Unintended consequences: Destroying our institutions

The uproar about 'office of profit' and subsequent resignations based on sudden awakening of conscience, raises a smokescreen hiding much more insidious subversion of institutions.

When the Indian Electorate voted against the World Bank inspired economics of the previous government, little did they know that they were voting to power two World Bank staff as the Prime Minister [ex-officio Chairman] and Vice-Chairman of the Planning Commission.

The Indian system of governance has been fundamentally changed since the last elections. This subversion has been quietly done, without fanfare. The Planning Commission has changed its Terms of Reference [TOR] without going to the cabinet or parliament. Since the TOR was made by the cabinet, the correct legal procedure is to get the cabinet to change it. But legal niceties has not stopped the vice-chairman-perhaps reflecting a habit that is picked up from the World Bank. What is it that they have changed? The Planning Commission has its TOR drawn from the Directive Principles of the Constitution-in particular 38 and 39-that make it the duty of the state to strive for equitable distribution of wealth. Being aware that the planning system, and the government of the day, are not following the constitutional duty of securing an economically just system, but rather were going all out to subvert the constitutional goals, the Planning Commission has dropped those embarrassing references.

Changing the mandate of the Planning Commission by administrative fiat is only one symptom of a much deeper malaise. Much more insidious has been the change in the very nature of the parliamentary system. Our democracy is based on the premise that there would be cabinets and ministers who would be elected, and accountable to the people through the parliament. They would be subject to the checks and balances within the parliamentary system.

That premise has totally broken down in the present arrangement where we have a 'super cabinet' in the form of the 'National Advisory Council', the NAC. This defeats the very purpose of the parliamentary system. The system makes space for the fact that the vote getter-the communicator-need not be a good administrator. The vote getter would be a leader who would build coalitions, and get a mandate around a grand 'vision'.

The traditional role was that the prime minister would be the 'politician'-balancing the different interests, and keeping national interest supreme-and the bureaucracy would do the administration and day-to-day implementation with the ministers giving the broad policy direction. Now we have the quintessential administrator become the prime minister-and the politician left without a role in the constitutional scheme of things. This has resulted in extra-constitutional authority, and weakening of the system.

Perhaps we should not be so surprised. It is the Congress that has systematically destroyed institutions in India. Right from the judiciary to the press during the emergency-remember LKAdvani's quote 'when the press was asked to bend, it crawled'?-it has taken the less honourable road. Morality was given the go by, and 'even-handed appeasement' was seen in both the reversal of the Shah Bano judgement and the permission for the Shila Nyas. The most blatant betrayal of the mandate came when the present prime minister was the finance minister: Elected on a manifesto that promised to roll back prices within 100 days-with a detailed timeline-they promptly increased the prices, sometimes by as much as 50%!, within days of coming to power.

With the Common Minimum Programme supposedly the agenda of the coalition, the mindless pursuit of market is now the goal of the government-the very agenda they campaigned against. Again, we should not be surprised. It is not every country that has both the Prime Minister, [who is also the Chairman of the Planning Commission] and the Vice-Chairman of the Planning Commission, being ex-World Bank staff. Changing TORs mid-way is par for the course there. The promised Employment Guarantee Act had to be shelved, the reservations for women. and some even have the gall to assert that the poll verdict was not against the previous government's economic policies! The syndrome goes beyond the simple 'revolution while in opposition, status quo when in power' explanation and betrays a crass utilitarian mindset.

While there is little that the citizen can do regarding the 'vanishing manifestoes' and 'common minimum programmes' till the next elections, the parliament can surely ask the Planning Commission to revert to its original TOR. And for those still in doubt whether the institutions are safe, the best test is to reverse roles: what would be the response if the next election sees a new NAC being formed-this time with the heads of RSS, Bajrang Dal and the VHP? The present government has just given them that mandate and legitimacy. Somebody once said that a courtesan had power without responsibility. Perhaps that is more true for the rulers of India today.

Reference note:
Indian Constitution
Part IV Directive Principles of State Policy
Article 38 State to secure a social order for the promotion of welfare of the people
(1) The State shall strive to promote the welfare of the people by securing and protecting as effectively as it may a social order in which justice, social, economic and political, shall inform all the institutions of the national life.
(2) The State shall, in particular, strive to minimise the inequalities in income, and endeavour to eliminate inequalities in status, facilities and opportunities, not only amongst individuals but also amongst groups of people residing in different areas or engaged in different vocations.
Article 39 Certain principles of policy to be followed by the State
The State shall, in particular, direct its policy towards securing -
(a) that the citizen, men and women equally, have the right to an adequate means of livelihood;
(b) that the ownership and control of the material resources of the community are so distributed as best to subserve the common good;
(c) that the operation of the economic system does not result in the concentration of wealth and means of production to the common detriment;
(d) that there is equal pay for equal work for both men and women;
(e) that the health and strength of workers, men and women, and the tender age of children are not abused and that citizens are not forced by economic necessity to enter avocations unsuited to their age or strength;
(f) that children are given opportunities and facilities to develop in a healthy manner and in conditions of freedom and dignity and that childhood and youth are protected against exploitation and against moral and material abandonment.