back to issue

AS we enter the sixty-ninth year of our journey as a constitutional, democratic republic, both the public mood and discourse, far from being optimistic and cele-bratory, has increasingly turned grim. Many of the expectations generated by the remarkable victory of the BJP in 2014, the promise of strong, stable, effective and accountable governance, seemed to have turned sour with not just a worrying slowdown in growth and failure to generate meaningful employment but worse, an inability of the state and public institutions to elicit trust in an evermore impatient and demanding citizenry.

Even a decade back, while concern about the frailty of our institutional health was apparent, public trust in key institutions like the superior courts, the Election Commission of India, the Army, the Reserve Bank of India – to list a few, was high. If anything, most Indians took justifiable pride in their constitutional architecture and the relative independence and competence of these key institutions, convinced that this robustness was what set the country apart from other newly independent nations of the Third World. It is highly unlikely that such a sentiment would be widely echoed today as institution after institution, old and new, is buffeted by a spate of criticism, accusations of systemic bias and an inability to resist executive interference, what in common parlance is decried as politicization if not capture of state institutions.

To assign blame for this state of affairs to primarily the current dispensation, its ideological orientation and style of functioning and deep disquiet with what it believes is an alien/western imposition out of sync with our civilizational (Hindu) ethos, would at best be a half-truth. After all, the mismatch between institutional design, politics and developmental needs has long been apparent. Equally, no regime, whatever its ideological preferences, at both the Centre and the states, can claim a particularly unsullied record; the desire of the political executive to ‘fix’ institutional behaviour to achieve preferred outcomes runs deep. Just recollect the recurrent outcry over appointments, procedures, rules and norms vis-à-vis every organization, be it about a ‘committed judiciary’ or the treatment of premier investigative agencies as a ‘caged parrot’. How often, for instance, have we witnessed constitutional personalities – governors, superior court judges, chief election commissioner, central vigilance commissioner, even the chief of the armed forces – accept electoral political roles after completing their term in office? Evidently, norms of rectitude and propriety, so critical if traditions of independence and impartiality are to be nurtured, are considered malleable as political expediency takes pride of place.

Nevertheless, as the recent crisis in the Supreme Court makes clear, there is much that the current regime has to answer for. As many have pointed out, never before (even during the days of the Emergency) have four senior judges of the Supreme Court, gone public with their disquiet about the chief justice, in particular the departure from convention in the allocation of cases to ‘chosen’ benches in an attempt to ‘manipulate the outcome’, more so in politically sensitive cases. Starkly put, the dissenting judges have alleged ‘grave misconduct’ on part of the chief justice, creating not merely a serious crisis of legitimacy of the judicial system but also raising the prospect of an undermining of our democracy. When seen in conjunction with what is happening in many other institutions – questionable appointments, refusal to fill vacancies and thereby debilitate institutions, seeking to alter the terms of reference without proper debate – there is justifiable reason for suspi-cion about the ‘real and unstated’ agenda of the regime.

As serious as the departure from convention on part of the judges is the ensuring political discourse which, expectedly, has regressed to political wrangling accompanied by obfuscation and reiteration of moral platitudes. At the moment, it is unclear how the rift, now in the open, can be breached and correctives put in place. Even if the current cause of conflict is remedied (though how is not clear), rebuilding trust between the judges or in the institution demands a high order of adherence to norms and values over a long period of time, which in our charged and divided times, does not appear likely. A papering over of conflicts, many of them not personal, may at best help buy time leaving open the prospect of an eruption flaring up once again in the not too distant future.

We, as citizens, are routinely reassured that these are but transitional problems of adjustment in a rapidly transforming society; that we, as a people and society, have weathered similar storms earlier. Possibly. But unless the collective is willing to recognize the malaise of institutional design and performance and steadfastly work at reforming them, the ensuing dysfunctionality can overwhelm the Republic. Hardly a propitious note on which to start the new year.

Harsh Sethi