India Adrift: The Sorry Spectacle of Our Institutions Today

Many institutions are becoming dysfunctional; certainly, all are morphing. The frightening aspect of this present situation is popular resignation or apathy at their condition. Even anger would have been more useful.

Amidst the ideological contestation that is currently underway in the country, the institutional structure that under girds the Republic is in turmoil. Many institutions are becoming dysfunctional; certainly, all are morphing. The frightening aspect of this present situation is popular resignation or apathy at their condition. This is far worse than anger – for that would have at least denoted a desire to act. Not only the political class’, the peoples’ focus too, is almost exclusively on the coming elections to the state legislatures, and later, the Lok Sabha polls in 2019. The question, even though the government has more than a year to go, uppermost in most minds, is if Prime Minister Narendra Modi will retain the impressive majority he had achieved in the 2014 elections.

I focus on two principal institutions – parliament and the Supreme Court.

The ruling party and the opposition are busy trading charges regarding the responsibility for parliament’s inability to conduct any business in the second half of the Budget session. The BJP is attempting to convince the people that it should not be blamed for the impasse witnessed in parliament. It has taken the unprecedented step to make its MPs fast for a day as a mark of protest against the opposition. Modi has fasted too, perhaps the first prime minister to adopt such a tactic. This has attracted attention but it is doubtful if it will make any difference to popular cynicism against the political class as a whole. It will also not reduce popular indifference at what was seen in the budget session. It is almost as if the people no longer have any interest in parliament performing its basic functions, including that of being the highest forum for debate and discussion on the direction that the nation should take.

Had it been otherwise the people would have been greatly agitated at the budget being passed without any discussion. The absence of sustained comment in the mainstream media and the social media as well as action by civil society vividly demonstrates the popular perception of parliament which is a supreme institution of the legislative branch of the government. It is as if parliament does not matter in the life of the nation. Comment on the Budget in the media and the trading of charges by political party spokespeople are obviously no substitute for discussions in parliament, but some sections of the people, having given up on parliament, seem to make do with them.

The political class apparently feels that the effective mode of communication with the people is through speeches outside parliament and in comments on social media not through discussions in parliament. It has to ask itself if the way to highlight concerns is only through rushing to the well of the chambers using lung power. It has also to introspect if the effect of disruptions has not inevitably led to a disconnect between the people and parliament. This cannot but be harmful to the polity and democratic functioning. The roots of our democracy are strong but it will be wrong of the political class to feel that as elections witness large participation all is well with the polity. Elections are only one part of democracy even though an important one.

If parliament is not covering itself with glory, the Supreme Court, the apex institution of the judicial organ of state, is not doing so either. It is clothed with the power of contempt and hence there is reticence in popular comment on its present state. However, there cannot but be an erosion of popular confidence in the court at all that has happened in it over the past few months. The hope that it will be able to resolve the issues that have divided the judges by itself has been belied. Instead, the sorry spectacle of a divided court is being paraded before the country on a regular basis. The honourable judges have to ask themselves if they are not committing contempt of their own courts through their conduct.

The Supreme Court should be aware that like any other institution of the Republic, it too has to earn popular confidence, trust and respect. The honourable judges now should never assume that the people will confer this on them because the senior judiciary enjoyed great respect in the past. If doubts emerge about their impartiality or that they are willing to be subservient to executive authority then the people will resign themselves to the view that the court can be manipulated and managed. This will be disastrous for Indian democracy.

It is pointless for the court to hold that the Chief Justice of India has untrammelled power to constitute benches and hence cannot be questioned on the manner he does so. Of course, it is for the CJI to constitute benches but he should act in a manner that is transparent and based on objective criterion that is uniformly applied. If the judiciary asks that executive power be so applied, the CJI can hardly follow any other course while performing his administrative functions. The court cannot expect the people to believe that every administrative act of the CJI will be believed to be inherently correct and just after all that they have seen over the past few months.

Naturally the traditions of parliament’s functioning and of the Supreme Court could not be expected to be immutable to change. However, if the change that is taking place erodes their essence and dilutes their basic purpose then that change cannot be for the national good. The political class as a whole and the senior judiciary needs to deeply introspect about the loss of faith of the people in them.

Will the acknowledged leaders of the Indian judicial and political world, and of the civil society, now intervene to stem the fall in of our institutions? Or have they too, as the ideological battle rages, become indifferent to the fate of the Republic? The next Lok Sabha polls will not be the final arbiter of the ideology of the Republic, but the continuing turmoil in the principal institutions of state will inflict lasting damage to the nation. Hence, the need for intervention and that too now.

Vivek Katju is a retired Indian Foreign Service officer who has served as Indian ambassador to Afghanistan and Myanmar.