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Sustainable progress

Ashok Sharma  |  New Delhi 

In recent years, reviews of the Constitution of India, by which "we the people" of India have resolved to abide, have been in sharp focus; and this omnibus deals with some basic questions pertaining to the Constitution and citizen's rights. This book, a collection of articles by A G Noorani, one of India's leading constitutional experts, contains essays earlier published under "Questions and Citizens' Rights" and "Constitutional Questions in India", and nine new essays under "Citizen's Rights, Judges and State Accountability".
The articles under "Questions and Citizens' Rights" look into issues related to the fundamental structure of the Constitution, beginning with an article on its sanctity, and explore such issues as foreign policymaking, the role of Parliament, the relevance of lobbying and the importance of its regulation to prevent corruption. It also touches upon ethical codes for parliamentarians and ministers, the judiciary's powers against contempt of court, constitutionally protected rights, media's freedom of information, political parties' selection of candidates, and workers' right to go on strike.
Articles under "Constitutional Questions in India" examine issues of the 1990s related to the president, Parliament and the states. This section explores the powers of the president and his role in case of a hung Lok Sabha, his relations with state governors, ordinances, Lok Sabha dissolution and the significance of the president's office in keeping its integrity intact under intense political pressure. Also discussed are defection laws, Centre-state relations and articles 355 and 356.
The newly written essays under "Citizen's Rights, Judges and State Accountability" take the discussion to the judiciary, elections, commissions of inquiry, civil services, the right to information, and finally the process of accountability that forms the basis of the constitutional machinery. The articles by the author highlight issues of citizens' rights and civil liberties, independence of the judiciary, decline in judicial systems, recent problems in the enforcement of constitutional rights, political polarisation, and the effect of the degeneration of political processes on the Indian State. All these, combined with the marginalisation of independent opinion (of utmost concern to the author), have hampered the accountability of the State to the people at large.
The author finds hope, however, in public awareness and growing assertiveness of NGOs, as he critically examines Supreme Court statements and judges' comments on such controversial issues as Babri Masjid, Hindutva and Article 370.
To an extent, the articles reflect the author's immediate response to political problems of far-reaching consequences. While highlighting the process of accountability across the organs of government, Advocate Noorani shows how citizens can assert their rights in the face of injustice and institutional apathy. The book scrutinises pressing issues like lobbying, regulation, ethics, citizens' rights and accountability of judges and the state agencies.
The relevance of the above issues is enhanced by the present controversies related to the Volcker report, sting operations in which MPs were caught taking money for asking questions in Parliament, or the phone-tapping of citizens. But accountability on the part of lawmakers, bureaucrats and judges assumes a much larger significance in the context of a large and restive proportion of citizens who see the legitimacy of the Indian State partly as a function of the Constitution's ability to guarantee the same rights, and thus the same rewards of rapid economic growth, as other citizens have.
While that may be worthy of serious consideration, the author is too critical of the political system's self-corrective capacities, and his articles on many issues "" like the Central government's role in the case of Article 370, the Supreme Court's definition of Hindutva, and the armed forces "" contain opinions that lack balance. The fact is that despite its drawbacks, India's political system has operated under the Constitution sufficiently well to ensure the country's net progress. Unlike several other developing countries, India's democratic institutions remain intact, and with no threat of military takeover.
That said, the language of the book is lucid, and it has references which can enable further research on the topics explored. This omnibus does not get outdated, remarkably, with the essays appearing as relevant as when they were first written. On the whole, this multifaceted volume reflects the insight, precision and mastery of a constitutional expert and political scientist. Despite the gravity of the subjects, the writing does not make for heavy reading, and should be of interest to political scientists, legal experts, journalists, sociologists and students, apart from opinion leaders and other concerned citizens of India.
CONSTITUTIONAL QUESTIONS & CITIZEN'S RIGHTS
A G Noorani
Oxford University Press
Price: Rs 595; Pages: 826

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First Published: Mon, February 20 2006. 00:00 IST
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