As a journalist, I have edited thousands of articles, news reports and letters to the editor over the last 44 years. I do not remember many of them. In fact, it is humanly impossible to remember so many. One of the articles I remember was written by my editor Shekhar Gupta. In one of his columns entitled National Interest, he wrote that a Chief Minister had more powers than the Prime Minister.
He had facts and figures to prove that a Chief Minister had more discretionary powers, vehicles, helicopters and a large state purse to dip into than the Prime Minister, who was a prisoner of rules and procedures. He gave examples of some chief ministers who had more flying hours to their credit than the Prime Minister.
When he wrote that article, Narendra Modi was the Chief Minister of Gujarat. Gupta argued convincingly that the Prime Minister was just the first among equals and he did not have any additional powers. He could only guide his ministers who wielded the real powers.
Jawaharlal Nehru realised how powerful the Muslim League finance minister was in his interim government only after he appointed him. Of course, the PM has the prerogative to induct or drop ministers and change their portfolios.
I doubt whether Gupta would write that article today, although there has been no constitutional amendment enhancing the powers of the Prime Minister since Narendra Modi reached that position in May 2014. Constitutionally, he remains the same, the first among equals in the Union Cabinet. What happened during the interregnum?
Nothing except that he usurped powers that he did not have. He proved his showmanship even before he came to power. His swearing-in ceremony was the most choreographed event in post-Independent India. The closest event in grandeur was the Delhi Durbar meaning the “Court of Delhi” held three times in 1877, 1903, and 1911.
The Durbar saw a procession of native rulers in all their finery paying obeisance to the British Crown. Modi brought all such rulers, including those from Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan and Sri Lanka, to witness him in all his finery taking oath to uphold the Constitution and not to disclose state secrets to anyone. For a moment many mistook him for Queen Victoria who promised the nation of good conduct after the first War of Independence.
What Modi sought to achieve was to prove the point that he would not be just like any other Prime Minister who was sworn in in functions that last lasted barely 30 minutes inside the Rashtrapati Bhavan. His second act of defiance was when he appointed leaders like Arun Jaitley and Smriti Irani who were trounced in the elections to key posts in the government.
As if that was insufficient as a slap in the face of the voters in Amritsar and Amethi, Jaitley was saddled with two portfolios—Defence and Finance—in an unprecedented move. And then he [Modi] called a meeting of all IAS officers above the rank of Joint Secretary at the commodious Vigyan Bhavan where he told them that they could contact him directly if they needed his help.
No, they were not told to route their suggestions through their ministers. In fact, the invitations to the meeting went to them directly. His ministerial colleagues learnt about the meeting like you and me through the newspapers. He has been conducting himself as the Crown, not as an elected PM.
True, his victory in 2014 was entirely out of the blue. He promised the sky to the voters. He campaigned on the price rise during the UPA regime. He said he would bring black money stashed away in foreign countries which would make every Indian richer by at least Rs 15 lakh. He claimed that the UPA ministers looted the government of lakhs of crores of rupees.
Half his term is over. Yet, not one of the “corrupt” UPA ministers has been touched, let alone punished. The ₹15 lakh he promised remains like the breast a hen promised to her chicks that she would soon have so that they could have milk like the calf. As regards prices of essential items, suffice to say that the daily wages he pays under the job guarantee scheme can’t fetch a kilogram of chana dal. At the rate at which the value of the dollar has been rising vis-a-vis the rupee, one will have to pay ₹100 to buy dollar by the time he completes his term in 2019.
Modi enjoys a majority of his own in the Lok Sabha. Yet, his first legislative attempt was not made in the House. Soon after coming to power, he went to the President to promulgate an ordinance. The President obliged him. He thought he could give land to the industrial houses like the Ambanis, the Adanis and the Tatas as he gave them land in his own Gujarat.
He forgot the fact that an ordinance can last only for six months within which time it will have to be converted into a Bill and, later, an Act. He tried the re-promulgation route only to eventually give up his dream. I once interviewed the late Dr DC Wadhwa of the Gokhale Institute, Pune, who looked more like a Gandhian than an academic. He wrote a book in 1986 on the Ordinance Raj in Bihar which he called a “fraud on the Constitution”. What the Bihar government did was to re-promulgate ordinances every six months to keep them alive for even a decade and more. This practice obviated the need to present Bills in the Assembly, hold debates on them and get them passed by the House.
Modi, the great winner of 2014, thought of this fraud when he thought of giving the states unfettered power to acquire private land and give it on a platter like the head of John the Baptist. He should have realised that having a 56-inch chest was one thing and tampering with the Constitution quite another. No, he did not learn.
Two and a half years later, he did the same. I read John Dalvi’s book Himalayan Blunder while I was at college. It was the first time I realised that the 1962 war with China was the result of disastrous blunders. As a child I took part in a rally where I shouted anti-Chinese slogans. China is still in possession of our land. The bitter truth is that had the Chinese not ended the war on their own, they could have easily captured the Northeast.
Far more ‘blunderous’ was the November 8 decision to demonetise ₹500 and ₹1,000 notes. As is his wont, Modi made a speech to the nation on November 8 to make the historic announcement. Now the question is who authorised him to take the decision? Where in the Indian Constitution is written that the Prime Minister can take such a decision?
The Constitution does not give him any special power. It is the Cabinet which enjoys the power, not the Prime Minister. Does the Cabinet have the power to take such a decision? The fact is that it does not have such a power because it exercises only those powers that Parliament grants it.
How does a currency note become valuable? It becomes valuable because it contains a promise made by the Governor of the Reserve Bank that “I promise to pay the bearer the sum of Rupees…”. This means that you and I can take it to a bank and the bank manager, who is the representative of the RBI governor, is obliged to honour the promise by giving smaller denominations that add up to the value of the note tendered.
In contrast, a one-rupee note is signed by the finance secretary who can be finance secretary one day and sanitation secretary the next day. The Cabinet can, perhaps, withdraw one-rupee notes without much care because it does not contain such a solemn promise. Any note above ₹5 bears the signature of the RBI Governor. Modi cared two hoots for the promise just as he cared two hoots for the promise to uphold Raj Dharma as Chief Minister of Gujarat. Arun Shourie has in an interview granted to my former colleague Swati Chaturvedi whose book I am A Troll: Inside the Secret World of the BJP’s Digital Army has been trending in the book-publishing world narrates how distressed Atal Bihari Vajpayee was after visiting Gujarat in the wake of the riots, whom Modi used to consolidate his position that eventually brought him to Delhi.
He had no constitutional right to withdraw 86% of the currency notes in circulation. He first said that the problems for the citizen would last only for two-three days. Then he made a dramatic speech in Goa with tears rolling down his cheeks that he would set everything right within 50 days.
Modi said that demonetisation was a surgical strike in favour of the poor but it was the likes of Mukesh Ambani, Ratan Tata and Gautam Adani who welcomed it. It was the poor who lost their jobs, stood in the queue for long hours to withdraw their own money from the banks and ATMs. Not the rich or politicians like Modi and Jaitley. Is it a coincidence that the BJP deposited a huge sum of money in the banks just before demonetisation. In fact, the banks received huge deposits before the November 8 announcement suggesting a deliberate leak to favour a few.
The pity is that nobody challenged Modi and asked him on what basis he took the decision. During the first few days of demonetisation nobody saw RBI Governor Urjit Patel. Instead, one of his deputies and some finance ministry officials were seen briefing the Press. What was legal in the morning was illegal in the evening. Till the time of writing, over a hundred notifications have been issued in the context of demonetisation.
Modi did not bother for the fact that the previous demonetisation, done when Morarji Desai was in power, was with the support of Parliament. He may be a great orator but he does not like to speak in Parliament for he will have to answer Opposition ripostes. Not many people know that he seldom attended the Gujarat Assembly.
He believes that he is a great orator. He loves to address large gatherings like the one at the Madison Square Garden in New York. He can even speak in a radio studio for he knows that his voice would be beamed into tens of millions of homes till they switch off the instruments in sheer boredom.
Modi is a poor listener. Even a person like US President Donald Trump, who cannot remember his most favourite Biblical verse, while claiming to be Biblically-inspired and who cannot articulate a compound sentence, let alone a complex one, does not fear addressing press conferences. Modi’s distrust of the media is such that he does not take anyone, other than from the official media, during his visits abroad. He would, rather, give media persons dhokla, instead of defence of his moves, political and administrative.
It is his aversion for the need to defend demonetisation that forced him to avoid Parliament. He is unable even to answer a simple question—how much of the banned currency returned to the banks. I would not be surprised if the banks received more money than the money which was in circulation. Such a possibility cannot be ruled out as even counterfeit notes were accepted.
Modi fears that a smart lawyer can take him to court for the fraud committed on the Constitution. That is why after 50 days of demonetisation he got an ordinance promulgated to legalise demonetisation. The ordinance has made it illegal to hold the banned currency after—God knows—December 31, 2016, or March 31, 2017 except for numismatic purposes. It is like Lady Macbeth washing her hands again and again to remove the blood of Duncan.
In a dramatic scene, she asks in soliloquy, “What, will these hands ne’er be clean? … Here’s the smell of the blood still: All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.”
When will Modi realise that all his countless notifications and ordinances will not save him from the charge of committing a fraud on the Constitution, as described by Dr Wadhwa?
AJ Philip is a senior journalist and commentator. He has also headed Protichi Trust set up by Amartya Sen.