Gopalkrishna Gandhi in conversation with Elsa Lycias Joel about India as a Republic and how his experience as an administrator, diplomat and Governor helps him view the past, present and future of this country.
Q. Sir, as one whose journey as an administrator, a diplomat, an erudite author, has shown resilience, determination and tenacity, what would you say is the one trait that is non-negotiable in an Indian civil servant?
A. Thank you for your kind words about me. I do not deserve them. Thousands, literally thousands, of administrators, diplomats and public servants like those in the judiciary, our police, not to mention the brave-hearts in the uniformed services, members of our scientific and technological community, our health workers be they doctors, nurses, or hospital maintenance workers, our educators, and simple personnel such as those who run our railways, metros, buses, our postmen and electric ‘meter-wala-s’ , sanitary workers so many of who are amazing women, have done infinitely more for the good of fellow-citizens than I have. My failings and failures are exclusively mine; my ‘achievements’ such as there are, are only a minuscule part of a common mass of the collective accomplishments. This is not said in modesty but factually. So…let me answer your question with the answer coming from just one among thousands like me: The single trait required of a public servant, in my view, is sincerity, in Hindi सच्चाई (sachchaai), in Tamil நேர்மை (nermai), in Panjabi ਇਮਾਨਦਾਰੀ (imaandaari).
Q. As a political observer, historian and as one who has studied the independence movement, do you think everything fell into place at the right time, just as Gandhiji Wanted?
A. Let me begin once again with a disclaimer. I am not a political observer. I am just an observer, plain and simple. I am a student of history and teach aspects of it but I am no historian. That clarified, let me turn to your question. Two things, cherished by the freedom struggle, have indeed ‘fallen into place’: First, the Republic of India belongs, by the will of ‘We the People of India’, to all its citizens equally. Second, the ideal of Justice – Social, Economic and Political -- has become, under our Constitution, our first priority. So, these two high ideals from the days of the struggle have fallen into place. This does not mean ‘we have got there’. Not at all. Far from it. But then Equality and Justice are not places to be reached, like destinations. They are, like North and South, directions to be followed with the aid of the compass that is our Constitution’s intent. The journey on this road requires sincerity. You have mentioned Gandhiji. He was not a Member of the Constituent Assembly which framed the Constitution. But his prayer Ishwar Allah Tere Naam, Sabko Sanmati De Bhagavan permeated the thought-process of many members of the Constituent Assembly.
Sanmati is ‘Good Sense’. In its careful equalising of all the people of India irrespective of their religions and in its making Justice, Liberty, Equality and Fraternity our watchwords it made Sanmati, good sense, without calling it as such, foundational to our new, republican ethos. You cannot define good sense but you can recognise it when you see it; more pertinently, you can recognise its absence at once in any person or situation as for instance, in a riot or in a man-made calamity like the damage being caused to the physical environment by those who are driven by personal or Corporate greed. But we have to admit, with pain and regret, that large sections of the people of India do not feel equal, do not feel they are receiving justice. The lack of a level-playing field is seen on our religious terrain, on the stony ground of our caste system and of course on the sharded earth of India’s womanhood. So, while these two precepts are in position, they need vigilant guarding, continuous ‘maintenance’ like a precious heritage building.
I must say that in five other areas, all of which were in the freedom struggle’s mind, we have achieved progress. I am saying ‘progress’, not ‘success’. These are:
i. The abolition of untouchability.
ii. The increase in the age of marriage.
iii. Increase in literacy.
iv. Increase in life expectancy at birth.
v. Increase in official accountability, thanks to the extraordinary Right to Information Act.
These are achievements to be proud of.
But the debit card is long and shaming. Deficits in basic education, nutrition, local governance standards are not what our freedom struggle, Gandhiji, Nehru, Patel, Ambedkar would have liked to see. And, as I suggested earlier, the deficit in inter-communal trust is a matter of the greatest anxiety for all those who have believed in India’s pluralism.
Q. How do you view the position of the Governor in India, in the context of different political ideologies ruling the Centre and the States?
A. The President of India is elected to his high office by the people of India through a system of indirect voting. Governors are not elected; they are selected for their high office by the President on the advice of the Council of Ministers headed by the Prime Minister. Barring this difference, Governors are to their states what the President is to the country. They can be said to be Presidents-in-miniature. And just as the President acts on the advice of the Council of Ministers at the Centre, so is the Governor to act on the advice of the Council of Ministers in the state headed by the Chief Minister. This is the A to Z of the Governor’s Constitutional position. Does that make the President or the Governor a ‘rubber stamp’? No, certainly not. If the intention of the Constitution was that the Head of State should be a rubber stamp it might as well have asked for a robot to use that gadget.
The President and the Governors have, in the words Walter Bagehot used in respect of the British Monarch, three rights – the right to be consulted, to encourage and to warn the Government of the day. I am with those who believe that this is not just a right but a duty. And that this duty is to be exercised not just with regard to the Government but with the Opposition as well and with society. If this right-cum-duty is exercised impartially, fairly and without self-interest then the Head of State serves well the purpose for which that position has been created. President K. R. Narayanan said in a 1998 extempore interview with Mr N. Ram recorded in Rashtrapati Bhavan: “My image of a President before I came here…was that of a rubber-stamp President, to be frank…
But having come here, I find that the image is not quite correct…My image is of a Working President, not an Executive President but a Working President, and working within the four corners of the Constitution. It gives very little power or influence to him to interfere in matters or affect the course of events, but there is a subtle influence of the office of the President on the Executive and on the other arms of the Government and on the public as a whole. There are one or two things which you can directly do in very critical times. But, otherwise, this indirect influence that you can exercise on the affairs of the State is the most important role he can play.”
I believe that to be a fine exposition of the role and impact of the Head of State, whether of a President or a Governor. For ‘the President’ we can read ‘the Governor’. President Narayanan also said ‘…the President has to be a citizen and there must be some equation between the people and the President and if some advice or something is to be given to the executive, it would be received with grace, it would sometimes be accepted, if it is known that the public opinion is on the side of the kind of advice the President is giving. Otherwise, he cannot exercise much influence.’
You have mentioned the situation in which the Centre and the State are ruled by different political formulations and the position of the Governor in such a situation. The Governor is bound by the Constitution and by healthy traditions to be guided by election verdicts, to heed the advice of a duly constituted Council of Ministers, to be conscious of the prerogatives of the Legislature and the Judiciary, to watch with interest but without involvement the work of the media, to be aware of but not try to manipulate public opinion, or exploit public sentiment. A Governor is placed where she or he is to be guided by the Constitution and the laws and to report to – the President of India. A Governor should want to, expect to, complete her or his term in office, why, even hope for a second term in that State, but a Governor must also keep a light bag packed always for a swift exit, should the President so require. (Heavy-duty luggage like books can be faithfully sent later by the Raj Bhavan!).
Q. Can you recall instances of Governors acting in challenging situations?
A. Under the two major political formations that have formed Governments at the Centre -Congress or Congress-led and BJP or BJP-led – we have had several Governors doing the Constitution proud. These have come from political backgrounds and from non-political backgrounds. We have before us the example of late Ram Kapse, who was Lt. Governor of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands when the tsunami hit the islands devastatingly. He became, in one instant, a turbine of activity, bringing relief and comfort to the thousands affected with the speed of light. The beneficiaries were in need; it mattered not at all whether they were Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Sikh or NOTA – plain and true tribal. And it mattered nothing at all to Kapsesahib that he was of a particular political persuasion – the BJP in his case. He had a job to do, a crisis on his hands. He rose to the occasion. Pandit Nehru would have lauded him.
And, of course, there have been those – from both political backgrounds – who could have done better by the Constitution. It would not be seemly for me to cite such examples. They are well known.
Q. In this 73rd year of our Republic we, a diverse nation, are in the grip of an identity crisis. How optimistic are you about its future?
A. The Republic of India is young – 73 years young. But its Constitution has not been crafted in a test-tube or in a computer lab yesterday. It is the child of the earth and the waters of India, her mountains, forests and coasts. And above them, the stars that have shone over its life for millennia. Our Motherland knows no creed other than being Mother.