Here is a book, The Great Indian Manthan: State, Statecraft and the Republic, that warns us about what happens when a collective leadership collapses. The book is edited by Pushparaj Deshpande and Gurdeep Singh Sappal, and the contributions come from diverse people; politicians (Sonia Gandhi, Sitaram Yechury, Mallikarjun Kharge, Mohammad Hamid Ansari, Margaret Alva and T. M. Thomas Isaac), civil servants (Ashok Lavasa, Naresh Chandra Saxena, Wajahat Habibullah), a judge (Madan Lokur), and an academician (Prof Ingrid Srinath). All of them served the country in various capacities, and the book’s 12 chapters were written from their own experiences.
The book under review was written from the present standpoint, drawing a line between Modi and pre-Modi times. While refreshing our memories of India’s collective national leadership from the national government’s early days, it ventilates how the constitutional bodies and positions have been compromised and demolished under the Prime Ministership of Narendra Modi.
Many aspects discussed in this book have been opined and debated in our everyday public discourse. Still, the book stitched them more systematically to unfold the damage being done to the country in the last decade and the danger if Modi beats the hat-trick.
The book’s editors have explained these things much more lucidly in their lengthy Introduction chapter and the epilogue. Indeed, the ‘Introduction’ chapter sets the tone for the book by discussing how India as a state and a nation has been carved and maintained carefully, accommodating the country’s diversities by our first-generation national leaders from the days of the national movement. The epilogue emphasises the need to recover the lost liberal, secular, and democratic India.
Decline in institutional freedom
The ‘First Chapter’ by Sonia Gandhi discusses how the Congress Party strived to deepen these modern ideas of human freedom and weave multiple voices into a national symphony. Gandhi shares her experiences working twice in the National Advisory Council (NAC) during the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. She underlines how the NAC as a collective leadership was crucial to accommodating multiple voices and diversities of India in the decision-making and the nation’s progress.
The collective leadership involving the civil society bodies and stakeholders had passed the most revolutionary Acts during the two UPA governments, the Right to Information Act, Right to Employment (MGNREGA) Act, Forest Right Act, National Food Security Act, Right to Education Act. These acts brought about a paradigm shift in the state’s approach to its citizens, a shift from welfarism to the right approach that resulted in a tangible change in the lives of the country’s oppressed and marginalised classes.
Under the Modi regime, all these mechanisms of collective leadership have been wrecked, and only a singular leadership is established, which is detrimental to the spirit of the Indian constitution. The Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), consisting of a few civil servants, has become the sole decision-making body while reducing the ministers to mere rubber stamps. And the only guiding body to the government is Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the parent organisation of the Bhartiya Janata Party. Sonia Gandhi says, “Both these developments make a mockery of India’s parliamentary democracy, while the former undermines the sovereignty of the state itself.”
The remaining chapter delineates in a nuanced way how Modi’s leadership has vilified the constitutional bodies and ethos in the last decade. While discussing the various trajectories in the functioning of our parliament, Hamid Ansari says parliament is diminished from its primary duty of controlling the political executive under the present regime. India is now reduced to a symbolic democracy, no longer a vibrant parliamentary democracy, but rather becoming “the world’s largest illiberal democracy”.
Yechury’s essay is interesting in many respects, as it explores the tradition of coalition culture and politics embedded in Indian soil from early historical times. He says the coalition politics of post-independent India is nothing but a coalition of India’s diversity, which was designed to defend the Indian constitution, to safeguard the guarantees, freedom, and fundamental rights ensured to citizens, and to defend the economic sovereignty of our country and the constitutional ‘idea of India’. It is on these principles and spirit that the INDIA coalition is formed to put a check on the RSS-BJP vision of India that aims to destroy the unity, integrity, and diversity of our country.
Attack on institutional freedom
The chapter on judiciary appraises the tension between the political executive and the judiciary but makes a sharp comment on the appointment practices of judges of higher courts by saying the crux of the problem is not how appointments are made but who is appointed and who is disappointed. Indian judiciary is dwindling to maintain its core principles – independence, impartiality, integrity, property, equality, competence, and diligence.
Likewise, the role of the governor is the most controversial in the Indian political system. Alva shows examples of how Modi’s Union government has insidiously misused state governors to engineer the collapse/dismissal of the elected government and interfere in the governance of states. She says the Modi government has unleashed havoc, not just on India’s states and Union territories but also on the nation, and the governors are not now constitutional statesmen but unconstitutional hitmen.
The Election Commission of India is another constitutional body that received bitter criticism for failing to prevent electoral fraud and crimes. The relationship between the Election Commission and the ruling party is always questioned despite the mechanism that evolved to check such misuses of the EC. Lavasa shows how the eminence of EC has been diluted during Modi’s regime; rather, it became reactive in many cases. Despite the Supreme Court’s intervention, the EC did not respond to the vandalism of the ruling party during the election. In one case, the Supreme Court had termed the EC ‘toothless’. In any parliamentary democratic system, the EC’s role is crucial. In fact, democracy is judged based on the electoral process. India has been classified as a ‘flawed democracy’ as per the global democracy index of 2022.
The country’s federal system, which was founded on the spirit of unity in diversity, has equally been subjected to the onslaught of the Union government in the last decade. The founder of India tilted towards a strong Union government because of the partition and cession movements following the independence. However, care was taken to balance Centre-state relations through various mechanisms.
In his essay, Isaac examines how these mechanisms failed over time, particularly the Union Finance Commission, Planning Commission, National Development Council, Goods and Service Tax (GST) Council, and NITI Aayog. The latter two were Modi’s inventions. Planning Commission was an important check on the Union finance ministry. But it was replaced with NITI Aayog, which is an advisory body. Importantly, it is neither a constitutional nor a statutory body. GST is indeed a big blow to the states. With this, the state governments lost their power to tax their state people. Isaac shows how GST has become a continuous contestation between the Union and State governments, particularly where opposition is ruling the state. He says the overall trend presently has been towards greater centralisation and weakening of the states, which seriously affects India’s federal system.
Habibullah’s essay on the Information Commissions of India unfolds the ways in which Narendra Modi’s government subverted the RTI Act, which the UPA government designed to bring transparency and accountability in governance. During the 2014 election campaign, Modi sloganed maximum governance with minimum government, good governance, sabka saath, and sabka vikas, but he took a completely opposite position once he came into power. The RTI Act, which is instrumental in strengthening democracy, has been subverted by rejecting requests for information under the Act, not appointing commissioners of the Information Commission, and diluting the true spirit of the Act by amending it. In many cases, the Modi government misused the Act to evade answerability.
The chapter on Indian bureaucracy by Saxena discusses the misuse of power in detail by the Union government. While narrating various functional problems of the Indian bureaucracy, Saxena says that India could not achieve economic development owing to the nexus between civil servants and politicians in looting the country’s resources. He attributes the civil servants to the underdevelopment of India. Recently, NITI Aayog claimed that 24.8 crore Indians were lifted out of poverty in the nine years of the two NDA regimes, but India ranked 94 among 107 countries in the Global Hunger Index 2020. The Modi government has aggressively promoted patronaged administrative culture, often placing Gujarat and RSS ideology-inclined civil servants in higher important positions. Unlike earlier governments, the PMO has become the supreme authority in making all the decisions of the ministries. Ministers are just symbolic. The lack of collective leadership severely affects the country’s administration and economic development.
The last chapter by Srinath deals with civil society in India. Civil society is crucial in any given society to defend democracy, freedom, and civic rights. Srinath gives an illuminating account of the challenges civil society bodies face, citing evidence from government reports. Particularly, the changes brought in by the Modi government to check the activities of civil society, including financial transactions, have created a hostile atmosphere in the country. Activists, journalists, academicians, cartoonists, and even students have been targeted by law enforcement agencies for raising their voices against divisive and unjust policies of the government. Being critical of the government policies is seen as ‘anti-national’ by the Modi regime, the regime unchallenged.
The book essentially highlights the lack of collective leadership in the Modi government, which has been endeavoring to undermine the constitutional bodies and institutions. It shows how the Constitution is under threat. Even in the pre-Modi BJP regimes, there used to be dozens of credible national leaders in BJP government. Modi’s personification has killed all the credible leaders in the BJP. The individual cult leadership is not only dangerous to any political party but also to the country. The book, indeed, unfolds the damage done to the Indian nation under the dictatorial leadership of Narendra Modi and argues for collective leadership. It is a must-read.
Bhangya Bhukya is a professor at the Department of History, University of Hyderabad.