Lecture by Gopal Subramanium: Ram Jethmalani Memorial Lecture Series

Your Excellency, The Vice President of India, The Attorney General, The Solicitor General, The Union Law Minister, The Union Minister for Women and Child Development, Mahua Moitra, Ranjit Kumar, Mr. Gurumurthy, Pavan Varma and all my friends, including Kartikeya Sharma ––

The occasion to remember Ram Jethmalani is both a pleasant and an arduous task!

It is arduous because very few individuals have such an impact on you, in terms of intellectual brilliance, and more importantly, in terms of having so genuine and humane a concern for others.

We have heard some wonderful voices of reason and of creativity today! We have heard a minister say that better times are ahead. We have heard a voice from the Opposition who believed it was a duty to dissent.

I am here today to share with you some areas of concern. These are larger underlying concerns, not merely facial ones.

My first concern is that we must always remember that Parliament – as an institution – has such great credibility. It is the only institution which is a symbol of the sovereignty of the People of India.

Secondly, Parliament is the only institution to which all governments which come into power through majoritarian vote are still accountable. What does this accountability to Parliament mean? It means that even though governments are brought to power by the democratic process of a majority of votes, there is a larger institution and ethos to which they must show deference and humility to. Parliament is not simply a building. It is actually the bedrock of our democracy.

For democratic governments, it is extremely important that Parliament must always function because their own legitimacy is enhanced and supported by their perpetual accountability to the legislature. So, it is in the greater interests of government that Parliaments must function. Governments must not take the bait very easily for Parliament to be disrupted. I think this is an important consideration which invites some degree of reflection by all.

What do we gain by disruption? Yes, there are some points of view which have to be heard. Opposing points of view, divergent points of view, dissenting points of view, all have a place in democracy. We cannot judge them by tastefulness or distastefulness. We cannot judge them with reference to numbers. There is nothing called the ‘pedigree of numbers’. Numbers don't actually give legitimacy.

What guarantees legitimacy is really the moral conviction of the higher purpose of a parliamentary democracy, which is the duty towards the people. How do we judge whether this duty is performed, if not in the participatory processes which the Constitution enjoins upon us, to be witnesses to debates in Parliament, to be witnesses to questions, to be witnesses to answers – to ultimately be witnesses to truth, and to be witnesses to democratic accountability itself? How will accountability and transparency in a democratic society be enhanced if Parliament is not seen an action? Whatever anyone’s views may be, how necessary it is that it must be expressed and tested through the anvil of Parliament.

If the history of the Indian Parliament and its records are analysed, one will see that fewer ordinances have been promulgated in those years when Parliament was fully allowed and permitted to function. It is an institution of great political relevance, but political relevance is pluralist by its very definition. In a country such as India, various forms of expression, and various forms of thought, are necessarily intended to be encouraged.

It is very necessary to bear in mind that our Parliament is an institution which has the capacity of exercising constituent power. More importantly, it cannot make laws which run against the fabric of the Constitution. So, even though it is a supreme institution, it is still a controlled institution. It is controlled by the words of the Constitution. Then, we must ask: what do the words of the Constitution actually ask us to treat as the underlying precepts of parliamentary democracy? The answer is to be found in the words in the Preamble; it is, above all, justice - economic, social, political. Are these actually attained as of today? Or are they still goals in the making?

This is why our Constitution, unlike certain other constitutions in the world, has always been treated as a living Constitution. And our Parliament must always be seen as a living institution of debate, of dissent, of acceptance of criticism. And it must remain the only place where majority sheds looking like a majority, but actually is involved in the process of consensus. There may be no agreement, but there must be an ability to hear, an ability to listen. And the duty of those who sit in Opposition, even to speak, to modulate their arguments, to be able to gain space for such speech, is an equally important duty. There is no one-sided winner in a Parliamentary contest. The ultimate winner is the people of India, and for those people, all of us and there is no day here, there is no one and there is no other, it is all of us who owe a duty – those who are both in positions of power and majority, and those who have a sacred duty as members of the Opposition.

If the institution of Parliament is not the place where debates take place, are we going to have other areas where debates will take place? And if so, through what forms will such debates take place? The importance of nurturing Parliament as an abiding institution is my greatest concern for the day. If Parliament is weakened, our form of government is substantially weakened.

I echo the sentiments of the Chief Justice of India when he was concerned about the lack of debate taking place in Parliament. He is correct because parliamentary debate is the nub of democracy! Questions, answers, respect for the opposition, and accommodation for the opposition are sine qua non. Likewise, the Opposition not taking upon itself activities which bring the ethos of Parliament into question are also important expectations in our system of government.

Have we disturbed our parliamentary ethos? Is our parliamentary system so vulnerable? I do hope it is not. It will not be!

After all, we are remembering on this occasion, the extraordinary Ram Jethmalani today. In fact, it is very difficult to make out whether he was a greater Parliamentarian or a greater lawyer. Equally, I could never make out whether he was a greater criminal lawyer or a greater constitutional lawyer! He was a person of such generosity! He was in a class of his own and we are indeed very proud to see that Mahesh Jethmalani is a chip off the old block.

On this panel, we see so many who were associated with Ram Jethmalani, and very wise words have been spoken by all. But I think we must look attentively at the symptomatic issues which underlie the question. The symptoms are far more important than the apparent disruption. The symptoms need to be reviewed. And in that light, I think, approaches must be recalibrated by all intelligent and worthy people.

Thank you so much.

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