The institutional frame of the republic continues to be hollowed out. If there is one thread running through every crisis we face,it is this. A vast majority of our politicians simply do not understand the meaning of one word: institutions. And their inability to do so is undermining our power of any kind of collective action or credible intervention. Every single story last week made citizens want to scream,Its about institutions,stupid.
I was discussing the Lok Sabha debate on the anti-rape bill with a group of young,idealistic students,preparing to dedicate their lives to public policy. Even though the bill passed,the debate left them disillusioned to the point of exasperation. One of them offered a description that seemed to be apt for our politics: a bunch of fraternity boys playing a casual parlour game with serious issues. It is hard to contest this description. This is an important legislation dealing with serious issues like violence against women. It raised important questions about the relationship between law and society and the limits of criminal law. And it was introduced against the backdrop of a national crisis. Till Supriya Sules well-judged outburst,the debate indeed seemed casual if not downright misogynistic. But the importance of the legislation was not just the law itself. This was supposed to be a teachable moment,where the highest authorities come together,draw new moral red lines,and display a resolve to combat a challenging social problem. Instead,the final parliamentary outcome looked more like a grudgingly casual caving in than a moment designed to induce greater self-consciousness. More than half of the MPs were missing,including prominent ones like Rahul Gandhi. It might be unfair to pick on Rahul Gandhi. But his absence matters for two reasons. Read Morris-Jones to remind yourself how Jawaharlal Nehru used all his personal authority to shore up the authority of Parliament. And the absence suggests a contempt for institutions that is worrying. Rahul Gandhi has legitimised the thought that party narcissism trumps everything else. Institutions are not the first priority,they are objects of whims and fancies.
It should not therefore be a surprise that there has been so much faux outrage at the politicisation of the CBI. That the CBI is not independent and is the handmaiden of political power is not exactly a big secret. The fate of Indian democracy these days is contingent on the control of the CBI. But even by Congress standards,the way they handled the raids on Stalin is an embarrassment. Let us,for a moment,even grant the unlikely possibility that the government had no hand in the raids,that this was simply colossal misjudgement on the CBIs part. But the governments response only sent a signal of its contempt for institutions. If,indeed,the CBI was simply doing its job,albeit with bad timing,why condemn it? In this political football,the chains of authority within organisations are being completely undermined. The governments response had a thou protesteth too much, quality to it. It was an act of self-incrimination that only someone so casual about institutions could engage in.
The list could go on. The 2G scam meanders its way through the courts and,despite new documentation,the medias interest in the issue seems to be flagging,or some might say,has been tamed. But there is one simple institutional question that haunts the issue: Why has the JPC not invited A. Raja to appear before it in person and subjected him to questioning? All the Congresss cant about fighting corruption is completely meaningless if the core institutional mechanisms that already exist are so hollowed out. This is an institutional travesty twice over. Raja has been denied all principles of natural justice. With all due respect,the manner in which the Supreme Court intervened in the 2G case is hard to justify on grounds of legal consistency. It seemed to prejudge a trial in the lower court. But what kind of an institutional culture keeps on perpetuating the charade that you can conduct a parliamentary inquiry without cross-examining the central players?
You might think all this institutional casualness has little impact on foreign policy. But even here,form and process matter. The sad thing about our stand on Sri Lanka is this. We can argue about what Indias stance at the UNHRC should have been. But whatever our stance,the manner in which we have gone about it suggests this: Indias moral and legal positions do not have any moral imprimatur; they are simply the outcome of a casual political skulduggery. We never made our red lines clear. The message our neighbours get is that our positions are not about any norms at all. They are simply instrumental responses governed by the logic of power. No wonder they have contempt for us. But the moral psychology that underlies our positions is exactly the same that has undermined our institutions: that all institutional considerations are simply instrumental to the whims of power.
This column has in the past dwelt on the governments utterly confused approach to regulatory institutions. The list could go on. This instinctive contempt of institutions in those who wield power is the harbinger of a Caesarism. Heinrich Meier,in his biography of Caesar,had this resonant description: Caesar was insensitive to political institutions and the way they operate… he was unable to see Romes institutions as autonomous entities. He could see them only as instruments in the interplay of forces. He had no feeling for the power of institutions to guarantee law and security,but only what he found useful or troublesome about them. In Caesars eyes,no one existed but himself and his opponents. He classified people as supporters,opponents or neutrals. The scene was cleared of any suprapersonal elements. Or if any were left,they were merely props behind which one could take cover or with which one could fight. Politics amounted to no more than a fight for his own rights.
This Caesarism is manifesting itself in all forms. It can be centred on particular leaders,or more insidiously,it can be manifest in the ways in which political parties treat institutions. In a democracy,institutions are all that stand in the way of tyranny and caprice. The Caesarism of smaller parties gets more attention because it is on the surface. The Congresss Caesarism escapes scrutiny because it is cloaked by its pedigree. But politicians should not be surprised at growing insolence towards them. By behaving as casual frat boys,contemptuous of the very institutions that give them authority,they are inviting the ill will they so bemoan.
The writer,president of the Centre for Policy Research,is contributing editor,The Indian Express