India

What NDA’s Undermining Of Institutions Means For The Future

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After 3 decades of coalition governments, the BJP formed a majority government in 2014. Technically speaking, this means that they had enough numbers in the Lok Sabha to pass legislation without worrying about resistance from the Opposition. However, this form of unilateral decision-making seems to have gone beyond Parliament in the last 5 years. The NDA has not only superseded Parliamentary discussion, but they have also thwarted the autonomous functioning of many government institutions that the executive had no right to intervene in.

Back when the UPA was in power, the BJP often accused the Congress of intervening in the working of independent government institutions through its National Advisory Council, a body that seems to operate without being answerable to either the executive or the legislative. However, BJP seems to have taken this one step further, their executive and legislative seem to operate without being answerable to any other government organisation, whether it’s the judiciary or the CBI. This could have a grave impact on our nation’s democracy.

1. Our economic growth could suffer

The Deputy Governor of the RBI, Viral Acharya, recently said, “When the government is seen often making efforts to dilute the central bank’s policies and effectively coercing the central bank into such dilutions, banks and private sector spend more time lobbying for policies that suit them individually, at the cost of collective good, rather than investing in value creation and growth.”

What he refers to as “making efforts to dilute the central bank’s policies” is the NDA Government’s repeated intervention in the workings of the RBI. On 8th November 2016, when PM Modi banned the Rs. 500 and Rs. 1000 currency notes, he did so without the consultation of the RBI, the institution that is in charge of regulating India’s money. As a result of this decision, India lost Rs. 2.25 lakh crore, 15 crore earners went without their daily wages, thousands of SMEs shut down, lakhs of jobs were gone and our growth rate took a hit of around 1.5-2%. Demonetisation may be the biggest example of government intervention but it’s not the only one. They’ve tried to get the RBI to ease credit to certain MSMEs, they’ve used the Nirav Modi scam to take away the RBI’s payments regulatory powers and they tried to insert officials from the Finance Ministry into the RBI’s Monetary Policy Committee.

Again, Viral Acharya explains the problem with these interventions perfectly. He says, “A government’s horizon of decision-making is rendered short, like the duration of a T20 match, by several considerations. There are always upcoming elections of some sort — national, state, mid-term, etc. In contrast, a central bank plays a Test match, trying to win each session but importantly also survive it so as to have a chance to win the next session, and so on.” No wonder demonetisation was such a disaster.

2. CBI Investigations could be used as a weapon

On 23rd October 2018, CBI Director Alok Verma and Special Director Rakesh Asthana were sent on forced leave when both officers accused each other of bribery. It was reported that Verma wasn’t pleased with Asthana’s appointment as the Special Director because he was a close aid to PM Modi back when he was CM of Gujarat. Additionally, the NDA was using Asthana to carry out blatantly political investigations through the CBI.

The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) is the foremost official watchdog of the country, investigating economic crimes, cases of corruption and high profile criminal cases of all kinds against civilians as well as officials. If the CBI’s autonomy was diluted by the Government, it would mean that the government would have direct control on how some of the biggest criminal cases in our country are investigated and what the outcome of those investigations are. In a climate where the ruling government regularly intervenes in the proceedings of the CBI, what stops them from burying investigations against their allies in the business world, or members of their party? What stops them from investigating their opponents? This is a scary prospect from any democracy.

3. Everyone would NOT be equal in front of the law

In January 2018, 4 top judges of the Supreme Court of India held a shocking and unprecedented press conference. They said that unless their institution (the judiciary) was not preserved, democracy would not survive in India. Apparently, the press conference was held because the judges weren’t happy with how Chief Justice of India Deepak Mishra was leading the judiciary. He had procrastinated on the appointment of former Uttarakhand Chief Justice KM Joseph, despite him being approved by the collegium. Not-so-coincidently, CJ KM Joseph was the judge responsible for striking down of President’s Rule in Uttarakhand in 2016, which was a big blow to the BJP.

Judicial appointments have been at the heart of the conflict between the judiciary and the government, with the Supreme Court in 2015 striking down the government’s National Judicial Appointments Council, which would have changed the system entirely, giving the government more of a say on the appointment of senior judges.

Courts are expected to provide justice. No matter what political party, what caste, race, and colour you belong to. Everyone is equal in front of law. But the intervention of the executive in the judiciary could raise questions over the unbiased nature of the entire Indian justice system.

4. Data could be manipulated to gain public support

The National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) is a central body that carries out large-scale surveys on things like employment, education, industry, social welfare, food distribution, etc. After the survey is taken and the report is ready, the National Statistical Commission (NSC) is the body responsible for green-flagging all NSSO reports. Once they approve, the report is sent to the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation (MoSPI) for release. In December 2018, the NSC approved an NSSO survey of data collected from the period of July 2017 to June 2018. However, the MoSPI never published this report. As a result 2 member of the NSC, Chairman P.C. Mohanan and independent member J.V. Meenakshi, resigned from the commission, saying that the government was consistently ignoring their recommendations and superseding their work. In January 2019, this unreleased report was leaking by Business Standard and it quickly became apparent why the government was trying to keep this report from being published.

See, in 2014, when the BJP was campaigning for Lok Sabha, they promised to increase employment in the country. The vowed to create 2 crore new jobs every year. But according to this controversial NSSO report – the latest data on unemployment in India and the first survey on employment after demonetisation – employment in 2018 was at 6.1%, the lowest it’s been in 45 years. It became apparent that the government was trying to cover up its own inadequacies.  Without accurate data, it becomes impossible for this government or future governments to create effective policies. It also puts into question all the other ‘successful NDA policies’. Did they really have an impact or are they just presenting us a positive (and limited) view on the ground realities?

5. Elections could be rigged

Elections are perhaps the most fundamental part of democracy and therefore, the Election Commission of India – the body that regulates and administrates elections – is the keeper of our democratic machinery. But in the last 5 years, even this institution seems to have been tampered with by the NDA.

In the 2017 Union Budget, the NDA included a section for political funding reforms and introduced ‘electoral bonds’ – a direct and official method of making monetary donations to political parties –  to check rampant “under-the-table cash transactions”. The key motive was to infuse the political system with “white money”. However, donors could now make donations anonymously and the 7.5% limits for corporate donations were removed. This made the policy pretty controversial and initially the Election Commission of India called it “a retrograde step” and asked the government to “reconsider” and “modify” the idea. But their opinion completely 360-ed by the time the bonds were implemented in January 2018. This time, Chief Election Commissioner Achal Kumar Joti said electoral bonds were “a step in the right direction”.

Then on 6th October 2018, the Congress accused the EC of delaying its press conference to announce election dates by a few hours so that PM Modi could address a rally in Rajasthan before the model code of conduct kicked in. Even as early as 2017, the NDA seemed to be influencing the EC, when they split the Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat elections, with little explanation for their actions. Apparently this delay meant that BJP could announce more in Gujarat before the state went to polls.

Under Article 324 of the Indian Constitution, the EC not only has the authority to conduct elections, but they also have the responsibility to conduct them freely and fairly. However, if the NDA-led government does have a hand in these ‘coincidental’ press conference and election scheduling changes, it means a very fundamental part of our democracy has been compromised. Now, what stops the NDA from going one step further and influencing elections further, possibly insuring a BJP win?

All these oversteps of the NDA in autonomous institutions points to one thing, just like the 4 judges said in their press conference, our democracy is in danger. Elections rigging and data censorship are things that we heard happening in countries like China and Russia, countries that are closer to being dictatorships than democracies. Is that where India is heading?

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