Thursday, April 15, 2021

Unhealthy democracy

The recent round of conflict between the Chief Minister V Narayanasamy and Lt Governor Kiran Bedi in Puducherry has been more serious than those that have happened in the past few years. The conflict owes its origin to the alleged interference of Kiran Bedi in the day-to-day administration of the government for which objections have been raised time and again by the elected representatives in the past. Unfortunately, the dialogue process and regular interaction between the two sides have failed to resolve the conflict. There also appear to be some ego hassles between the two on many issues that plague the relationship between the elected government and the representative of the President of the country. Narayanasamy staged a protest and sat on dharna for six days, before the two could meet to hold talks to resolve a set of issues he raised in a letter earlier this month. He has been opposed to what he calls Kiran Bedi’s “high-handedness” and tendency to interfere in the administration. The two have had differences on many issues over the past two years. Such problems are an obvious consequence of the political structure of Union Territories, in which the Administrator, as the nominee of the President, enjoys powers superior to the elected Chief Minister and his Council of Ministers. The latest stand-off appears to have been triggered by Kiran Bedi’s move to enforce the rule for two-wheeler riders to wear helmets. While the Narayanasamy believes that this rule can be enforced only after raising awareness, Kiran Bedi wants it implemented immediately. However, the Chief Minister insists that his protest has nothing to do with this. He lists the blocking of welfare schemes such as the free rice scheme and enhanced scholarship for Scheduled Caste students, among other actions of the L-G, as the real issues. Whatever be the origin of this conflict, the sight of a Chief Minister on an indefinite dharna is not desirable. It could not have gone on indefinitely, and the fact that a dialogue was formally initiated, after much delay, is a welcome development. In a democratic setup, such things are not acceptable. The centre’s representative should keep in mind that the elected governments whether in Union Territories or other states of the country should enjoy a superior role. The central government’s representative can only have an advisory role when the power of the latter is limited to actions on the aid and advice of the Council of Ministers as provided in the Indian Constitution. The conflict between the office of the Chief Minister and Lt Governor has raised important question whether Kiran Bedi was acting within her powers or exceeding her brief in seeking to play a proactive role in the affairs of the UT. Under the Indian Constitution, the territory belongs to the President, who administers it through the L-G as Administrator. But, under Section 44 of the Union Territories Act, 1963, the Administrator has to act on the ‘aid and advice’ of the Council of Ministers. And at the same time, any difference of opinion between them can be referred to the President, and in the meantime the Administrator’s action prevails on any urgent matter. This scheme, which gives a clear edge to the Centre, can work only if there is harmony between the Council and the L-G. It would be unfortunate if individuals occupying Raj Nivas in any UT with a Legislative Assembly get carried away and ignore or undermine the elected institution. Last year, ruling on the limits of the L-G’s powers in Delhi, the Supreme Court stressed the need for the L-G as well as people’s elected representatives to ‘function in harmony within constitutional parameters’. The L-G was cautioned against having a hostile attitude towards the Ministers, who are elected representatives of the people. There is no reason why that principle cannot be extended to Puducherry, which has a longer record of elected governments compared to Delhi. In fact, time is coming when the centre will have to allow devolution of more powers to the elected regimes than allowing President’s appointed persons in UTs and states keeping in with the principles of healthy democracy.