Dialogue  April-June, 2006, Volume 7  No. 4

India: Political Culture,

Prakash Singh

The political culture of India has witnessed a steady decline over the years. In the wake of independence, we had a generation of politicians who were fired by idealism. There was a keenness to achieve progress, a genuine attempt to uplift the lot of the masses, and a conscious effort to give India a place of honour in the comity of nations. Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister, symbolized the spirit of resurgent India. His idealism in certain areas or directions may have been misplaced, but idealism it was nonetheless. As the years rolled by, the flame started getting dimmer. Considerations of realpolitik took over. Loyalty to the party rather than the Constitution or the country became the important consideration. The Emergency marked the great divide in the political culture of the country. Henceforth, the national leadership expected ‘committed’ supporters – and the commitment was to the individual rather than to any ideology. In fact, this principle was extended to the bureaucracy and even to the judiciary. The leadership expected the bureaucrats to toe their line and support the party programme irrespective of whether it was in the best interests of the people or not. Appointments to the judiciary were also vitiated. The disastrous consequences of this not so subtle change were to be seen in the years to come. The country, in fact, continues to suffer from this conceptual distortion.

A number of other aberrations have also crept in the political culture of the country. National interests take a back seat as against the political interests of the party in power. In recent years, we have seen two ugly manifestations of this. One has been the dilution of our fight against terror. The country had a reasonably stringent Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Act (TADA) to deal with the terrorists. Later, when the NDA government came to power, there was hue and cry over its misuse and so the government enacted a softer version of it called Prevention of Terrorist Activities Act (POTA). The present UPA government, under pressure from the minorities and the left parties, allowed even POTA to lapse on the specious plea that the existing laws were enough to deal with acts of terror. It was said that the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, with some additional provisions, would be used to deal with terrorism. All this amounts to miserable abdication of responsibility in the face of very serious terrorist threats to the country. Ironically, the United Kingdom, which is considered the mother of democracy, has been progressively enacting tougher laws to deal with the terrorists. The USA has a comprehensive PATRIOT Act to deal with the challenge of terrorism.

Another disappointing performance of the state has been in regard to the policy to be adopted to deal with the illegal Bangladeshi immigrants in the country. There was an Illegal Migrants’ Determination by Tribunals (IMDT) Act to detect and deport the Bangladeshis from Assam. It was an invidious Act in the sense that it applied only to Assam while the rest of the country was governed by the Foreigners’ Act. The

Supreme Court declared the IMDT Act ultra vires and observed that actually it had “created the biggest hurdle and is the main impediment or barrier in identification and deportation of illegal migrants”. The Apex Court went to the extent of saying that “the State of Assam is facing ‘external aggression and internal disturbance’ on account of large scale illegal migration of Bangladeshi nationals”. The Government of India, however, to appease the minorities, amended the Foreigners’ Act in its application to Assam and thereby frustrated the intention of the judiciary which had unequivocally stated that the Bangladeshi nationals who had crossed the border and trespassed into Assam or were living in other parts of the country had no legal right of any kind to remain in India and that they were liable to be deported.

Yet another distortion of the political culture is seen in the licence which the politicians seem to enjoy to loot and accumulate wealth. It came to light recently that Om Prakash Chautala and his family in Haryana had, between July 1999 and March 2005, accumulated assets worth Rs.1,467 crores. The assets included three plots in Gurgaon worth about Rs.150 crores, two plots in Faridabad worth another Rs.150 crores, Regent Tower & Mall in Karol Bagh worth about Rs.180 crores, etc. The Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh is not far behind. The Supreme Court has asked Mulayam Singh Yadav and his two sons and daughter-in-law to explain the source of the disproportionate wealth they are alleged to have acquired in the last six years. Jayalalitha during her tenure in Tamilnadu also acquired enormous wealth through dubious means. It could be said without any fear of exaggeration that there are today a large number of politicians in the country whose assets are in the vicinity of Rs.1000 crores. There is unfortunately no political will to stem the rot.

Deploring the pervasive corruption in the country, the IT czar, N.R. Narayana Murthy, said: “Our institutions - from Parliament and Legislatures to Courts and distribution systems – have become pervaded with corruption”. Murthy estimated that the Indians spent over Rs.21,000 crore in bribes and illegal payouts in 2004, which was close to 1% of the country’s GDP.

A distressing aspect of political culture is the criminalisation of politics. There is no political party in the country today which could claim immunity from this virus. The affidavits filed before the Election Commission bear eloquent testimony of that. The parties justify the induction of these bad hats on the ground that they are needed to counter the activities of criminals of the other parties. It is the proverbial egg and chicken story. Shahbuddin of Bihar and Mukhtar Ansari of UP are the classic examples. The number of criminals in the political parties is steadily increasing and one shudders at the prospect of such elements capturing power one day.

Governance is the key to development and progress. Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, USA and UK have made their mark in this sphere. A number of initiatives have been taken in these countries to provide clean, responsible, people friendly, transparent, accountable and sensitive governance to their citizens. The situation in India, on the other hand, is far from encouraging. Addressing the Chief Secretaries and the State Police Chiefs in New Delhi on January 18, 2004, the Prime Minister of India said that one of the fundamental reasons for the ills of insurgency, extremism and crimes affecting internal security was the lack of good governance, especially at the cutting edge level. It is a sad commentary on our governance that instead of solving our problems, every decade has witnessed the emergence of a major problem in the country. The fifties saw the beginnings of trouble in the north-east with the Nagas raising the banner of revolt followed by the Mizos and the Meiteis also taking up arms. The sixties saw the beginning of trouble in Assam. The seventies saw the spread of Naxalite movement to different parts of the country. The eighties were marked by the emergence of terrorism in Punjab. The nineties were dominated by the separatist movement in Jammu & Kashmir. And, in the present century, we seem to be getting drawn into the vortex of international terrorism.

What is good governance? The characteristics of good governance would include the rule of law, a transparent and responsive administration, an effective judiciary, accountability at all levels and sound economic policies which promote the welfare of the largest number of people. The state of Andhra had appointed a Task Force on Good Governance under the chairmanship of Madhav Godbole, former Home Secretary, Government of India. The Task Force made wide-ranging recommendations covering the following areas of public policy:

          v   Information and transparency

          v   Refining primary responsibilities of government

          v   Legal and procedural reforms

          v   Civil Services reforms

          v   Citizen-friendly and accountable government

          v   Responsive government offices, and

          v   Effective implementation of programmes

Let us examine the state of governance in the country on some of the parameters mentioned above. Rule of Law is one of the most basic requirements of good governance. But do we really have it? The rule prevails in the country only to the extent the person at the receiving end has no clout, political or financial. The rich and the powerful manage to influence the wheels of justice, as we have seen in so many cases. “Crime is a low-risk, high-return business these days”, as stated by a former Solicitor General, K.T.S. Tulsi. Besides, successive governments have paid scant attention to police reforms with the result that this vital wing of criminal justice remains vulnerable to political manipulations. The National Police Commission recommendations were conveniently put in the cold storage. As stated by David H. Bayley, “the rule of law in modern India, the frame upon which justice hangs, has been undermined by the rule of politics”. The rule of politics manifest itself in diverse ways: frequent postings and transfers, political recommendations vitiating recruitment procedures and promotions, tampering with investigations, giving unlawful directions to the police, and exploiting the intelligence apparatus for political purposes. As a consequence, people have very little confidence in the police. There is criticism from all quarters. It is high time that the role and functions of the police are redefined and it is made accountable to the law of the land. The National Human Rights Commission has “urged the insulation of the investigative functions of the police from political and other extraneous pressures as essential to restoring confidence in the police and the reducing of complaints of human rights violation by the members of the force”.

The administrative machinery has not kept pace with the changing times. It is not only inefficient and insensitive but also corrupt. The ‘steel frame’ has unfortunately become a steal frame. There are a large number of bureaucrats in the country whose assets are in the range of Rs.100 crores. In one State, ironically, out of the three most corrupt officers, two managed to become Chief Secretaries. Senior civil servants and police officers being arrested on charges of corruption has become a common occurrence. According to Madhav Godbole, “our whole administrative apparatus is in shambles and the organized and highly qualified civil services based on open competitive examinations are on the brink of extinction”. Addressing the civil servants on April 21, 2006, the Prime Minister said: “You cannot view yourself as mere administrators, you are also managers and catalytic agents of change. You have to manage change and manage it efficiently and manage efficient delivery of public services”. It is difficult to be optimistic about the prime Minister’s message making an impact on the babus.

The public distribution system in the country, which aims to deliver food to the poor, has been an abject failure. The whole system is mired in corruption and leakage. A study done on the impact of the PDS in Kalahandi, one of the poorest districts of the country, by Bhabani Shankar Nayak brought out that the entire emphasis of the scheme had been on satisfying the millers, traders, large farmers and bureaucrats and not on meeting the consumption needs of the poor and the undernourished. The Planning Commission itself noted, in a study, that 16 states were issued 14.07 mt of foodgrains in 2003-04 of which only 5.93 mt reached the BPL families while more than 5 mt leaked out in transit and over 3 mt was diverted from the system. Commenting on the scheme as implemented in the country, Shankkar Aiyar said: “Never has a people been deceived and robbed so consistently for such a long time”. He estimated that out of every rupee spent on food subsidy, only 13 paise actually reached the poor.

The judiciary offers a silver lining in an otherwise bleak scenario. It has upheld public interest matters in several sensitive areas. However, it is distressing that the delivery mechanisms are extremely slow. An estimate prepared in February 2006 showed that the backlog at various levels was as follows: Supreme Court 33,635 cases, High Courts 33,41,040 cases, Subordinate Courts 2,53,06,458 cases. No doubt, this was partly due to the Courts being under strength. The High Courts have only 539 judges as against the sanction of 670 while the Subordinate Courts have only 12,360 as against 13,204 sanctioned posts. What is worse, even judiciary is getting infected with corruption, as was admitted by a retired Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

Poor governance has particularly affected the remote and tribal areas of the country. The steady growth of Naxalism in the country is to be attributed in large measure to the absence of or poor governance in the remote areas. The movement has today spread to 14 states of the country and affected no less than 165 districts in varying degrees. The Prime Minister conceded that this was the biggest internal security threat to the country. The tribals have particularly been getting a raw deal. An Expert Group on Prevention of Alienation of Tribal Land and its Restoration, which was constituted by the Ministry of Rural Development, noted with anguish that land belonging to the tribal people was being alienated in all the states despite the existence of an umbrella of protective legislation since the 19th century. A whole lot of people had ganged up against the tribals and “the long arm of the state and the force of the rule of law have failed to prevent their depredations”. The tribals, as a consequence, are “totally exhausted, impoverished and traumatized”. Displacement of tribals in the wake of implementation of development projects has added to their woes. According to official figures, a population of 21.3 million was displaced between 1951 and 1990 in the states of Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Orissa, and out of them 40 per cent were tribals.

The Indian economy is no doubt on a high trajectory and the country has one of the fastest growing economies in the world today. A recent report by America’s National Intelligence Council compared the rise of China and India to the advent of a United Germany in the 19th century and a powerful US in the 20th century, and said that the event would transform the world’s geo-political landscape with impacts potentially as dramatic as those in the previous two centuries. “In the same way the commentators refer to the 1900s as the ‘American Century’ the twenty-first century may be seen as the time when Asia, led by China and India, comes into its own”. The country’s economy grew by 9.3% in the first quarter of 2006, marking a momentum on par with China’s red hot expansion. According to the annual World Wealth Report, the number of High Net Worth Individuals (HNWIs, each worth more than $ 1 million) in India rose by nearly 20% last year, the second highest rate of growth of millionaires in the world. However, the overall picture should not be lost sight of. 260 million Indians are still below the poverty line, 100 million Indian families have no source of water at all, 150 million households have no electricity and over 30% Indian villages are not connected by roads. The World Development Report 2006 slams the country’s labour laws, caste system, gender inequities, and states that “inequality in India has been rising”. It was beautifully pointed out by Rammanohar Reddy, editor of Economic and Political Weekly that we have created an Enclave India where “the upper echelons work in office environments that rival the best in the world, often live in grated communities, the children go to ‘international’ schools, and they entertain themselves by visiting malls, multiplexes and amusement parks or taking a holiday abroad”. But the question is, “How long can one small section race ahead while the larger one is mired in despair?”.


Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

Astha Bharati