Five essential elements to keep democracy alive and kicking in India

What India needs is an objective media, independent judiciary, investigation agencies that inspire confidence, honest bureaucrats, and, a robust economy backed by sound banking practises

opinion Updated: Jul 18, 2017 17:50 IST
Lok Sabha,democracy,Independence
We all aspire for an independent judiciary which is incorruptible. In the several tiers of the judicial system, some are perceived to have fallen apart. This is attributable not just to the quality of the manpower but to the appalling conditions under which it operates

Defining democracy is no easy task. The elements of democracy are contextual. In its nascent form it may not include all the elements found and tested over time in mature liberal democracies. The period between October 1951 and March 1952 was a curtain raiser with the holding of the first general elections to the Lok Sabha. With the festival of elections held thereafter, we celebrate the peaceful transfer of power. The closing of the electoral process after each election is the first step in embracing democracy. After 69 years of Independence, what are the essential institutional elements necessary for us to be satisfied that democracy is alive and kicking in India?

First, we yearn for a media, objective on issues and fiercely independent in approach. Today, barring a few laudable exceptions, it has become a cheerleader of dispensations. Democracy loses much of its lustre in the absence of a vibrant fourth estate.

Second, we all aspire for an independent judiciary which is incorruptible. In the several tiers of the judicial system, some are perceived to have fallen apart. This is attributable not just to the quality of the manpower but to the appalling conditions under which it operates. At the highest level, haste, not studied reflection on issues, sours some outcomes. Retired judges of the Supreme Court have themselves lamented the state of the judiciary.

Third, investigation agencies must inspire confidence. The two elements required to instil confidence are quality manpower and absence of taint in investigation. Both elements are missing in the present investigation apparatus.

When investigating agencies do a U-turn, one limb of the investigation definitely stands tainted. The classic example of this U-turn was the 2008 Malegaon bomb blast case. The National Investigating Agency (NIA) having taken over the investigation in 2011 filed a supplementary chargesheet in 2016 which stated that prosecution against six of the prime accused was not maintainable. This came after investigation had been completed and a 4,528-page chargesheet filed by the Maharashtra ATS. Such an obvious volte face defied logic. Such blatant partisan conduct erodes faith in investigating agencies.

The investigation agencies seem to collaborate with government to target the allegedly corrupt in Opposition and protect their own. While students and teachers landed in jail, named politicians have not even been investigated in the Vyapam scam. Similarly, no investigation is underway against all those involved in public distribution system scams in Chhattisgarh.

On the other hand, we witness the alacrity with which certain NGO’s are being harassed and persecuted by launching multiple investigations against them. Convenient leaks by agencies help facilitate government’s desire to damage reputations. The latest being targeting journalists and television channels, who the government considers to have been troublemakers in the past.

Fourth, spineless bureaucrats, committed to their own advancement, hesitant to speak their mind; coupled with an establishment that looks for hatchet men who will do their bidding. This has tarnished the bureaucrat’s image. The honest bureaucrat hesitates to take decisions lest years later, courts hold that he be prosecuted for deciding contrary to public interest. Strange but true. At that stage there is none to defend him.

Fifth, for a robust economy, merit-based arms-length lending is crucial. Today, over 17% of all bank loans are estimated to be non-performing. Erstwhile RBI governor Raghuram Rajan on August 11, 2014, stated: “The crooked politician needs the businessman to provide the funds.....The crooked businessman needs the crooked politician to get public resources and contracts cheaply.” That says it all.

Ultimately, the taxpayer has to pay for the reckless lending by banks. Gross NPAs of public sector banks as of 2014-2015 were about Rs 2.67 trillion. The situation has not improved since then. In fact, it has worsened as Gross NPAs stand at Rs 6.06 trillion as of December 2016. The present government is contemplating setting up a ‘bad bank’ to take over dud loans to clean up the balance sheets of lenders. If implemented properly it may work.

Apart from these alarming institutional inadequacies, the situation is exacerbated by a government in which ministers await the nod of the all-powerful PMO and wherein secretaries of ministries, bypassing their ministers, deal directly with the PMO. We also witness the dilution of time-tested legislative processes by terming ordinary legislation as ‘money bills’ ensuring they are not debated in the Rajya Sabha. All this is very worrisome.

While the election commission needs to be cheered, our institutions, the building blocks of democracy are woefully wanting. In fact, we have miles to go before we sleep.

Kapil Sibal is a Congress leader and former Union minister

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Jul 18, 2017 16:35 IST