Direct democracy?

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Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalitha during the 57th National Development Council Meeting at Vigyan Bhavan in New Delhi on December 27, 2012. She walked out of the meeting accusing the Centre of stifling the voice of the States. Photo: R.V. Moorthy

IN contrast to the popular notion regarding Jawaharlal Nehru’s role in planning, it may be noted that Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose as Congress president emphasised the objectives of planning in independent India. In his presidential address at the Haripura (Gujarat) session of the Congress on February 19-21, 1938, he declared: “I have no doubt in my mind that our chief national problems relating to eradication of poverty, illiteracy and disease and to scientific production and distribution can be effectively tackled only along the socialistic lines. The very first thing which our future national government will have to do would be to set up a Commission for drawing up a comprehensive plan of reconstruction.” In October 1938, he set up the Congress Planning Committee with Nehru as its Chairman. However, the committee could not pursue its work, with the Second World War beginning in 1939 and the Congress party proceeding with its Quit India struggle in August 1942, when most of its leaders and active members were incarcerated.

The British regime established a Planning Board as a part of the government that functioned from 1944 to 1946. Industrialists and economists independently formulated at least three development plans in 1944.

However, after India attained independence, it was left to Prime Minister Nehru to adopt a formal model of planning and to establish, on March 15, 1950, the Planning Commission by a resolution of the Union Cabinet.

At the suggestion of the Planning Commission in the Draft Outline of the First Five Year Plan, the National Development Council (NDC) was formed to be “a forum at which, from time to time, the Prime Minister of India and the Chief Ministers of the States can review the working of the Plan and of its various aspects”.

The Union Cabinet again, by a resolution, established on August 6, 1952, the NDC to perform the following functions:

(i) To review the working of the National Plan from time to time;

(ii) To consider important questions of social and economic policy affecting national development; and

(iii) To recommend measures for the achievement of the aims and targets set out in the National Plan, including measures to secure the active participation and cooperation of the people, improve the efficiency of the administrative services, ensure the fullest development of the less advanced regions and sections of the community and, through sacrifices borne equally by all citizens, build up resources for national development.

The NDC consists of the Prime Minister, Chief Ministers of the States and members of the Planning Commission, but its meetings are usually attended by others as well, particularly by Ministers of the Central government with an interest in the item included in its agenda and, at times, by experts called to give advice.

It may be noted that neither the Planning Commission nor the NDC has derived its creation from the Constitution or from a statute of Parliament.

Administrative Reforms Commission

The Administrative Reforms Commission (ARC) was established on January 5, 1966, by the Government of India to give recommendations by reviewing the public administration systems in India. The ARC was initially chaired by Morarji Desai. When he became Deputy Prime Minister in 1967, K. Hanumanthaiya, MP, became the Chairman of the ARC.

The ARC set up a Study Team with Chairman R.R. Morarka, a senior Congress MP, to “study the machinery of planning at all levels, that is, planning organisation and procedures at the Centre and in the States and the relationship of the Planning Commission at the Centre and the planning agencies in the States with other agencies”.

The Morarka Study Team made a thorough examination of the planning procedures and practices by holding 38 meetings with prominent persons, including party leaders, Chief Ministers and industrial magnates, and submitted its final report in December 1967.

The role and importance of the NDC in the formulation of planning on the whole was emphasised unequivocally by the Study Team Report thus:

“One of the major deficiencies in plan formulation procedures as they have worked in the past is that there is little communication between the planners at the Centre and planners in the States during evolution of their thinking on Plan programmes and policies” (Para 1.72).

About the important role of the NDC, the Study Team Report of 1967 on ‘Machinery of Planning’ affirmed: “We have already recommended in our Interim Report that the National Development Council should operate more continuously and systematically than has been the case in the past. This further involves that the NDC and its sub-committees should be utilised much more regularly as instruments of communication as well as consultation between the States and the Centre. It will perhaps not be inappropriate to mention here that no worthwhile consultation is possible if discussion papers are made available to participants at the last minute. A number of persons in the States, both at the political and the official levels, have mentioned this as one of the reasons for the deliberations of the NDC not being sufficiently effective” (Para 1.73).

The most important recommendations and suggestions made by the Morarka Study Team cannot be brushed aside, especially its recommendation that “the National Development Council should operate more continuously and systematically than has been the case in the past”. This needs to be considered and followed more at the present time.

The ARC formed in 1966 a Study Team on ‘Centre-State Relationships’ with M.C. Setalvad as its Chairman. Setalvad was an eminent jurist who became the first and longest serving Attorney General of India (1950-1963).

In its Introduction itself, the report of the Study Team presented a masterly analysis of the Centre-State relationships in utilising the instruments of the Planning Commission and the NDC. Below are some of the important excerpts from the report:

“Relations between the Centre and the States range over a wide area. They cover, but are not confined to, the entire field of administration and in fact overstep it into that of politics. Politics and administration are inseparable in the sense that the administration is meant to give effect to politically determined programmes and policies. But politics concerns itself also with the pursuit of power, an activity that stretches beyond the legitimate confines of administration. Of late the term ‘Centre-State relationships’ has often been used to connote the attitudes, actions and interactions of the parties in power at the Centre and in the States” (P.1).

“Centre-State relationship even in this sense can have a political nexus the nuances of which are not derived from the Constitution. This is an aspect that has assumed an acute form since the last general elections with the eclipse in several States of the party that rules at the Centre…. It is well to recognise that the political facts of the Indian scene have played a major role in development of attitudes. Where a single party has control over affairs at the Centre as well as in the States, an alternative and extra-constitutional channel becomes available for the operation of Centre-State relationships. In practice this channel has been very active during Congress party rule and has governed the tenor of Centre-State relationships. The political network connecting Centre and State leadership was used amply to resolve conflict and ease tension or even postpone consideration of inconvenient issues. In the process the Constitution was not violated, at least not deliberately or demonstrably, but was often bypassed…. Constitutional provisions went into disuse and disputes were settled in the party rather than aired through open constitutional machinery. Party prestige and party discipline worked out rather than governmental or constitutional solution” (P. 1&2).

“From the constitutional angle the situation was abnormal.... The emergence of non-Congress governments in the States has accordingly forced the problem to the forefront for the earlier political devices are no longer available…. The Constitution is clearly meant to be worked even in a multiparty situation which should be seen not as problem of Centre-State but as a normal background for their interplay” (P. 2).

About the lack of proper preparation and insufficient time allotted for the Chief Ministers in NDC meetings, the Study Team stated: “The NDC provides the Planning Commission with its most important sounding board, and the deliberations of this body give some indication of extent to which the States are prepared to accept centrally determined priorities. The Council, therefore, exercises an influence on the planning process which may not be perfectly revealed in the planning documents…. The Council meets for a day or two and, as a rule, cannot meet for longer, for the Chief Ministers are busy men. In this short period it takes up a number of important and complex issues. The organisation of these meetings is such that the Chief Ministers are left with hardly any time to study the papers, grasp the implications of all the proposals and come to conclusions after considering the different aspects of each problem” (Para 6.10).

Role of the NDC

About the conditions to make planning a truly national endeavour, the Study Team made the following recommendations about the dimensions of the role of the NDC:

“(1) All basic questions of planning policy, particularly those pertaining to goals and objectives, alternative frameworks, strategy and crucial sectors should be placed squarely before the National Developmental Council in time and debated there;

(2) The Council should give the highest importance to these basic issues to help arrive at a national consensus keeping the national good in view;

(3) The Council should be assisted by a standing advisory committee consisting of official advisers from each State, the Central Ministries concerned and the Planning Commission” (Para 6.13).

These reports were submitted 45 years ago and Centre-State relations have since worsened alarmingly.

On the basis of the observations and recommendations of the Report of the Study Team on ‘Centre-State Relationships’ and some earlier reports on the same subject, members of the ARC prepared their report. At that time, the Chairman of the ARC was the senior Congress leader and MP, K. Hanumanthaiya, former Chief Minister of Karnataka.

In its report, the ARC observed: “In our anxiety, however, to sustain and strengthen the unity of India, we should not think of indiscriminately concentrating all administrative power with the Union. There are two levels in the Indian governmental edifice—one, constitutional, and the other, administrative. So far as the constitutional structure is concerned, the Centre must have powers to safeguard the unity of India and to make any recalcitrant State conform to the concept of Indian unity. At the administrative level, over-concentration of authority should be avoided…. Concentration of administrative powers at a distant Centre tends to breed inefficiency and resentment, which in turn sets the minds of the people against the Centre” (P.5).

Further, the ARC cautioned: “A single party in control over affairs at the Centre as well as in the States with a powerful leadership at the Centre provided an alternative and extra-constitutional channel for the settlement of Centre-State problems. But this position has changed after the General Elections of 1967” (P. 6).

The above caustic remarks about “a distant Centre” and setting “the minds of the people against the Centre” were said not by any anti-Congress man to disturb the unity of India, but by the ardent and distinguished Congress leader Hanumanthaiya.

His mention of single-party control of power has become a forgotten part of political history of India. After 1989, the Congress party—or any other party—has never got a simple majority to form a government by itself at the Centre. However, once in power with alliances before or after the general elections, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

NDC meetings

It may be noted that as long as Nehru was Prime Minister and Chairman of the Planning Commission, meetings of the NDC were held continuously for two days, and often times there were four such two-day meetings in a year. In the NDC meetings held during the time of Nehru, he allowed a large number of participants to express their views without setting any time limit.

Above all, during his 17 years (August 15, 1947-May 27, 1964), Prime Minister Nehru held 20 NDC meetings, of which 16 were two-day meetings and the rest were single-day ones, thus on the whole covering 36 days.

Regarding the NDC meetings held by Nehru, there was a curious coincidence that he presided over the first NDC meeting on November 8 and 9, 1952, and his last one was the 20th NDC meeting on November 8 and 9 1963, exactly after 11 years on the same month and date.

Dr Manmohan Singh was Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission from January 15, 1985 to August 31, 1987. During this period of two and a half years, he held the 38th meeting of the NDC on November 8 and 9, 1985 and the next meeting, a one-day session, on April 29, 1986. No NDC meetings were held between April 30, 1984 and August 31, 1987.

Manmohan Singh has been Prime Minister since May 22, 2004. It may be noted that part of the 10th Five Year Plan (2002–2007) and the 11th Five Year Plan (2007-2011) in full have come during his prime ministerial tenure. One two-day meeting of the NDC was held on June 27 and 28 in 2005; but during the rest of the period, from 2006 to 2012, there have been only one-day NDC meetings every year. Either he does not have time or has no need for such two-day meetings to allow all the members of the NDC to express themselves fully.

Incidentally, the Union government has made Planning Commission an institution of ‘Planned Commissions and Omissions’ and converted the NDC into a ‘No Debate Club’.

On the website of the Planning Commission, there is an appeal, ‘Comments and Suggestions solicited’ on the matter given below, about ‘Approach to the Twelfth Five Year Plan’:

“To develop an inclusive and participative approach to the process, the Planning Commission has decided that the Approach Paper will be evolved through a web-based consultative process in which all interested persons can participate. We have developed a multi-dimensional strategy matrix which indicates some of the key areas we need to explore.

We invite your comments on any or all of these areas.

Any interested person can participate. Help us plan for a better future for the country.

You may send suggestions at”.

The Planning Commission seems to revert to the age-old direct democracy procedure practised in the panchayats of ancient India and in the Athenian democracy spelt out in Greek as dêmos (meaning ‘people’) and krátos (meaning ‘power’) as direct democracy wanted the direct participation of every citizen in the governance of a region without relying on the intermediaries, or elected representatives.

Beware! If direct democracy is adopted in India, it will cause the immediate ousting of all Ministers and members of the Central and State legislatures.

Era Sezhiyan is a former Member of the Lok Sabha.

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