Amendment to President's Address
POLITICS GAINS, NATION LOSES
By Amba Charan Vashishth
On March 9 the opposition led by Congress succeeded in carrying through its amendment to the Vote of Thanks to the President for his Address to the joint session of Parliament regretting that the President's Address did not support the rights of citizens to contest in panchayat elections, in the backdrop of restrictions imposed in Haryana and Rajasthan. If the objective of was just to score a political point the attempt did succeed. Deliberately or otherwise, however the Congress party glossed over the fact that the constitutional validity of the law passed by the BJP government in Haryana to which Congress referred to while pressing for the amendment, had been upheld by the Supreme Court (SC) of India. The amendment is also, in no way, a binding obligation on the government. In the process, however, it was no gain for the nation.
Earlier, arguing that the amendment could not be moved in Parliament as it was a State subject, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said: “If we put this to vote, every State will have the right to move a resolution criticising the decisions made by Parliament.” Parliamentary Affairs Minister M. Venkaiah Naidu pointed out that the right to contest elections was not a fundamental right, unlike the right to vote.
A bench comprising justices J. Chelameswar and Abhay Manohar Sapre in December 2015 had dismissed a plea challenging the Haryana Panchayati Raj (Amendment) Act, 2015, and upheld all the amendments which provided for criteria of minimum essential educational qualification of matriculation for general candidates and Class VIII for women in the general category as well as scheduled caste candidates; they should have a functional toilet at home, not having defaulted in cooperative loans or having outstanding dues on rural domestic electricity connections and not charged by a court for a grave criminal offence to be eligible to contest local body elections.
“It is only education which gives a human being the power to discriminate between right and wrong, good and bad,” the court said while upholding the imposition of specific educational qualifications.
In December 2014, Rajasthan too had brought in the Rajasthan Panchayati Raj (Second Amendment) Ordinance, 2014 providing for a minimum qualification of Class X for contesting the zilla parishad or panchayat samiti polls and Class VIII to contest sarpanch elections.
It is pertinent to recall that a Cabinet minister in Bihar had recently to be administered oath for a second time because he had failed to read some words correctly. In the second attempt too, he fumbled. He had studied upto XII and his brother, also a minister, had quit class IX.
A news channel recently showed that some candidates contesting Panchayat Pradhan election in UP did not know even the name of the Prime Minister and the President of India.
These incidents once again highlight the need for some minimum educational qualification not just for Panchayatiraj and urban local body institutions but also for our lawmakers both in the State and at the national level. The quality of legislation is determined by the quality of our legislature to usher in a better life for the people. Elected persons need to be able to read, write and understand what is brought before them for consideration and orders.
But, it looks the forces of status quo do not wish to come out of the 20th century ethos to join the present 21stcentury running in its second decade. They seem bent upon thwarting any attempt at making the process of administration, legislation and justice more relevant to the situation that has changed during the past 68 years.
In the Constituent Assembly Dr. Rajendra Prasad, who later became India's first President, did insist on providing some minimum qualification for legislators but Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru rejected the proposal. Yet, the suggestion remains not unreasonable and illogical. Pandit Nehru was then only trying to be more pragmatic to the situation then prevailing. When the British left India free in 1947, the country had a literacy percentage of just 12. Providing minimum qualifications then would certainly have deprived an overwhelming majority of 88 percent from the opportunity to contest elections. But the literacy situation in the country has gone through a revolutionary upsurge since then. India now commands a literacy percentage of 74.4 in 2011 and it should have improved further by now.
It is also a fact that members of the Constituent Assembly which framed our Constitution were persons of eminence in their own right despite the fact that at that time there was no essential minimum educational qualification to be a member of the house. So about the council of ministers headed by Pandit Nehru at the Centre and Congress leaders in States at that time.
It is a fallacious assumption and argument to say that the Haryana law, in any way, deprives citizens of their "right to participate in the affairs of the polity of the country" because persons contesting an election to such bodies do not constitute even 0.00001 percent of the total electorate.
Let us also not forget that on August 27, 2014 SC opined that "time has come for Parliament to prescribe some minimum qualifications for Parliamentarians/Legislators as prescribed in other fields". It "recalled the words of the first President, Dr. Rajendra Prasad, in the Constituent Assembly that he would have liked to have some qualifications laid down for Members of Legislatures".
A member of the zila parishad, panchayat samiti, and gram panchayat — as also to State and Central legislatures — should be a literate person able to appreciate and understand the intricacies of law governing Panchayati Raj institutions. Otherwise, he/she will end up a parasite on others unable to do justice either to the office to which he has been elected or to those who elected him.
The executive, legislature and judiciary are the three pillars of democracy. These must be run by literate persons of wisdom, intelligence and merit and not by illiterate and mediocre ones. Some of the ills facing the country owe their origin to the lack of essentials the States of Haryana and Rajasthan have provided. Let us shun away from turning our executive and legislature to be the institutions of the elite or aristocracy and, at the same time, not reduce these to be institutions of mediocrity — a situation the country can afford only at its peril. ***