Though it is clear that many institutions have lost their sheen, we must be wary of autocratic leadership.
The forthcoming parliamentary elections have strong presidential overtones. It is turning out to be a contest more between individuals than political parties. It is also taking place against a backdrop of institutional corrosion. The performance of the executive, legislature, judiciary, media and even the armed services have come under a cloud. These two trends raise a worrying question. What might be the consequence of the hollowing out of our institutions?
The question should be discussed not so much to get a definitive answer but to invigorate a debate on the appropriate balance between the need for strong and decisive leadership on the one hand and, given the fraying of the checks and balances embodied in our Constitution, the possibility that this might push us down the pathway of democratic autocracy on the other. That our institutions have corroded is without doubt.
The executive branch is paralysed. Our bureaucrats “refuse” to sign files. More accurately, they deem it safer to do nothing than to do something. The reasons for this attitude are rational and understandable. The CVC, CBI and the CAG have collectively hung the sword of Damocles of vigilance over their necks. There is no statute of limitation and these bodies have the statutory authority to put any official under scrutiny, including those who have long retired. C.B. Bhave, for instance, left the IAS long ago. He embodied the best qualities of the civil service and was well regarded for his integrity, performance and commitment. Yet, today, his name figures in an inquiry.
There are approximately 600 officials in the rank of joint secretary and above, and of these 122 are currently the subject of scrutiny. The legal raison d’etre for such vigilantism is the Prevention of Corruption Act, which requires bureaucrats associated with decisions benefiting the private sector to establish that they did not personally benefit from such a decision. The act presumes, in other words, their “guilt” until “innocence” has been established. It is scant wonder therefore for bureaucrats to deem the “act of omission” to be more prudent than the “act of commission”. The prime minister and finance minister have tried hard over the past year to repair the economic damage caused by the 2G scam, coal allocation controversy and red tape. They have failed in large part because of this attitude.
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The new government will be equally unsuccessful if it fails to safeguard the civil service from the slings and arrows of unsubstantiated charge and “gotcha journalism”. It is important to point out that the blame for this policy paralysis should not be placed only on the doorsteps of the vigilance commissions. They are, after all, staffed by civil servants who are fulfilling their mandate of responsibility. The blame should also be placed on the institutional vacuum that has encouraged the enactment of such a counterproductive act.
The legislative arm of the Government has become equally moribund. The 15th Lok Sabha, which has just been dissolved has had the worst performance of any Lok Sabha since Independence. It enacted only 150 of the 380 bills placed on the agenda. Parliamentarians transacted business for 61 per cent of the time allocated for the purpose and, in its last winter session, it set a new record for truancy by sitting for 8 per cent of the allocated time. Notwithstanding this, parliamentarians made sure they received their full allowance and also a pay hike.
The third pillar of our governance structure is the judiciary. It has served as a strong and positive check against arbitrary and wilful misuse of powers. It has held everyone accountable to the law and those who have thought they are above it have been sharply cut to size. Some high and mighty individuals are currently languishing behind bars. This said, there is such a backlog of cases that justice is delayed and often denied. Most people can no longer expect to receive timely redress on matters related to property, tax, defamation and privacy. They can no longer look upon the judiciary as a bulwark of support for their constitutional rights.
The media has been billed the fourth estate. It has for long been commended for its autonomy and vibrancy. It deserves credit, for example, for focusing public attention on the corrupt practices of politicians and business. Today, however, the media appears to have lost its edge. It is no longer providing high quality and in-depth commentary or coverage and it is no longer perceived to be independent. Instead, it is now seen as an instrument of political and business vested interests.
The armed services are arguably the most respected institution in the country. It has acquired such respect because of its scrupulous avoidance of politics. It has always remained above the civilian fray. Today, however, there are signals to suggest a shift in this hands-off attitude. Many former generals and admirals have, in the wake of the naval accidents for instance, vociferously criticised the defence ministry.
Their statements would suggest a strong undercurrent of resentment towards the civil service. As it is, the armed services have always chafed at the fact that they rank below officers of the IAS. A further twist is the nomination of the controversial former army chief to fight the forthcoming Lok Sabha elections on a BJP ticket from Ghaziabad. In and of itself, this is not remarkable. Many ex-servicemen have entered politics.
But this chief has been embroiled in unusual controversy and he has been particularly sharp about the civil service. It will be interesting to see how he runs his campaign and, in particular, what he says to the reportedly 50,000 ex-jawans in his constituency. It would be worrying if he put the blame for deteriorating security on the civilian administration. This because such venting of frustration by ex-servicemen could well imbalance the longstanding institutional modus vivendi between the services and the civilians.
Two faces dominate the campaign posters. One of them may become prime minister. The concern is, he will become presidential if nothing is done to strengthen the checks and balances embodied in the Constitution. It is to address this concern that a discussion on institutions and governance should be encouraged.
The writer is chairman, Brookings India and senior fellow, Brookings Institution