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Home / Columns / A charter for political reforms in India

A charter for political reforms in India

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, on May 12, spoke of using the current crisis as an opportunity to make India “self-reliant”. The same framework — of using the crisis as an opportunity — must be used for something which is as broken as the economy, politics.

columns Updated: May 23, 2020 22:22 IST
Chanakya
Chanakya
Hindustan Times
ndia needs more freedom for citizens, more autonomy for institutions, more power for states, more openness in political parties, and a cleaner electoral system
ndia needs more freedom for citizens, more autonomy for institutions, more power for states, more openness in political parties, and a cleaner electoral system (Arvind Yadav/HT PHOTO)

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, on May 12, spoke of using the current crisis as an opportunity to make India “self-reliant”. He then laid out an ambitious blueprint for economic reform. Irrespective of whether the package is substantial or not, and whether it will help provide immediate relief and help the economy recover in the short-term or not, there is no doubt that the government has unveiled some key structural reforms.

But the same framework — of using the crisis as an opportunity — must be used for something which is as broken as the economy, politics. India has its political strengths: A democratic Constitution, regular elections, institutional checks and balances, a relatively free media, and vibrant civil society. But there is little doubt that key elements of Indian politics too need structural reforms, and unless that happens, India will continue to be a flawed democracy.

And in that spirit, Chanakya recommends five key structural reforms in Indian politics.

The first is with regard to individual rights. While personal freedom is the cornerstone of fundamental rights, this is under jeopardy. The executive, through a range of draconian laws, has succeeded in curbing the extent of liberty. Your political affiliation, your location, your caste and class background often become a determinant in shaping the extent of your liberty. Governments, across party lines, have cracked down on free speech and political activity when it has not been convenient, even if they fall within democratic norms.

As political theorist Pratap Bhanu Mehta has consistently argued, India requires a charter of freedom. This should have bipartisan support. Among other measures, it should include a commitment to scrap the sedition law that is used indiscriminately to silence dissent; institute the right to access the Internet within fundamental rights; make defamation a civil rather than criminal offence; and dilute the Armed Forces (Special) Powers Act, placing adequate safeguards to ensure that the right to life is not undermined. At the same time, freedom cannot mean breaching the reasonable restrictions stipulated in the Constitution; nor can it extend to hate speech which is increasingly witnessed during elections and on social media.

The second reform is institutional autonomy. The executive has its powers — but it is important to constrain these powers and ensure that it operates within the framework of the law. This, then, requires an Election Commission (EC) which ensures that the ruling party does not have an unfair advantage in polls; it requires a strong Parliament which ensures that the executive is accountable to the legislature in a meaningful way; it requires a judiciary that is solely guided by the Constitution and is both independent and seen as independent of executive influence; and it requires independent investigative and vigilance bodies which track the corrupt, but are not used as political instruments to hound rivals.

Over the past few decades, Indian institutions have seen an erosion in their autonomy. The EC is perceived as playing favourites; the SC’s decisions — and sometimes the absence of decisions — have been questioned; Parliament seems weak in front a strong executive; and the Central Bureau of Investigation is seen as a political tool. The party in power intervenes in institutions today, only to then be at the receiving end when it is in Opposition; in the process, the faith of citizens in the wider system gets broken. The second urgent reform, therefore, is a charter of institutional autonomy — which restores the spirit with which these institutions were envisaged in the Constitution.

The third is with regard to federalism. This crisis, more than ever, has shown the importance of states in the governance structure. PM Modi has often spoken of the idea of cooperative federalism. He is also unique in that no other Indian PM has had as long a stint as chief minister of a state as Modi in Gujarat. But there remains a trust deficit, especially with states which are ruled by Opposition parties. This is compounded by an increasing sense of the centralisation of power within the Indian State.

This then requires a charter for cooperative federalism. Within it, two reforms are essential. The first is ensuring that the governor is not just a political representative who is advancing the interests of the party at the Centre — but an honest intermediary between the state and the Centre. The second is ensuring more devolution of funds to states: the Goods and Services Tax regime has tilted the balance of fiscal federalism towards the Centre with adverse consequences. A somewhat longer-term exercise must be a review of the Union, State and Concurrent lists to see if there are subjects better dealt with at a level distinct from what is currently stipulated.

The fourth reform is with regard to political parties. Parties are the bedrock of electoral democracy. But in India, barring a few honourable exceptions, political parties are run like fiefdoms. They are centred around a leader or a family; they are run autocratically; there are barriers for growth within the party; patronage is the norm; the structure of parties is such that it creates disincentives for people who may want to actively participate in political life; ticket distribution is arbitrary; and leadership is often hereditary. All of this undermines the idea of open political platforms. While parties perfunctorily follow EC rules and norms to hold regular elections, this is often a mere formality. And that is why a charter for political party reform, with an eye to making it more democratic, is essential.

And the fifth reform has to be in the realm of electoral finance. Elections are expensive; parties and leaders rely on funds; this then creates a flawed set of incentives, for it creates room for candidates with criminal backgrounds, it creates room for crony capitalism and policy corruption once a party is elected to return favours to private donors; it deprives many good candidates even of having a chance to make a mark in the electoral exercise; and it undermines the spirit of equality. The government brought in electoral bonds, but there are now serious questions with regard to the opaqueness with which it was introduced, and the lack of transparency in the process of financing through bonds. If India has to get its democracy right, it has to get electoral finance right.

And so here are the real structural reforms India needs — more freedom for citizens, more autonomy for institutions, more power for states, more openness in political parties, and a cleaner electoral system. It may diminish his own power in the short-term, but Prime Minister Modi will truly leave a democratic legacy behind if he uses the crisis as an opportunity to reform Indian politics, with all other political parties on board.

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