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Institutions in crisis-I

Tuktuk Ghosh |

The festive season is over. We are into a remarkably long election season with five State elections which will culminate in the Grand Battle of the Ballot in 2019. The Government made a fervent pitch for return to simultaneous elections at multiple levels across the country.

Though a 1983-vintage suggestion of the Election Commission of India (ECI), not unexpectedly, it was repackaged as a prized pick from the Prime Minister’s bouquet of visionary ideas, to be fast-tracked for immediate implementation. Thankfully, it did not get enough traction, presumably pushed back by inherent constitutional and logistical challenges. A narrow escape for “we the people”.

It is politic to use the extended election season-induced “high “as an opportunity to flag with clarity and conviction all that is deficient and distorted and work to help build pathways leading to far-reaching change. It happened successfully in 2014 when the high voltage crusade against corruption in high places paid dividends.

We are confronted with a grim scenario of creeping encroachments on constitutional fundamentals, endangered governance institutions and a heap of shattered jumlas. Hate-mongering and debased public discourse have taken a firm grip. Politicians of various stripes, civil society organisations and engaged cognoscenti have jumped into the fray to garner maximum returns from this combustible mix. The indisputable challenge will be to endow them with depth and resonance in a manner such that they remain firmly foregrounded during and more importantly beyond election time.

Elections in India are soaked in dirty money and often gamed by criminals. Winning elections opens doors to wondrous, limitless opportunities. All means, dubious and devious prominently included, are therefore kosher for getting to the coveted finishing post. A Supreme Court Bench led by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi is presently hearing a petition seeking expeditious action and conduct of investigations by the ECI into the use of black money and expenditure beyond prescribed limits in the election process by candidates and political parties.

On 25 September 2018, a five-judge Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court, headed by the then Chief Justice, Dipak Misra, ruled on a batch of petitions seeking directions to the ECI to disqualify from polls those candidates against whom charges had been framed in criminal cases. In the unanimous verdict, the situation was portrayed as extremely disastrous, with a “propensity to send shivers down the spine of a constitutional democracy”.

The smooth conduct of such intrinsically tainted carnivals of democracy has, ironically, become the badge of honour for the ECI. The form ~ and its apparent success ~ not the substance, is touted as its singular achievement. In a significant move, the Supreme Court, in a hearing of petitions on appointment of Election Commissioners, in July 2017, agreed to examine formalization of rules of their appointment, pending for decades.

The Court’s interest must be seen as an affirmation of the independence of the constitutionally-mandated institution, often not given its due salience. Independence is implicit in Article 324, in the proviso to Section 5. That the invaluable attribute is not invoked must be pondered over. Had it been otherwise, conceivably Indian democracy may have become a standard-bearer instead of being stigmatised as “flawed” in the Global Democracy Index.

This time around, however, the Independence-Quotient (I Q) of the ECI will be under hawklike watch. A palpable trust deficit has surfaced between opposition political parties, civil society groups and ECI, centering around EVMs and their likely manipulation to ladle out undue advantage to the ruling dispensation. The strong hum in favour of the BJP in many States, after it came to power at the Centre in 2014, with the UP crescendo in 2017, made the controversy a compellingly complex one.

The jury is still out on who is right. Usage of VVPATs to counter allegations of misuse, on a sample basis, has not served to assuage apprehensions that have taken hold of swathes of public perception. Arvind Kejriwal, Delhi’s quirky Chief Minister, accused the ECI of brazen lying and deleting names of his party’s supporters from the Voters’ Lists.

Delayed announcement of Gujarat polls, accommodating timelines to enable the Prime Minister to make special announcements in his home State and beat the rigours of the Model Code of Conduct, have not gone uncontested. That all serving Election Commissioners are retired IAS officers, ushered in by the Government in a remarkably opaque process, lends impetus to the belief ~ unfounded or otherwise ~ that they may not be disinclined to acknowledge their gratitude in more ways than one.

A glaring institutional infirmity such as this cannot be wished away because clouds of doubt have begun to gather. The Supreme Court cannot be the Master Designer for all salvage ops. There’s no knowing whether the time taken for verdicts and follow up on them, will be Ayodhya-paced. In this backdrop, it is important to be reassured that the ECI will demonstrably live up to constitutional expectations.

Parliament, the sanctum sanctorum of democracy, where elected representatives are required to perform their solemn duties of delivering on the nonnegotiables of the Constitution, has witnessed an alarming debilitation. It stands tarnished, held to ransom by rampaging disruptor- MPs, who incredibly never tire of affirming their utmost faith in the sanctity of democratic values.

No deterrent action is taken against parliamentary polluters, in spite of there being several enabling rules for Presiding Officers. Adjournments are the new default mode for Parliament. This year’s Budget session was the worst in terms of productivity in over a decade. It took all of 25 minutes to clear the Finance Bill which listed ou the Government’s planned expenditure worth Rs. 96 lakh crore.

Notwithstanding the redemptive performance in the Monsoon Session, the unhealthy buzz of irrelevance may increase if the Government and Opposition do not move beyond mere agonizing, to surgical strikes of the meaningful variety. The main objective of Parliament being reduced to servicing members like pampered modern-day royalty is unacceptable.

Dysfunctionality of Parliament is any Government’s dream come true. It can do pretty much what it wants without being held to account.

This was best exemplified two years back. The Prime Minister endorsed the immortalized lyrics of Nobel Laureate, Bob Dylan. “Your old road is changing, please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand, for times they are a changing.” In the unforgettable 8 November 8 pm demonetisation Address to the Nation, he directly exhorted ~ strong-armed, would be more appropriate ~ the country to join the historic ***imaandaari ka utsav***, the fight against corruption, black money, fake notes and terrorism. Barely a few hours were allowed for falling in line with the medieval ***firman***.

The shock-and-awe of it ensured no protest ~ unimaginable in a mature democracy. Parliament was completely cut out, a first in recent times. This was nothing short of an unceremonious shove into the post-truth phase in which objective facts become less influential in pummeling public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief, in this case at the highest levels of political leadership.

In 2018, barring the Government in its laboured rationalisation, there is little hesitation in judging demonetisation in negative shades. The usually reticent Dr. Manmohan Singh, former Prime Minister, has trashed it as a monumental failure. Though less debated, the governance takeaways of demonetisation are of enormous significance, with long-term implications.

Demonetisation was not resisted by blue-eyed civil servants of the famed steel frame or the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), about whose threatened autonomy copious tears are being shed. In fact, many who should have been in the loop, were barricaded out, it being a massive covert operation. Yet they had to hurtle into damage-control when the unspooling complications became unmanageable.

(To be Concluded)

The writer is a retired IAS officer who comments on governance issues.