They, the politicians of India...

The democratic legitimisation of even miniscule electoral mandates has made the political class arrogant, corrupt and negligent of all norms of governance.

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Meghnad Desai | February 13, 2010




Governance was the buzzword of the 1990s. The Cold War was over and ideology was dead. There was no battle about grand issues. Markets were here to stay as were governments. Governments were to regulate markets. But citizens were to be treated like sovereign consumers. Hence the quality of government had to be improved. As no one wanted to be judgmental about the bewildering variety of governments in power (a decade before WMD and Iraq), the idea of governance took hold.

Governance is a bloodless word. It signifies institutions and rules and norms. No actual people are involved in the notion. It asks us whether rules are being followed, whether transparency and accountability and sustainability etc are followed. This helps foreign funders of NGOs and foreign aid givers for public projects.

India is in many ways ideal for such exercises. It has probably the most elaborate structure of rules and norms and requirements and procedures laid down in great detail. There is the constitution and the legal framework inherited from the British with its norms and practices, rules of civil service engagements and fundamental rights of citizens, with official bodies to hear complaints and promise succour.

Yet it does not work.

India amazes the world with a most vibrant democracy where elections can be conducted with 700 million voters and governments at centre and states that come and go peacefully. But in the wake of these elections, governments are formed which are grossly negligent of all the norms of governance, let alone good governance. Legislators claim privileges and perks, presume immunity with impunity. Those in the executive are even grander, in their greed and their arrogance. Murderers and grossly corrupt people have continued to occupy office, even brought back from a temporary lapse from power. This is true of most political parties, secular or not. Incoming governments indulge in ‘regime revenge’ and reverse the policies of the previous lot, transfer vast numbers of civil servants, police and judicial personnel. The party in power, however recently, passes on its arrogance to its members who go out to extort money from anyone and everyone to whom they have done a favour and failure to shell out the tribute can lead to assault or even murder.

Financial corruption has passed all limits. There are ministries in the central government blatantly known as ATM ministries. Madhu Koda, Lalu Yadav, Shibu Soren... one could go on and build a huge wailing wall of the grand corrupt. Civil servants have joined in and the sums are no longer merely in lakhs or even crores but hundreds of crores if you are in the ATM ministries. No one expects to be caught or punished if caught.

The arrogance is passed on to the officials down the line. Police officers behave like feudal lords as the Ruchika Girhotra case shows. They harass and intimidate citizens. Everyone in an official capacity takes bribes (except the prime minister, of course). Transparency International has shown that in India the poor, that is, those below the poverty line (BPL), gave Rs.800 crore of bribes to obtain documents and services they are entitled to.

The Ruchika case as well as the aftermath of the 1984  Delhi pogrom against the Sikhs show that one way in which the formal structures of law and order work is to cause immense delay in the delivery of justice Files can be made to move slowly, or even lost. Witnesses can be suborned and even get lost until suddenly found when the party in power changes.

Why is this the case?

My view is that democratic legitimisation in India has given the elected the idea that they have a right to behave as if they are above the law. It was not so during Nehru’s or Shastri’s days. But Indira Gandhi began the doctrine of ‘mandate’ given that even in the days of Congress dominance, about 65 percent of the electorate voted and the winning party got 40 percent of the votes cast, only about a quarter of the electorate had supported the majority party. But on that flimsy basis, the argument was made that the government once elected had the mandate to do anything including subverting the judiciary. Inner party democracy died in the Congress first and then across the entire political culture. Party leadership became a license, indeed an obligation, to amass vast sums of money.

The bureaucracy – civil service, police, lower judiciary – was used to being above the people in the colonial days. After two decades of good behaviour – 1947-67, old habits resumed now with democratic sanction from the masters. Indira Gandhi steadily eliminated all public space which was neutral and outside electoral politics. It served the opposition parties well to go along since they could do the same when in office. Since the oldest and the most respected party inaugurated such behaviour and had at its behest ‘intellectuals and ideologues’ who would conjure up academically respectable excuses for such ‘legitimate’ behaviour.

India has become a strange combination of a people’s democracy but with multiple party contestation. Any party in power could behave like an authoritarian power legitimated by the electorate. The decline of the Congress hegemony after 1989 made the corrupt fruits of office available to many more political parties. Indeed, having your own party is perhaps the quickest way to amass a vast fortune in India. This is why the Hindu joint family has become a safe way to form the core of the party. Mandalisation helped this process by slicing the electorate in hundreds of jati slices.

What is to be done?

Democracy is not – despite what its detractors say – just an infrequent exercise in casting your vote. The right to vote is also the right to demand performance, not just at election time but every day. The citizens in other democracies often can use opposition parties or even the non-legislative parts of their own party when in power to initiate protests and demands for redress. I know this from my own experience in the UK. Every ruling party has an opposition faction which hopes to use the inner party democracy to effect.

There are no such inner party structures in India. If you want to disagree with the party potentate all you can do is secede and start your own party. This is no help for citizens. Hence it can only be civil society organisations, hopefully democratically structured, which must take the place of the missing opposition. It is a thankless task and if you try to finance it through donations you only lay yourself open to harassment by the powers that be. Yet it must be done. The PIL movement has shown that despite many frivolous examples it remains a powerful weapon.

The judiciary has so far been almost clean though lately even there we see the spread of financial corruption. There is still a capacity within the judiciary to question the legislature and the executive. But the initiative has to come from the public either via PIL or public protests.

I am most hopeful about the media especially the new technology of viewers contributing via their mobiles graphic pictures of political misbehaviour. Police brutality in the backwaters of Bihar can be captured instantly and make headlines. The Ruchika and Jessica Lal cases would never have got far without the oxygen of 24x7 media.

Yet the challenge remains. The problem is of improving the quality of governments, of the political personnel. It is of making the democratically elected more aware of their dubious claims of legitimacy. For as long as there are bad governments, there can be no good governance.

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