The credibility of India’s top institutions has lately suffered, affecting governance and democracy in the country. An example would be the impeachment motion against the Chief Justice of India which was rejected by the Vice President and was subsequently challenged in the highest court.
When the case challenging the legality of the Vice President’s action came before the court, the petitioner sought clarification from the bench hearing the case, expecting that the Chief Justice could not pick and choose the judges that heard his own case. But the court refused to give an explanation, meaning that the court would not follow the first principle of justice in its own conduct that one cannot be a judge in their own case. It is logical that such a court could not be expected to deliver justice fairly and therefore, the petition was withdrawn.
It is a crucial own-goal, akin to a sabotage from within, putting question marks around the highest court’s ability to enforce the Constitution fairly, thus damaging democracy in the country.
But it is not only the Supreme Court that has failed to inspire confidence. Even the Parliament of India has failed to discuss, debate, moderate and legislate on urgent public issues. For instance, the Lok Sabha functioned for only 33.6 hours in 28 days during recent budget sessions, passing two bills in 14 minutes. It passed the annual budget for the nation without discussion and the speaker of house disallowed to take up a no-confidence motion against the government.
In a cabinet system of government, it is the Prime Minister’s duty to conduct the proceedings of Parliament with the help of their cabinet. However, the present Prime Minister took little interest in doing so. Instead, after the washout of the Parliament session, he observed a day’s fast with his cabinet colleagues and cleared his conscience. It is like sinning to national loss and bathing to personal purity, adding little value to the highest executive office of the country.
The Reserve Bank of India sets the monetary policy of the country but it took merely a day to approve the government’s advice on demonetisation without thinking about its rationale or how it would handle the post-demonetisation situation. Consequently, 99% of the currency came back at the cost of more than a hundred human lives and it was a huge loss to nation as the economy slowed down due to the unavailability of currency in a cash-dependent system.
For democracy to function, the Election Commission must be beyond reproach. However, the Election Commission sullied its image by its conduct during the Gujarat elections, postponing election dates against norms and by disqualifying AAP legislatures of the Delhi assembly, without giving them a fair hearing. This invited the Delhi High Court’s criticism that struck down its decision.
Inefficient and self-perpetuating institutions at the top have a ripple effect down to the bottom. For example, the Chennai High Court could not decide on the case of the disqualification of 18 legislators for five months, causing a government to continue in the office that might have been functioning illegally for all these months. It finally delivered a split verdict recently, keeping the matter on hold indefinitely. This is in line with other high courts across the country where 4.2 million cases are waiting to be heard.
Similarly, the state assemblies of UP, Gujarat and Rajasthan functioned for 17, 25 and 33 days in 2017 and later passed a legislation granting a former Chief Minister an official bungalow with 9 employees for life , under the patronage of the present-Chief minister who hopes to become a ‘former’ Chief Minister soon as election are due shortly in the state.
The institutions are the last resort of the people for getting justice in a democratic society. If they are unable to do so and become unaccountable and politically influenced, then democracy becomes a farce and the leader who presides over such a spectacle is judged by history harshly, be it Indira Gandhi or Narendra Modi.
In this context, learning from history is useful. India’s first Prime Minister, Pandit Nehru, is revered largely because he built, nurtured and respected institutions that he recognised would outlast individuals who, howsoever popular or clever, were merely slaves of time in a democracy.
Pushkar Raj is a Melbourne based researcher and author.