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The Republic in Dire Straits: How to Put It Back on the Rails

The Indian polity is in dire straits. Time-serving post-poll alliances lacking ideological compatibility and devoid of commitment to firm policies and programmes are the root causes of the malady. The sovereign remedy for the perils confronting the Republic is a new political configuration based on a compatible ideology. That ideology should be an unflinching faith in secularism and social justice which together constitute the basic structure of the Constitution. The bedrock of the new broad-based United Front could be a firm and principled alliance of a thoroughly reformed Congress and the CPM and the CPI. Advocating the formation of such a United Front, this article lists a few essential steps that should be taken to stem the rot.


The Republic in Dire Straits: How to Put It Back on the Rails

P S Appu

Patel, C Rajagopalachari, Rajendra Prasad, Govind Ballabh Pant and others and a progressive wing headed by Nehru. The Congress practised a measure of inner-party democracy and policies and programmes were adopted after thorough debate. Normally the two groups accom-

The Indian polity is in dire straits. Time-serving post-poll alliances lacking ideological compatibility and devoid of commitment to firm policies and programmes are the root causes of the malady. The sovereign remedy for the perils confronting the Republic is a new political configuration based on a compatible ideology. That ideology should be an unflinching faith in secularism and social justice which together constitute the basic structure of the Constitution. The bedrock of the new broad-based United Front could be a firm and principled alliance of a thoroughly reformed Congress and the CPM and the CPI. Advocating the formation of such a United Front, this article lists a few essential steps that should be taken to stem the rot.

P S Appu ( was a member of the IAS. He held a number of senior positions in Bihar and at the centre and was also director of the Lal Bahadur Shastri Academy of Public Administration, Mussoorie. He is a social democrat who subscribes to the ideals enshrined in the Preamble to the Constitution.

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he Indian Republic is critically ill, afflicted by a malignant syndrome of political parties without ideology, politicians lacking principles, postpoll alliances aimed at grabbing power and retaining it at all costs, the pervasive breakdown of law and order, widespread criminalisation of public life and exponentially growing corruption.

According to Election Watch, the last Parliament had over 100 members facing criminal charges and the present one has over 160 such members. The Radia tapes and WikiLeaks exposures have revealed the extent to which lobbyists, fixers and middlemen, and even foreign powers, influence policymaking at the highest level, including the formation of the union cabinet and the conduct of business in Parliament. To cap it all there is an utter lack of governance. The decision-makers, including some able men and women, apparently overtaken by a fit of amnesia, seem to have forgotten the basic tenets of statecraft. Our tryst with destiny has gone sour. Yet, all is not lost. The Constitution has the resilience and amplitude to facilitate drastic measures needed to put the Republic back on the rails.

The Road to Ruin

A necessary condition for the smooth and successful working of the Westminster style of parliamentary democracy embodied in our Constitution is the existence of two rival political parties with well-defined ideologies, policies and programmes. Though this condition was never fulfilled in India, the Indian National Congress, by the nature of its composition and the manner of its functioning, remedied this shortcoming to a large extent during Jawaharlal Nehru’s lifetime. There were two broad formations in the Congress – a conservative group led by Sardar Vallabhbhai

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modated each other. After Independence, accepting the advice of Gandhi, Nehru and Patel decided to work together. Those special circumstances facilitated the smooth functioning of our polity in its infancy.

It was our singular good fortune that some of the tallest leaders of the 20th century were at the helm of affairs to guide the infant state. We tided over the perils and trauma of Partition, the threat of administrative collapse was averted, the 500-odd native states were integrated with the Indian Union and we gave unto ourselves a modestly progressive Constitution capable of holding together a vast country of unique diversity.

Then we embarked upon planned economic development with the twin goals of rapid growth and social justice. Thanks to the overarching influence of Gandhi, even the conservatives supported the progressive features in the Constitution and the five-year plans. The Indian polity remained in reasonably good shape for some 15 years. The decline was triggered by the sharp fall in Nehru’s prestige after the debacle of the war with China. Another factor was the emergence of a coterie of power brokers in the Congress, collectively dubbed the “Syndicate”.

Though Indira Gandhi started as a weak prime minister, in a short period of three years she trumped the Syndicate and emerged as the supreme leader. Then she proceeded to snuff out inner-party democracy in the Congress, do away with periodic elections to party forums, identify and destroy regional leaders with popular support, undermine the great institutions of our federal-democratic polity and concentrate all power in her hands. The grand old party of Gandhi, Nehru and Patel soon became a plaything in the hands of Nehru’s daughter. As a result of these deadly developments the Indian National Congress could no longer


perform its erstwhile role as the bulwark of Indian democracy.

Opportunistic Coalitions

Until 1967 the Congress remained in power at the centre and in most states. The general elections held in 1967 brought about a sea change in the situation. The Congress was defeated in a majority of states. A medley of opposition parties with conflicting ideologies and programmes came to power. The only cementing factor was the love of office. No chief minister could survive in office without agreeing to the unreasonable demands of even small splinter groups. On one occasion in Bihar in the 1970s one shaky ministry could survive only by lodging a group of seven members of the legislative assembly in a run-down hotel in a perpetual state of inebriation.

Conditions were no better in states where the Congress by itself had a majority. In Nehru’s time all chief ministers were individuals of stature enjoying a permanent place in the public life of the state. They functioned without any interference from the centre. All that changed under Indira Gandhi’s rule. Chief ministers like V P Naik and H N Bahuguna, who had solid political bases in their states, were eased out at some time or the other and lightweights loyal to the prime minister were inducted as chief ministers. They were obliged to keep in good humour all the supporting cliques and sycophants who had access to the supreme leader. All those developments adversely affected the quality of the administration and opened the floodgates of corruption.

The Congress remained in power at the centre without a break until 1977. Indira Gandhi attained the zenith of her power soon after the brilliant success of the Bangladesh war. Unfortunately for her and the country, corruption became widespread, particularly in Bihar and Gujarat after 1973. Inept handling of the gathering storm finally led to the declaration of the Emergency in 1975 which lasted for almost two years. During that period a small coterie headed by Sanjay Gandhi usurped all the powers of the government. Mercifully that ended in 1977.

In the general elections held immediately after the lifting of the Emergency the ruling Congress was trounced signifying the resilience of our Constitution. The Janata Party that came to power was a fragile, makeshift alliance of discordant groups. Soon the new government fell under its own weight and in the elections held in 1980 Indira Gandhi was returned to power.

No effort was made to restore inner-party democracy in the Congress even during Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure as prime minister. After the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi the country entered the era of coalition governments. Those coalitions were headed by the Congress or the BJP or fragments of the erstwhile Janata Party. Lacking cohesion and compatible ideologies, the coalitions were marriages of convenience aimed at capturing power and retaining it. Often the coalition could survive only by succumbing to the unreasonable demands of partners, however puny the ally. On some occasions the government resorted to bribery for survival.

The disclosures in the recent 2G scam have laid bare the utter helplessness of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in taking much needed effective action against coalition partners. It is now abundantly clear that opportunistic coalitions are the root cause of our present plight. The fatal flaw in our polity is that ideology has yielded place to expediency and opportunism. That diagnosis clearly indicates that the need of the hour is a radical realignment of political forces and the formation of pre-poll alliances on the basis of compatible ideology, and well thought-out policies and programmes. That ideology should be unflinching allegiance to the ideals of secularism and social justice embedded in our Constitution.

Religious Fundamentalism and Neo-liberalism

Secularism and social justice are the two most important ideals enshrined in the Preamble to the Constitution and together they form the bedrock of its basic structure. That basic structure is under severe attack. Evidently, religious fundamentalism and certain shibboleths of neo-liberalism are major antagonistic contradictions of our Constitution. The need of the hour is the formation of a broad-based “United Front” to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution, in particular secularism and social justice that constitute the basic structure.

Secularism: In the Indian context secularism has rightly been defined as sarva

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dharma sama bhavana – equal respect for all religions. On ethical considerations and also from the pragmatic angle, secularism is the only sound policy befitting this land of unique diversity. And that is the only ideal compatible with the history and civilisation of India.

Thanks to the dominant influence of Jawaharlal Nehru, the Congress adhered to the ideal of secularism during his tenure. As one who had served as subdivisional officer and district officer in Bihar in the 1950s, I can vouch for the strictly even-handed manner in which the magistracy and the police handled communal tension and riots. The instructions issued by the government enjoined us to enforce the rule of law strictly and impartially under all circumstances.

There were some significant departures from secularism in the post-Nehru period. To cite a few, the major communal riots of Meerut and Bhagalpur in the 1980s revealed the bias and negligence of the magistracy and the police. When anti-Sikh riots broke out in Delhi in 1984 in the wake of the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, the administration failed to take effective action. Had drastic action been taken against the instigators, who included some Congress leaders, many innocent lives could have been saved.

The decision to nullify the decision of the Supreme Court in the Shah Bano case was a blatant exercise of cynical opportunism aimed at placating the orthodox Muslim clergy, overlooking the genuine interests of hapless divorcees. Worse was the handling of the entire Babri Masjid fiasco, starting with the Tala Kholo Andolan and ending with the destruction of the mosque. Though the Hindu fanatics had given advance notice of their intention, no effective step was taken to protect the mosque. Prime Minister Narasimha Rao temporised and allowed things to drift. The chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Kalyan Singh, allegedly connived at the destruction of the shrine. The top IAS and IPS officers present on the spot failed to do their duty. The destruction of the Babri Masjid was a climacteric that badly tarnished the image of the polity. The riots that followed in Bombay and other places were not handled efficiently. The administration failed to take effective action against criminals and protect innocent citizens. In spite of these sad failures,

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the Congress, by and large, still subscribes to the ideal of secularism. As a matter of fact, other than the hard core Sangh parivar, the jihadis and other religious fundamentalists of various hues, the great majority of the people of India subscribe to the concept of sarva dharma sama bhavana. And the CPM and CPI have invariably remained steadfast in their adherence to secularism. All these people should join hands to defeat the evil designs of the purveyors of communalism.

In the context of the mass hysteria generated in the wake of the agitation unleashed by Anna Hazare and the leaders of civil society, the BJP and the Sangh parivar have launched a campaign to appropriate the public upsurge to retrieve the falling fortunes of the Hindutva forces. The United Front should challenge them politically and defeat their nefarious design.

Social Justice

Our Constitution aims at securing social, economic and political justice to all citizens. So when we embarked on planned economic development soon after Independence, the cherished goals were, quite rightly, rapid all-round economic growth and equitable sharing of the fruits of development. The emphasis on steel and heavy industry in the Second Plan, the policy of reserving the commanding heights of the economy for the public sector and the establishment of world-class scientific and technical institutions laid the foundations for future industrial growth and modernisation of the economy. Those far-sighted steps paved the way for the information technology revolution of recent years.

But the government made three fatal mistakes. The first was the failure to establish a cadre of hand-picked professional managers and give them full autonomy in running public sector undertakings. The second was the mindless foray into a variety of consumer goods industries. The third was to persist with the counterproductive “permit, quota, licence raj” beyond the Third Plan. In spite of these serious errors, by the end of the 20th century India emerged as a major industrial power with an impressive stock of scientific and technical manpower.

It was sagacious on the part of Prime Minister Narasimha Rao to liberalise the economy and proceed to dismantle the irksome controls that had outlived their

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utility. That timely step led to a most welcome spurt in our annual rate of growth from a low 3.5% to around 8-9%. As effective steps were not taken to bring about distributive justice, the lion’s share of the enormous wealth created accrued to the affluent section of the society. This is obvious from the Arjun Sengupta Committee’s finding that in 2004-05 some three quarters of the population lived on less than Rs 20 a day.

The objective of attaining social and economic justice could not be achieved because of our failure to make the much needed institutional changes, in particular the poor implementation of measures of land reform and the neglect of the well-designed Community Development Programme. Other fatal weaknesses include the failure to provide adequate employment opportunities at living wages to a rising population, the tragic neglect of school education and the adoption of a clutch of ill-conceived measures of affirmative action aimed at hoodwinking the disadvantaged without conferring on them enduring benefits. This is the dismal background against which some tenets of neo-liberalism have emerged as a deadly threat to our quest for social and economic justice.

Neo-liberalism favours a crucial role for private enterprise even in school education, basic healthcare and other areas of social welfare. Our government, particularly the Planning Commission, seems to have veered to this point of view. I shall explain the havoc that is being caused by this shift in policy. And that shift is a direct attack on the basic structure of our Constitution.


Even in the United States, the classic land of capitalism and free enterprise, it is the business of the State to provide affordable, quality school education to the poor. Of course, there are expensive private schools for the children of the affluent. But the poor can go to well-run public schools. But in India it has become impossible for the poor to access quality school education.

Seven decades ago in the erstwhile native state of Cochin I studied in a wellequipped, well-staffed, government high school paying an annual fee of Rs 45. In that small state, with a population then of 13 lakhs, there were more than 20 well-run government high schools and about double

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that number of private schools. The government schools were invariably superior to the private schools. All private schools had been started with altruistic motive and no private school charged a higher fee than a government school. After six decades of planned economic development, independent India is still lagging behind the erstwhile native state of Cochin of the 1940s in the matter of providing quality school education to its citizens. And tragically, all over the country most of the good government schools of the pre-Independence days are in ruins. If we had paid our teachers a better salary, provided them with better training and enforced discipline this could have been prevented. A society that compensates a bank clerk more handsomely will not have good teachers.

In recent years there has been a mushrooming of expensive private schools all over the country. School education has become a profitable commercial activity. It is now a commodity whose price is decided by market forces. Those without inadequate purchasing power cannot access quality school education.

Against this background it is, indeed, tragic that the government is trying to evade its responsibility in school education. A few years ago the prime minister’s announcement that 6,000 Navodaya type schools would be opened, one in each block, gladdened my heart. However, without losing time, the Planning Commission put a spoke in the wheel clarifying that the state would open 3,500 schools and that 2,500 would be under public-private partnerships (PPP). Under a PPP a private party would get land at a concessional rate and an ample grant. Instead of curbing commercialisation, the government directly encourages the evil. The concept of PPP is obviously inspired by a breed of neo-liberalism more rabid than what prevails in the US. I have no objection to PPP in the fields of infrastructure, imparting of skills relevant for employment in industry, etc. But PPPs should have no role at all in providing quality school education to the poor. That should be squarely the responsibility of the state.


Medical and healthcare is another crucial area where the primary responsibility should be that of the State. Here also I shall start


with my experience in Cochin state of the pre-Independence era. From my remote village I could access one dispensary and two hospitals. The dispensary, located five kilometres away, was managed by a single doctor and ancillary staff. It had 10 beds. Twelve kilometres away there was a hospital with three doctors and 50 beds. There was a slightly larger hospital at the taluq headquarters located at a distance of 20 kilometres. In that age, prior to the appearance of sulpha drugs and antibiotics, there was little that the doctors could do. Yet, they gave free service with sympathy and understanding and dispensed some palliatives.

Conditions were totally different in Bihar when I started service. The district of Darbhanga, with an area of about 3,500 square miles and a population of over 4 million, had a medical college hospital at the district headquarters, and small government hospitals at the headquarters of the two outlying subdivisions. In the interior there were about 20 district board dispensaries manned by LMP doctors. The medical and healthcare facilities were absolutely primitive. All that changed for the better after the First Five-Year Plan.

During the Second Five-Year Plan we made a good beginning with the Community Development Programme. The thoughtfully drawn-up programme aimed at the allround development of rural India covering agriculture, minor irrigation, animal husbandry, cooperatives, education, public health and medical care, village panchayats, cooperatives, etc. For health and medical care, each block was provided with a primary health centre and three sub-centres. The complement of staff included two medical officers and necessary paramedical staff. In the late 1950s, when I was collector of Darbhanga, 40 out of the 44 blocks sanctioned for the district had become operational. A few years later I had occasion to oversee the functioning of the healthcare system of the whole state as secretary to the government. It was very difficult to persuade doctors to go to backward areas. Yet, during the severe drought of 1965-67 we could ensure that each block had at least one doctor. At that time the plan was to upgrade select sub-centres to the level of primary health centres and open more sub-centres. It was also a part of the plan to upgrade subdivisional and district hospitals to become referral hospitals. Had we persisted with that well-designed pattern of healthcare as an integral part of the Community Development Programme and concentrated on better implementation, we would have established by now an effective system of healthcare throughout the country. Alas, instead of doing that, the Community Development Blocks were allowed to decline and disintegrate. No state government bothered to appoint suitable personnel to man the various posts and several posts remained vacant. In one extreme case, a cynical chief minister, in a perverse mood, passed an order allowing every MLA to ask for the transfer of two block development officers. As a result of these unhealthy developments, the community development set-up ceased to be an agency for rural development. And the primary health centres and sub-centres languished. So the original expectation of providing comprehensive healthcare remained elusive.

It is in this context that the Eleventh Plan shifted focus to corporate healthcare and health insurance. This is what the Eleventh Plan said: “The public care system is not able to meet the growing demand for healthcare facilities. The gap between demand and supply has to be bridged by private players, and this has facilitated the growth of corporate healthcare industry in India” (para 13.45). Though the Plan document admits that corporate players are not a substitute, there is a clear attempt to evade the State’s responsibility and a covert move to encourage the corporate sector. This is another instance of neo-liberalism undermining efforts to provide adequate healthcare to the rural population. Only a set of experts totally unacquainted with the realities of rural India would look upon corporate healthcare and health insurance as a panacea for the ills of three quarters of the population mired in poverty.

Inspired by neo-liberalism and encouraged by the Washington Consensus, global capitalism, spearheaded by giant multinational corporations, is on the warpath with an aggressive agenda. The deadly programme includes huge investments in industry, mining, land development, infrastructure, establishment of townships, etc, ignoring environmental hazards and imperilling the livelihood of large populations. This has caused great havoc in Latin

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America, Africa and parts of Asia. In India the programme is being implemented in collaboration with domestic capital and crony capitalism with the blessings of the state. A diabolic innovation is the acquisition of thousands of hectares of prime agricultural land for national highways and turning over a large portion of the land to favoured developers for building townships and villas for the affluent. And this is being done by openly flouting the laws on agricultural ceilings. If this trend continues unchecked, the Maoist insurrection, which is now confined to a swathe of hilly districts extending from Bihar to Karnataka, will spread to the fertile plains also.

Putting the Republic Back on the Rails

The sovereign remedy for the mortal perils confronting the Republic is a new political configuration based on compatible ideology and a package of relevant policies and programmes. The ideology should be unflinching allegiance to the ideals of secularism and social justice. The package of policies should comprise steadfast opposition to communalism and a total rejection of the harmful prescriptions of neo-liberalism and a reiteration of the proactive role of the State in promoting social welfare.

The action programme should include easy access to inexpensive quality school education for the poor, assured health and medical care, a universal public distribution system with assured supply of foodgrains at subsidised rates for the poor, guaranteed employment opportunities at living wages, a proper housing facility for all, access to safe drinking water and sanitation and comprehensive social security. There is little point in the creation of enormous wealth if three quarters of the population see no part of it.

The bedrock of the new broad-based United Front could be a firm, and principled alliance of a thoroughly reformed Congress and the Left parties, particularly the CPM and the CPI. To forge such an alliance both the Congress and the Left should bury the hatchet and do a great deal of soul searching, ignore minor irritants and concentrate on vital issues. The Congress will have to introduce effective inner-party democracy, discard the disgusting culture of sycophancy and get back to the Nehruvian vision of secularism and social justice. It will also

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be necessary to rebuild the party from the grass roots by infusing new blood. The CPM and CPI should ignore their minor disagreements, jettison obsolete dogma and abandon the unhealthy deviations of recent years that led to their discomfiture in West Bengal. Once such a firm alliance is forged, others who subscribe to the ideals of secularism and social justice should be invited to join the alliance. At the same time the corrupt and criminal elements should be shunned.


The Republic is, without doubt, in dire straits. There is an all round and palpable lack of governance. The government has lost all credibility. The social contract has collapsed in large parts of the country. History tells us that the denouement of such a desperate plight is through a successful revolution. But the objective conditions in the country rule out that possibility. As luck would have it, we have an excellent Constitution with the necessary scope and resilience to accommodate effective measures to put the Republic back on the rails. It is neither feasible nor necessary to suggest a detailed road map. Once a broad-based coalition of political forces is in place it should be possible to dissolve the Lok Sabha, bring about the essential reforms through ordinances, hold general elections and have the new house in position within six months of the dissolution of the old one.

I shall, however, very briefly outline a few issues that call for immediate attention. These are matters that have to be attended to simultaneously with efforts to form the United Front.

Revamping the Administration: The first and the foremost concern is that the Indian administration has been rendered dysfunctional. The Constitution provides for an excellent administrative structure and our administration functioned reasonably well for some years. But it is now in decline. I had earlier chronicled in this journal the decline and devastation of the all India services (“The All India Services: Decline, Debasement and Destruction”, Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 40, No 9, 26 February 2005). There has been a further decline since then. By taking the few steps suggested therein it should be possible to

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revamp the administration. Unless immediate action is taken to set things right our future will be in jeopardy.

Five Ordinances: Then there are five other issues that call for careful consideration. In respect of these, draft ordinances should be prepared for promulgation immediately after dissolving the present Lok Sabha. These are listed below. Panchayati Raj: The 73rd amendment to the Constitution was a giant step towards democratic decentralisation. But in several states the set-up is in a mess. The root cause of the problem seems to be that elected representatives get involved with the awarding of contracts and the execution of projects. That has opened the door to corruption. Their legitimate function should be formulation of policy, selection of projects and overall supervision. Execution should be left entirely to the chief executive officer and the staff under his control. My suggestion is that the district officer variously designated as collector, collector and district magistrate or deputy commissioner, should be the chief executive of the district panchayat. Awarding of contracts and implementation will be the responsibility of the chief executive officer and his staff. The relationship between the chairperson and the chief executive officer should conform to the pattern that existed in a well-administered state in the 1950s between the chief minister and the chief secretary. A subclause should be added in Article 243-C of the Constitution spelling out the powers of the chairperson and the chief executive. Political Reforms: An ordinance should be promulgated requiring every political party to maintain an accurate record of membership, hold periodic election of office-bearers, observe inner-party democracy, maintain accurate accounts and get the accounts audited annually. Every contribution exceeding Rs 1,000 should be by cheque or draft. Electoral Reforms: The recommendations made by three election commissions and the advice of the Supreme Court have been gathering dust for a long time. An ordinance should be promulgated to implement the recommendations. The ordinance should certainly contain a provision to bar criminals. Those who are being prosecuted for serious crimes or have been convicted and their

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appeals are pending should be barred until the final disposal of the case. Those finally convicted should be disqualified for life.

Independent Authority for Public Prosecutions: I hasten to add that our system of investigation and prosecution is unacceptably biased. Even the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) has occasionally shown bias. There is legitimate apprehension of false criminal cases being instituted to harass honest politicians. That danger can be warded off by taking public prosecutions out of the control of the executive as in the United Kingdom. In that country the office of director of public prosecutions was created in 1879. In 1924, the mere suspicion that the cabinet tried to influence the director in the Campbell case led to the fall of the government. We should introduce the UK system with necessary modifications to suit our federal set-up.

An ordinance should be issued to create a post of director general of public prosecutions of the status of a judge of the Supreme Court at the centre. For the states there should be directors of public prosecutions of the status of a judge of the high court. I had made this suggestion to Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral in July 1997 and repeated it to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in August 2004. Cleansing Public Life: The fifth ordinance should be for the creation of statutory highpowered tribunals at the centre and in the states/groups of states vested with adequate powers to throw out of public life corrupt and criminal elements. The tribunals should be clothed with adequate authority and should have their own investigating agencies. Where a prima facie case is proved, the tribunal should have the power to debar the accused for life from contesting elections and holding public office. There should be a provision for confiscating illgotten wealth, held in their own name or benami. There should be no appeal from the decision of the central tribunal. There may be provision for appeal from a state tribunal to the central tribunal. The central tribunal should be headed by a retired chief justice of India of impeccable reputation.

These are steps that can be taken by a resolute government after dissolving the present Lok Sabha but before the constitution of the next. My main purpose in writing this essay is to initiate a purposeful debate.

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