Open Essay

Institutional Atrophy

Shashi Tharoor is a Member of Parliament and the author, most recently, of Why I am a Hindu
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And the decline of democracy

THE BLISTERING MEDIA cycle around the state elections was temporarily suspended by the announcement that Shaktikanta Das, a former IAS officer from the 1980 Tamil Nadu cadre, would take over as the 25th Governor of the Reserve Bank of India. He was the Government’s preferred resource for damage control, following the abrupt departure of Urjit Patel, who, citing ‘personal reasons’, stepped down from the helm of India’s central fiduciary body on December 10th, following a well-publicised standoff with the BJP-led Central Government.

History certainly seems to have an interesting way of repeating itself: just a few years back, Patel was the Government’s blue-eyed boy, widely regarded as the most acceptable choice to succeed his predecessor, Raghuram Rajan, who despite a stellar record was not offered an extension by the Modi Government. Unfortunately for him, in an era where the currency of a ‘Patel’ has reached historic heights in the country, this Patel is likely to be remembered for having had the shortest tenure as India’s top banker in over three decades.

The choice of Shaktikanta Das is intriguing. Though undoubtedly a veteran bureaucrat, with an extensive record, that he is the first Governor in recent history without a background in Economics or Finance (he holds a Master’s degree in History) is unlikely to help win the ongoing perception battle the RBI is finding itself in; and Twitter wasted little time (as it seldom does) dissecting what was regarded as another blunder of ‘Modinomics’. He is viewed in many quarters as the ‘face’ of the Government’s disastrous demonetisation drive of November 2016. At a time when the autonomy of the bank has been slowly but surely compromised, as Deputy Governor Viral Acharya’s recent warning made clear, the decision to select someone who may be more ‘amenable’ towards the whims of the ruling party has naturally drawn flak—particularly given how thoroughly the RBI, his new work address, was discredited by demonetisation, an episode in which it was widely denounced for failing to perform its fiduciary duties.

The RBI, which did not appear to have been fully consulted on the political decision, conspicuously failed to exercise its autonomy, to anticipate the problems of Modi’s scheme, to prepare its implementation better, and to alleviate its impact. During the shambolic demonetisation process, the goalposts kept shifting: the RBI issued no fewer than a hundred notifications on it—138 in 70 days, each intended to tweak an earlier announcement. It seemed as if the Reserve Bank had been reduced to a puppet on a string for the Indian Government. Many began to refer to this once-respected institution as the ‘Reverse Bank of India’ for its frequent reversals of stance on such matters as the amount of money permissible to withdraw, the last legal date for withdrawals, and even whether depositors would have their fingers marked with indelible ink so they could not withdraw their money too often. Urjit Patel’s silence while all was collapsing in a shambles was the silence of a lamb. Whether Das can reverse this woeful record remains to be seen, but in his quick selection, the Government is unlikely to have assuaged the escalating trepidation in the aftermath of Patel’s exit.

A spate of similar high-profile departures across the board during the tenure of the Modi Government is a telling sign that all is not well. Between the exits of Patel and Rajan in 2018 and 2016, respectively, the country was also confronted with the departure of Arvind Subramanian, the former Chief Economic Advisor who stepped down prematurely in June, Arvind Panagariya, Vice-Chairman of the Niti Aayog who, rumour has it, wasn’t much liked by the RSS, and the economist Surjit Bhalla, a member of the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council—prompting one journalist from CNBC to point out: “It’s hard for any government to match the record levels of staff turnover at President Donald Trump’s White House, but Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration appears to be slowly catching up.”

THE COMPARISON IS, in a sense, a striking reflection of a much larger atrophy within India’s premier public institutions under the Modi regime. In India’s case, a list of such institutions would include financial regulators like the RBI; the judiciary, headed by the Supreme Court; the investigative agencies (notably the Central Bureau of Investigation); the Election Commission, which organises, conducts and rules on the country’s general and state elections; the Armed Forces; institutions of accountability like the Central Information Commission; the national exam-conducting bodies that test tens of millions of schoolchildren every year in highly competitive examinations that could make or break their futures; the elected legislatures; and the free press. Every one of these priceless institutions has come under threat in the last four years, as an assertive Hindu-chauvinist BJP Government moves to consolidate its power in the world’s largest democracy.

Part of the reason behind this systemic onslaught stems from the Moditva doctrine and the inherently autocratic concentration of power that has developed into a definitive feature of this credo. What does this mean? Moditva articulates a cultural nationalism anchored in the RSS political doctrine of Hindutva, but extending beyond it. On top of this foundation of Hindutva, it builds the idea of a strong leader, a man with a 56-inch chest, powerful and decisive, who embodies the nation and will lead it to triumph. This is the element that makes ‘Moditva’ the ruling credo. Similarly, Moditva adores its leader; on top of a purely BJP government, we see a fiery and articulate ideologue, projected as all-knowing and infallible, the hero on a white stallion who will gallop at the head of the nation’s massed forces with sword upraised, knowing all the answers, ready to cut the Gordian knots of the nation’s problems.

Part of the reason behind this systemic onslaught stems from the Moditva doctrine and the inherently autocratic concentration of power that has developed into a definitive feature of this credo

Autonomous public institutions threaten the dominance of the Moditva doctrine because, by design, they are independent institutions with specialised mandates and commitments that consequently challenge the oversized cult of personality that Modi adorns. Naturally, when these institutions refuse to convert themselves into rubber stamps for whatever the ruling party wants done (as the standoff between the RBI and the Centre illustrates), the Government’s response appears to be to cut these institutions off at their knees or interfere with the independence that is a defining feature of these bodies.

Under the BJP, another well-publicised war of attrition has been taking place within the CBI, memorably described as a ‘caged parrot’. Its investigations and indictments, once seen as the gold standard of Indian crime-fighting, are now seen too often as purely politically motivated. Matters came to a head when the agency’s director and special director sparred openly, leaving Indians with Keystone Cops-style TV visuals of the agency raiding its own offices and court cases being slapped by the top two investigators on each other. When the Government was finally forced to respond to a rapidly deteriorating situation that its solicitor described as a ‘fight between two Kilkenny cats’, their response was far from reassuring and raised even more concerns. First, it tasked the Central Vigilance Commission, which has supervisory powers over the CBI only in matters of corruption, with conducting a free and fair inquiry. Then, against any precedent or law, the CVC recommended that both officers be sent on indefinite leave—which the Government promptly acted upon and in doing so, wilfully ignored the Delhi Special Police Establishment Act which provides security of tenure to the director, an essential requirement for the institutional independence of the post. There are other issues as well—including the special director’s alleged proximity to members of the ruling dispensation, his involvement with politically biased investigations and, most worryingly, the controversial background of the new interim director who is running the CBI in the absence of the top two—that will no doubt significantly hurt the reputation of the agency.

Similarly, the judicial system, traditionally above the cut-and- thrust of the political fray, has come under withering scrutiny since last January, when the four senior-most judges of the Supreme Court (including one who would eventually become the current Chief Justice) held an unprecedented press conference to question the decisions of then Chief Justice Dipak Misra in allocating cases to his favourite judges as ‘master of the roster’. Their elliptical comments appeared to imply the Chief Justice was unduly seeking outcomes to favour the Government. Another point of contention was the inordinate delay in the elevation of the then Chief Justice of the Uttarakhand High Court, selected by a collegium of judges for a seat at the Supreme Court but whose transfer had faced obstacles from the Government on account of actions he had taken against them in the state. When he finally made it to the bench, he had suffered a loss of several months of seniority, making it impossible for him ever to ascend in the normal course to the position of Chief Justice.

This technique, the use of inertia as a tool to achieve political objectives, is a hallmark of the BJP’s abuse of institutions: positions are left vacant despite the availability of information on when individuals are going to retire, weeding out contenders who will retire too during the pendency, thus paving the way for a political favourite.

Chief Justices of India are supposed to be free of political interests, but in April several opposition parties circulated an equally unprecedented Impeachment Motion against the Chief Justice in the upper house, the Rajya Sabha. Though this was rejected by the Rajya Sabha Chairman, the Vice-President of India, two MPs moved the Supreme Court itself to challenge his rejection, only to find the Chief Justice naming a bench favourable to him to hear their appeal. They then withdrew their case, but the image of the judiciary has taken a beating from all this from which it will not easily recover.

As for the 'Temple of Democracy', its work has been reduced to a farce as allies and supporters of the ruling party have brought the winter session to a standstill through disruptions orchestrated by the government

India’s Election Commission has also enjoyed a proud record of independence and boasts decades-long experience of conducting free and fair elections, despite its members usually being retired civil servants appointed by the government of the day for fixed tenures. While in the past, Election Commissioners have largely enjoyed a reputation for integrity, this took a severe blow last year when a BJP-appointed chief violated the convention of announcing election dates for all impending state elections at the same time. A quarter century ago, the Commission had introduced a Code of Conduct that prohibits government expenditure to impress voters once election dates are announced. With the BJP, which is in power in both the Centre and in Gujarat state, scrambling to attract voters in Gujarat through last-minute schemes and pre-election freebies, the EC came under pressure to delay the election announcement there as long as possible. Giving in, it surprisingly declared the dates for elections in Himachal Pradesh, a state that normally goes to the polls at the same time as Gujarat, 13 days before the latter, citing a specious need to permit flood relief work in Gujarat (which the Code of Conduct would not have disallowed).

Former Election Commissioners condemned the decision unanimously, even as the Gujarat government and the Prime Minister himself took advantage of the delay to announce a series of pre-election giveaways. It does no good to Indian democracy to see a shadow fall over the very institution that guarantees free and fair elections, especially when reports of data manipulation by the likes of Facebook and Cambridge Analytica have begun to raise doubts over the security of the electronic voting machines on which ballots are cast.

The concern that under BJP rule the EC was behaving like a government department became more acute when the Delhi High Court threw out an EC decision to disqualify 20 Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) members of the Delhi Legislative Assembly on technical grounds, an action that could have benefited the BJP had by-elections to their seats followed. The Court termed the decision ‘bad in law’ and ‘violating principles of natural justice’. How had an institution widely hailed as an impartial custodian of India’s democratic process allowed itself to be brought to such a sorry pass? The answer lay clearly with the ruling party at the Centre, seen as pressurising the institution to act according to its wishes.

THE MODI GOVERNMENT has also not hesitated to politicise the Armed Forces, not just bypassing time-honoured principles of seniority in appointing the Army Chief, but by repeatedly using the Army in its political propaganda. The shameless exploitation of the 2016 ‘surgical strikes’ along the Line of Control with Pakistan (and the declaration of a belated ‘Surgical Strikes Day’ this year), and of a military raid in hot pursuit of rebels in Myanmar, as a party election tool—something the Congress had never done despite having authorised several such strikes earlier—marked a particularly disgraceful dilution of the principle that national security issues require both discretion and non-partisanship. At the same time, the Government appears to be happy to let the Army function with a worrying proportion of obsolete equipment, shortages in ammunitions and spares, a proposed procurement of Rafale jets (a saga unto itself) in a quantity that falls far short of Air Force requirements, and lower than average spending on modernisation— all of which suggests that when it comes to walking the talk, the Government prefers partisan posturing over visible action.

This was clear in the 2018 Karnataka state elections which saw the Prime Minister, no less, falsely denouncing India’s first Prime Minister for allegedly having insulted two Army chiefs from the state. The principle that the Army should be kept out of politics, as the Army Chief himself has publicly requested, and that the military are above regional or religious loyalties, was disregarded in his flagrant exploitation of the Indian military for short-term purposes.

The list goes on and other prominent mentions include the Central Board of Secondary Education (where a controversial leak in the national school-leaving examinations has cast doubts on the integrity of the organisation), the Central Information Commission (which suffers a record number of unfilled vacancies, remains intentionally understaffed and whose salaries could soon be altered by the Government—a blow to the independence of the body), the Central Statistical Organisation (which has been accused of manipulating data to make the Government’s economic management stronger by changing the base year used for GDP calculations), and even a slew of governors who have cast aside their constitutional mandate to sing to the tune of the ruling dispensation.

The judicial system, traditionally above the cut-and-thrust of the political fray, has come under withering scrutiny

As for the ‘temple of democracy’, Indian Parliament, its work has been reduced to a farce as allies and supporters of the ruling party have brought the Winter Session to a standstill through disruptions orchestrated by the Government (just as they had previously wrecked the Budget Session so that the Government could pass its controversial Budget in the din). There could be no starker indictment of the failure of Parliament to evolve as a public institution than the progressively downward trend in the frequency of sittings, accompanied by more frequent disruptions, both of which have undermined the critical deliberative role of a parliament. It seemed as if the Government was willing to destroy the ‘temple’ rather than permit prayers against its misrule to be heard there. And when there is a rare opportunity for sensible debate on matters of serious importance to the country, the preference of the Modi regime is the following: the Government will propose, the opposition will oppose, and if matters come to a head and a vote is called, the Government’s brute majority will dispose.

In addition to high levels of corruption and venality in public life, the BJP Government has been marked by lack of competence at the policy design and formulation levels, and further incompetence at implementing policies. Regulatory bodies suffer from the same problems: insufficient authority, weak human resources, overlapping mandates, lack of legitimacy and political interference.

India’s free press, which ought to be calling the Government’s actions to account, has seemingly been cowed by its overweening power. A process combining intimidation and co-optation has ensured that very few critical voices in the so-called ‘mainstream’ media are raised against such behaviour. But if the deinstitutionalisation of Indian governance proceeds like this, the greatest danger facing India will be that of the public losing faith in the system altogether—with incalculable consequences for the country’s biggest asset, its democracy.

This is already taking place in many parts of the world. In a widely discussed paper, Harvard scholar Yascha Mounk and his colleague Roberto Stefan Foa argue that the health of liberal democracies across the world is falling (the scientific term being ‘democratic deconsolidation’), and that former ‘consolidated democracies’ around the globe confront imminent degeneration. Drawing on data from the World Values Survey (1995-2015), they show that there has been a considerable dilution of support for democracy and a growing impatience with the democratic process, especially among the so-called ‘millennial’ generations (those born after the 1980s), and that we can no longer assume that once a country upholds democratic institutions for a steady period of time, fosters strong civil society traditions, and attains a degree of wealth, the future of democracy is secure. This is a fallacy, we are told, and we must always guard against complacency.

Conversely, the same data suggests that the support for non-democratic or authoritarian models of governance is rising in many democracies. There are signals that a similar sentiment may be brewing in our own backyard, if a recent survey by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies and Azim Premji University is to be believed: over half the respondents in four large states of the country expressed a preference for an authoritarian alternative to our existing democracy.

This does not bode well for the future of our Indian democracy. If the assault on our institutions persists, the confidence that the people of India have in these bodies will erode steadily and, in doing so, weaken the very pillars of the democracy that we take for granted today. Political parties and ruling powers will come and go, but these institutions are the enduring pillars of any democracy, whose independence, integrity and professionalism are meant to inure them from political pressures of the day. However, as India has undergone significant transformations—economic, social and political—in 70 years of independence, our public institutions have failed to keep pace. India faces major challenges, but our evolution will be held back if the Modi Government continues to undermine the institutions required to manage our responses to these.