Why the Indian Republic is in crisis
How are our most important institutions performing under the Modi government?
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In 1787, as Benjamin Franklin, the founding father of the United States, was leaving the Independence Hall, he was questioned by a woman about the kind of government the founding fathers were giving its people. He replied, “A Republic, if you can keep it!”
India is not just a democracy but a republic too. There are minor but nuanced and critical differences between democracy and republic. In a democracy, the majority has unfettered powers, but in a republic, power of the majority as exercised by the elected representatives is regulated by several institutions like judiciary, auditing and investigating agencies, and information commissions.
Such institutions, by means of checks and balances that they impose on each other, play an extremely critical role in keeping the democracies and its governments focused on the citizens and their welfare. The strength of these institutions is directly related to the quality of our republican character.
Alternate dispute resolution has emerged as an important development under Narendra Modi-led BJP government and deserves appreciation. Photo: Reuters
Therefore, I examine the performance of the Modi government as it completes its third year in power with regard to the health of these institutions.
Law and justice:
In a country like India, justice is a distant dream given that nearly 8 lakh cases in high courts and another 20 lakh cases in district courts have been pending for more than 10 years.
Justice delayed is not just justice denied, but also justice killed at the altar of fairness. This is not the doing of Modi government since it is the mess his government inherited because of apathy of the 10 years of misrule by the Congress. It is in this context that Modi and his party BJP committed to the nation to reduce this backlog and ensure that justice is not only delivered but also delivered in time.
However, three years in the governance, evidence suggests otherwise. 10 per cent judges’ posts are lying vacant in the Supreme Court, 41 per cent in high courts and 20 per cent in district and sub-courts.
This despite the promise of according high priority to filling judges’ vacancies. Against the promise of a 100 per cent increase in the number of district courts, a mere 8 per cent increase has been registered in the number of district judges.
However, the alternate dispute resolution has emerged as an important development under Narendra Modi-led BJP government and deserves appreciation. Nearly 3.5 lakh cases have been settled by means of arbitration, reconciliation and Lok Adalats and nearly 11 lakh pre-litigation matters have been resolved since Modi government has come to power.
Similarly, new courts have been set up for resolving commercial matters, making litigation less of a burden in the operations of business in India. This means that this government is focused on resolving small, petty and commercial matters, thus making aspects of citizens' lives easier. However, on important constitutional matters, and matters of national or state importance, the performance of the government threatens one of the most important institutions in our country — the judiciary.
One of the most important promises made by BJP with regard to transparency was to mandate the digitsation of all government work in order to improve transparency and reduce any corruption and delays. This could have been a significant step forward to make governance transparent, accessible and efficient.
However, no legislation or executive order has been issued by the government mandating the digitisation of government work. A progressive democracy needs such measures and I would hope that a prime minister with such a vast social media presence and his relentless focus on digital India would indeed take this step forward before the end of this tenure. He owes this to the nation.
To be fair to the current regime, some efforts have indeed been made to digitise important government records. In an unprecedented move towards transparency, Modi government announced the uploading of all RTI responses online.
However, three years hence, only two responses have been uploaded, falsifying the entire initiative. The programme for digitisation of land records, an initiative of UPA-II government, has the capacity to significantly resolve land/property disputes and enhance transparency.
The programme has received a financial boost under this government, but the implementation has seen slow progress.
Watchdogs of the republic:
The principal bodies like Central Information Commission, the Central Vigilance Commission and the Lokpal play an important role in checking the powers of the government by means of maintaining information accessible to ordinary citizens and their role in disciplinary and criminal actions against the corrupt public servants.
However, the three institutions have come under severe assault from the present government making them nearly defunct at some stage of its tenure.
The position of Central Information Commissioner (CIC) has been kept vacant by the Modi government for a substantial part of the government’s tenure.
The government’s excuse that that the appointment of CIC required the Leader of Opposition is a farce as the Right to Information Act, 2005 in its Section 12 (3), explicitly mentions: “For the purposes of removal of doubts, it is hereby declared that where the Leader of Opposition in the House of the People has not been recognised as such, the Leader of the single largest group in opposition of the Government in the House of the People shall be deemed to be the Leader of Opposition.”
It is then no surprise that the Modi government has rejected the highest number of RTIs since the act came into force.
Similar rationale has been cited by the government for non-appointment of the Central Vigilance Commissioner (CVC) even though Section 4(1) of Central Vigilance Commission Act, 2003 clarifies, explicitly, that in case of no Leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha, the leader of the single largest party in Opposition shall be deemed as Leader of Opposition.
After a long gap of more than nine months, the government relented and made appointments to the posts of CIC and CVC.
The government’s stand in the matter of the appointment of the Lokpal and the CVC has been equally disheartening. On one hand, the government is arguing that the appointments to Lokpal cannot be made in the absence of Leader of Opposition or unless the Parliament passes the proposed amendment, making the leader of the largest party in opposition the Leader of Opposition.
On the other hand, the government hasn't pushed the amendment in Parliament three years since it has come to power.
It is only in the absence of information, inquiry and institutions of justice that the virtues of despotism and tyranny are born. Therefore, it is important, from time to time, to pause and deeply reflect on the health of these institutions — it is the only way we can continue to call ourselves a republic. Franklin’s words could not be more prophetic.