Indians should know about Watergate Scandal, because it is an interesting story, with lot of lessons to be learnt. It is a story of a country and its people which fought to defend its democratic institutions from various encroachers; sometimes the encroacher was the President of the country.
In the early 1970s, United States of America was rocked by Watergate Scandal. On 17 June 1972, few men were arrested for breaking into Democratic Party’s office in Watergate Complex. These men were there to plant bugs in the opposition party’s office with the consent of President of United States, Richard Nixon. These men were later convicted for attempted interception of telephone and other communications against wiretapping laws.
When the complicity of the President of United States was discovered and published by sagacious and committed journalists of Washington Post and New York Times, the people of United States, who were educated to value and defend their democratic institutions rose up in genuine anger. Nixon tried to stall the proceedings by invoking special privileges of a President. The court ordered Nixon to hand over the tapes which established his involvement. The eventual prosecution and hearings found Nixon guilty of obstruction of justice, abuse of power, and contempt of Congress. When the House of Representatives started formal procedures to impeach Nixon, he resigned. His political career was over. That’s how Nixon paid the price for subverting the much cherished institutions of United States of America. He remained a disgraced President (though later day historians feebly attempted to resurrect his former image).
During his time, Nixon was quite a popular leader. He resolved the Vietnam conflict and withdrew US troops from Indochina. Many of his foreign policy initiatives were quite successful. He opened up diplomatic relationship between United States and China, and signed a historic Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Soviet Union. At the home front, he introduced reforms to protect the environment and desegregated schools in the South. However, as was evident from the Watergate Scandal, he had not lived up to the ideals set forth by the founding fathers of the United States who emphasized that the power should be held by the sheep, not the rulers, because rulers turn into wolves and therefore could not be trusted. Thomas Jefferson said:
Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers alone. The people themselves therefore are its only safe depositories. And to render even them safe, their minds must be improved.
Thomas Jefferson was aware of the danger where people are easily misled. For the various institutions of the democracy to work it was ‘essential for the people to understand the risks and benefits of government, to educate themselves, and to involve themselves in the political process… Without that the wolves will take over’.
Therefore, it became important for ordinary American citizens to take the responsibility of educating themselves the ways of the government and also take active part in country politics. US Supreme Court Justice, Robert Jackson said in 1950:
It is not the function of our government to keep the citizen from falling into error; it is the function of the citizen to keep the government from falling into error.
Interestingly, Nixon met Indira Gandhi when she visited USA in November 1971, just few weeks before Pakistan and India went to war over Bangladesh. President Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, were pro-Pakistan and hated the guts and arrogance of Indira Gandhi. Nixon called Indira an ‘old witch’ and a ‘bitch’. What Indira Gandhi called Nixon, we will never know, but they didn’t get along very well and hated each other.
Without receiving any support from United States, but backed by Soviet Union, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi went onto win the war against Pakistan, which was a swift military victory. Indira Gandhi rose up high in the eyes of Indians who had earlier doubted her decisiveness because she was a woman. Opposition party member AB Vajpayee described Indira as Goddess Durga. Indira Gandhi was riding absolute power and started to become a wolf.
A High Court in India found her guilty of misusing government machinery for her electoral campaign thereby making the election void. This sparked off nationwide protests against her. Instead of facing up the charges, she imposed a nationwide Emergency on 25 June 1975 for a period of 21 months, giving herself the power to rule by decree, suspending elections and the constitutional rights of all Indians. She put most of her political opponents in jail, and did all kinds of things which dictators do in dictatorships. In her own words, she brought Indian democracy to a ‘grounding halt’.
Indira Gandhi rewrote the laws of the nation using the two-thirds majority in the Parliament that she enjoyed, and where necessary she bypassed even the Parliament to pass “extraordinary laws” using the dummy President. She dismissed states governments where opposition parties ruled, to declare President's Rule.
What Indira did to Indian democracy must be hundred times worse compared to what Nixon did to American democracy. Unfortunately, the Indians were not adequately educated in protecting their democracy. The middle class of India, instead of learning the ways of how the government works and participating in it, was actually on a war-footing exercise to distance itself completely from it. A hodgepodge group of politicians rose on occasion and defeated Indira Gandhi in elections, formed a new government but could not use the political institutions of India to make Indira pay for the crimes.
Janata Party headed by Morarji Desai as the Prime Minister constituted a one-man commission under former Supreme Court Justice JC Shah to inquire into ‘subversion of lawful processes and well-established conventions, administrative procedures and practices, abuse of authority, misuse of powers, excesses and malpractices committed during’ the Emergency.
Shah-Commission hearings began in New Delhi on 29 September 1977 and concluded with third volume of the Shah Commission Report on 7 August 1978. Indira Gandhi successfully managed to evade the hearings for several months, though hundreds of people testified. She argued that the Commission was ‘unconstitutional and illegal’. On 11 January 1978, Indira faced JC Shah but ‘persisted in her non-cooperation’. She declined to make a statement and added that that she is bound by her ‘oath of secrecy not to make any statement’. She repeated that she is not ‘legally bound’ or ‘constitutionally bound’.
Exasperated with her non-cooperation, when JC Shah stepped up to lodge a complaint with a magistrate, she brought up an extraneous issue. She pointed out to him that when she nationalized Indian banks in 1969, many judges signed a petition against such a move. She reminded him that she did not disclose the names of the petitioners to ‘uphold the dignity of the judiciary’. With those veiled threats, she put JC Shah on the defensive and walked out without being interrogated further.
Janata Party could not muster up enough strength or courage to take on Indira Gandhi’s highhandedness. They were having their own problems. They could not keep their party united and fell apart resulting in loss of power at the center. In the 1980 Lok Sabha elections, people of India who were inadequately trained to value their democracy voted Indira Gandhi back to power. She went onto make more mistakes, like trying to meddle with Sikhs in Punjab resulting in Operation Blue Star where the Golden Temple was bombarded with tanks and artillery guns, killing everyone holed up in there to cover up the mess that she created. Those actions of hers resulted in death of thousands of Sikhs in Punjab who fought for a separate country in the subsequent years. The people of this country paid the price for their inaction by coming close to breaking up the nation, becoming responsible for death of thousands, sowing seeds of hatred and antagonizing a religious group for a long time to come, and most important of all, weakening the democracy and its institutions forever.
The draft version of Janlokpal Bill promoted by the ‘civil society’ members includes Prime Minister of India under its ambit. But the Congress Government has decided not to include the Prime Minister under the purview of Lokpal. The question that we have is: Should a Prime Minister be held accountable?
Prime Minister is considered to be the ‘first among the equals’ in the cabinet. The cabinet with the Prime Minister along with the President of India forms the executive. Therefore, if any cabinet minister falls under the Lokpal Bill, so should the Prime Minister.
Though the Constitution of India does not give special constitutional and legal privileges to the Indian Prime Minister than those of any cabinet minister, it is well-known that Prime Minister is considered the leader of this nation. We attach a great symbolic value to the position of Prime Minister and our expectations on leadership, integrity and accountability are (or should be) quite high. We look towards the Prime Minister for guidance, for setting examples, and expect him/her to answer tough questions, take charge, and execute on the vision.
If, with some constitutional changes, we confer more privileges and power to Prime Minister, making him closer to the President, should we then excuse him from all accountability? Not really. Because it is clear that Prime Minister then would become the supreme wolf and therefore the highest standards need to be set, making him/her accountable to his/her actions. The way President Clinton was prosecuted for ‘lying under oath’ and was impeached by the House of Representatives on the charges of ‘perjury and obstruction of justice’ (though acquitted by Senate), we should be in a position to hold our Prime Minister accountable if he/she does something similar.
Now, take a look at how Indira Gandhi did not comply with legal procedures of this country. Do you want to see something like that happen in this country ever again? Ambedkar, recognizing that democracy did not come natural to Indians, said:
Constitutional morality is not a natural sentiment. It has to be cultivated. We must realize that our people have yet to learn it.
It’s time we learnt our lessons, and as sheep, we should educate ourselves on why we need to value our democracy and why we should take up the responsibility of a citizen. And that responsibility includes prosecuting our supreme wolf when he/she oversteps to subvert this democracy.
References: Indira: The life of Indira Nehru Gandhi by Katherine Frank