Indian parliment in New Delhi by night. Photo: iStock

As the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) completes four years in office,  India’s institutions of national governance are significantly diminished in stature and struggling to retain credibility.

A strong indication of this is the impeachment motion against Dipak Misra, the chief justice of India, and its fate thereof showing how the principal  institution of the country entrusted to check authoritarianism in other government branches suffers from a lack of transparency and therefore, one could argue, the capacity to enforce the constitution fairly.

In January, india’s four most senior judges held a press conference at which they alleged that the chief justice was assigning cases arbitrarily, alluding to external influence. In response, the chief justice ruled in his own favor, declaring himself the “master of the roster.” His later actions and judgements, allegedly self-serving in nature,  prompted the first ever impeachment motion against him, which died at the altar of the court, becoming one of the first targets of his earlier “master of the roster” ruling.

The episode also brought the office of vice president into focus. Venkaiah Naidu pre-judged the impeachment motion, rejecting it before admitting it exceeding his brief, affectingthe  functioning of another institution, the Rajya Sabha – the upper chamber of the parliament – that he chairs.

But it is not the Supreme Court and the vice president that have failed to inspire trust, even parliament has become more a place of pandemonium than policy discussion.  For example, Lok Sabha functioned for only 33. 6 hours in 28 days during the recent budget session, passing  a US$ 370 billion budget (with a $64 billion revenue deficit) without discussion; and when the prime minister was replying to the motion of thanks to the president, only 123 (22.7%) members were present in the house of 545 with five vacancies.

Credibility is earned by an institution by functioning efficiently, and it is the prime minister’s basic duty to conduct the proceedings of parliament with the help of his/her cabinet in a cabinet system of government under the constitution

Credibility is earned by an institution by functioning efficiently, and it is the prime minister’s basic duty to conduct the proceedings of parliament with the help of his/her cabinet in a cabinet system of government under the constitution. But the present prime minister, Narendra Modi, observed a day’s fast and cleared his conscience. It is like sinning to national loss and bathing to personal purity.

Under a credible political leadership, Unaao and Kathua cases would be discussed in parliament to determine why the police force as an institution is so brutal and politicized and what can be done about the 75% acquittal rate in rape cases. However, the prime minister chose to deal with these incidents through tweets:

“The type of incidents that we have seen in last few days, they challenge concept of social justice. The incidents which are in news for last two days are certainly a matter of shame for any civilised society. As a society, as a country, we all are ashamed of it.” 

“This type of incidents wherever they occur in the country shake our human sensibilities. I want to assure the country that  the guilty will not be spared;  justice will happen and it will be appropriate. We will all have to fight to end this evil within our society.” (translated from Hindi) 

This sounds like the confession of a layman and the exhortations of a messiah, and lacks the punch of a leader who can provide a blueprint for action and a time frame for results on the ground; therefore, people may retweet it but do not believe it.

The credibility of the office of the prime minister has also been diminished due to his few public speeches being bereft of facts. More recently, in order to belittle his ideological rival, Jawaharlal Nehru, he criticised him for humiliating two army generals getting persons and times wrong. If  it was deliberate then it was petty, and if careless then incompetent; neither do service to the credibility of the high office of the prime minister of India.

The prime minister’s degree case continues to test the authority of the Chief Information Commission, whose order of inspecting records of te prime minister’s graduate degree were opposed by the Additional Solicitor General in court, damaging in turn the reputation of India’s universities and education system.

Inefficient and self-perpetuating institutions at the top have a ripple effect down to the bottom. For example, the state assemblies of  Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Rajasthan functioned for 17, 25 and 33 days in 2017, and latter passed legislation granting a “former chief minister” an official bungalow with nine employees for life under the patronage of the sitting chief minister, who hopes to become a “former chief minister” when elections are soon held in the state.

It is logical to assume that these actions have an inspiring effect on public functionaries and the  bureaucracy right down to the sub-divisional level. They are wasting and appropriating resources without being answerable to anyone, including media, which has become devalued,  a condition highlighted by the prime minister’s attitude towards it – he has not held a single press conference during the last four years.

Add to this the Election Commission’s inability to enable people to exercise their right to vote, and the picture of the country’s tottering top institutions is complete.

The erosion of institutional credibility leads to poor governance, resulting in  protests and violence in society and economic problems. Incidents like Tuticorin and the continuous rise  in farmer suicides are clear evidence of this. In light of this, it would be interesting to see if institutional dysfunctionality with resultant poor governance and development will cost the BJP the 2019 elections, or if the people of this country have raised their threshold for tolerating a discredited burden.

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Pushkar Raj

Pushkar Raj is a researcher and author based in Melbourne. Formerly he taught political science in Delhi University and was the national general secretary of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL).

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