Dialogue July-September, 2012, Volume 14 No.1
Indian Politics : its Positives and Negatives
Indian politics since independence has been dominated by the Indian National Congress and the prime ministers it gave to the country, particularly those from the Nehru-Gandhi family. Jawahar Lal Nehru (1947-1964), Indira Gandhi (1966-1977 & 1980-1984) and Rajiv Gandhi (1984-1989) between them ruled the country for nearly 37 years. Manmohan Singh has been prime minister since 2004, but it is generally acknowledged that Sonia Gandhi is the power behind the throne. If this period is also added, the Nehru-Gandhi family may be said to have dominated the Indian political scene for nearly 45 years.
In the years immediately following independence, there was a sense of idealism, commitment to the country, and a zest to take the country forward. Politics was by and large clean, though Jawaharlal Nehru was occasionally blamed for shielding corrupt elements. Indira Gandhi gave dynamic leadership to the country in the initial years. The liberation of Bangladesh in 1971 enhanced her stature in the international arena, particularly her tough stance vis-à-vis US. The imposition of Emergency in 1975, however, marked a dividing line in the political morality of the country. Ends became important, means did not matter. The political opposition had to be suppressed and, in the process, police were misused and fictitious reports lodged at police stations against those opposed to the ruling dispensation. The press was muzzled. Even the judiciary was bullied. Shah Commission, which subsequently inquired into the excesses committed during the Emergency, reported as follows on the misuse of the administrative machinery:
"……..the police was used and allowed themselves to be used for purposes some of which were, to say the least, questionable. Some police officers behaved as though they are not accountable at all to any public authority. The decision to arrest and release certain persons were entirely on political consideration which were intended to be favourable to the ruling party."
Indian politics has since then been steadily going downhill. Rajiv Gandhi showed promise, but the Bofors controversy tarnished his reputation. His succumbing to minority pressure in the Shah Bano case was also very unfortunate.
Political considerations gradually infected every walk of life. Administration was politicised. Police became an instrument of the ruling party. The elected representatives came to symbolise corruption and self-aggrandisement. Even the judiciary was tainted. And the media started losing credibility.
The civil services provide the framework of administration. There is no dearth of talent, no shortage of expertise. We have excellent officers, but unfortunately they are not allowed to blossom. The services have lost their sheen, partly because of politicization and partly because of corruption. A large number of officers today carry an invisible stamp on their foreheads – the stamp of political alignment. Every time their political godfathers are voted to power, they get plum postings, and they take full advantage of the tenure to feather their nests. A background paper recently prepared by the Union Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances and Personnel has acknowledged that graft is prevalent at all levels of officialdom and there is an unholy nexus between politicians and top echelons of the bureaucracy. "At senior levels, if (corruption) is usually a result of strong nexus between politicians and civil servants and, at lower levels, it is a result of poor systems and ill-defined public service levels". Addressing the officers on the Civil Services Day recently, Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh accepted that there was a growing perception that the moral fibre of today’s public servants "who rank among the best in the world", is not as strong as it used to be and that the present lot of servants are more likely to succumb to extraneous pressures. The Prime Minister stressed that "civil servants and bureaucrats in India need to be more competent, more professional, and alive to the requirements of the 21st century to act as agents of social change and facilitate rapid socio-economic progress"1.
M.G. Devasahayam, in an article published in the G-Files, has rightly said that the state of civil services today reminds one of Rome of 63 BC, when Cicero was charged with the responsibility of prosecuting Catilina, who was accused of plundering the treasury. Cicero, while arraigning Catilina, lamented: ‘O Tempora! O Mores!!’ meaning ’Oh The times! Oh the morals!!’2.
The police are in terrible shape, thanks to their increasing politicization. At the dawn of independence, it was expected that a new role, a new philosophy would be defined for the police, that its accountability to the law of the land and the people of the country would be underscored in unmistakable terms. But that was not to be and, as observed by the National Police Commission, "the relationship that existed between the police and the foreign power before independence was allowed to continue with the only change that the foreign power was substituted by the political party in power".
The political misuse and abuse of the police manifested generally in the forms of frequent postings and transfers, vitiated recruitment procedures, tainted promotions, tampered investigations, unlawful directions to the police; and exploitation of the intelligence apparatus for political purposes. As a result, police standards declined and people were alienated.
The Supreme Court of India gave comprehensive directions on September 22, 2006 to all the States and Union Territories to carry out police reforms. However, the majority of states are dragging their feet in the matter. Justice Thomas Committee, which was appointed to monitor the progress of implementation, expressed its "dismay over the total indifference to the issue of reforms in the functioning of police being exhibited by the states".
Indian politics has nevertheless its positive features. We have had a stable democracy since independence. The democratic structure has developed serious flaws but it has stood the test of time. The parliament recently celebrated the completion of its sixtieth year. Considering the fragile political setup in the neighbouring countries, it is an achievement we could be proud of. The "highs" of the parliament during these years, according to an expert group’s analysis, have been: Protection of Civil Rights Act in 1955 which made caste discrimination against dalits a punishable offence; the announcement by Indira Gandhi in parliament on December 16, 1971 that the Pakistan Army had surrendered in Dhaka; the ratification by parliament on July 3, 1972 of the Simla Pact; the passage of the Anti–Defection law in 1985; the legislation in 1988 lowering the voting age to 18; the unanimous adoption of resolution by parliament on February 22, 1994, stating that Pakistan must vacate the areas of Jammu & Kashmir and resolving that all attempts to interfere in India’s internal affairs will be met resolutely; the passage of Right to Information Act in 2005; the Right to Education Act in 2009, etc.3
However, it is also a fact that the credibility of parliament has suffered considerable erosion. There is a disconnect between the people and their representatives4. The general impression is that parliament is not sensitive to the problems of common man. Besides, parliament as an institution appears to be on the decline. The quality of debates and discussions leave much to be desired. Rishing Keishing, the oldest surviving member of parliament, expressed his distress over the declining standards in the following words:
"Whether it is the Opposition or Congress, most MPs these days are governed by self-interests. This is where they differ from law makers of the past whose heart beat only for the nation."
It is also a matter of concern that people have started talking of parliament in very disparaging terms in the context of 154 persons of questionable background having managed to enter its portals. Arvind Kejriwal of India Against Corruption fulminated against the parliament as a body of murderers and rapists. Swami Ram Dev was also uncharitable in his comments on parliament. There is not much respect for members of parliament, and it is even less for members of states assemblies
"However good a Constitution may be", Ambedkar had said, "it is sure to turn out to be bad because those who are called to work it happen to be a bad lot." This seems to be the bane of the Indian Republic. The level of politics has touched a nadir.
The judiciary has been a beacon of hope for millions of Indians. Its activism made up for the lethargy and indecision of the executive in several areas. There have been several landmark judgments by the Supreme Court. In Keshavananda Bharti Vs. the State of Kerala, the Supreme Court explicitly laid down that the legislature cannot change the basic structure of the Constitution. In Sunil Batra vs. Delhi Government, the Supreme Court reinterpreted the writ of habeas corpus as not only producing a person in the Court but also preventing a person jailed from any inhuman treatment in the prison. In M.C. Mehta vs. the State of Tamilnadu, the Court pronounced that the deployment of children in hazardous factories is unlawful and also prescribed guidelines for their welfare. In Prakash Singh vs. Union of India, the Apex Court gave comprehensive directions to all the state governments on police reforms. Besides, there were landmark judgments on environment issues, gender issues, dalit issues, etc.
Unfortunately, however, the judiciary has also been contaminated by corruption. Prashant Bhushan, a Supreme Court lawyer, in a controversial interview to a news-magazine, alleged that half of the last sixteen Supreme Court Chief Justices were corrupt. Justice J.S. Verma echoed his views when he stated that "certain individuals with doubtful integrity were elevated within the higher judiciary". Former Chief Justice of India, K.G. Balakrishnan, is facing charges of amassing benami properties, suppressing the fact that former Union minister A. Raja had been accused of attempting to interfere with the course of justice and approving false RTI replies pertaining to assets of judges during his tenure.
Ruma Pal, former Supreme Court Judge, while delivering the fifth V M Tarkunde Memorial Lecture on An Independent Judiciary (November 2011) talked of "seven sins" the higher judiciary was guilty of5:
1. brushing things under the carpet, turning a "Nelsonian eye" to the injudicious conduct of a colleague;
2. hypocrisy in violating the very laws which they enforce;
3. secrecy in stone-walling any enquiry on their functioning;
4. plagiarism and prolixity characterised by prolific and often unnecessary use of passages from textbooks and decision of other judges;
5. judicial arrogance as to one’s intellectual ability and status;
6. not observing the standards of judicial behaviour which they prescribe for the subordinate judiciary;
7. intellectual arrogance or intellectual dishonesty when they decide without being bound by principles of "stare decisis" or "precedent".
Media is regarded as the fourth pillar of democracy. It has to be conceded that media has played a stellar role in strengthening the Indian democracy. Its investigative reporting exposed large scale corruption in different spheres: the Commonwealth Games scam, the Adarsh Housing Society scam, and Cash for Vote scam have been some of the recent high points of the Indian media. The print and electronic media have also been in the vanguard exposing the insensitivity of the bureaucracy, corruption of the police, exploitation of tribals, mismanagement of public sector undertakings, etc. Some television channels have even given space to the ordinary citizens to air their views in the form of citizen journalists, thereby promoting democratic participation.
However, it is also a fact that there has been gradual decline in the integrity of the media. A number of factors have contributed to that. PB Sawant, former Chairman, Press Council of India, beautifully summed up these factors in the following words:
"The fall in the moral and intellectual calibre of the editorial personnel, the dominance of the management over the editorial staff, the increasing use of the media by the owner-corporate sector for promoting their business interests, the absence of a cause celebre which would unite all sections of the society, the conflicting goals, visions and interests of the different stakegroups in the society, the sharp division and wide disparity between the haves and the have-nots, the absence of a credible uniting force, the power struggles, the advance of consumerism, the degeneration of public life with money and materialism becoming the sole value and pursuit of life, and corruption invading all aspects of the societal life, the media not only lost its role as a moral leader but itself contributed in various ways to the very downturn of the society."
The results have been disastrous. The editor was downgraded in status, reporting became frivolous and commercial considerations became paramount. "There was no vision, no conviction and no goal except the protection and promotion of the business interests of the owner", as Justice Sawant summed up. The Radia tapes highlighted the nexus between the media and the politicians. It is also common knowledge that during elections representatives of the media approach politicians with offers of "package". They prostitute their columns for a price.
The freedom of the press in the country is a blessing for the people. However, as warned by Soumya Dutta, "this blessing can go terribly wrong when manipulations set in"7. And manipulations have actually set in with big corporate houses entering the business of media and transnational media organizations also spreading their wings in the Indian market with their own global interests.
One area where political considerations overriding all other considerations has played havoc is the area of National Security. Taking a panoramic view, we find a major problem confronting the Indian polity every decade. The fifties saw the north-east going up in flames. Phizo raised the banner of revolt in Nagaland in 1954 and, in due course, the sparks flew to Mizoram, Manipur and Tripura. The sixties saw the beginnings of the Naxalbari movement from a small village at the tri-junction of India, Nepal and what was then East Pakistan, and the movement gradually spreading to twenty states of the Union. The seventies saw turbulence in Assam with the formation of the United Liberation Front of Assam seeking to liberate Assam from the Indian "colonial regime" through armed struggle. The eighties witnessed one of the most lethal terrorist movements in Punjab aided and abetted by Pakistan. The nineties saw the beginning of insurgency in Kashmir, though the seeds of trouble were there in the wake of partition. The current decade has been marked by the onslaught of international terrorism in the hinterland; what was so far confined to Jammu & Kashmir has gradually become a pan-India phenomenon.
Each of the aforesaid problems had their genesis in narrow sectarian, regional or political considerations taking precedence over the requirements of national security. There were also issues of governance. To an extent, trans-national factors exacerbated the situation.
Indian politics has had its positive and negative features. We have managed to retain our democratic structure in spite of all the turbulence in different theatres and disturbances in the neighbourhood. The structure has, however, developed serious flaws with persons of questionable background infiltrating the legislatures and the parliament. The credibility of the parliament has suffered serious erosion. The executive has been politicized; the administrative machinery and the police apparatus are both infected by the virus of politics, which in turn has affected their objectivity and neutrality. The judiciary has been making up for legislative lethargy and executive incompetence, but it is not in the best of health. The media is vibrant and has been exposing corruption, but ironically it is mired in corruption itself with commercial considerations guiding and influencing its charter. The writings on the wall are clear. These aberrations need to be corrected urgently before irreparable damage is done to the Indian polity. Electoral reforms must be carried out. The recommendations of the Second Administrative Reforms Commission deserve serious consideration. Police reforms mandated by the Supreme Court must be implemented. Judicial accountability needs to be made more stringent. What is stake is the democratic structure crafted by the founding fathers of the Constitution. We have only one option – to address the shortcomings, repair the damages and revitalize the institutions.
1. Neeraj Mahajan, A govt that runs, but how? G-Files, May 2012, p. 11.
2. MG Devasahayam, Civil services: O Tempora! O Mores!, G-Files, May 2012, p. 34.
3. Times of India, May 13, 2012.
4. Pioneer. May 11, 2012.
5. Indian Express, November 11, 2011.
6. PB Sawant, The Changing Face of Indian Media, Press Council of India, November 16, 2009.
7. Soumya Dutta, Social Responsibility of Media and Indian Democracy, Global Media Journal, June 2011.