Posts Tagged ‘checks and balances’

Opposition In Residence

(James Hacker, Minister in Her Majesty’s Government: “The Opposition aren’t the opposition…They’re only the opposition in exile. The Civil Service is the opposition in residence.” – Yes Minister, Antony Jay & Jonathan Lynn)

Politicians in India, at least from Indira Gandhi onwards, have, notwithstanding their pious public utterances, always veered in favour of a “committed bureaucracy”, faithfully executing the dictates of the party in power. The general public, therefore, has this mistaken impression that civil servants mindlessly toe the line of their political masters (I don’t dare use the feminine equivalent). This is not quite the whole truth, at least in the three decades when I was in service from 1980 onwards. Not that we did not have our share of those who were ready to oblige the political executive for a mess of pottage. But there were sections of the civil service that did their utmost to ensure that their political bosses did not get their way in issues that reeked of impropriety or financial wrongdoing.

I have written earlier on the tactics that can be employed to forestall patently illegal requests from the political class (see here). These include (a) let us see, “Parkalam” in Tamil and “Baghoon sangto” in Marathi; (b) making oneself scarce; (c) sending the file into orbit; (d) setting up a committee; (e) recording one’s views on file; (f) asking for written orders; and (g) asking/getting  ready for a transfer. These distracting tactics are not necessarily a reflection of bureaucratic ego or of an innate desire to take no decisions. Mostly, they are intended to give time for reflection on the proposed course of action or to make the vexed issue irrelevant with the passage of time.

Apart from the bureaucratic bulwark against impetuous, risky decision making, there are even more crucial checks and balances in a functioning democracy which are intended to check autocratic tendencies in the political executive. Brute majorities in the Lok Sabha (think India 1971/1984/2019) tend to invest a sense of infallibility in the minds of the majority party leaders. It is easily forgotten that democracy is not just the exercise of their electoral rights by citizens at five year intervals but also the giving of voice to their hopes and aspirations in the interregnum between elections. Four institutions play major roles in this theatre of democracy: legislatures, the judiciary, media and civil society.

Central and state legislatures are the first check on arbitrary executive actions. Even where the opposition is in truncated numbers, its voice can be powerful when its representatives speak fearlessly on issues of public importance. In the Nehru-Indira heyday, politicians like Minoo Masani, Piloo Mody, Nath Pai, Madhu Dandavate, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Jyotirmoy Basu commanded respect with their scathing denunciations of ruling party actions, couched always in parliamentary language. House committees were dreaded by bureaucrats for their interrogation of executive actions. Parliamentary debates, reported fully by the print media, gave citizens an idea of what their leaders were up to. Bills went through discussions in select committees before they were put to vote. Ordinances were resorted to as a last, emergency option only when the House was unlikely to convene in a reasonable time period. That these vital functions of the legislature have been given the go-by in recent months and years is a cause for concern. Important bills are either subject to inadequate legislative scrutiny or are rushed through as money bills, obviating the need for passage by the Upper House – abrogation of Article 370, passage of the CCA and farm bills are prime examples of legislative bulldozing. Ordinances are now the new flavour, with the COVID pandemic providing a ready excuse to bypass legislatures.

The courts are the main support of citizens against arbitrary executive actions backed by pliant legislatures. While the seal of approval given by the highest court of the land in the early years of our democracy to preventive detention and sedition laws caused unease in liberal minds, the court did qualify the exercise of such sweeping powers by the state in a number of landmark judgments. The enunciation of the principle of “basic structure of the Constitution” in the 1973 Kesavananda Bharati case had reassured the public that the judiciary would safeguard the Constitution against executive encroachment. That the Supreme Court went against this principle in the 1976 ADM Jabalpur case was a setback to personal freedoms, though the court corrected its position in this case forty years later. With the Supreme Court entertaining public interest litigations (PILs) and taking suo motu cognisance of issues of vital public importance, the next few decades saw a phase of judicial activism that seemed to bode well for a healthy democracy where the judiciary kept the executive in check. This trend has, unfortunately, gone into reverse gear in recent times with a number of executive and legislative actions yet to go on the anvil of judicial scrutiny. Prominent among these are the electoral bonds issue, demonetisation, the abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution, the CAA law and the three farm laws. More worryingly, the Supreme Court (and many High Courts) are yet to pronounce on executive actions that have impinged on basic freedoms of citizens: the large number of pending habeas corpus petitions, the internet restrictions in Jammu & Kashmir and the incarceration and denial of bail in many cases involving civil society activists, journalists and intellectuals.

The media, both print and electronic, has largely abdicated its role as guardian of the qui vive. During the 1975-77 Emergency, it crawled when merely asked to bend: now it is, with notable exceptions, ready to lend its services for dissemination of inaccurate, sensational news and take partisan positions on issues of public importance. The spread of digital and social media has mitigated this one-sided view somewhat but, with the likely introduction of curbs on such independent media, the prospects for free and frank expression of points of view appear dim.

Finally then, it is left to civil society, especially those in its ranks who cherish the values enshrined in the Constitution, to raise the flag for the fundamental rights listed in Part III of the Constitution. When all other avenues to secure timely justice and redress of grievances seem to be foreclosed, sections of civil society have resorted to the satyagraha route propounded by Mahatma Gandhi during the freedom struggle. This was vividly illustrated in the two mass movements — the anti-CAA and the farmers’ protests — over the past year. As the Mahatma was to emphasise in his experiments with satyagraha, it is based on an inviolable relationship between the means and ends, with its essence in the purity of means, totally non-violent in nature, adopted by a pure person, as also in the constant quest of this person to purify her/himself through self-examination. The satyagraha effort can be undermined and brought to a close because of external “Chauri Chaura” events, such as civil disturbances (riots/violence) or natural occurrences (COVID), as witnessed in recent times.

Mutual tolerance and respect for institutions are the hallmarks of true democrats. A democrat at heart is aware that (s)he holds the position of power for only as long as the people wish and that there has to be space for opposing viewpoints in a functioning democracy. Equally, other political formations have to be given due regard and the space to function freely. But even more important is the recognition of the inviolability of institutions meant to safeguard democracy. It is these institutions that, as the checks and balances in a democratic society, act as the real “opposition” in keeping the executive under control. As in the case of charity, democracy too begins at home.









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.”