It seems that the NDA has not learnt the first lesson from the UPA’s mistakes. It appears hell bent on continuing the decimation of institutions that has been the bane of Indian politics. The same contagion of small-mindedness that corroded the UPA is spreading its poison, under the facade of the new. The joke doing the rounds in Delhi, that the party in power has changed but the politicians, lawyers and bureaucrats have not, seems to be coming true, alas. The surprise is not that it’s business as usual. The surprise is how quickly business as usual has asserted itself.
Think of the unseemly spectacles unfolding around us on institutions. The hallmark of a new governance paradigm is that one party does not use the past misdeeds of the other as an alibi to repeat the same mistakes. Yet this is exactly what has happened in the way in which this government has handled the matter of governors. An article of faith in a civilised democracy is that we sometimes hold our noses, but give the offices the respect due to them. After they assume office, governors are not individuals belonging to a party; they have to be judged in relation to a role. This government is right to say that certain political appointees, like H.R. Bhardwaj, demeaned the office of the governor by playing low politics. But that is at best an argument for transferring a couple of governors in states where there were reasonable political apprehensions. It is not an argument for the wholesale denigration of the office. One of the distortions the UPA produced was upsetting the constitutional deference due to offices. The idea of secretaries calling up governors, as if they were minions in the civil service, and asking them to leave, reflects a culture of corroded institutions, where all formal deference is subordinated to political whim. The objection made is that the governors, by virtue of being Congressmen, are unfit to be governors, that they will somehow not transmit what one spokesman called the “national agenda”. But this is tacitly admitting that the last set of governors were right to do the Centre’s bidding; now the government wants a set that can do its bidding rather than discharge the duties of the office. The government’s argument against the Congress would be more credible if there were some undertaking that the next set of governors would be more non-partisan.
The contagion of petty partisanship will now afflict a large number of other institutions. A range of bodies, from the Indian Council for Cultural Relations to the National Commission for Women, will have their heads replaced. Again, the desire of this government to appoint people it deems fit is not unreasonable. There is also something unseemly in a country where people do not gracefully offer their resignations, giving the new government a chance to rejig. But by asking for wholescale resignations, the underlying message that goes out is simple: there are institutions that do not have an identity and mission that can be identified independently of partisan politics. We may not like everything the past occupants of these positions have done, but by reducing these institutions to mere politics, we shrink them in the long run. The itch to reward supporters after a major victory is understandable. But the crudity and haste with which people are being eased out will diminish future occupants because the office has been diminished.
The mistakes continue. The UPA’s besetting sin was an incurable casualness. Just think of the chain of events that led up to the Andhra fiasco. The advisory order requiring many states to communicate in Hindi suggests exactly that same lack of forethought. India has a delicate language settlement, hard-won through careful compromise and informal conventions. This settlement has served India well. Indeed, it has even served the cause of Hindi well, allowing it to grow without being associated with the fears of state domination. This is exactly the kind of issue on which it is not worth creating distracting noise that unnecessarily raises fears.
One reason we want institutions is that they are necessary to securing certainty and liberty alike. Some NGOs deserve scrutiny and certainly, any illegal actions need to be accounted for. But the manner in which the government has handled the supposed leak by the IB is creating a climate of uncertainty and fear, and empowering all those who wish to intimidate independent actors in civil society. This was exactly the same mistake the UPA made twice over. It first created an environment of uncertainty and intimidation. It then went on to craft laws like the amendments to the FCRA Act, whose sole purpose is to give the state more discretionary power over citizens. If the NDA was serious about governance, it should reprimand the IB for doing a shoddy job on facts, for letting the report leak, and it must address the climate of intimidation that is being created in its wake.
Admitted, it’s early days yet, and in the larger scheme of things, these may be small matters. But these are telling signs in so far as governments usually get more, not less, arrogant with time, as the UPA showed. The government is right to think that economic development is uppermost on people’s minds.
But underlying our logjam in development was the breakdown of institutions. Every single ministry is beset by an institutional crisis, which is at the core of its failures: the HRD has, in the past, treated autonomous institutions as appendages to the ministry when convenient, the main weakness of environmental processes is not delay but the fact that the ministry has made their integrity hard to defend, the office of the attorney general has acted as the political arm of government, not an office of law, the relationship between civil servants and ministers, between the cabinet secretariat and secretaries, has been skewed beyond recognition, and the ministry of finance failed to craft a credible new narrative on inflation instead of repeating “hoarders” on auto pilot, because there are few honest brokers left within the government system who can stitch together an all things considered narrative.
The most important signal this government needs to send is that it is going to write a new chapter in the history of Indian institutions. It should repeat this like a mantra: no institutions, no development. But more than playing footloose with institutions, this creeping display of conventional politics has a disfiguring moral psychology behind it. It shows a pettiness that sits at odds with India’s challenges and aspirations.
The government quickly needs to show that it is not going to be business as usual, that its institutional conduct will elevate the smallest office, not diminish even the highest ones. It is not too late for that lesson.
The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi, and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’