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Civil Society and Fifth Estate: Wake up forces of democracy to save Constitution

Madabhushi Sridhar Acharyulu

Former Central Information Commissioner, Professor and Dean, School of Law, Mahindra University, Hyderabad

In a recent election in Karnataka the people observed a movement called “Eddelu Karnataka” (Wake Up Karnataka) enjoined citizens to slough off their (political) slumber, and exercise forethought in the run-up to this election. The Eddelu Karnataka drew on the moral authority of several well-known litterateurs, scholars and activists to set off a campaign blitz that reached deep into rural areas as much as cities. As a result, there was not a little borrowing of ideas and slogans of civil society groups by political parties. The sustained work of Muslim and Christian organisations in pledging to bring larger numbers into public political life has also yielded fruit.

An eminent professor at Hyderabad University, and human rights activist G. Haragopal, said that “Eddelu Karnataka” had the singularity of a movement to wake people up from political inactivity during election time. He noted that in Karnataka, civil society comprised writers, poets, artists, and cinema makers who moved in unison during these polls.

The people have constructed a model for the power of people’s democracy, as civil society made the difference. While political parties fought bitter battles in Karnataka in the run-up to the Assembly election, civil society in the State, without any alliance or imbibing any particular political hue, made an indelible mark in the history of elections in India. Civil society, with 102 associations or organisations, came together and fought against the strategies of the political parties. They struggled for around six months before the elections under the umbrella “Eddelu Karnataka (Wake-up, Karnataka)”, and the result is there for the nation to see. They did not argue with the public, or campaign against any party, but just asked the people to wake up. They listened to the people intensely. They put forth the real issues confronting them. They fought against the powerful politics of bigotry orchestrated by communal forces that were stoking the issues around the hijab, azaan, and ‘love jihad’ to name a few.

Prof. Haragopal said that the campaign generated live discussion and debate within civil society during elections and won people over. More than 100 people from various social groups worked together for six months, held 250 workshops, met people in 103 constituencies, formed 192 groups, and over 2,000 workers campaigned among voters. They collected data from 41,000 families, distributed 650 posters, and produced 80 videos.

Around 100 meetings with journalists were organised, and more than 50 dharnas involving farmers, labour, Dalits, women, students and tribals were organised. The campaign quietly spread to 151 taluk areas in 31 districts. It was a distinctive campaign to raise voter consciousness against the communal agenda, divisive politics and hate campaigns. Their commitment could not be questioned. One lakh pamphlet was printed and distributed. They were not political leaders but simple workers. They awakened civil society and supported democracy, the Constitution, and the unity of the people.

These social groups did not campaign against any political party, instead, they asked the people to vote in polls promoting friendship and opposing hate.

Secular and positive politics

Their intervention opened new vistas for positive politics, secularism and peace. They did not talk about “Operation Kamala”, i.e. the dubious defection drama practised by one major party, followed by judicial interventions that involve a legal interplay of words and bizarre interpretations in court halls with a selective use of constitutional means to whitewash criminal acts. Indeed, political manipulation has become everyday play. One such political party, the Janata Dal (Secular), failed in a big way in the elections. The people of Karnataka rejected it. Dishonest game players were defeated.

The campaign was intended to make people identify communal elements and parties. Revolutionary writers like Basavanna and Devenur Mahadevan influenced the people and campaigned for fraternity and fought against the divisive forces. 

In an news-article in boomlive.in the writer explained: “It is a vote that has acted firmly against the tedious and unproductive insistence that we were being given “development” when all we got were messages of hate, threats of violence, the ever-deferred better futures, yoked always to the Union government’s plans for the state, while the BJP was either consolidating its grip on home-grown economic successes (such as the Karnataka Milk Federation) or digging deep into other’s pockets”.

Secondly, perhaps for the first time in the history of the state of Karnataka, civil society groups felt compelled to put aside their aversion to politics and pledge to turf out the party that was mutilating Karnataka’s historical legacies, whether in ensuring social justice (especially but not only under Devaraj Urs), decentralised democracy (especially but not only under Ramakrishna Hegde) or in ending the stranglehold of the dominant asset-owning classes over political representation.

The “boomlive.in”further said: That one of India’s richest states had unacceptable levels of stunting and wasting among its children was shocking enough. That the BJP government in power sought to drag Karnataka UP-wards and prevent the inclusion of eggs in the midday meal, despite its proven benefits to nutrition, all in the name of a “satvik” diet proposed by some Karnataka mathas, was seen as unacceptable. To all, especially in urban areas, the severe restrictions on public gatherings and protests while (Hindu) religious processions received police protection, was enough to encourage a push-back. In addition to the groups that had long worked in electoral matters (such as the Association for Democratic Reforms), others sprang up. Bahutva Karnataka produced a set of “report cards” on the previous government, reminding voters of the extraordinary alacrity with which it passed legislation related to cattle slaughter and conversion, while openly “contracting” out its law and order functions to vigilante groups. While Karnataka has a large number of teacher vacancies and was coping with severe learning loss due to Covid-19, the government chose to focus on banning hijab, building Viveka classrooms painted in orange, and altering textbooks.

Movement to prevent “Splits”

Generally, all the known political parties put up some candidates in order to ensure that the votes of particular candidates are split. But this time, civil society groups met 49 candidates, negotiated over several weeks and successfully convinced them to withdraw from the contest so that the votes did not split so as to defeat candidates with a communal agenda. This was no mean achievement. They knew the strategies of splitting votes and ‘purchasing’ elected Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs). The campaign has grasped election politics and mastered the art of getting to know the public pulse in the elections.

Supreme Court questions sale of MLAs

Relying on Kihoto Hollohan and Rajendra Singh Rana, the top court held that the disqualification of MLAs was up to the Speaker of the House, who must decide on the disqualification proceedings within a reasonable period.

This is the judgment which questioned such defections in politics through manipulating the Constitutional norms. KihotoHollohan vs Zachillhu And Others, decided on 18 February, 1992 https://indiankanoon.org/doc/1686885/ 1992 SCR (1) 686, Authored by Justice M Venkatachalliah, consisting Bench of Sharma, L.M. (J), Venkatachalliah, M.N. (J), Verma, Jagdish Saran (J), Reddy, K. Jayachandra (J), Agrawal, S.C. (J).

Another case is: Rajendra Singh Rana And Ors vs Swami Prasad Maurya And Ors, decided on 14 February, 2007, authored Justice P Balasubramanyan, as part of the Bench consisting of Balakrishnan, K.G. (Chief Justice), Sema, HotoiKhetoho (J), Lakshmanan A.C.(J), Balasubramanyan P.K.I.(J), Jain, D.K. (J)  (https://indiankanoon.org/doc/1620629/)

It was concluded that it was necessary not only to show that 37 MLAs had separated but it is also necessary to show that there was a split in the original political party, the finding necessarily leads to the Page 1021 conclusion that the 13 MLAs sought to be disqualified had not established a defence or answer to the charge of defection under paragraph 2 on the basis of paragraph 3 of the Tenth Schedule. The 13 MLAs, therefore, stood disqualified with effect from 27.8.2003. The very giving of a letter to the Governor requesting him to call the leader of the opposition party to form a Government by them itself would amount to their voluntarily giving up the membership of their original political party within the meaning of paragraph 2 of the Tenth Schedule. Then the irresistible conclusion could be that the 13 members of BSP who met the Governor on 27.8.2003 who are respondent Nos. 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 9, 10, 14, 16, 19, 20, 21 and 37, in the writ petition filed by Maurya, stood disqualified in terms of Article 191(2) of the Constitution read with paragraph 2 of the Tenth Schedule thereof, with effect from 27.8.2003.

Then the Court said: “If so, the appeal filed by the writ petitioner has to be allowed even while dismissing the appeals filed by the 37 MLAs, by modifying the decision of the majority of the Division Bench. Hence the writ petition filed in the High Court, will stand allowed with a declaration that the 13 members who met the Governor on 27.8.2003, being respondent Numbers 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 9, 10, 14, 16, 19, 20, 21 and 37 in the writ petition, stand disqualified from the Uttar Pradesh Legislative Assembly with effect from 27.8.2003…The appeals filed by the 37 MLAs are dismissed and the appeal filed by the writ petitioner is allowed in the above manner.”

Karnataka victims of defection drama

The people of Karnataka have been the victims of defection dramas, as seen in elections in recent years in Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Manipur. In an article, “Maharashtra Political Crisis: The Limits of Supreme Court’s Expiations” (May 15, 2023), the writer has called defection as ‘political skulduggery’. These Chanakya-like manoeuvres have resulted in the dislodging of the Uddhav Thackeray-led coalition government and the overnight formation of a new government led by Eknath Shinde that consists of a coalition of a faction of the Shiv Sena and the Bharatiya Janata Party. The drama shifted to the High Court and the Supreme Court of India too. The top court observed that it could not ordinarily adjudicate petitions for disqualification under the Tenth Schedule.

The top court has also held that the Maharashtra Governor “did not act in accordance with the law in calling for a floor test” and that “the communications relied upon by the Governor did not indicate that the ‘rebel’ MLAs intended to withdraw their support to the Chief Minister”. It means a severe admission of the Central Government. But the Government has not acted.  The Constitution does not “empower the Governor to enter the political arena of political disputes”.

Create a model civil society

The recent elections in Karnataka should be considered a model for the power of people’s democracy amid the thickets of criminal, religious and communal manipulations and in the backdrop of institutions being disembowelled. It sets an example for voters to fight against spin doctors and manipulative political pundits. Whenever defections are engineered to defeat definite electoral victors and manipulate judicial verdicts, the people should enhance the strength of the democratic power, just like the people of Karnataka, to defeat such political shenanigans.

Parliament, the executive and the judiciary (the three Estates) and the Fourth Estate appear to be in the iron grip of the regime in power. The ‘state’ is in control of money power. There is only one resort for the people — wielding the power of civil society. Some people call it the Fifth Estate. This is because we see that even the judiciary has largely failed to stop the chicanery and the tyranny of the mis-rulers. The thinking people should take the constitutional system into their hands and take charge of the situation, just like the people of Karnataka did. Compliments to Karnataka.

Another newspaper said: “Not many days have passed since the Supreme Court held that the BJP’s ploy to topple the Maharashtra government, by using this ‘Plan B’, was ‘illegal’. But what is the meaning of this lashing out of the Supreme Court for the party which glorifies manipulation as Chanakyaneeti and draws applause from the pundits for its audacity!”

(This is expansion version of author’s article published in The Hindu on 30.5.2023)

Prof. M. Sridhar Acharyulu
Prof. M. Sridhar Acharyulu
Author is Dean, Professor of law at Mahindra University at Hyderabad and former Central Information Commissioner. He published a number books in English and Telugu.

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