Posts Tagged ‘checks and balances’

Checks and Balances – A Must for a Democracy

Recently, I had a brief skirmish with the Indian Army: on Twitter. I happened to view a 15 second video of a Commanding Officer (CO) of an army unit in Arunachal Pradesh issuing a warning to those messing with his troops, after these troops had vandalised public property. In the context of reports that some of his men had allegedly been thrashed by the local police, who was being threatened by whom was quite clear. I merely pointed out that this was not behaviour expected of a commissioned officer. For the next twenty four hours and more, I was subjected to a barrage of criticism. What was a little unexpected was that two retired generals seemed to find nothing objectionable in the CO’s conduct. Possibly, the involvement of the Indian Civil & Administrative Services (IC&AS) Association in this issue rankled with them. The incident has also been viewed by military veterans as “arrogant bureaucracy and a sulking army”. I finally clarified that, in my view, while the guilty must be punished, the rule of law must be respected at all times, even under grave provocation.

What is a matter of growing concern is the erosion in India of the system of checks and balances that make for a healthy democracy, where there is respect for the rule of law. The much-maligned IAS has been engaged in a forty-year tug of war with the uniformed forces for primacy in the decision-making hierarchy. Whether it was the DGP vs. the Home Secretary or the DM vs. SP controversies, a lot of bad blood spilled out, even as law and order situations became increasingly challenging. Recent years have also seen a gradual watering down of the position of the Defence Secretary vis-a-vis the service chiefs, starting with their relative pay scales (the usual comparison of hierarchy in a status-conscious society). I am not here going into the issue of civilian-uniformed force relationships, except to reiterate that each service has its role to play in the governance structure. Weakening one at the expense of the other (or casting unnecessary aspersions) can be inimical to our democracy.

Where the problem arises is when any institution (or individuals in that institution) fail(s) to exercise a voluntary check on its/their exercise of power, mindful of the provisions of law and the Constitution of India. Just as the Constitution separates the respective roles of the executive, legislature and judiciary, the functions of different wings of the executive are also clearly defined. When differences arise among them, the political executive is tasked with the duty of resolving them and ensuring harmonious functioning of the executive machinery.

The Parliamentary system of governance diffuses power among those elected to its legislatures to prevent the concentration of powers in any one person. The leader of the ruling party (PM/CM) has to command the confidence of a majority of legislators. The existence of a Council of Ministers, elected by the people, implies the presence of alternative centres of countervailing power. Till the early 1970s, this was the pattern, which was overturned by the centralisation of powers in the Indira Gandhi years. Over the years, CMs became supplicants and Ministers were gradually reduced to decorative roles, a process that has become pronounced in recent years.

The trend towards centralisation of power has been accentuated by the growing importance of non-elected officials in decision-making processes and the bypassing of established systems of accountability. The emergence of the PMO and the CMO (in states) as alternative power centres beholden only to the Numero Uno has severely curtailed the scope for reasoned deliberation on matters of public importance. Which is why one had reservations about the reconstitution of the Strategic Policy Group (SPG) under the NSA, a non-elected official, with no indication as to whether its recommendations/decisions would be reviewed by a group of elected officials such as the Cabinet Committee on Security.

Five momentous events in independent India indicate the adverse consequences of the absence of collegial decision-making: the Indo-China War (1962), the Emergency (1975), the Shah Bano-Ram Mandir episodes (1986), the Babri Masjid demolition (1992) and the demonetisation bombshell (2016). Not for nothing have Cabinet Committees been set up at the centre for important subjects like security, economic affairs and political affairs. Given that the members of these Committees are answerable to the people, the expectation is that they will take reasoned decisions after discussion, utilising the expertise available in their respective Ministries.

Former RBI Governor Raghuram Rajan likened the role of the RBI to a seat belt in a car. When the political executive sets off on a course of action without the seat belt, a caution is sounded. To this, I would add the analogy of a pressure cooker: the colleagues of a PM/CM in the Council of Ministers are the safety valves telling the boss when the cooker is in danger of exploding, when a policy is likely to be harmful to the common man.

This is why conflicting opinions ought to be welcomed in a democratic system of governance. Since no one person or group of persons is blessed with divine perspicacity, it always helps to know whether one has worked out all the potential pitfalls in the execution of a policy, however good it may sound in theory. Packing institutions with yes men and treating contrarian views with hostility or disdain are likely to yield suboptimal outcomes. Any democratic government needs that child which innocently says “But he isn’t wearing anything at all.”