I do not remember a year since 1947 when some doomsayers did not see India in some crisis that would damage it. Yet, we have established an envied electoral democracy, changed governments peacefully after free and fair elections, established the rule of law, an independent judiciary, and independent constitutional bodies. We have also managed to make governments the centre of economic activities, stifle enterprise, insulate ourselves from global trade and mismanage agricultural policies. People have been changing governments, hoping that a new one would do better.
Earlier elections used ballot papers, that had to be printed, secured and distributed to voters. Voting papers were kept safe, overseen during proper counting, and then results were announced. Since 1999, we began to use electronic voting machines. There has been little or no resistance or protest to their use. Election results were accepted. Now, for the first time in our history, a self-confessed anarchist and Delhi chief minister have tried to cast serious doubts about the reliability of EVMs. This questions the very validity of our election system since 1999.
We accepted the “steel frame” of the Indian bureaucracy which the British created for revenue collection and to maintain law and order. It was not created for the spending of large sums on development. The administration has deteriorated in effectiveness, accountability, and moral and financial integrity. There have been many charges of corruption against officers. Reports that two senior retired bureaucrats were attempting to bribe Election Commission officials to favour a particular Tamil Nadu political faction, hurts the reputation of the civil service and the EC.
The Supreme Court has sentenced a sitting High Court judge to prison. Lawyers have raised doubts about jurisdiction. They say that only Parliament can take action against a sitting judge. This has restarted the debate about the integrity of the selection process of judges. It is now only decided by a Collegium of judges with no involvement of others and no transparency. Among our elected representatives there are many facing criminal charges, some convicts, and others on bail. Our banking system is largely government owned. Non-performing assets of banks are very high and have put banks’ viability into question. Crony capitalism is rampant.
The three pillars of a democracy—legislature, executive, and judiciary—are no longer as transparent as they were when we wrote the Constitution in 1951. Independent supporting institutions conducting elections, for an audit of government expenditures, etc, are in better shape though sometimes accused of partiality. The EC is still held in high regard. The CAG has performed well as have other such agencies. They are now being unfairly attacked for personal or political reasons.
A fourth and essential pillar of democracy is the media. It is the watchdog for transparency, honesty, and fairness, in modern democracies. India has a vibrant media but among them are some that engage in “paid news” to publish favourable or unfavourable reports as desired. Some of our media have abrogated the role of investigator and judge. A recent example is a new channel which in its first few days focused on “exclusive evidence” about the involvement of a former minister in the death of his wife. Opinions of television anchors on some channels become the theme, with little place for contrary expert opinions. Our media, particularly television, by differential exposures and opinions, promotes politicians and parties.
The deterioration can still be stopped. We must change our laws to forbid convicts and those on trial from becoming legislators. Political parties must fully disclose all incomes and expenditures. Appointments of judges must become transparent. The bureaucracy must provide for individual accountability. Misuse of positions to grant favours and accept illegal payments must be quickly investigated and severely punished. A regulator for the media should be in place. We must recognize the seriousness of the crisis. The time to act is now.