorship. This could not be the goal of the world's largest and most vibrant multiparty democracy.
This is no longer an issue of political semantic. If the preamble was a mere statement of intent, without any particular legal force, one could perhaps ignore this aspect. Many people have legitimately different perspective on different aspects of the Indian constitution, yet the basic structure of the constitution is acceptable to most. But the socialist intent of the preamble has been extended as a law in to the Representation of Peoples Act, 1951, through an amendment in 1988 by the Congress government under Rajiv Gandhi, which enjoyed unprecedented majority in Parliament. The bill was passed without a single dissenting vote.

Section 29A of the RPA, requires that any political association that seeks to register itself with the Election Commission of India, needs to file an affidavit affirming to socialism. This in effect means that only political parties with socialist ideology can undertake legitimate political action, and campaigns in India . On the other hand, independents and non-registered political parties can promote any ideology, and if elected, can join the ranks of the legislators.

This provision in the election law could easily be found to violate of the freedom of association, as well as freedom of thought and expression, some of the fundamental rights guaranteed under our constitution. Clearly, this affirmation to socialism goes much beyond the "reasonable restriction" doctrine that circumscribes the fundamental rights.

An historic opportunity has come our way to focus the spotlight on the political ideologies and principles, one of the legitimate purposes of democratic governance. Even more importantly, this is an opportunity to appreciate our constitutional structure that provides legitimate space to all ideologies to compete for the attention of the people, without legally restricting that space to any one preferred political theory.

A time comes for every generation when they have to face test of history. Sixty years after India gained its Independence from British colonial rule, We the People, have to decide, whether we want to be in the dustbin of history by continuing to align ourselves with a failed political ideology, or be shown to be hypocrite declaring a principle, and then rejecting it in practice. Or, do We the People have the freedom to chart our own destiny in the democratic miracle that is India. Today, We the People need to judge our past, so that we can come out with our heads high, when the future generations sit on judgement over us. On the sixtieth anniversary of our Independence, this would be the most appropriate reaffirmation of our faith in constitutional democracy.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Tata Nano: A glimpse of the potential industrial revolution in India

The media frenzy around the unveiling of Tata Motors’ Nano, may drown two of the most significant aspects of this project, it provides a glimpse of the manufacturing revolution that has largely bypassed India, so far. In that context, tragic events in Singur a year ago could have been easily avoided. This article was published in Liberty Institute's website In Defence of Liberty, on 13 January 2008.

The media frenzy around the unveiling of Tata Motors’ Nano, may drown two of the most significant aspects of this project - firstly, it is a completely new product, which aims to make personal transportation accessible to those who could not afford a car earlier; secondly, and more importantly, it provides a glimpse of the manufacturing revolution that has largely bypassed India, so far.

While Tata Motors has a long history of making commercial vehicles, it launched its first passenger car only in 1998. In the last ten years, it has produced a million cars, but remains a relatively small player in the passenger car segment. That such a minor player on the global stage can so radically reengineer a product as to access new customers, while meeting international safety standards, makes it an unqualified managerial success. Doubtless, it has made significant technological leaps too, and there is some talk of possible patents as well.

Today, it is widely accepted that mobility and communication are critical to economic and social participation. Yet, in most poor countries, low-cost public transport is uncertain or non-existent, and many poor families have to risk life and limb by braving city traffic on two-wheeled scooters or motor-cycles.

Exactly a century ago, in 1908, the Ford Model T put “America on wheels”. The assembly line off which it rolled increased productivity so much that a worker could afford to buy the car with four months' worth of wages. At the same time it shaped American sociology, by showing how personal mobility greatly enhanced personal autonomy. It is a strange coincidence that the Nano is priced very similarly to the Model T - its price in 1920s would equate to $ 3000 in 2006 dollars. And the Tata Nano will cost about $ 2500. Of course the Nano is a huge technological advance, packing 33 hp to the Model T's 20, with a fuel efficiency of 20 km. to the liter, compared to the Model T's 5 to 9.

But the most significant fall-out of Nano may be the realization that low cost manufacturing is not the domain of China alone. Like Ford T, Tata Nano’s real contribution may be to demonstrate the competitiveness and technological viability of manufacturing in India. The industrial revolution may yet come to India, riding the Nano; a century late, perhaps, but better late than never.

Of course, much more economic reform is necessary if India is to experience the much needed industrial revolution. But Tata’s Nano gives us a glimpse of the possibilities.

Not surprisingly, there are many who have expressed concerns about the prospect of the masses accessing personal automobiles. The issues they raise range from the impact on oil prices and a concern for global warming, to traffic congestion. Most such commentators have not been known to eschew their personal automobiles, or other modern conveniences, but have no qualms in frowning upon the masses enjoying some of the same benefits. This desire to keep others off the life-boats of their standard of living is a common feature of many who claim to have social or environmental concern in their hearts. One fact worth reminding them of is that transportation is one of the biggest expenses faced by rural poor seeking health care.

The opposition to Nano is also an illustration of the head-in-the-sand mind-set, which pits rising demand for consumption against environmental conservation.

In fact, as more Indians are able to afford more cars, the scale of consumption will help improve the technology, improve efficiency and clean up the environment. It is not a coincidence, that Toyota's ascent up the world auto league has been accompanied by its pioneering efforts in new technologies and innovation. Though counter-intuitive, it is true of most areas of enterprise that only enhanced scales of consumption lead to improvement in efficiency - in this case, easily measured by tail-pipe emission. It is worth noting that while Toyota sold well over 9 million vehicles in 2007, Tata Motors took ten years to sell its millionth passenger car.

Also as more Indians learn to drive, the appreciation of basic road rules and etiquettes will improve, as drivers begin to realise that the purpose of the rules are not to hinder movement, but to facilitate it. Finally, with greater mobility, congestion may actually get diffused, as the range of personal mobility increases. Also, with more demand for mobility and motor-ability, more resources could be devoted to expanding the road network, and expanding the parking facilities.

Hardly any shopkeeper is disgruntled if he finds a large crowd of buyers at his shop. It becomes an incentive to try and expand his business, and cater to even larger clients. Unfortunately, roads and parking are services that are not looked upon as any normal businesses. And under public management, greater flow of traffic or demand for parking is seen as a headache for the authorities, rather than as an opportunity. It is ironic, but unfortunately true. Compare the parking facilities in Khan Market with those in Connaught Place, in the heart of Delhi. In the former, parking is free, maintained by the shop-owners to facilitate customers. In the latter, parking is seen as a milking cow by the parking contractors and the municipality, with least concern for the businesses and the customers.

To assess the on-road performance of Nano, we will have to wait for its commercial release. Our belief, though, is that–apart from enabling people to graduate from two-wheelers to the greater safety and comfort of a four-wheeled car–the Nano will also appeal to commercial transporters such as auto-rickshaw operators. That itself, could improve the quality of movement on Indian roads.

Needless to say, that opening of the car market to a new but large segment of the population itself will attract others to seek a share of the pie. And with greater competition, the whole society will benefit.

Despite the promise, it is worth keeping in mind that the Tata’s have had to rediscover the wheel, to an extent. If the duties on imported cars were not as high as it is, about 60% on new ones, and about 100% on second hand cars (down from 180% in 2001), a much higher performance vehicle could have been imported at much lower cost. Likewise, a third of the price of the cars on Indian roads is contributed by various kinds of taxes. In addition, the 100% taxes on fuel, adds significantly to the operational cost.

India has one of the lowest densities of vehicles, at barely 8 per 1000 people, compared to over 500 in the US. Various fiscal and regulatory barriers that have retarded mobility, have also weighed down the economy as a whole, as well as shrunk the space for personal autonomy. And by all accounts has not helped the environment either.

Given this not so conducive environment, the Tata Motors small car is a reflection of the huge leap Indian entrepreneurs are capable of. This only brings to greater relief the tragic development in Singur over the past year where the Nano is slated to be manufactured. There the farmers have been protesting 1000 acres of land acquired by the government for this project. There will inevitably be accusations of blood on the Nano. It was completely unnecessary, since cost of the land could not have been even 10% of the total investment for this project. Tata Motors could have easily bought the land, or should have highlighted the reasons why even with funds, they may not have been able to purchase appropriate land in the four years that took them to develop the Nano. Because land laws in the country would not have given them access to land, in much the same way that makes most Indians still unable to aspire for a personal mode of transport.

Farmers – small and marginal - and industrial enterprises, both deserve much better. The Nano is a small car, but if it helps to expose the self-imposed brakes that restrain us, it could prove a powerful engine to drive us towards a new industrial revolution in India.