CRISIS OF GOVERNANCE –AN INDIAN EXPERIENCE
Syed Ali Mujtaba
When it comes to governance, India is a functional democracy. Like any other democratic system of governance, Indian democracy is also based on five pillars; the legislature, the judiciary, the bureaucracy, the media and the civil society. When we look at the architecture of Indian governance, it’s a picture of perfect imperfect. Each pillar stands on a shaky base. India suffers from a crisis of governance. This paper examines the apparatus of Indian democracy and comes up with suggestions as how to ameliorate the ills of governance. Let me prefix saying I am looking at this topic as a glass that is half empty, though some may as well view it as half full.
India has a bicameral legislature. The lower house or Lok Sabha comprises of 543 elected members. The Upper house or Rajya Sabha has 250 members, 12 nominated by the President, rest elected through an Electoral College comprising of central and provincial legislatures.
The legislature actually represents the people of the country and reflects the quality of governance. Even though India has undergone 14 elections, it’s still plagued with a faulty composition of its central legislature. There are various issues that need to be looked into when we talk about legislative reforms.
The foremost is the absence of democracy within the political parties. What is being witnessed is a tendency to shed democratic values and revel in promoting hereditary leadership in the party. A cursory look at many political parties reveals they are run like a personal fiefdom with an aura of dynastic rule. This stultifies the essence of democracy and diminishes the self- esteem of the people.
It is imperative in a parliamentary democracy, whether of the Westminster type or other, the Prime Minister should earn a seat in the Lok Sabha and should be the elected leader of the party. In the outgoing 14 Lok Sabha, the Prime Minister was inducted into the upper house through party’s electoral strength in the Electoral College. This backdoor democracy does not auger well for setting the standards of the governance in India.
Another anomaly of Indian democracy is it’s unable to prevent people of criminal background to get elected to the Parliament. Since considerable percentage of electorates are illiterate and are not well informed, persons with tainted records use money and muscle power to get elected. The 14th Lok Sabha had 25 per cent representatives with tainted background. How can a country get quality governance when corrupt and dishonest people sit in its Parliament? Necessarily, some method has to be found to cleanse the legislature of people having dubious record.
The crisis of governance begins with the electoral alliance that’s stitched to form a ruling coalition. The ‘coalition Dharma’ now drives the cart of Indian governance. Since such alliances are cobbled after the elections, electorates have little role in its formation. What is seen is for crumbs of power ideological polarization are being overlooked and unholy alliances are stitched. Some fringe parties are roped into such alliances and “Independents” have field day extracting their pound of flesh. Such make shift arrangements of governance blocks development of the country.
The political parties in order to continue its activities and to contest elections require huge money. The corporate houses in order to flourish in business need political protection. So a nexus has developed between the political parties and the corporate houses. It has undermined the idea that India is a socialist republic. The political- corporate nexus is undermining the desire of good governance.
As far as politicians are concerned they are popularly viewed as the fountainhead of corruption. The talk on the street is, election is a business where investments are made for contesting polls and returns are guaranteed after getting elected. The disproportionate assets of the politicians tell the tales of corruption in India. Unless corruption is weeded out from the body politics, India may continue to suffer from the crisis of governance.
The political executive is assisted by a permanent administration or the bureaucracy. India has two tire of bureaucracy; one belongs to the central government, other to the provincial. Both have two component; one civil administration and second law and order maintenance. This structure of governance was established under the colonial rule to administer India from Great Britain. After independence, the mental makeup of Indian bureaucracy has hardly undergone any change. The governance as a result has made little progress over a period of time.
Indian bureaucracy is popularly viewed as an institution of inefficient, ineffective, obstinate, obstructive, self-serving, unaccountable, and corrupt individuals. Obviously people shape up opinion not in vacuum but only after their interaction with those in administration. It would be no mean task to reform this machine that swears to usher an ideal civil society.
The relationship of the government officials with the people still has colonial overtone. A common Indian is scared to meet government officials and see them as a symbol of state power. At same time, the government officials too maintain a distance from the people. The general public cannot have direct audience with administrative officials and the grievances have to be routed through a battery of the peons and clerks of that office. There is hardly any change in the mechanism and attitude of governance even 60 years of independence. Unless the colonial structure of bureaucracy is dismantled, little progress could be expected in the quality of governance.
Indians are brought up with the idea that bureaucracy is the steel frame of India, a stable system that provides continuity to the governance. Indian experience suggests our failures on development are more due to poor management of the country. When laws are passed but not implemented, or implemented without fair application or with incredible delay; the crisis of governance is more profound. This includes the police that uphold the rule of law. In such situation ordinary people imagine they are still under an alien rule and lack trust in the impartiality of governance. In democratic systems, it is important that people should have an unstinted faith on those who hold the reins of governance and any image contrary to that reflects a crisis situation.
The judiciary in India is also a colonial legacy. According to Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer "Indian justice system still has the tenor of the British band and lacks the notes of Bharat’s veena."
Indian judiciary is based on three tire system. The Supreme Court is the fountain of justice. High Court is the highest judicial body in a state. The lower courts in the districts form the third tire of judiciary.
Indians have tremendous faith in judiciary. They believe their litigation would be explored thoroughly and impartially through the judicial system. However, this perception gets eroded once they discover how expensive, slow, laborious, corrupt is the judicial system.
The slow delivery of justice is attributed to the pending cases. Chief Justice K.G. Balakrishnan has said that 2.59 crore cases are pending disposal. Of this, 98 lakh are in the High Courts and 43,000 in the Supreme Court. There are several thousand cases where judgments have not been delivered long years after arguments are over.
There are several reasons for backlog of cases. One, many judges dispose of cases without deciding the real issues, thus leading to the rebirth of the problems. Sometimes judges of superior courts retire or secure transfers without pronouncing pending judgments. There are subordinate courts where adjournments are liberal. The system of three, four or more appeals, revisions, reviews and special leave petitions make litigation a long drawn out process.
The other side of the story is; there are also instances where a presiding judge hears two or three cases simultaneously. This makes a mockery of the public trial.
There is no effort on the part of the Judiciary to simplify procedures of the Civil Procedure Code, the Code of Criminal Procedure and the Evidence Act. In the age of technology, they simply have become archaic and arcane.
A weak judicial system is a serious weakness of the Indian democracy. The crisis of governance glares to all those who have had the taste of the Indian judicial system.
Media is hailed as fourth estate and the watchdog of the democracy. The essence of the media is objectivity, neutrality and should not have any motives. Unfortunately the Indian media gives the impression that it’s much more business conscious than the business houses. As a matter of fact, there are many business houses that control the media outlets. It has distanced the fourth estate from its desired goals and objectives.
The complexion of media has changed a lot after the liberalization of the country. Gone are the days of committed journalist who settled for low salaries for the ideal of journalism. In liberalized India, it’s the glamor that attracts the new entrants to journalism rather than the ideals of the profession. As a result, the tribe of committed journalists is becoming extinct in India.
The biasness of the media is reflected in the composition of the news room. A head count would reveal the character of Indian media scene. Most of the newsrooms have upper caste bias; there are also biases of language and region. There is little representation of the minorities and marginalized sections in the news rooms of mainstream media. This is the crudest flaw of the Indian democracy.
It is also widely believed that several newspapers and TV have partisan approach to political parties and they highlight or ignore news depending on their leanings. The selection of news is done with the view of sensationalizing the news and increasing the newspapers circulation or viewership. Indian media is quite unmindful of its consequences on the psyche of the people.
Another anomaly is that some section of the media could be influenced to carry out motivated writings. Sponsored columns in magazines and newspapers and sponsored programmes in electronic media are having a field day in Indian media scene. The sponsors peddle their views making a mockery of media being a watchdog of the society.
In recent times, Indian media has given enough reasons to think that business promotion and money making has become its central theme. This distortion of media has belittled Indian democracy. A situation exists where fighting for the national cause also involves fighting for an objective media.
Indian system of governance reflects a fundamental difference in the relationship between the people and the State. We find there is little accountability of the State to provide services to the people at large. The unresponsiveness of the State has led to proliferation of Non Governmental Organizations termed as 'civil society organization.'
It is estimated that the total number of NGOs in India could be about 1.5 to 2 million, of which 53% are rural and 47% urban. The rapid growth of NGOs corresponds to the money they receive from the funding agencies i.e. government, corporate and institutional sources.
It is matter of debate, whether the NGOs are catapulting Indian society or have become institutions to exploit the social problems and make money out of it. The popular impression is, NGOs are operational in the areas where huge money is pumped in and the organizers get a sizable cut out of it. It’s generally believed the entire NGO sector in India would collapse like a house of cards if foreign, private or government funding is stopped.
Traditionally, people's movements are self-reliant: they have to raise their own resources, and are led by representatives from among the people. These representatives have to be accountable to the people. In contrast, the NGOs while claiming to represent the people are led by officers of the NGOs, who are paid by funding agencies. So NGOs are accountable to the funding agencies and not to the people.
What is seen is; NGOs are working as a buffer between the Indian State and the people. The State has absolved of all its responsibilities and NGOs are acting as the private contractors. In such situation people cannot demand anything from NGOs as a matter of right, what they get from them is only a 'charity'. This Indian State finds this a useful medium to maintain the trappings of democracy without any responsibilities of social justice. This is one the reason Indian social space is so crowded with the NGOs. These distortions of democracy manifest a crisis of governance.
Governance has a management and legal dimension, but it must dig deeper in capturing the values and attitudes of a society and polity. It must rest on a moral base which in today's democratic ethos is codified into laws and conventions. Good governance under democratic polity should create countervailing measures whereby it can rein in forces inimical to the society. Its primary job is to uplift the deprived and marginalized section of society, bridges the gap between haves and haves not, developing and the developed. It should ensure equal opportunity and justice to all the citizens. Enforcement agencies should act as the agents of change and not as master’s society.
However, India’s problem is those elected or appointed to serve the society do not believe in any such principles. As a result none of the pillars of democracy is any where near perfection. Corruption is the running theme among all the pillars of Indian democracy. A 2006 report of the Swiss Banking Association claims that Indians are the biggest depositors of black money in banks located in Switzerland. They have USD 1.5 trillion in Swiss banks, that’s more black money than the rest of the world combined. It’s a matter of common sense whose money that could be. Obviously not of common man.
The big question is what should be done to stem the rot that has set in the system of governance? Does India need a revolution to cleanse the system? Can elections be turned into referendum on those elected? How the so called masters of the people can be made servants of the society? Can the third tier be down sized and its responsibilities enhanced with adequate resources so that there is real community control? There are endless paths to tread but which is the right course to usher in good governance?
One has to remember, every citizen has a responsibility to actively participate in the democratic process. Their non participation in the electoral process, giving bribes to get things done, and remain unmindful about negative facets of democracy is precipitating the crisis of governance.
The lessons of sixty years of democratic experience in India suggest that common man is still withdrawn from the democratic process. Elections are a ritual in which they are mere spectators. It’s this attitude of let it be “chalta hai” that’s providing oxygen to bad governance. If good governance has to be prioritized then every Indian has to change this mindset. When will this even happen? Your guess is as good as mine!
Let me round off saying Indian governance is much healthy if we compare with the neighboring countries. The voting patterns indicate that the Indian electorate is able to make informed judgments about the governance of the country.
The bureaucracy and judiciary may be bit tardy but still is deliverable. Indian civil society is fairly robust; instances of social change are felt on ground.
The issue of criminalization of politics has regional overtones. The political culture of north differs from South. What is said about Bihar and Uttar Pradesh may not be appropriate for Tamil Nadu and Kerala.
As far as corruption is concerned, it’s not unique to India alone. Indian system does not suffer disproportionately if we compare it with other developing countries. There is a tendency to seek rent from politics in all unequal societies. So Indians should not flagellate themselves as the biggest sinners on earth.
As I have said in the beginning, Indian of story of governance is glass half empty as well as half full. Notwithstanding the facts and with all its pitfalls, India is a functional democracy.
Syed Ali Mujtaba is a working journalist based in Chennai. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. This paper was presented at the Asia Media conclave in Bangkok on 25-27 March 2009.