Improving the rule of law is a tall order for any Indian government, especially during its first year in office. Perhaps the most one could expect are tangible signs that the new regime is making a down payment for long-term reform.
After its first year in power, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has a decidedly mixed record. It has plucked some low-hanging fruit, but shied away from more systemic changes. With one exception — the appointment of judges — it has shown little appetite for risk-taking.
One year ago, we highlighted four areas in dire need of reform: India’s outdated legal undergirding; the nexus between crime and politics; a demoralized police force lacking independence; and a judiciary plagued by “clogged, dilapidated plumbing.”
With regard to repealing outdated laws, the government has moved gradually. While Modi told his Madison Square Garden audience “if I end one law a day, I will be the happiest,” Parliament has thus far passed two bills repealing 126 redundant laws. Another bill that would repeal over 700 appropriation acts awaits parliamentary approval.
Despite Modi’s repeated campaign pledges, very little has been done to crack down on criminally linked politicians. Given that 35% of members of parliament from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party face ongoing criminal cases (including 22% facing serious cases), this is perhaps not surprising.
Meanwhile, the central government has cuts its expenditures on police modernisation. States now have the freedom to allocate devolved funds to their specific needs, though whether they will do so remains to be seen.
The budget’s meager allocation for strengthening the country’s overburdened judicial infrastructure demonstrates that the issue is a low priority.
But there has been some positive movement. Parliament passed the National Judicial Appointments Commission (NJAC) Bill , which created a new entity to screen and select judges for the Supreme Court of India and the various high courts.
Yet the judiciary fears that the executive is encroaching on judicial independence. With the Supreme Court set to review the NJAC’s constitutionality, the two branches are in a stalemate.
Strengthening India’s rule of law is an unglamorous, yet essential, component of getting India’s economy back on track. Without more systemic changes, the transformative potential of Modi’s reform program is at risk.
(Devesh Kapur is the director of the Center for the Advanced Study of India at the University of Pennsylvania. Milan Vaishnav is an associate in the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.)