Stress points of democracy

M.K. NarayananFEBRUARY 15, 2019

In this election year in India, we need to keep a sharper eye on the weakening of institutions

These are difficult, as also unsettling, times. It is not the complexity of issues that confront the world as much as the steady undermining of institutional and knowledge structures that are posing a threat to the world.

Across the world, democracy is in obvious retreat, with authoritarian tendencies on the ascendant. Russia’s Vladimir Putin, China’s Xi Jinping and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan are constantly projected as the faces of authoritarianism, but many democratic leaders reveal a similar authoritarian streak, which adds to democracy’s woes. It may be too early to predict the demise of democracy, but the reality is that it is not a good time for democratic institutions, or for those who see democracy as the answer to the world’s problems.

Examples everywhere

Several examples exist worldwide on how decisions today are handed down, rather than being the outcome of discussion and debate. Hallowed international institutions such as the World Bank are facing the heat today for not conforming to the prescriptions of certain powerful members. At the same time, there are enough examples of democracy going awry. Brexit, and the Brexit debate, in the U.K. and Europe is a good example.

The U.S., which prides itself as a leading democracy, is setting a bad example today. Under President Donald Trump, arbitrary decision-making has replaced informed debate. His diatribe against what he calls a “ridiculous partisan” investigation against him is an indication. Another is his determination to build a wall to keep out Mexican immigrants, even risking an extended shutdown of the U.S. government. The decision of the U.S. to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty — a key pact signed in 1987, and hailed as the centrepiece of European security since the Cold War — without a detailed internal discussion appears to be setting the stage for Cold War 2.0.

It is, however, the ignoring of democratic conventions nearer home that are cause for greater concern. In a pluralistic, multi-party federal system, disdain for democratic conventions and the violation of well-entrenched behavioural patterns are causing irreversible damage to the polity.

Federal fallout

Currently, we are witnessing vituperative exchanges between the Prime Minister and some Chief Ministers which involve accusations such as fomenting riots and running extortion rackets. This damages the fabric of democracy. Centre-State relations are already under strain, and face the threat of still greater disruption.

Selective interpretation of information is a fallout of such situations. Those in authority deem all information not acceptable to them as nothing but disinformation. Those opposed to the government, on the other hand, insist that the government suffers from a lack of probity. The current sulphurous exchanges between the ruling dispensation and the Opposition over the purchase of Rafale aircraft are an example. The casualty is truth, and the veracity of official facts and statistics.

Many instances of this kind can be quoted, but one specific instance that has caught the fancy of the public is the current debate on jobs and unemployment. The Central government has effectively rejected a report by the well-regarded National Sample Survey Office — which showed that unemployment in 2017-18 was at a 45-year high — without giving any valid reason for doing so. The government’s only reasoning for rejecting the report is that it is a ‘draft’, which has only added to existing doubts about its real intentions. Similarly, doubts are being raised about the validity of the government’s revised GDP estimates.

Breaches of democratic conventions are adding to the already existing disquiet. Adherence to democratic norms has for long been perceived as crucial to maintaining the independence of institutions and processes. An impression exists today that attempts are being made to effect changes in the existing system. Two instances during the past year when the government breached long-held conventions have raised questions about the intentions of those in authority.

One was the brouhaha concerning the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), and a perceived attempt to reduce its functional independence, to compel it to fall in line with the views of the government. The resignation of the RBI Governor put a temporary quietus to these concerns, but it is widely believed that the RBI has been brought into line with the government’s wishes. The second instance relates to the Interim Budget in an election year. The Interim Budget announced on the eve of the 2019 general election clearly breaches certain long-settled conventions, by including many substantial measures that ordinarily would form part of a regular Budget. The intention is plain, viz. build more support for the ruling dispensation in an election year.

Alongside the decline in democratic conventions, another cause for concern is the virtual collapse of key institutions such as the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). Touted as India’s premier investigation agency, its reputation has of late suffered a near mortal blow, mainly on account of internecine quarrels, as also external interference in its internal affairs. Created out of the Delhi Special Police Establishment in 1963, a brainchild of then-Home Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, the agency was earlier headed by persons with impeccable integrity and ability. It had also adhered previously to the salutary principle of not carrying out arrests, except in the most exceptional of circumstances. Over time, the quality of the CBI leadership and the tribe of proven investigators has witnessed a decline, which has impacted the image of the organisation.

An agency of the government, part of the Ministry of Personnel functioning under the Prime Minister, supervised at one step removed by the Central Vigilance Commission, and constantly under the watch of the Supreme Court, the CBI serves many masters. The choice of Director, following the Vineet Narain case, by a committee headed by the Prime Minister, with the Chief Justice of India and the Leader of Opposition as the other members, has hardly helped the CBI maintain a reputation for independence. The recent unsavoury drama, which witnessed a ‘Kilkenny cat fight’ between the Director and his No. 2, reflects the lack of institutional culture in the organisation.

Compounding the situation arising from the lack of trained and competent investigators is the fact that supervisory officers, who come and go, are most often not in a position to provide proper guidance to investigating officers. At times, they also tend to tinker with the investigation reports sent to them, to reject the findings of investigating officers.

A changing work culture

What is worse is that while earlier the CBI used to carry out arrests of so-called accused persons only as a measure of last resort, today it is overturning this on its head. As its investigating officers’ skills have declined, it is increasingly resorting to peremptory arrests, often on very slender evidence, in anticipation of securing approvers to build, or strengthen, a case. The law generally disapproves of approver evidence, but this has become the stock in trade of the CBI. In many instances, the CBI has also been resorting to pressure tactics while questioning individuals, even when they are not accused persons, setting aside legal niceties and requirements. In a few instances recently, the CBI has even resorted to intimidatory tactics, taking recourse to a battery of investigators to question a witness, let alone an accused, in the hope of securing useful leads. The recent incident where a posse of CBI personnel went to question the Kolkata Police Commissioner at his residence late in the evening, though he was only a witness, reflects the changing mores of the CBI. This should be a matter of concern for one and all.

M.K. Narayanan is a former National Security Advisor and a former Governor of West Bengal

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Advisory Committee: Yves Berthelot (France),  PV Rajagopal (India), Vandana Shiva (India), Oliver de Schutter (Belgium), Mazide N’Diaye (Senegal), Gabriela Monteiro (Brazil), Irakli Kakabadze (Georgia), Anne Pearson (Canada), Liz Theoharis (USA), Sulak Sivaraksa (Thailand), Jagat Basnet (Nepal), Miloon Kothari (India),  Irene Santiago (Philippines), Arsen Kharatyan (Armenia), Margrit Hugentobler (Switzerland), Jill Carr-Harris (Canada/India), Reva Joshee (Canada), Sonia Deotto (Mexico/Italy),Benjamin Joyeux (Geneva/France), Aneesh Thillenkery, Ramesh Sharma, Ran Singh (India)