P Chidambaram: The year ends on a sombre note

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Published: December 30, 2018 3:40:08 AM

India finds itself at a stage where the question — will democracy survive in India? — looms large.

Election officials leave for their polling stations after collecting EVM ahead of the Assembly elections in Jaipur. (Rohit Jain Paras

Democracy is all about balance. When the balance is threatened or affected, the survival of democracy is put into question. India finds itself at a stage where the question — will democracy survive in India? — looms large.

Each one of the issues that I shall examine in this essay may, by itself, not appear to be a threat to democracy and may appear remediable. However, if a remedy is not found, even one issue can derail democracy. If many of the issues remain unresolved, I am certain that democracy — as it is understood in free, liberal and mature nations — will perish.

Elections: On the day after the results of the elections were announced in Telangana, the chief electoral officer of the state (a nominee of the Central Election Commission) ‘apologised’ for the deletion of 22 lakh voters from the electoral rolls (amounting to 8% of the official number of electors of 283 lakh). A cool apology and end of story. In a vigilant democracy, all political parties would have come together and brought millions of people on the streets to protest the scandal. The CEO would have resigned or been sacked. The officials of the CEC who supervised the revision of the electoral rolls in Telangana would have been suspended. None of that happened, and nobody is outraged. Life goes on in Telangana under a democratically elected chief minister.

Legislatures: Take a look at the table, the gender imbalance is pronounced, and it seems nobody is serious about creating a gender-equal society.

Every party must share the blame. They field few women candidates, preferring men on the ground of ‘winnability’, or nominate women as candidates in constituencies where the party has little chance of winning. Few women MLAs means few women ministers; there is none in Mizoram because the winner, the MNF, fielded no woman candidate! The solution is simple: reserve at least 33% of the seats in legislatures for women. It is not a revolutionary idea because such reservation is already the law in elections to municipalities and panchayats.

Courts: The court system has broken down, and it is doubtful if it can be put together as a whole within a reasonable time. The problem is not confined to vacancies, it is much larger. The other aspects of the broken system are the outdated and dysfunctional procedures, lack of infrastructure, non-use of modern technology, unqualified men and women impersonating as lawyers, the unwillingness or inability of Bar Councils to throw the imposters out, and widely prevalent corruption at all levels. If justice is still rendered in many cases, that is despite the system and thanks to good, conscientious judges. The alarming fact is, that tribe is not increasing.

Public Interest Litigation: What was encouraged as a tool to bring justice to the “poor and oppressed who have no access to the courts” has turned into a malevolent instrument to ‘fix’ outcomes and short-circuit the normal legal processes. The motives of some PIL petitioners are suspect. Novel procedures of questionable validity have been adopted by courts while adjudicating PILs. In the process, the higher courts have clutched at jurisdiction, usurped the powers of the Executive government and even encroached upon the territory of the legislatures/Parliament. It may seem that ‘justice has been done’ in the case at hand, but actually grave damage is done to the procedure established by law as well as to the settled principles of law. In some cases, the judgments are manifestly wrong.

Bureaucracy: The greatest failure of our administrations has been the inability to execute projects and programmes and deliver the promised outcomes/ benefits. On rare occasions, the administration has risen to the challenge (such as relief in the case of a disaster), but, more often, the people are thoroughly dissatisfied. While elected politicians are constructively responsible, the direct responsibility is with the bureaucracy. Civil servants design the projects and programmes, they make cost and time estimates, and they are directly responsible for implementation; yet, many programmes have failed completely and many others have yielded unsatisfactory results.

There is abundant talent in the country, but such talent is serving the private sector or in foreign countries. We have found no answer to the problem, which is only getting worse as the years pass by.

Institutions, organisations: Never before have so many bodies been so badly damaged in so short a time as in the last four years. The CEC, CIC and RBI have been undermined or compromised. The CBI has imploded; a change of government will cause more investigating agencies to implode.

Taxation: In normal times, tax rates must be moderate and tax administration a service. Those rules have been turned upside down. Now, tax rates are extortionate and discriminatory (e.g. GST) and tax administration is tax terrorism.

Prime Minister: The current prime minister is not the head of the government, he is the government. Without a Constitutional amendment, a parliamentary democracy has been converted into an almost-presidential government. All checks and balances have been eliminated.

A dysfunctional democracy will perish. Democracy will survive in India only if we restore the balance. Let me end the year on an optimistic note: ‘If winter comes, can spring be far behind?’

Website: pchidambaram.in

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