Shri. Therambil Ramakrishnan, Hon’ble Speaker, Kerala Legislative Assembly; Respected Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer, President, Krishna Menon Memorial Society; Shri E.X. Joseph, Secretary of the Society; Other Distinguished Guests; Ladies and Gentlemen:
I feel greatly privileged and honoured to be here today to deliver the V.K. Krishna Menon Memorial Lecture. It is a great opportunity to be amidst this distinguished gathering and I thank the Krishna Menon Memorial Society for inviting me to deliver this prestigious Lecture and share my views on a very topical theme, Making Democracy Relevant for the Common Man. The benign presence of Respected Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer at this function is indeed a testimony to the relevance of V.K. Krishna Menon’s ideas and ideals in today’s world as also the topicality of the theme of the Lecture. I am immensely grateful to him for extending me this honour of being here and to deliver the lecture this evening.
At the outset, I would like to pay my tributes to the memory of the late V.K. Krishna Menon, a man of deep intellectual convictions, an impassioned patriot, an eminent parliamentarian, an outstanding statesman, a brilliant orator, a diplomat and negotiator non pareil, a fine human being, and, above all, one of the most fascinating personalities of modern India. His was an interesting combination of reason and emotion and logic and passion. In his life, he was always frank and forthright and did not hide his emotions nor hesitate to speak his mind. He never compromised on his beliefs and convictions either. He was a non-conformist and a rebel in every sense of the term. No wonder then that the establishment misunderstood him more often than not – not that it affected Menon ! As Anatoli Lunacharsky observed about Lenin: “He never glanced in the mirror of History, never even thought what posterity would think of him, but simply did his work”.
Krishna Menon, the intellectual giant that he was, too, never bothered how history will judge him. Endowed with luminous intellect, an enormous sense of objectivity and an incisive world view, he just went about doing a great job of everything he came to associate with. Thus, Krishna Menon’s dedicated and invaluable services to the Borough Council of St. Pancras while he was in London brought him the honour of the ‘Freedom of the Borough’, a great accolade of British Municipal life. The only other person so honoured was none other than George Bernard Shaw !
Though Krishna Menon held high offices in public life, he essentially belonged to the world of scholars and intellectuals. A Professor of the eminence of Harold Laski, had described Menon as the best student he had ever had. In fact, Prof. Laski’s best compliment to Menon came at another occasion when he said: “I have taught Krishna Menon but it was not always he who was at the receiving end”. As you might be aware, similar sentiments were expressed by his Philosophy teacher, Prof. Spearman also when he said: “Krishna Menon was a man of extraordinary ability and exceptional energy. Unless I am mistaken he is destined to become a man of worth”. Undoubtedly, the prophetic words of both Laski and Spearman came true in the years that ensued when Krishna Menon strode like a colossus in the great Assemblies and Councils across the world.
As a freedom fighter and as a spokesman of the Freedom Movement in Europe, Krishna Menon proved himself to be a speaker of extraordinary perception and an organizer par excellence. He effectively used his association with the British Labour Party, to expose the contradictions in their commitment to socialism, freedom and democracy. At one of the Labour Party Conferences, he said, and I quote:
“…..Let it be faced frankly that socialism in Britain cannot be built on the basis of imperialism abroad. This is still the crux of the Indian problem.” Unquote.
His relentless campaigns in the United Kingdom had a very positive bearing on the National Movement in India.
In the post-Independence period, he rendered yeoman’s service to the nation by brilliantly and passionately articulating our cause in the world fora, particularly at the United Nations. As a Union Minister with a special interest in foreign policy and international relations, Krishna Menon contributed greatly towards India emerging as a spokesman of the developing world and in articulating the Third World’s concerns and considerations in the international bodies. His administrative acumen was manifest in the portfolios he held as a Union Minister. As a respected parliamentarian, he very forcefully spoke on the floor of both the Houses of Parliament on a wide array of issues of national and international importance. He, like his close and most trusted friend, Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru, had a deep and abiding faith in the efficacy of parliamentary democracy for India. Once Krishna Menon reacted very strongly to a suggestion that Parliament (the Lok Sabha) must be dissolved in the wake of the Indo-Pak conflict in 1971. He said and I quote:
“I hope the Prime Minister will at no time heed the counsel of unwisdom which says the Parliament must go. That proceeds on the assumption that Parliament is a luxury which we tolerate….Parliament is a necessary establishment, in order that in case there would be reverses – … there can be no war without reverses, except in the thinking of people –, the Parliament can act as a safety valve on such occasions… .”
As a jurist, we saw Menon practising in the Supreme Court as a Senior Advocate, imbued with progressive ideas. This legal luminary always preferred to take up working class matters for securing justice for the much exploited labour class, without charging any fee whatsoever. I fully agree with what Respected Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer once said, in his inimitable language, about Menon’s legal career that ‘great human causes, not petty problems find the jurist in him… he is halting in humdrum areas but heroic in the higher values of our legal political system’. Friends, let us today pay our homage to that great man who had the distinction of carrying so many shining attributes in his personality.
It is, therefore, not surprising that the task of reminding the new generation of Krishna Menon’s legacy has been taken over by none other than Respected Justice Krishna Iyer, whose claim to eminence is not any less than that of the one in whose honour we are meeting this evening. Justice Krishna Iyer himself is one of the rare personalities of our time, marked with the distinction of generating activism with restraint, practising politics with principle and attaining scholarship permeated by humanism. It will not be an exaggeration to say that Justice Iyer has transformed Indian jurisprudence and democratized our judicial process by imparting new dimensions of compassionate humanism to the Rule of Law.
His observations on the Bombay High Court Order of 7 May 1997, on a so called ‘Public Interest Litigation’, to evict a large number of helpless slum-dwellers from public property, that ‘only judicial field-marshals, with military flair and militant mood, can conceive of such in terrorem commands…’, unmistakably conveyed his anger, concern and frustration with the declining value system of the judiciary today. Elsewhere he had also cautioned against the tendency to equate public interest with the interest of the class to which the judges themselves belonged. It is indeed a tall order for any one to comprehend his commendable contributions to our judicature and its significant potential in delivering justice. Permit me to say that between V.K. Krishna Menon and V.R. Krishna Iyer, these two great sons of Kerala, elevated our intellectual life and enriched our public discourse in more ways than one.
Friends, coming to the theme of today’s lecture, Making Democracy Relevant to the Common Man, an obvious question that emerges is ‘what is the relevance of democracy if it does not make any difference to the common man ?’ The effectiveness of any government, to my mind, is judged on the basis of the impact it makes on the lives of those who need the government the most.
The greatest challenge on the founding fathers, in the wake of freedom, was to come up with a viable system of government that would reflect and represent the diversities of India and at the same time constructively govern it for the years to come. We finally adopted a parliamentary democratic system, after a great deal of debate, with the conviction that it best suited us. Our people and their leadership had great expectations from it, in spite of the fact that the world around us was quite sceptical about our ability to successfully operate a democratic system. We can take legitimate pride in the fact that in laying the institutional foundations of our Republic we have made remarkable progress.
Our most significant achievement of the first half century of freedom, to my mind, is that we have sustained a parliamentary democratic system, with all its imperfections, all these years. Having successfully come through fourteen General Elections and experienced a good degree of political stability for over five and half decades, no one today would dispute that Indian Democracy has come of age and that democracy is here to stay, which clearly establishes the maturity of Indian electorates.
The institution that has contributed the most to the consolidation and strengthening of democracy in the country is our Parliament. Over the years, our Parliament has come to be identified, both in theory and in practice, to be the pivot of our political system. The responsibility for providing direction, momentum and the institutions for social engineering in India has been on our Parliament.
On the social front, Independent India had to undertake the delicate task of having to blend tradition with modernity, customs with the laws, to bring reason to prevail over superstitions and reconcile issues of faith with the demands of modern administration and governance. Perhaps the biggest and the most complex issue that India had to address, on the social front, was the issue of the political, social and economic exclusion of a significant segment of our population and the ways and means for their empowerment by bringing them into our national mainstream. These seemingly impossible tasks, precipitated by historical forces, were sought to be achieved by taking recourse to progressive legislation and by adopting a policy of protective discrimination. Today, we are distinctly recognised in the world community for our democratic and secular values and for establishing the foundations for an inclusive and modern social order.
On the economic front, we have made noticeable gains, in spite of many gaps in achievements, by taking a substantial segment of our people from below the poverty line to a better living. Our planned efforts of the last five decades have helped us, to some extent, in mitigating the extent of privations of the colonial era and in building India into a nation of considerable economic strength within the framework of democracy, federalism and a policy of self-reliance.
Friends, I have not presented this positive picture overlooking the other India that lives under conditions of poverty, deprivations, squalor, illiteracy, ignorance, intolerance and prejudices. The social revolution our Founding Fathers had conceived does not seem to have touched upon the lives of a substantial section of our society. It is only when we succeed in making a positive impact upon the lives of those sections that still remain largely untouched by the lofty objectives of democratic governance that we can say that the system of governance we adopted nearly six decades back has become relevant for all our people.
Democracy is not all about periodic elections and political rights. It is fundamentally about providing for the basic needs of the people. “Health for all, education for all, home for all, jobs for all and security for all”, should be the end results of democracy, which can be achieved only when the power structure is adequately representative of all sections of the society. Democracy is also about good-governance. Only when the government is transparent, accountable, responsive and responsible can we claim to be moving in the direction of good governance.
In fact, democracy is perceived as a system of sound governance capable of ensuring effective, honest, equitable, accessible, accountable and transparent exercise of power by those who run the Government. Nobel laureate, Prof. Amartya Sen, very perceptively analysed that democracy’s claim to be valuable ‘does not rest on just one particular merit’. He has stressed, and I quote: “There is a plurality of virtues here, including, first, the intrinsic importance of political participation and freedom in human life; second, the instrumental importance of political incentives in keeping governments responsible and accountable; and third, the constructive role of democracy in the formation of values and in the understanding of needs, rights and duties”.
The greatest challenge before our democracy today is about how we make it work for the betterment of the common man. This would involve the creation of enabling social, political, economic and legal conditions that would help every section of the society to participate fully in the process of governance and empowering them to ask questions to hold the State accountable always.
The dream of our Founding Fathers was to evolve a structure which would be most suited and relevant for the achievement of socio-economic and political justice for the common man, the eradication of poverty and ending the exploitation of the disadvantaged sections of society and providing for the basic needs of the people by ensuring universal education, an effective health care system and job opportunities for all. One of the guiding principles in this regard was Mahatma Gandhi’s notion of democracy which was one where the weakest should have the same opportunity as the strongest.
Dr. B.R. Ambedkar put it in perspective when he stressed that we must not content ourselves with mere political democracy; we should rather strive to make our political democracy a social democracy as well. As he rightly observed, the formal framework of democracy is of no value and would indeed be a misfit if there was no social democracy. He went on to emphasise that democracy is incompatible and inconsistent with isolation and exclusiveness resulting in the distinction between the privileged and the unprivileged. He was convinced that without social union and cohesion, political unity is difficult to be achieved and asserted, in his inimitable style, that if at all it is achieved, it would be as precarious as a summer sapling, liable to be uprooted by the gust of wind. With a framework of political democracy already in place, we should embark upon the task of bringing economic and social democracy to the center-stage of all our developmental programmes so that the fruits of development are enjoyed by one and all equally and human dignity remains inviolable under all circumstances.
Millions of our people have still not been emancipated from the vicious cycle of poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, poor health care, gender-based prejudices and other economic and social infirmities and specially so in the case of the disadvantaged and the marginalised sections. The conditions of the working class are no better. Food, shelter and clothing for a majority of our people continue to remain a distant goal.
The most crucial factor, therefore, to my mind, is to make decision-making a more inclusive process in which the common man has a say in shaping his life and every one is given an equal chance to share in the resultant economic and social gains. We have to necessarily make democratic values and culture an objective reality for every segment of society if a deeper process of political development is to be achieved. That is why promoting democratic politics will not be possible without expanding capabilities such as education, improved health, knowledge and skill to enable people to play a more effective role in decision-making.
For this, it is important to identify the sections that have so far been discriminated against and kept out of the purview of development. Women have to be made equal partners with men in private and public spheres of life and decision-making. People have to be freed from discriminations based on race, ethnicity, class or gender. To achieve all these, our economic and social policies have to be responsive to people’s needs and aspirations. We need to have a strong national urge to eradicate poverty and achieve an acceptable level of equity in society, besides broadening people’s choices on all fronts. All these are key parameters, which need to be addressed to achieve human development goals so as to make democracy relevant for the common man.
The democracy that we are talking about and all its achievements so far have no relevance to the more than 400 million of our citizens who still live unsure of their next square meal. The growing gap between the rich and the poor, between the haves and the have-nots do not make our democracy stronger, rather it only undermines our socio-economic and political systems. As Swami Vivekananda said: “ A few thousand graduates do not make a nation, a few rich men do not make a nation.” We cannot hold distributive justice as a distant dream any more. Prof. Amartya Sen has rightly observed: “…the protective role of democracy may be particularly important for the poor. This obviously applies to potential famine victims who face starvation. It also applies to the destitute thrown off the economic ladder in a financial crisis. People in economic need also need a political voice. Democracy is not a luxury that can await the arrival of general prosperity.”
There has to be a firm commitment on the part of all of us to achieve the goals laid down in the Constitution to mete out justice equally to all. As I have said elsewhere too, if the basic issues affecting the every day life of the common man have to be effectively addressed, the Directive Principles, which have been appropriately described as the Manifesto of a Welfare State should be made enforceable to ensure accountability of the administration. Article 38 of the Constitution, which forms the core of those Directives, had made it incumbent upon the State to constantly “ strive to promote the welfare of the people by securing and protecting as effectively as it may a social order in which justice, social, economic and political shall inform all the institutions of the national life.” This would involve, as Gandhiji said, : “ … a leveling down of the few rich in whose hands is concentrated the bulk of the nation’s wealth, on the one hand, and the leveling up of the semi starved, naked millions on the other.”
Another important aspect of making democracy relevant to the common man, to my mind, is the effectiveness of our justice delivery system. As you know, an independent Judiciary has been accorded an important role in our constitutional set-up to protect the rights and interest of the citizens. No doubt, our Judiciary has played its role towards preserving, protecting and promoting Fundamental Rights of the citizens, in many cases checking administrative lapses and curbing Executive excesses and in strengthening the democratic culture of the country, yet the mounting arrears of cases and slow moving judicial process make the scenario quite distressing as this, in many instances, almost amounts to denial of justice itself to the common man.
Often the Judiciary is applauded for what is described as ‘Judicial activism’. Like learned Justice Krishna Iyer, I too had the benefit of combining an active public life with an equally active association with the Bar. I believe that activism of any institution has to be first and foremost in discharging its basic and fundamental duty. The Judiciary, therefore, has to guard against, the tendency to go overboard on issues that are more effectively discharged by other organs and are also specifically assigned to them by the Constitution. If the so called activism of one wing of the government results in making any other wing defunct, irrelevant or suspect before the public, not only will it be doing a great disservice to the people, but will also be undermining the well-thought out scheme of separation of powers provided by the Constitution.
Such assumption of jurisdiction has inhibited many well-meaning executive authorities from discharging their functions according to their judgment and obligation. Ideally the responsibility for managing public affairs should be well left to those on whom Constitution has imposed obligation and for which, in the ultimate analysis, they are accountable to the people. Discharge of executive responsibilities by any other authority, howsoever highly placed, but non-accountable, is nothing but arrogation of the authority to govern – a task clearly assigned to the Executive. There should be no assumption that any particular organ has a monopoly of concern for the people.
Rule of law has to be enforced not by expanding any organ’s extent of powers, by encroaching into the areas specifically assigned to any other, but by diligently and effectively discharging each one’s assigned responsibilities. In my view, therefore, the Judiciary, one of the three main pillars of our democratic governance, to make itself relevant for the common people, has to demonstrate a greater degree of activism in discharging its primary responsibility of providing speedy and cheap justice and operate in a manner clearly recognizing the space provided to the other institutions of democratic governance.
On another plane, there is a general perception that the public administration system, which is also an important component of our governance structure, has not been able to deliver the goods to the extent that is expected of it. Red tapism and corrupt practices have been a bane of our public administration. Lord Curzon’s poetic description of the pace of movement of the files, “ round and round like the diurnal revolution of the earth went the file – stately, solemn, sure and slow”, still holds good, though a century has passed by us since he made those observations. We have to drive in a new sense of urgency into our bureaucracy at all levels about issues of development. A competent, educated and dedicated bureaucracy, well-trained in the art and science of administration and functioning transparently, and with probity is a necessary prerequisite for a people-oriented democracy.
I consider transparency in the public administration and its accountability to the people as important factors in ensuring that democracy delivers good in its concern for the common man. It has a two-fold advantage – transparency and accountability tone down the chances of corruption in the system and secondly they strengthen democratic institutions by creating awareness, involvement and participation of an informed citizenry. Democratic societies are expected to be open and transparent. We had recognized long back that the right to information was implicit in the right to freedom of speech as enshrined in the Fundamental Rights in our Constitution. We have procedural devices provided in our Parliament and the State Legislatures to strengthen Executive accountability but that is not enough to ensure the transparency required of the administration and to satisfy the people’s right to know. The Right to Information, now statutorily recognized, should become a tool of grass-root empowerment, which would also work against corruption and exploitation. As it is said, it is in secret places that corruption thrives.
It is with this realization that we have decided to telecast live the entire proceedings of our Parliament. The people have a right to know what transpires in Parliament and how their representatives articulate their concerns and grievances before the highest popular forum of our democracy. It has also been our endeavour to ensure that the institutions of democracy always remained accountable to the highest people’s forum. With this objective in mind the functioning of Parliamentary Committees vis-à-vis the Executive is being made more effective. As you may be aware, a Parliamentary Committee, in its functioning, is treated like a mini- Parliament itself. Once their functioning is streamlined and their suggestions and recommendations find adequate reflection in the policy formulation, we will be adding an important dimension to the concept of representative democracy in the country.
Having said all these, I must add here that our Parliament itself has to be ever vigilant about the growing cynicism among our people about the way the institutions of our democracy function. It is on Parliament, more than on any other organ, that the responsibility for sustaining people’s faith in democracy as the most sensitive system to the people’s problems, rests. Therefore, the institution collectively and the individual Members, who constitute it, will have to function as role models for the society at large. As the Presiding Officer of the House of the People, I am acutely aware of this great responsibility.
The civil society and the media would also do well to see how best the new initiatives are effectively made use of as instruments of socio-economic change for the benefit of the common man. Where the State takes it as a duty to safeguard the freedom of media, it expects of the media to bolster democracy through its varied roles in a responsible and responsive manner and contribute in partnership to secure political, economic and social development in ways consistent with democratic principles.
Once we recognise the common man as an equal stakeholder in the policies and programmes of the country, as a means of capacity building, we must accept that education adequate in quantity and quality with contemporary relevance, is the most powerful instrument for empowering people and for facilitating development. In fact, education is the best tool for empowerment and the key to human development. It is basic to our progress and to the achievement of important goals like democracy, secularism, equity, liberty, fraternity, justice and national integration. To quote Swami Vivekananda again: “the only service to be done to our lower classes is to give them education, to develop their lost individuality… . They are to be given ideas, their eyes are to be opened to what is going on in the world around them; and then they will work out their own salvation … .”
Populist platitudes will not help in addressing the common man’s problems. The Eighty-sixth Amendment to the Constitution provides for free and compulsory education to all children in the age group of six to fourteen years. Such initiatives can impact upon the lives of the people only when the injunctions emanating from them are matched by the conviction among the leaders of society of the need for such measures. Otherwise they will only remain paper provisions for the people. A successful education policy would form not only the bedrock of national development in all its dimensions but would also form the foundation for a vibrant democracy, growth of productivity, income and employment opportunities, thus offering quality life to the common man. This is important for bringing about a stable social order also. To quote Prof Amartya Sen again, “if we continue to leave vast sections of the people of the world outside the orbit of education, we make the world not only less just, but also less secure… Not to be able to read or write or count or communicate is a tremendous deprivation… .” Unquote.
For our priorities to be actualized, we have to carry the people with us and make them active partners in our planning and developmental processes. We have taken some measures in the right direction by enacting the Constitution 73rd and 74th Amendment Acts to facilitate decentralised governance and participatory planning. Participatory planning increases transparency, besides facilitating better integration of the developmental process and making the programmes more responsive to the local needs by addressing the problems of the common man. I acknowledge, Kerala has made rapid strides in this. Your participatory planning programmes have contributed significantly in enabling increased transparency, with commendable achievements in the key areas of human development. Even at the existing level of economic growth, we can improve upon the conditions of the common man by generating political awareness and by utilizing available resources by collective action in a more transparent way.
We still have a lot to do to enable greater participation and involvement of women in our representative bodies. No system of Government or polity can afford to sustain itself by ignoring this vital productive human resource which makes for almost half of the world population. This process of democratization by including women in its fold is sure to make the common man feel the change for a better and secure future for generations to come.
Friends, the thrust of our democracy and development has to be, therefore, among other things, on empowering people in the fullest sense. We have to expand the capabilities of the common man to realise his full potential by extending improved health, value-based modern scientific education and increased employment opportunities. I am sure, with the rising levels of education, employment and income, the common man will be able to secure a better future for himself. This will strengthen his belief in the efficacy of the democratic set-up and he will not take long to understand that democracy is the only political regime which, when fine-tuned with sound governance practices, is capable of ensuring political and civil freedoms, besides promoting more equitable outcomes for the people. The effectiveness of a government in a developing society like ours is not to be judged on the basis of its popularity with the rich but with the poor who needs it the most. Those in governance should not gloss over the sadness in the eyes of the poor when they see the broadening smile on the faces of the rich.
If the man on the street is left at the mercy of forces of exploitation and orthodoxy, if he cannot freely exercise his constitutionally guaranteed rights, if he does not feel part of the political and developmental processes, if he cannot take informed decisions on the issues that affect his worth as a citizen, if he cannot partake of the fruits of development, if he cannot live in dignity and if his social, economic and political future is decided by his standing in an obscurantist, hierarchical social structure, then, democracy makes no meaning to him, it does not hold any relevance for him. Such paradoxes of democracy that he encounters daily, will shake his confidence in the system as a whole. That cynicism, that skepticism, could yet be the gravest threat to democracy as a system of governance. We cannot afford to take even minor threats to democracy lightly. As the distinguished British Journalist, Bernard Levin, cautioned, “… remember that every nation that has fallen from democracy into tyranny was at one time only remotely in danger, and we would do well to think of ways that can strengthen our defences.” The most important thing to do, to my mind, is to make it relevant for the weakest of our citizens.
There should be only one class of people in a just democracy and that is the enlightened citizenry, whose happiness, dignity and self-respect are expected to be guided by laws and institutions in the making and unmaking of which they have a decisive say. As the eminent Justice Frankfurter said, “the highest office in a democracy is not that of the President, but that of being a citizen.” This is about the essence of democracy. We should not forget that the most fundamental raison d’etre for a democracy is an authentically just social order, as against a ‘counterfeit’ one, if I may borrow an expression from Justice Krishna Iyer himself. Only so long as the interest of the common man remains at the center of democratic discourse will democracy continue to be relevant for him. It was such a democracy that statesmen and visionaries like V.K. Krishna Menon visualized and strove all through their life to accomplish.
Ladies and Gentlemen, the Mainstream magazine paid rich tributes to V.K. Krishna Menon in one of its issues thus, and I quote: “Thoughts remarkably clear and astoundingly brilliant flew from his mind like sparks from an anvil. He had stupendous grasp of the historical forces at work in India and the world as a whole. The historic contributions he made to the national movement for freedom,… assertion of the voice of the newly liberated nations on the international stage, the strengthening of the forces that stood for world peace,… the advancement of national liberation and the end of colonialism and racism, the imparting of a socialist direction to India’s plans and policies,… etc. became possible because of the unique qualities of his mind and total dedication to and self-effacement in the cause of the advancement of India and mankind as a whole.”
Krishna Menon, with his great intellectual power and passionate dedication to the country’s causes, was indeed a crusader for the building of a new India, in which the common man received his dues, and for a just and equitable world order.
It is said that in the early years of a Republic, it is the leaders who create institutions, but later it is expected of these institutions to be capable of producing leaders. Only when our democracy acquires the resilience to churn out leaders of great calibre, from among the common people, in all walks of life, can we say with confidence that it has become really relevant for the real commoners of our country. This can be achieved when leaders, who place the country before them and use the institutions of democracy to safeguard the interests of the country and its people, lead the country.
Thank you for your patient hearing.