The next head of government should be a member of the directly elected House
LAST week,the Rajya Sabha bid a fond farewell to eight of its members who are retiring next month,when the House will be in recess. In reply,most of them made speeches that were full of nostalgia and sentiment. Strictly speaking,the emotional bye-bye was meant for only seven of them. For,the eighth member whose tenure also ends in June is Prime Minister Manmohan Singh,and everybody knows that his timely re-election is a certainty. Surely,the Congress party wouldnt deny him the ticket in Assam,where it has a comfortable majority in the legislature. The remaining seven,belonging to various parties,alas have no such assurance.
This would undoubtedly take care of the procedural problem,but is this an ideal situation? Unfortunately not. For,it is odd,to put it most mildly,that someone should be prime minister of the worlds largest democracy for a full 10 years on the strength of his membership to the Upper,indirectly elected House dating back to 1991 when,migrating from technocracy to politics,he had become finance minister.
It is undoubtedly arguable that in 2004,nobody had a clue that Sonia Gandhi would refuse to accept the exalted office that was hers by right,and virtually nominate Singh for the job. But six years thereafter has been a long period. No one has ever explained why,in 2009,the good doctor,then at the height of his popularity,did not seek election to the Lok Sabha.
To be sure,it is not mandatory under the letter of the Constitution that the prime minister must be a member of the Lok Sabha. But then there is such a thing as the spirit of the Constitution,or conventions,not only in this country,but also in other parliamentary democracies. Everywhere,the accepted practice is that the head of the government should be a member of the directly elected House. A look back at what has happened in India so far should be instructive.
Both Jawaharlal Nehru and Lal Bahadur Shastri were members of the Lok Sabha from the first day of their political careers to the last. During her fathers lifetime,Indira Gandhi wasnt a member of either House. When Shastri asked her to be his minister for information and broadcasting she chose the Rajya Sabha route for the duration. And then,suddenly,the burden of being prime minister fell on her shoulders.
At that time,the more sensible of her advisors urged her to seek election to the Lok Sabha right away. Any number of party MPs,they assured her,would happily vacate their seats. But she opted for the contrary counsel that since the next general election was due in 13 months,status quo should continue until then. The real reason for this decision,regrettably,was that neither Indira Gandhi nor her colleagues wanted to lift the emergency proclaimed at the time of the Chinese invasion in 1962. Under the election law,it was necessary to do so even if a single by-election was to be held. For the rest of the 15 years (in two instalments) when Indira Gandhi was prime minister,she was a member of the Lok Sabha.
So was her son,Rajiv Gandhi,who was prime minister for five years and then leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha. Although they were prime ministers for short periods,both V.P. Singh and Chandra Shekhar were veteran members of the Lower House.
When,in 1991,P.V. Narasimha Rao became prime minister to everybodys surprise,including his own,he was a member of neither House,because he had decided to retire from politics. But the Andhra Pradhesh Congressmen saw to it that he won a by-election to the Lok Sabha hands down within the requisite period of six months.
In 1996-97,H.D. Deve Gowda was prime minister only for a few months. But he had the good sense to get himself elected to the Lok Sabha from the Hassan constituency in Karnataka. His successor,I.K. Gujral,knowing that he was a bird of passage,remained a Rajya Sabha member.
Only the other day,there was a flurry in the country when the word went round that Singh might have a third term as prime minister. The medias excitement reached a crescendo when he,in answer to a volley of questions,refused to either confirm or rule out the possibility. This was,of course,premature speculation. But it is as good an occasion as any to emphasise that after the 2014 election,at least,the office of prime minister should go to a member of the Lok Sabha.
The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator