The petulant prefect complains to the principal after being pulled up by the class teacher for playing favourites but is firmly put down. This analogy for the Election Commission of India (ECI) petitioning the Supreme Court (SC) after receiving a tongue-lashing from the Madras high court for allowing political parties to violate Covid protocols captures the decline of our institutions.
It is unimaginable that the ECI would have tolerated such a flagrant violation during the regime of T N Seshan who initiated a strict enforcement of the model code of conduct, voter IDs, limit on candidates’ expenditure and appointing election officials from states other than the one facing polls. So doggedly and so fiercely did he implement the rules in his term as Chief Election Commissioner from ’90 to ’96 that he came to be known as ‘Al-Seshan’.
It is also surprising that high courts, which are now taking suo motu notice of Covid-related issues, took so long to read the writing on the wall. To be fair, the oral observations of the Madras HC that the ECI ‘should be put up on murder charges probably’ were a bit too harsh.
However, the ECI’s ludicrous prayer to the SC that the media be restrained from reporting such remarks during hearings -- obiter dicta -- robbed it of whatever dignity it had. As it is, the ECI, the supposed guardian of India’s democracy, is being blamed -- not without any justification -- for being an extension of the ruling party.
And it is not only during the recent polls in West Bengal which it spread over a record eight phases, ostensibly to give the BJP enough time to whip up a frenzy. In 2017, the ECI came under a cloud for its decision to delay the announcement of the Gujarat assembly polls schedule, supposedly to allow the PM and his party to continue distributing largesse in the state.
Another blot in its copybook was the ECI’s hurried and unseemly disqualification of 20 AAP MLAs from Delhi on the office-of-profit charges, which was rejected by the SC. In fact, the apex court castigated the ECI for not examining the issue thoroughly. This is the same constitutional body which once was referred to by the SC as one of the ‘integrity institutions’.
Institutions in decline
However, the ECI and the judiciary are not the only institutions in decline. The list of bodies whose autonomy is under threat includes the RBI, the CBI, the NITI Aayog, the Chief Vigilance Commissioner (CVC), the Comptroller and Accountant General (CAG), the Chief Information Commissioner (CIC), the bureaucracy, the media and Parliament itself.
These are the very sentinels of democracy and the erosion of their credibility is the death knell for the republic. In the words of American economist and Nobel laureate Douglass North: Institutions are ‘the rules of the game in a society’.
So when the RBI was not consulted before demonetisation in 2016, economic activity went down by a whopping three percentage points. Not that any lessons were learnt. The RBI’s role as regulator of the banking sector has been questioned and its reserves siphoned, reducing it into an institution which presides over a limited space of monetary policy, that is, inflation targeting.
In fact, former RBI deputy governor Viral Acharya has warned that governments that don’t respect the Central bank’s independence “will sooner or later incur the wrath of financial markets, ignite economic fire, and come to rue the day they undermined an important regulatory institution”.
Take the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC), meant to look into governmental corruption. It hit the headlines in 2018 for its dubious role in ‘sorting out’ the ugly fight between the CBI boss and his deputy; the same CBI which was denounced as a ‘caged parrot’ by the SC.
This CVC first came to notice for the right reasons in 2000 under N Vittal when it posted the names of 85 IAS and 22 IPS officers against whom it had sought criminal/departmental proceedings for major penalties since 1990.
By disbanding the erstwhile Planning Commission and replacing it with the National Institution for Transforming India (NITI) Aayog, the government lost the space for mid-term appraisals of its plans and policies. Course correction and taking stock of the economy have now become routine exercises, with uncritical acceptance due to a lack of well-researched documents. Its CEO Amitabh Kant had famously said that ‘tough reforms are very difficult in the Indian context as we are too much of a democracy’.
Blow to transparency
The Chief Information Commissioner is a toothless tiger after the RTI Rules, 2019, a transparent effort to throttle one of the best transparency laws promulgated by Parliament. “The Right to Information is now threatened by judicial decisions and interpretations which are not in consonance with the law and which would weaken it,” says former Central Information Commissioner Shailesh Gandhi, a recipient of the Nani Palkhivala Civil Liberties award.
The Lokpal and the Lokayuktas are ombudsmen representing public interest in the Republic of India but how often does one hear about them.
The mess in the health system and the mishandling of the pandemic are in no small way related to the collapse of institutions. The Indian Medical Association (IMA) expressed shock and dismay recently at what it called is a “blatant lie of WHO certification” for Patanjali’s Coronil tablet.
What can citizens expect when one Union minister debunks Darwin’s Theory of Evolution and the other – the health minister himself -- claims that cosmologist Stephen Hawking believed that the Vedas held a theory ‘superior’ to Einstein’s E= MC2. No wonder obscurantists even tried to conduct an astrology workshop in the Indian Institute of Science.
Dismantling of institutions
To be fair to Modi though, the dismantling of institutions started with Indira Gandhi. Ever since, there has been a steady erosion of trust in institutions that were supposed to balance the claims of competing interest groups while framing policies.
Economists blame the government’s inability to build strong institutions as the key constraint to rapid growth. The stubborn refusal of the political class to fix key institutions and their plummeting credibility has paved the way for judicial interventions even on issues that are the traditional preserve of the political executive.
It was the failure to allocate natural wealth such as mining rights or telecom spectrum in a transparent manner that led to intervention by the courts and precipitated a policy paralysis. As the links between key bureaucrats and crony capitalists emerged, even legitimate business activities came under a cloud and slowed investments.
Intellectuals keep warning that institutions provide the framework for individuals and systems to function, that their breakdown leads to a breakdown of societal functioning. The scum rises to the top and clogs institutions. The bad drives out the good. This is what Maharashtra is realising in the API Sachin Vaze case. These things can’t be passed off as system failure, as former PM Manmohan Singh described the Harshad Mehta scam of 1992.
Honest officials survive in strong institutions which are difficult to manipulate. Weak institutions breed rogue behaviour, as with former Mumbai police chief Param Bir Singh, and the collective interest suffers. This is hardly the ‘minimum government and maximum governance’ envisaged by the PM.
The writer is an independent journalist based in Mumbai. He welcomes feedback on email@example.com