During the recently concluded Monsoon session of Parliament, former Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi, now a nominated member of Rajya Sabha, said, “…My view is that the doctrine of the basic structure of the Constitution has a debatable, a very debatable jurisprudential basis.”
In the 1973 Kesavananda Bharati vs state of Kerala case, the Supreme Court ruled that Parliament while exercising its power under Article 368 to amend the Constitution cannot alter the ‘basic structure’ of the Constitution. One of the key pillars of this basic structure is the representative or parliamentary form of democracy and there have been instances in the past when there have been calls seeking for a presidential system.
The most prominent of these was during Indira Gandhi’s regime. The Kesavananda Bharati judgment came in April 1973 and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was most powerful. Only around two years ago she had led her faction of the Congress — the party had split in 1969 — to a big win in the Lok Sabha elections (352 of 518 seats). She was also in a running battle with the judiciary.
In the years preceding and following Kesavananda, there were often accusations, often inside Parliament and outside of it, that Indira Gandhi was heading towards a presidential system.
In August 1972, Karni Singh, Independent MP from Bikaner, introduced a private member bill to amend Article 74 of the Constitution (related to the Council of Ministers aiding and advising the President). Though none of the members voted in its favour, interesting points were raised during the discussion on August 4, 1972.
R D Bhandare, Congress MP from Bombay Central, said during the discussion, “Unwittingly, in order to forewarn against future dangers or to safeguard against future dangers, he (Karni Singh) himself has landed in a serious danger. He would like the country to run into a serious danger of the introduction of the presidential form of government.”
In early 1970, leading advocate and MP M C Chhagla had said in a lecture in Delhi that the “parliamentary system will not be able to last long in present circumstances” and favoured the presidential form of government for the country.
During the Emergency, the Indira government amended Article 368, thus preventing any constitutional amendment from being challenged in courts under the basic structure doctrine.
On October 27, 1976, during the discussion on the amendment Bill on Article 368, Indira Gandhi said, “Sardar Swaran Singh (senior Congress leader) remarked that some judges have imported the phrase ‘basic structure’. I would not say they have imported it since it does not exist in any other Constitution. They have invented it. We do not think that only a Constituent Assembly can amend the Constitution.”
The Swaran Singh Committee, constituted by then Congress president Devakanta Barua in 1976, had concluded in its report later that year: “In a vast country like India, with the kind of regional diversity as we have, the parliamentary system preserves best the unity and integrity of the country and ensures greater responsiveness to the voice of the people.”
When it was his turn to speak, Indrajit Gupta of the CPI said, “…If anybody wants to leave this system and go to a more authoritarian form of government, some presidential form of government, whatever else may happen, I can tell you the unity of this country will not be sustained.”
Rajaram Dadasaheb Nimbalkar, Congress MP from Kolhapur, said, “…there is no clause in the Constitution of the Weimar Republic which prevented Hitler from taking over dictatorial powers in Germany…Similarly, which part of the Constitution prevented de Gaulle (in France) from converting what was a weak Presidential form of Government into a strong President form of Government… No constitutional law came in his way.”
This Bill was passed but the amendments were reversed by the Morarji Desai government. But that was by no means the last time discussions on a presidential system came up in Parliament or outside.
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In 1980, after Indira Gandhi returned to power with a reduced margin and with the Congress under her desperately trying to seek a majority in Rajya Sabha, the topic came up once again.
S Nihal Singh wrote in India Today on April 15, 1980: “Largely unnoticed, she is taking the country towards a presidential form of government… Mrs Gandhi has already demonstrated that in an ideology-bereft political system, or what remains of it, one person’s leadership, often embellished by the word charisma, is what keeps a party together. What is true of a party can also be true of a nation.”
The national executive of the then newly formed BJP met in Hyderabad on October 25, 1980, and adopted this resolution declare the basic structure “a milestone in the consolidation of freedom and liberty in this country”.
While the debate continued, disturbances gripped states such as Punjab and Assam and Indira Gandhi was assassinated in June 1984. Since then, much has changed on the political landscape. On the basic doctrine front, the roles have reversed. While Gogoi, an MP nominated by the BJP to the Upper House, raises his voice against the Kesavananda Bharati judgment, the Congress, now in Opposition, is talking about defending and protecting the basic structure.
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