AND THIS TOO SHALL CHANGE…
Readers may recall that in our issues of April-June 2011 and July-September 2011, we had shared some perceptive posts from Mr. Vikram Lal's blog on various issues of significance to our democratic polity. We are back after a long gap with the latest posts on Governance Reforms from his blog, which carry forward the dialogue on democracy presented in the July-September 2011 issue.
The Wanted Position for Indian Governance
The governance of India is continuing to slide downhill, and will hit rock bottom in the foreseeable future. Every arm of government, every level, is behaving in this destructive and non-functional way. All logic, all empathy, all altruism, all duty, all shame have been dumped in the filthy waters of the Yamuna, and now all those in power can, without distraction, focus on enriching and empowering themselves. This is true not only for the politician or bureaucrat, but also for many of our judges, for all of the police, and for a very large percentage of businessmen. It is truly amazing how matters have come to this pass.
The early years of our republic were full of promise. Even though we retained largely the systems and the laws of a colonial state, the government behaved like our own government, wanting to do the right thing by its citizenry. This changed gradually over the past 65 years — accelerating with Mrs. Gandhi's government and with her Emergency — and today the full impact of those outdated colonial laws is being felt by the people of this nation because our government in behaving like a colonial sarkar that rules but neither leads nor has any sincere interest in the people.
There is one exception to this: the government does have an interest in the people, but only in one aspect - in their avatar as voters. All policies, decisions, statements are bent to cultivate the voter so that they may perpetuate their rule. This is done cynically in many cases, and calculatedly even if there is benefit to the people.
But it was not meant to be like this. Public service was just that — service to the public. People choosing public service left their normal profession for some time, and returned to it when they chose to or when they were no longer in public office. Politics was not meant to be a permanent profession, partly because it didn't pay well, and because of its unpredictability, but mostly because of the concept of public service.
Today that has changed dramatically. The question of service has been forgotten completely, except to be used in speeches. Politics is now a profession, like chartered accountancy or marketing. If you join politics, you do only that all your life, whether you are in office or out of it. How do politicians afford this? How can they survive?
The answer highlights the problem. They have their hands so deep in the national till, and they capture so much of the nation's resources when they are in power, that they don't need to worry for the rest of their lives. The earlier excuse for stealing money was that it was critical for elections, and they really had no choice. Today the amounts needed for elections — even though those have risen sharply over time — are a small fraction of the money that is stolen from government or taken as bribes. Some of it is used personally (for properties, luxuries, jewellery), but the rest is salted away for a rainy day and for succeeding generations. In some form or the other we are all aware of the situation. Many of us would like to see things change from where we are to where we should be. To bring a little system into this space, we need to do three things. The first is to describe our current situation. The second is the define our `wanted' position — where we want to be. And the final one is to plan, strategise and implement a large set of actions that will take us from A to B (or C to W).
Many books have been written on this subject, and hundreds of articles are penned every month. So it is clear that nothing is going to change by just writing. The plan requires a strategy that can be implemented. That is going to be the critical aspect because without it our downward slide will continue.
So now to our current situation.
Where does one start? Is it the segment of government? Or its output? Or its impact? It is probably most appropriate to take an overall look at our situation.
The overall condition of our polity is precarious. The fact is, to put it succinctly and bluntly, that the Indian state has been captured by crooks. This statement should be allowed to seep into our consciousness because without that we will be thinking in circles, will go off on the wrong track, and will arrive at unworkable solutions or remedies.
The Indian state has been captured by crooks.
The crooks are of all kinds. The biggest are in business and in politics, but the crooks are from all parts of the system — policemen, bureaucrats, judges, media owners, NGO people, lawyers, doctors, sports administrators, government teachers and healthcare workers, forest officers, lower level government employees, sarpanches, BDOs, tehsildars, just to give a panoramic view.
This is not to say that all such groups consist only of crooks. There are many in each category (although `many' may be an overstatement in some of them) who are honest or at least generally so. However, a stage seems to have been reached where the majority of such people have a vital stake in the state remaining captured.
It is difficult to figure out how we reached this stage. We were very hopeful, during the early years after Independence, that we would build on the momentum and establish a very sound system for the governance of our nation. The two major early steps were the creation of the Indian Union by the merger of some 500 states into British India, and the promulgation of the Indian Constitution. The optimism was based on Pandit Nehru's charisma and the respect he was accorded by world leaders.
Even in the early years rumour had it that the Birlas `controlled' a large percentage of the Members of Parliament. Whether it was true or not is difficult to say. However, it is clear that the Birlas were able to take advantage of policy changes because they seemed to know in advance, and because they managed to get licences for industries in an opaque manner.
Although there must have been many incidents of crony capitalism between 1947 and Indira Gandhi's early years, the change in outlook of the central government was triggered by her. She changed the law, making it illegal for companies to give donations to political parties, and then demanded cash instead of the earlier cheques from the very same companies. It was her nominee who was caught with a large amount of unaccounted cash withdrawn from a bank. Mrs. Gandhi changed the system and made it much less transparent — even totally opaque. She did another monumental disservice: she forced members of the bureaucracy, of the judiciary and others to become partisan — `you are with me or against me!' was her threat and demand. She called it `commitment'. The next major event was the growth of the company that became the largest in India under its amazingly resourceful and innovative leader. By making almost all IAS and other government officers partners in his company he overcame the `us and them' situation between government and his company (characteristic of government's attitude towards all business) into an `us only' position. He co-opted them so completely that he didn't need to lobby for most of his needs. If an advantage could be given to his company — be it at the cost of competitors or at the cost of the nation — it was given. The times he did need to lobby was when he wanted something done that even his shareholders felt was way out, like changing the import duty for a few days so that his huge consignments would gain a massive advantage over others. This company, under the son of that first leader, continues to use this leverage to this day, and it will do so for the foreseeable future.
That company is the greatest beneficiary of this sleight of hand, but its example has been followed by many `wannabes', and, more important, has loosened — even removed — the ethical straightjacket that the IAS always proudly wore until the infamous device mentioned above.
The third major event took place with the advent of coalition governments at the centre. I am not aware which was the first instance, but now it seems to have become standard practice for the major party in any coalition to pay the smaller ones as well as independents to keep the government afloat, or to vote for it during crises. Payment is obviously under the table, and in large amounts, and hence the need for even greater mountains of cash.
There was a time when politicians requested the rich for donations for elections. However, today they don't do that, unless they belong to small or very new parties. They use their or their party's leverage to take a percentage of the larger transactions by government to fund their treasury. Not only that: the amounts they are siphoning off are so large that it has no relationship with election costs any more. The larger amounts go to enrich the politicians themselves — perhaps even 95% of the pilfered money.
If one analyses some of the recent events, in particular the tussle on the issue of the Jan Lokpal Bill, it is clearly visible that just about all parties are on the same side, regardless of what they say in public. None of them wants a strong independent Lokpal. That would be tantamount to committing harakiri! What they are willing to have is what they have sent to the Rajya Sabha for passing — a toothless position fully controlled by the government of the day.
How can we define our current situation other than saying that a large majority of those who matter are crooks? Let us start with that:
The Indian state has been captured by crooks. This was stated in the introduction above. But what are the important symptoms of this condition?
There is rampant corruption wherever possible. Apart from the fact that any contact with government results in some demand or the other, one can feel the corruption in every aspect of its working. All decisions are flexible depending on who pays how much. The interest of the nation is sacrificed to personal greed of the worst kind. Money and goods meant for the poorest of the poor are shamelessly stolen. Roads are built with inferior material and fall apart in the rains.
No one at the top has formulated a vision for this country. No one speaks normally to the people of the nation. There is no direction — just an existence from day to day. There is no leadership in the proper sense of the term. Is the government working towards an objective? Does it have some larger goal in mind? Has it pronounced the pieces that need to fit together? Has it engaged the population in a discussion of any kind? This unconnectedness with the people, this lack of any focus, is the same, regardless of the government in power.
• Public Debate:
There is absolutely no effort at getting genuine public opinion on the vital issues that confront a rapidly changing society. There is no debate of any kind fostered by government. Whatever does happen is because of civil society, to which government is a reactionary force that is forever on the defensive. When government does things, it is with the arrogance of an autocrat rather than through building a consensus.
• Unwillingness/Inability to tackle the status quo:
There are vested interests in almost all situations, but governments have to deal with them when the need arises. Our government is so afraid of doing any such thing — be it taxing diesel cars and SUVs, or reducing the subsidies on various products, or allowing the courts to try government officials, or implementing judgments of the Supreme Court.
2. The Police
The Police are the problem instead of being the solution. Not only are they governed by an archaic law dating to the Indian Mutiny, the non-officers are treated like servants by their own superiors. They are basically trained to protect their bosses, and have no empathy for the people whom it should be their duty to serve in a democracy. Their conditions of service are some of the worst of any profession — 24 hours and longer duties, terrible living conditions, low wages, and much more. They are untrained for their role of caring for the citizen, and exhibit almost without exception a deeply negative attitude towards women. Even the very small changes the Supreme Court had mandated in 2006 have not been implemented, although what we need is the full implementation of the recommendations of the Soli Sorabjee Committee in the form of the Model Police Act, or something very similar to that (more on that later).
Currently their sins are many, summed up in the attitude of the normal citizen towards the police, which is to run away or be scared when approached by a policeman; and not to go to the police for help unless there is just no alternative. The sins are:
• Not registering complaints.
• Harassing complainants, often extracting money from them.
• Torturing alleged wrongdoers to extract confessions.
• Many `custodial deaths', which are more likely to be murders.
• Siding with local thugs instead of disciplining them.
• Siding with landlords in rural areas and acting against the poor and helpless.
• Extracting `hafta' from anyone they can, in particular street vendors, small shopkeepers, and all kinds of wrong-doers and criminals.
• Persecuting and harrasing victims of rape and other crimes against women.
• Poor prosecution of cases in court, leading to acquittal of even serious offenders, and/or to lengthy delays measured in years and even decades.
• Treating so-called VIPs with kid gloves, regardless of the seriousness of their offence.
In short, the behaviour of the police is more in line with that of criminals rather than of protectors of the citizen.
Police continue in the colonial mould — they treat normal people as those to be controlled and confronted, not served. They are there only to serve their masters — the politicians and bureaucrats, as well as those who pay illegally for the service.
Both police and the judiciary (especially the lower) are corrupt, which means that there is no real law & order because they are the face of government for the common man.
The police believes that the end justifies the means. Torture, falsifying or tampering with evidence, threatening witnesses and more are standard procedure.
To add to these traits of our police is the fact that they are pushed around by the politicians and bureaucrats because ultimate authority rests with them. The police are not permitted any independence in enforcing the law, even if they were so inclined. The politician forces them to be partisan, which means to be in favour of the party then in power. The bureaucrat controls their budget, their transfers and several other factors, and hence has enormous leverage over them. The result is that he doesn't act if it seems that it would bring some `higher authority' down on his head. People with connections get away literally with murder.
Law & order is in shambles. The most telling symptom is that the normal citizen will never go to a policeman for help unless there is just no option for him. A woman is in much greater danger since there is good reason to suspect that she will be maltreated and worse.
And to top it all, the normal policeman comes from a strata of society that is fundamentally backward when one uses the ideals of our constitution as a standard, or if one measures him against the outlook of the urban educated middle class. He (it is almost always a man) is likely to be of the view that it is permissible to beat one's wife, or to force one's wife to abort a female foetus, or to drink a lot, or to treat the poor citizen with great contempt. The suspicion is that many of them would molest or even rape if they felt they would get away with it. An article by Samar Halarnkar below gives the conditions under which our constabulary works and the repercussions in greater detail.
3. The Judiciary
The Judiciary has been granted a halo by the middle class of this country because of a few high-profile actions taken by the Supreme Court and some High Courts. However, the real assessment of justice delivered in India has to be done on three parameters:
Our judiciary is found wanting on all three counts. Not only is it wanting, it is so poor as to make justice almost totally absent for a very large percentage of our population. The time taken in our courts is legendary — there is no need to note the situation in detail except to say that the backlog is in crores of cases, and that virtually no case takes less than 10 years, and often more than 20 years. The inordinate delay means that justice is denied.
On quality there are three issues. Firstly, corruption has become a big element in our lower courts, but also with the higher judiciary. Corruption directly impacts outcome and therefore quality. Secondly, the extraordinary delays in court distort everything because witnesses and even litigants forget what happened, judges keep changing, people critical to a case die. As a result the outcome is often far from what it should be. Thirdly, the official prosecution in criminal cases in most parts of the country is so sloppy and lackadaisical that it leads to unnecessary acquittals, which in turn means that criminals are able to get away scot-free.
Cost is a factor of fees and the time it takes to finish a case. Most poor people have theoretical access to justice through the courts, but that is a chimera. They just can't afford to pay appearance fees for each hearing, and spend on travelling to the court each time, apart from having to lose a day's wage and more on each occasion. Therefore our courts are only for the better off, not for the poor who need this service the most.
There are several other factors that distort the judicial system. For one, at the lowest level the judiciary and the executive are combined in the person of the SDM or sub-divisional magistrate. This person is the face of government for many Indians, and he is Janus-faced, both actor and judge. This was meant to serve the British when they ruled India, but having allowed this and other such anomalies to continue has meant compromising with the principles of governance.
The second factor is that over time the judiciary has built a wall around itself such that it cannot be touched by anyone outside its inbred system. It is the judiciary that selects and appoints judges, that oversees its work, that disciplines its members, that reviews and elevates. Although it goes against any good system of government, it may even have been accepted had the Judiciary fulfilled its duties and obligations. However, despite clear evidence of wrongdoing and neglect, it has not taken action. In effect it has meant that the judiciary is above scrutiny, a totally unacceptable situation.
A third critical factor is the rampant delays in our courts. Part of this is due to the unimaginable leniency of the courts towards lawyers and litigants. If a participant has a pain in his stomach, the hearing is postponed, and that too by many months! If a lawyer has two cases running in different courts, that is considered enough reason to delay a case for — again — many months. By now the lawyers have developed a strong vested interest in this process because for each appearance, infructuous or not, they collect a fee from their poor client. The concept of taking a case and finishing it within hours or days just doesn't exist anymore. Although senior judges claim that they are overworked, it is seen on a day-to-day basis that many judges come late, go early, take unannounced leave, reserve judgment in cases for months and even longer (meaning that they don't dictate their decision), allow their relatives to practice law in the same jurisdiction, and much more. It is not a pretty picture.
Another reason for delays is the long court holidays in summer, which were a British need and have no place in India post independence. No country closes its courts for 7 weeks at a time. Apart from that the courts are closed for a week each in March and October, and for 2 weeks in December, taking the total of holidays to 11 weeks in addition to gazetted holidays.
A fourth factor is the unwillingness of the Executive to enlarge the courts by allotting more buildings and staff for the judiciary. This is a major issue in every courthouse. Added to this is another matter, which is the delay by the judiciary in filling vacancies.
A fifth one is that judges are not made to finish a case they are handling when they get transferred even within the same jurisdiction. The new judge then invariably wants the case to be argued afresh. There cannot be a more useless waste of time!
A matter of some importance is that around 60% of court cases are by or against government. Many of these are 2nd or 3rd appeals because government doesn't put a limit on its own appeals and no bureaucrat feels he can take a decision not to appeal further if the judgement has gone against government. Many other cases are for taxes, a significant percentage of which are frivolous because they are used to harass the taxpayer, especially the honest one.
Complicating everything is the issue of lawyers and their interests. There are many kinds of lawyers. One of them is the person who gets a degree from one of the best national or international institutions, and works with a senior lawyer, learns the ropes, and finally starts his/her own practice or joins a larger firm. However, the larger group is one where a person graduates in arts or science, is unable to get into a good institution or into a central service, and finally decides to do LLB wherever he gets admission. He then finds a way to start practicing, but is basically a reluctant lawyer who couldn't get into any other profession. There are others who fall in between somewhere, but the large majority practicing in the lower courts are of the reluctant type.
The problem with that is that there is immense competition in the lower courts. It is not easy to get a case for such a lawyer. So when he gets one, he desperately wants to milk it for whatever it is worth. Competition breeds insecurity, and that in turn leads these lawyers to behave rather negatively. Some of the types of behaviour it leads to are:
• If a litigant wants to replace his lawyer in a case, it is virtually impossible. The present lawyer will not give back all the papers and files on the case, and then many lawyers will not entertain the litigant.
• Lawyers are very keen to continue the system of adjournments for little or no reason because it gives them income for no work.
• Lawyers readily go on strike for reasons which are at times ridiculous. They have become violent on a number of occasions in different parts of the country.
• Their level of competence in many cases is dreadful, and they are not focused on their clients' interests. Often there is very little preparation before a hearing.
• There is often collusion between supposedly opposed lawyers to extend the case for their benefit.
• Lawyers are known to have been bribed by the other side, and have deliberately lost cases.
• The Bar Associations that represent lawyers exhibit an attitude very similar to the lowest common denominator amongst their tribe.
An indication of the laxity — even criminal laxity — with which our judicial system works is the behaviour of the so-called Public Notaries. In many instances we need a document to be notarised, which means certified to be correct and signed in the presence of the notary by a person known to the notary or conclusively identified by a passport or other ID. However, to rely on the Indian notary would be like driving blind. Any notary is willing to put his stamp on any document, with or without signatures, for a small fee. There have been instances where reporters have asked a notary to attest the most absurd things, including the President of India's signature, and he has done so without even looking!
The huge question that presents itself is that why doesn't the senior judiciary, the people who have arrogated to themselves the power to manage our system, learn from the better performing judicial systems in the world? There are many countries where justice is delivered more or less as it should be, and — at least in principle — it would be fairly simple to extrapolate and formulate a much better system for us. But it seems, based on the attitude and performance of our judicial leaders, that they have no interest in learning from the rest of the world.
Even that is not critical. It is possible to analyse the weaknesses of our system and to devise and implement strategies to overcome them. Even that has not happened, despite much talk and lots of reports by the Law Commission and others. Justice of the right quality, timely, and at a low cost is a critical element of any democracy. We don't have it, and there is absolutely no sign that we will have it in the future.
4. The Electoral System
We inherited an electoral system and decided to keep it. The reason seems to be that we had such a severe inferiority complex at the time of Independence that we reasoned: What is good for the Brits can only be perfect for us! This applies to much else in our laws and governance.
As Churchill's famous saying goes: "It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried." It may not be the worst when compared to other forms, but it is pretty bad. Especially our democracy.
The whole purpose of democracy and representative government is that since every citizen cannot be governing the nation, we have to decide who will govern on our behalf. Totalitarian systems don't ask their citizens who should run government, but in a democracy each adult is asked to vote for a candidate so that a person of our choice is sent to parliament and various other assemblies on our behalf.
But our democracy doesn't work like a democracy because it has caused very serious problems in our society, such as of corruption, money power and criminality, and a heightened awareness of differences and a diminishing one of commonalities.
What we have made of the system over these past 65 years is what we have to contend with now. The critical issues that bedevil us are:
• Election financing, and
• Enforcement of the law regarding election expenditure, party finances, etc.
But there are many others, and it is perhaps best to simply list them:
• The huge cost of fighting any election.
• The `first past the post' method of deciding elections.
• A person is permitted to fight from more than one constituency.
• Internal democracy of political parties.
• Audit of party finances.
• Financing of parties apart from election financing.
• Elections every year in some state or the other, or at the centre.
• Low turnout in many elections.
• Inaccurate voter lists.
• No residency requirement for the Lok Sabha or the Rajya Sabha.
• Nepotism in parties.
• Almost all parties giving tickets to wrong candidates.
The most vexing and damaging issue of all is that of financing of elections. In India, it seems that it is black money that finances almost all of every election. Since the amounts have escalated over the past three decades, the process of collecting money required for elections causes all kinds of aberrations in the behaviour of politicians, businessmen, bureaucrats and just about everyone else. Election funding is the patented excuse politicians use for justifying their corrupt practices, even though the amounts they apparently collect these days are several times those needed for elections. Most of the money presumably goes into their own pockets.
Other democracies, in particular the US, Germany and some other European nations, have evolved a system of election funding by the state. However, none of them are quite satisfactory. India will need to devise its own system because it seems that the existing ones would not serve us well. Part of that is because of culture, but more than that is the lack of law enforcement in India. Election funding is the reason for the shocking increase in criminals fighting and winning elections to our parliament and state assemblies. They are the ones who engage in smuggling and other lucrative but illegal activities, and who are able to coerce local businesses to contribute to their kitty. They browbeat and threaten opposing candidates as well as election officials. Earlier such criminal elements used to work for genuine politicians, but they soon realised that they could get elected themselves instead. For them election is an insurance against criminal proceedings.
Elections require too much money, and that money has to be raised privately, often by taking serious obligations towards donors. It encourages criminals to seek election. The election process should require very little money, and even that money, or a large part of it, should become available to the (genuine) politician through the state so that elected representatives are in no way beholden to any donor.
This is a major problem the world over. It leads to the worst kinds of nexus between the candidates and the financiers, often from the business/corporate world, but also from amongst various kinds of mafias (drugs, real estate, protection, mining, prostitution/trafficking, etc). Apart from small donations, money is generally given to get something in return. Sometimes that means a seat in the Rajya Sabha, but often it is to gain some advantage in licences, permissions, taxes, etc. or the cancellation or non-registration of criminal cases. Such a nexus goes completely against the concept of democracy. It means that it is not the voter or the citizen who empowers the candidate but the businessman with deep pockets or the successful crook.
In recent times this nexus has changed somewhat. Instead of seeking funds in the form of donations for elections, parties — especially those in power — extract a share from all big transactions that the state makes with parties abroad or in India. Examples are defence deals, purchase of petroleum, and other large transactions such as aeroplanes for Air India, or nuclear power plants, or ships. This frees the party from narrow obligations and gives it much more money than through donations. In addition, the money can be used for elections, for running the party between elections, and for personal enrichment. The money comes in handy for surviving political crises, for buying independent legislators, and for other such illegal activities.
No serious attempt has been made in India to solve this problem. It would not be surprising if there were several reports submitted by commissions formed for this purpose, but action taken so far is nil.
Enforcement of the law:
Everyone is aware of the illegalities indulged in by political parties, be it during elections or otherwise. First and foremost, every party is meant to have internal democracy in order to earn the tax exemption that parties are permitted under law. However, there is hardly any party that actually has elections. They are controlled by a few people at the top, possibly because those are the very same people who control the money. So far the Election Commission has not taken any serious steps to force the issue. If implemented effectively, it could change for the better the way all parties function.
That applies just as much to election expenditure, where it seems that a loophole has been opened. Whereas a candidate is severely limited in the amount he may spend during an election campaign, the party can spend a lot more (perhaps without limit) in the constituency for him. That really means that large parties don't have any restriction on election expenditures, which in turn severely restricts the ability of small parties or independent candidates to win an election.
The person elected from any constituency is elected, on average, by a small minority of eligible voters, and not by a majority. In India a parliamentary constituency consists of a large number of voters. Each eligible voter can only vote for one person out of a typical 7 or 8 candidates. Let us assume that in a hypothetical case the winner gets 33% of the votes cast, and that about 60% of the eligible voters actually cast their votes. If we multiply both these figures, it gives us about 20%. Of the entire constituency just 20% of the voters voted positively for this person, who will now go and speak for all of us. Persons elected to parliament represent a fraction well below half of the constituency they represent, very often even below a quarter.
There are several layers of elected government. Currently there is no mechanism by which all levels could be elected simultaneously. The consequence is that some kind of election is taking place every few months, which in turn makes the government act in election mode almost all the time. This means that essential but possibly unpopular decisions are postponed `until after the coming elections'. It also means that there is a stream of populist decisions and actions which are largely detrimental to the interests of the people in general. Were all levels of government to be elected together every 4 or 5 years at predictable intervals, it would enable governments to act rationally most of the time. This is difficult in the current parliamentary system, but a good solution needs to be found.
Our constitution permits persons to stand for election from two or more constituencies; and it permits people to stand from a constituency with which they have had absolutely no connection previously. A person elected from a constituency represents the people of that area and their interests. These are not just items on a list. The person must feel for the constituency, must identify with it, must be acutely aware of its problems and its opportunities, of its needs, of its history and geography. He must speak its language, know its customs. The only way to try to ensure this is with a residency requirement. There may be other solutions that are as good or better. But some such thing is necessary to make a person truly represent a constituency.
A corollary of this need is that a person cannot possibly represent 2 constituencies. Apart from that, it is an aberration in our election law that permits a person to stand from two places it completely defies logic!
There is no doubt that India has one of the best records in sustaining democracy in large developing countries, but that is not because we have been particularly good. It has more to do with the even worse conditions prevailing in other democracies.
The purpose of a parliament is that representatives of the people bring up issues of importance to the nation, debate them and view them from all sides, and finally take decisions. The objective at all times is meant to be the interest of the nation and of its people. This is fine in theory, but in practice it just doesn't happen in India.
Firstly, parliamentary debate has been curtailed by several steps taken by political parties. One of them is the frequent, almost constant, use of whips. That means that regardless of what anyone says, the party in power is going to push through what it has proposed. There is no space for discussion and negotiation. That leaves no incentive for the ruling party members to discuss anything if a decision has already been taken.
If a whip is issued in rare circumstances that are critical to the ruling party or coalition, one could still understand it, but whips on normal issues have to be avoided. Parties use it freely instead of having an internal discussion to explain and persuade its own members to accept the stand of the leadership, or accept suggestions for change.
It seems the Haryana Assembly has set a record of sorts (and continues to do so in every session) because a Bill is introduced in that assembly and passed within an hour without any discussion and without even the ruling party MLAs knowing the content of the Bill! The legislature exists only in name and has been fully and completely emasculated!!
Both houses at the central level and all the state assemblies have a larger proportion of those accused of serious crimes like murder and rape after each election. Today around a third of MPs and MLA fall in this category.
A reason for the lack of or the low quality of debates is that there are few parliamentarians with the ability to debate. Instead of debates there are now shouting matches, which neither the ruling coalition nor the opposition do anything to curtail. In fact the trend of the past few years is that the impotent opposition descends into the well of the House and disrupts parliament altogether. The entire purpose of a session of parliament is reduced to a big bad joke.
We elect our representatives to parliament or assembly so that he may exercise his mind on all matters that come before the house and help the house come to the best possible decision, keeping the interests of our constituency in mind. This is the theory. However, this doesn't happen. And because it doesn't happen, our democracy is there only in theory, not in practice.
The first reason why it doesn't happen is that there is no consequence for a member of the legislature for non-performance, be it because of laziness, callousness, ignorance, or because he is too involved in matters other than those before the house and government. The ability to vote him out after 5 years is not a good enough tool. Five years is a very long time to be poorly represented. There should be some method of appraising each person in parliament/assembly so that his constituency learns of his actions and inactions, and is able to replace him mid-term.
Considering the type of people in the legislatures, these don't function for long periods because they flout all norms and disrupt proceedings as a matter of course. They seem not to have even the slightest interest in the well-being of the nation, in fulfilling their role as legislators, in being role models for the people of this country.
There is near unanimity amongst MPs on two types of issues. Firstly, when there is something in it for them, e.g. raising their own salaries and perquisites; and secondly, when something threatens them, e.g. the Jan Lokpal Bill.
6. Government, or the Executive
The executive has by far the most complex task out of all the branches of government. One of them — law & order through the police — has already been detailed above. It has been segregated because it is of such vital concern for the individual, particularly for the poor and the weak. However, there are so many matters in the executive's responsibility area that are out of control and which are of vital interest to the people. Let us just take the examples of school education and of primary health care, both of which are of great importance for the poor. One can put the condition of both these services in a simple sentence: They are in a disastrous condition.
An example: School Education
It is not that the central and state governments don't know about the parlous state of education. They even know the reasons. But their response to pressure for improvement was not to improve it, but to pass the buck by passing the Right to Education Act (RTE). Nothing changes in government schools. The entire burden of non-performance of the government system is shifted to private schools. Centre - State Relations:
The Constitution defines the powers of the central government and the state governments by subject. In those matters that fall strictly in the states' area, the central government makes schemes and provides money if the state will do what the centre prescribes. Although states normally do not complain about this, or don't complain much, the fact is that the centre is actively subverting the constitution. If education needs more investment, the centre should simply give more to each state according to a reasonable criterion.
Even otherwise, the central government plays politics with the state governments, favouring those led by their own party.
The state governments have to negotiate their financial requirements with the Planning Commission, a moribund organisation that should have been `deleted' a long time ago.
73rd and 74th Amendments — Local Self-Government:
Despite suitable amendments to the constitution a long time ago, democracy of a kind exists today only at the state and national levels. An average state in India (if one leaves out the union territories, the north-eastern states, and the mountain states) has some 60 million people, and is easily comparable to a large European country such as the UK, France or Italy. UP on its own would be the 5th largest country in the world larger than Brazil, Russia or Japan; Maharashtra the 11th (as large as Mexico), and Bihar the 13th bigger than Philippines, Germany or Egypt. Despite their huge populations and physical spread, our states rule their citizens from the state capital. There is virtually no democracy at any lower level. This is not to say that there are no other governments, but that they have no effective authority, and are toothless formalities. Each district is supposed to have a zilla parishad, and many have it. However, power is effectively in the hands of the DC and his team of bureaucrats who report directly to the state government.
In our context even a district is large. The average population per district is around 2 million. There are meant to be a further two layers of democratic governments below the zilla parishad, but they fare even worse than the district level governments. This is in rural India. Urban governance is just as undemocratic. A large percentage of our towns and cities don't have a representative government. They are often run by an IAS person sent by the state. Citizens and localities have little if any say in how their area should be shaped and where money should be spent. Everything is decided at some faraway place in an opaque manner by people who have little if any local knowledge and even less interest. In addition, bureaucrats are transferred frequently, leading to disruption in any ongoing work.
The most important layers of government at the grass roots are missing in India. Democracy should begin at the grass-roots and only from there go further until it reaches the national level. All decisions that can be taken locally must be taken locally.
Age incapacitates, as does incompetence:
It often happens that our leaders at centre and state are so old that their energy and their ambitions to achieve are at low levels, and their ability to relate to the large majority of people, who are a generation or two younger, no longer exists. They become caricatures of themselves when they were much younger. The consequences for the nation and for the state are very high, because it is these leaders who have to take the vital decisions and to lead the government they belong to. If they are physically and/or mentally handicapped by age, it becomes a serious deficiency for the nation or state. The only solution is an age limit for candidates for election. Very old people in government are a big obstacle for good governance and are detrimental to the interests of the people.
There is no shortage of talented, intelligent, committed, capable people in India. And yet we end up with persons like Chandrashekhar, Deve Gowda, Manmohan Singh and V P Singh as prime minister. The same applies to chief ministers of states, and to ministers at the centre and states. And yet we have amongst the world's best managers and entrepreneurs, lawyers, scientists and doctors. The impact that a political leader has on the people of our country is much greater than that of any other profession. This is where the talent should be, and where it is not going. People at the helm of affairs at the centre and at the states are most often of a mediocre calibre or worse. There is a serious shortage of competence in leadership, and in a commitment to the interests of the nation in our politics.
Corruption is endemic in all parts of government — the political and bureaucratic levels — which results in their neglecting their responsibilities, apart from significantly reducing the amount of money available for development and other expenditure. It isn't the taxpayers who really suffer. It is those for whom that money that is stolen was to be spent. Often enough the money comes from schemes meant for the very poor. Prominent examples are Adarsh Society, and, much more, MGNREGA.
Government has taken on a colonial autocratic attitude, where all protests are viewed as an attack on the nation. Tolerance for a different opinion, or for protests has vanished altogether. Protests are the natural and normal expressions of the citizenry when it feels oppressed or wronged in any serious manner.
There is little effort to reform or replace laws, processes, procedures that have become outdated (or that were already outdated at the time of Independence) or have proven to be wrong or ineffective. Even those revisions that are taken up take years to formulate and pass. New laws are often poorly drafted, resulting in a lot of unnecessary litigation.
Apart from a handful of newspapers, there is none that considers the press as a pillar of democracy any longer. Newspaper publishing as well as television broadcasting have been converted into pure business enterprises, which means that profit maximisation is the creed. This leads to several aberrations, which are in conflict with the role ascribed to the media in a democracy.
Many newspapers, including the ones with the largest circulation, have been resorting to `paid news'. Such a step is without precedence and is completely retrograde, illegal, and immoral.
Even without a clear contract like in paid news, the media is beholden to its advertisers, in particular to the large ones. It tends to ignore news that would injure the interests of such advertisers, or place it in a small para where people generally don't read.
Some of the larger news channels are beholden to one of the very large business empires because they have been given massive loans or because their shares have been bought up by them.
Several news channels have chosen a highly subjective stance, and are rightly ridiculed for trying to ram a viewpoint down everyone's throats. The anchor's view simply has to prevail, and everyone who disagrees is basically an idiot.
Comments of Mr. Kamal Jaswal
Your comprehensive note effectively deals with almost all important aspects of economic and fiscal policy that need to be fixed. I would, however, flag a few more for your consideration. • It is generally recognized that our flawed electoral system is the Gangotri of Corruption and the fountainhead of the black economy. We cannot hope to address this issue without revisiting the Westminster Model that we have unthinkingly adopted from the British. It has led to a noxious concentration of powers in the hands of the political executive by obliterating the boundary between the executive and the legislature and vesting the ultimate authority in both these domains in the government. The `First Past the Post' system has raised the electoral stakes to unconscionable levels, encouraging the political parties as well as the candidates to go flat out and use any means - money power, muscle power and divisive identity politics - to achieve their ends. We need to make an objective analysis of alternative arrangements and dispensations and adapt the international best practices to evolve our own system to suit our requirements.
• The discretionary powers of the political executive and the bureaucracy must be circumscribed by objective norms, predictable rules and a demonstrable public interest and their breach sanctioned by public disgrace and disciplinary action. The abuse of discretionary powers is not always for pecuniary considerations; it may inter alia take the form of appointment of subservient civil servants and camp followers to high public offices, disproportionate public investment in VVIP constituencies, creation of unnecessary new administrative units, and special recruitment drives to further the ends of the political executive.
• In many areas of economic policy, which play an important role in generating black money, the margin of manoeuvre for reform is severely constrained by legacy systems and the vested interests fostered by them. The reform of the PDS is hampered by a gargantuan FCI that cannot be dismantled. The State Electricity Boards- and the corporate entities created by unbundling their functions- come in the way of power sector reform. The Administered Price Mechanism for petroleum products survives long after a formal decision to dismantle it. The Retention Price policy for urea, which provides a perverse incentive for gold plating of capacities and jacking up of investment costs and keeps obsolescent, inefficient producers in business, endures, notwithstanding the fervent pleas of a succession of expert groups for scrapping it. The tentative reform initiatives in these sectors cannot be taken to their logical corollary without an unwavering political will and a capacity to bear short-term pain. The same is true of long-pending taxation reforms, such as Direct Tax Code and Integrated Goods & Services Tax.
• The National e-Governance Plan, which has the potential to transform the government-citizen, government-business and government-government interfaces, seems to have lost its momentum and is suffering from the lack of a champion. The mantle of champion must be worn by the chief political executive, or a charismatic figure.
• A beginning has been made in the direction of extending statutory guarantees for a variety of citizen services. However, the delivery of services will not improve only by the enactment of laws in this regard, or by the induction of Information & Communication Technology. The supply side has to be improved, otherwise a new parasitic class of mediators and touts will emerge, as exemplified by Passport application interviews, for which appointments are almost impossible to secure online, but can readily be secured by well entrenched agents for a consideration.
• The growing Bureaucracy - Big Business nexus must be broken by prohibiting the employment of senior public servants (joint secretary equivalent and above) in business enterprises, trade associations and consultancies providing liaison services.
Response of Mr. Vikram Lal
Thank you for your inputs. They are very relevant, and add the missing chunks in the narrative. …