‘The autonomy of essential institutions is clearly under question as the Modi government seeks to influence them politically.’
‘The credibility of institutions such as the EC, the CBI, the CVC, the UPSC, the RBI, media, and universities, has been compromised,’ notes Zoya Hasan, the distinguished political thinker.
The Bharatiya Janata Party has relentlessly attacked the Congress party, Sonia Gandhi and the erstwhile National Advisory Council of conducting governance by remote control and undermining political processes and public institutions.
Given this unwavering criticism it was assumed that once elected to power the BJP would restore the authority and sanctity of democratic institutions.
Events under their dispensation indicate that the opposite has happened.
Both State and non-State institutions have come under pressure as the regime attempts to recalibrate and readjust the relationship between institutions of democracy and the popular mandate to consolidate its own authority and ideological control over institutions.
Since Independence, India’s politics had taken the form of a centrist consensus.
Clearly, that consensus has broken down with India’s politics shifting decisively to the right since Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi assumed power in 2014.
The BJP has used its mandate to build a majoritarian State.
This has redefined democracy and is beginning to change the institutional edifice it stands on.
The autonomy of essential institutions is clearly under question as the Modi government seeks to influence them politically.
The credibility of institutions such as the Election Commission, the Central Bureau of Investigation, the Central Vigilance Commission, the Union Public Service Commission, the Reserve Bank of India, media, and universities, has been compromised.
The space to differ has been encroached.
In view of the hyper-polarisation of political debate in India, the tendency to demonise and criminalise dissent leaves open the possibility that expressing such perspectives will be construed as harming the nation by the government.
The taming of the media is by now so well known that it requires no recounting here.
The environment in universities has been vitiated and disagreements stifled to a point of choking critical inquiry.
Many of the higher education institutions have been compromised by appointing Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh loyalists with virtually no relevant experience to head these institutions.
These are not the first instances of a regime placing its favourites in positions of power and influence.
Still, in the past, institutional heads or members of academic bodies had a semblance of professional attainment to their credit, whereas the record of most individuals favoured by the current dispensation is dismal, without the slightest pretence of expertise or achievement.
These appointees have also played an active role in destroying democratic functioning in the institutions they head, most flagrantly in the case of Jawaharlal Nehru University.
Agencies and institutions are often accused of doing the government’s bidding and do not function above the cut and thrust of the political fray.
Take two cases in point.
Doubts have been raised on the role of the Election Commission, an institution whose autonomy and independence is of vital significance to the operation of our democratic polity.
Two examples would suffice to underline the fragility of institutional independence.
The EC rightly called electoral bonds scheme proposed by the government to clean up election finance a ‘retrograde move’.
But soon after, the commission changed its mind and said these bonds are a ‘step in the right direction’, even though it is clear that they were a blow to transparency as they would actually make funding of political parties more opaque.
The EC’s reputation took a more severe blow when it announced separate dates for elections in Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat at the end of 2017 even though the two states normally go to the polls simultaneously.
The decision to de-hyphenate the two state elections allowed the central and state governments more time to announce sops to combat the anti-incumbency sentiment.
The EC claimed it delayed the announcement on Gujarat so that the electoral code of conduct would not impede flood relief.
But this was not a convincing alibi because the delay had nothing to do with flood relief, giving rise to suspicions that a Constitutional position was being reduced to serving the political interests of the ruling party.
The RBI’s autonomy has nosedived as well.
Over the past few years, the finance ministry has at times announced new measures without consulting the RBI first.
The disastrous decision to demonetise was taken without consulting the RBI, but the central bank had to retrospectively complete the paperwork to make demonetisation appear as if it came from the deliberations of the RBI board.
The RBI-government face off escalated with regard to capital reserves and easing credit norms for small and medium businesses — the backbone of the ruling party’s local units.
The government has been pushing to gain access to the RBI’s capital reserves it keeps to deal with, say, a banking crisis.
The jury is still out on whether the RBI-government face-off in the board meeting on November 19 ended with truce or a defeat for the central bank. (This column was written before Dr Urjit Patel resigned as RBI governor on December 10 with immediate effect.)
But the controversy has drawn attention to the way in which the relationship between the government and the RBI has been reconfigured given the concerted bid to prevail over big institutions.
Addressing some of these issues which have raised concern in the public domain, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley observed, while delivering the Atal Bihari Vajpayee Memorial lecture (October 27), that ‘The nation, that is India, is taller than any institution or government’.
He also regretted that the attempts were being made to weaken the authority of the elected, and to create a power shift in favour of non-elected, non-accountable institutions.
The binary between the elected and the unelected is false.
To project the former and disparage the latter is unmistakably undemocratic.
To attempt to delegitimise non-elected institutions is to knock out the institutional foundations on which Indian democracy stands.
An editorial in a leading national daily summed it up succinctly: ‘In a democracy, there is no nation versus institution.’
The Modi government’s uneasiness with institutional autonomy is understandable because it weakens its authoritarian impulse to power, especially as several institutions have begun to guard their turf against government interference.
As the 2019 elections approach and political winds begin to change direction, many of these institutions are sensing that the government could be on the losing side, and this has emboldened them to stand up against the rule by fiat which has been the hallmark of governance under this regime.
There is no question that the Congress set the pace for weakening institutions.
Indira Gandhi, in following her personal political ambitions, contributed to the emasculation of the party, Parliament, the bureaucracy, the judiciary, the presidency and the deinstitutionalisation of Indian democracy.
But this has not changed.
The country has witnessed a steady hollowing of public institutions under the top-heavy ‘prime ministerialism’ of Narendra Damodardas Modi that is designed to serve the interests of the ruling party and the supreme leader.
The logic of deinstitutionalisation in this case is simple.
There is only one legitimate authority: The leader.
Consequently, independent, autonomous institutions, whether within the government or civil society are the adversary, and they must be controlled and defanged.
But democracy cannot function if institutions are made subservient to the personal power or the ideological proclivities of political leaders.
The BJP’s attempt to control institutions is edging politics out of the central lane, shifting the middle ground to the right, which risks undermining the stability of institutions that India has spent decades building.
This would undercut the many structural strengths of our democracy. Leaders must therefore accept institutional constraints to safeguard democracy.
Zoya Hasan is Professor Emerita, Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.