Sunday, February 05, 2012

Democracy under Stress

Judiciary, of late, has been very critical of the Executive as is evident from the rising number of Government actions failing to stand judicial scrutiny. In the rising multitude of indictments, the latest was cancellation of 121 licenses in 2-G spectrum scam, soon followed by the Supreme Court’s yet another rebuke to the Government over its ‘vitiated decision making process’ in the case of Army Chief’s age goof-up. The parliamentary process has been virtually at a standstill without any worthwhile legislative business being conducted in the last two sessions.  Having failed to implement some of its choicest policies like FDI recently, the ‘Roll back Government’ has also demoralised the otherwise upswing corporate India, as indicated by a Group of eminent citizens including former judges and corporate leaders like Azim Premji, Deepak Parekh and Narayan Vaghul who wrote to the Prime Minister in October last year exhorting him to act against the "strong nexus between certain corporates, bureaucrats and power-brokers – the most serious threat to Indian economy.” The scenario is worrisome – is the Government collapsing?
Irony is that despite a growing economy, terrorism on the ebb and borders relatively calm, Indian Democracy is facing its worst threats from within. While a number of factors can be blamed for the on-going deterioration, three main causes that need to be immediately attended are briefly discussed here. Once they are fixed, rest of the malady will automatically get fixed because it draws life from these three.
Degeneration of Political Parties
Political parties in India have largely lost their representative character and metamorphosed into family controlled fiefdoms – a phenomenon that is audaciously blunt and open throughout the country. Distribution of tickets has nothing to do with people’s opinion about the candidate or his/her personal qualities and abilities.  All that is required is his ‘loyalty rating for the Party’ (read Family) and ‘winnability’ which means ‘muscle power and/or money power’ in the local area. A survey by ‘Association for Democratic Reforms’ (ADR) shows that all Parties have more or less equal share of criminals in the polls. Party high commands thus surround themselves with a select group of loyalists who settle down in power positions to serve the ‘boss’ for the coming five years.  Today, there are cabinet ministers who are in their seats not because of their abilities or grass-root level powerbase but because of their proximity to the Party boss.
Therefore, to make Party nominations more representative and genuinely democratic, it is desirable to make it mandatory for all parties to follow a streamlined procedure whereby the most popular grass root workers win Party nominations to contest elections as true representatives of the people. Electoral reforms have been much debated yet overdue.   
Power without Accountability
                India has the distinction of having world’s most learned Prime Minister. What an irony that Mr Manmohan Singh has also been labelled as the most ‘dysfunctional Prime Minister’ and as ‘an honest Prime Minister of the most corrupt Government’. A serious handicap of the coalition government being experienced is that coalition partners often indulge in blackmailing the lead Party and take their independent decisions ignoring the Prime Minister who has had to reluctantly acquiesce to uncomfortable decisions.  A Raja issuing 2-G licenses is a case in point.
                Besides the coercive coalition partners, two power centres outside the Government have emerged so domineering that the institution of Prime Minister has been further degraded. The power of the Government has drifted from South Block to 10, Janpath from where Sonia Gandhi’s countenance carries more compelling power than Prime Minister’s directions to his ministers and officers. Rahul Gandhi, in his rehearsals for his future role, is seemingly overseeing the Prime Ministerial functions.  These extra-constitutional centres of power have created peculiar problems in the Government functioning because those who have all the accountability have no power, and those who have all the power have no accountability whatsoever.  This has not only imbalanced the government’s power structure but also marred intrinsic responsibility, speed and efficiency at the highest levels.
                Given their awesome stature in the Congress Party and an unelected Prime Minister heading a coalition Government, it is impractical to visualise the Government functioning free from the Sonia-Rahul influence.  If so, it is even more desirable that the duo should join the Government and bear accountability for their roles in decision-making.  Secondly, institutionalising a strong and independent Lokpal with its own investigative arm is essential to redeem the government from diarchy and restore its fading credibility.
Callous, Inefficient and Arrogant Bureaucracy    
                Numerous panels convened by the Government including Administrative Reforms Commission, Police Reforms Commission, Law Commission, Election Commission and others have recommended significant steps to revamp the administrative structure that could provide an honest, efficient and responsive system to ensure good governance. All those recommendations are today collecting dust in backrooms of departments concerned and, what is surprising, the government does not seem to bother about these despite reminders from the Supreme Court. One wonders at the temerity of the government functionaries not attending to Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) and the CBI requests for prosecution of delinquent officers for years and decades. As revealed by the CBI sources, requests for prosecution are pending against 169 officers – 147 of them being senior bureaucrats – for over a decade! Such a system naturally promotes corruption and inefficiency as the culprits feel immune and beyond law. Again, it had to be the Supreme Court to lay down a four months’ time limit for the Government decision failing which the prosecution can commence without further waiting for the Government sanction.  
                Another vital aspect is the bureaucracy lacking in specialisation of the departments they are required to manage and coordinate. It is common to find IAS officers of various seniorities shifting from one ministry to another without much consideration as to how they fit in the new job ahead.  Little wonder that they keep decisions pending and whenever a crucial decision is taken, it often leads to embarrassment to the Government.  The Supreme Court’s rebuke to the government for its ‘vitiated decision making process’ in the case of country’s Army Chief’s age controversy exposes the naiveté of senior bureaucrats in the Ministry of Defence where they specialise more on tourism and commerce without much idea about national defence, security and military affairs.  
                These are times of high-speed decision making keeping vigil on internal and external repercussions.  It is therefore necessary that technocrats, professionals and experts must replace the generalists – jack-of-all-trades, master of none – in key positions in the ministries and departments. By the time IAS officers acquire a particular level, say Director level, they must be required to opt for a specialised field like Finance, Defence etc whereupon they would be required to hone up their expertise through appropriately structured courses field tenures for on-the-job exposure before they are called upon to manage and coordinate departments and ministries.   
                Governance in India needs immediate inner cleansing – perhaps a thorough servicing and overhaul – to save itself and the country from a veritable disaster.  

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