Who's damaging India's democratic institutions?

If the assault on our institutions persists, the confidence that the people of India have in these bodies will erode and weaken the very pillars of the democracy.

By Shashi Tharoor (Centrepiece)

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Published: Sat 12 Jan 2019, 9:04 PM

Last updated: Sat 12 Jan 2019, 11:07 PM

The blistering media cycle around the state elections in India in December last year was temporarily suspended by the announcement that Shaktikanta Das, a former IAS officer, would take over as the 25th Governor of the Reserve Bank of India. He was the government's preferred resource for damage control, following the abrupt departure of Urjit Patel, who, citing 'personal reasons', stepped down from the helm of India's central fiduciary body on December 10, following a well-publicised standoff with the BJP-led central government.
History certainly seems to have an interesting way of repeating itself: just a few years back, Patel was the government's blue-eyed boy, widely regarded as the most acceptable choice to succeed his predecessor, Raghuram Rajan, who despite a stellar record was not offered an extension by the Modi government.
Unfortunately for him, in an era where the currency of a 'Patel' has reached historic heights in the country, this Patel is likely to be remembered for having had the shortest tenure as India's top banker in over three decades.
The choice of Shaktikanta Das is intriguing. Though undoubtedly a veteran bureaucrat, with an extensive record, that he is the first Governor in recent history without a background in Economics or Finance (he holds a Master's degree in History) is unlikely to help win the ongoing perception battle the RBI is finding itself in; and Twitter wasted little time (as it seldom does) dissecting what was regarded as another blunder of 'Modinomics'. He is viewed in many quarters as the 'face' of the government's disastrous demonetisation drive of November 2016. At a time when the autonomy of the bank has been slowly but surely compromised, as Deputy Governor Viral Acharya's recent warning made clear, the decision to select someone who may be more 'amenable' towards the whims of the ruling party has naturally drawn flak - particularly given how thoroughly the RBI, his new work address, was discredited by demonetisation, an episode in which it was widely denounced for failing to perform its fiduciary duties.
A spate of similar high-profile departures across the board during the tenure of the Modi government is a telling sign that all is not well. Between the exits of Patel and Rajan in 2018 and 2016, respectively, the country was also confronted with the departure of Arvind Subramanian, the former Chief Economic Advisor who stepped down prematurely in June, Arvind Panagariya, Vice-Chairman of the Niti Aayog who, rumour has it, wasn't much liked by the RSS, and the economist Surjit Bhalla, a member of the Prime Minister's Economic Advisory Council-prompting one journalist from CNBC to point out: "It's hard for any government to match the record levels of staff turnover at President Donald Trump's White House, but Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's administration appears to be slowly catching up."
The comparison is, in a sense, a striking reflection of a much larger atrophy within India's premier public institutions under the Modi regime. In India's case, a list of such institutions would include financial regulators like the RBI; the judiciary, headed by the Supreme Court; the investigative agencies; the Election Commission, which organises, conducts and rules on the country's general and state elections; the Armed Forces; institutions of accountability like the Central Information Commission; the elected legislatures; and the free press. Every one of these priceless institutions has come under threat in the last four years, as an assertive Hindu-chauvinist BJP Government moves to consolidate its power in the world's largest democracy.
Part of the reason behind this systemic onslaught stems from the Moditva doctrine and the inherently autocratic concentration of power that has developed into a definitive feature of this credo. What does this mean? Moditva articulates a cultural nationalism anchored in the RSS political doctrine of Hindutva, but extending beyond it. On top of this foundation of Hindutva, it builds the idea of a strong leader, a man with a 56-inch chest, powerful and decisive, who embodies the nation and will lead it to triumph. This is the element that makes 'Moditva' the ruling credo. Similarly, Moditva adores its leader; on top of a purely BJP government, we see a fiery and articulate ideologue, projected as all-knowing and infallible, the hero on a white stallion who will gallop at the head of the nation's massed forces with sword upraised, knowing all the answers, ready to cut the Gordian knots of the nation's problems.
Autonomous public institutions threaten the dominance of the Moditva doctrine because, by design, they are independent institutions with specialised mandates and commitments that consequently challenge the oversized cult of personality that Modi adorns. Naturally, when these institutions refuse to convert themselves into rubber stamps for whatever the ruling party wants done (as the standoff between the RBI and the Centre illustrates), the government's response appears to be to cut these institutions off at their knees or interfere with the independence that is a defining feature of these bodies.
Under the BJP, another well-publicised war of attrition has been taking place within the CBI, memorably described as a 'caged parrot'. Its investigations and indictments, once seen as the gold standard of Indian crime-fighting, are now seen too often as purely politically motivated. Similarly, the judicial system, traditionally above the cut-and- thrust of the political fray, has come under withering scrutiny since last January, when the four senior-most judges of the Supreme Court (including one who would eventually become the current Chief Justice) held an unprecedented press conference to question the decisions of then Chief Justice Dipak Misra in allocating cases to his favourite judges as 'master of the roster'.
Their elliptical comments appeared to imply the Chief Justice was unduly seeking outcomes to favour the Government.
This technique, the use of inertia as a tool to achieve political objectives, is a hallmark of the BJP's abuse of institutions: positions are left vacant despite the availability of information on when individuals are going to retire, weeding out contenders, thus paving the way for a political favourite.
This does not bode well for the future of our Indian democracy. If the assault on our institutions persists, the confidence that the people of India have in these bodies will erode steadily and, in doing so, weaken the very pillars of the democracy that we take for granted today. Political parties and ruling powers will come and go, but these institutions are the enduring pillars of any democracy, whose independence, integrity and professionalism are meant to inure them from political pressures of the day. However, as India has undergone significant transformations - economic, social and political - in 70 years of independence, our public institutions have failed to keep pace. India faces major challenges, but our evolution will be held back if the Modi government continues to undermine the institutions required to manage our responses to these.
-Open magazine
Shashi Tharoor is a Member of Indian Parliament

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