Anecdote has it that India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru was in the habit of making a phone call to the then director general of All India Radio immediately after the daily 9pm bulletin. Not only was the call made after the bulletin (and not before), Nehru’s interventions were designed to motivate the fledgling national radio station and not influence its content.
If such was the passion of our founding fathers in nurturing institutions, flash forward to 2012. Meenakshi Natarajan, a first-time member of Parliament belonging to the very same party as Nehru and supposed to be a part of the inner coterie of his great-grandson Rahul Gandhi, sought to introduce a private member’s Bill that would effectively seek to gag the media—an institution that has been blamed by several cabinet ministers for fostering the present environment of gloom and doom.
Parliament turns 60: Rajya Sabha member Rishang Keishing, Resham Lal Jangde, Kandala Subrahmanyam and Kanety Mohana Rao, all members of the first Lok Sabha, at a function to mark the 60th anniversary of the first sitting of Parliament on Sunday. Parliament lost 30% of its business hours due to disruptions last year. Veteran politicians said continuous interruptions raise questions on the efficacy of the institution and dilute the people’s faith in public affairs. They urged members to discuss and resolve differences. At the special sitting on Sunday, the members resolved to uphold and maintain the dignity and supremacy of Parliament to make it an effective instrument of change. (PTI)
The Print and Electronic Media Standards and Regulation Bill, 2012, provides for the creation of a regulatory authority with sweeping powers, including fining news organizations for perceived infractions and even cancelling their licence.
On Sunday, Parliament concluded the 60th anniversary of its first sitting—an extremely proud moment for India, which, unlike older democracies such as the US, which did not initially allow women and people of colour to vote, chose to adopt universal suffrage from the very beginning. This contrast between the past and the present serves as a mirror to the challenges that lie ahead of this country.
The challenges are far more in number, complex in nature, and the context so different from what the country had inherited.
At the time of the first sitting of India’s Parliament, the founding fathers were struggling to manage the difficult transition of independence in the aftermath of partition and the communal strife. Very correctly, they interpreted the solution in creating institutions around the Indian Constitution—a seminal work inspired by Babasaheb Ambedkar; which explains Nehru’s enthusiasm about nurturing institutions such as an independent media and the public sector as the “commanding heights” of the Indian economy.
In the six decades since then, the country has transformed socially and economically. Most importantly, its democratic tradition has evolved.
It is as Sunil Khilnani put it in his book, The Idea of India, “Like those other great democratic experiments inaugurated in eighteenth-century America and France, India became a democracy without really knowing how, why, or what it meant to be one. Yet, the democratic idea has penetrated the Indian political imagination and has begun to corrode the authority of the social order and a paternalistic state. Democracy as a manner of seeing and acting upon the world is changing the relation of Indians to themselves.”
Indian society and its economy have become more participative. From managing scarcity, the country’s policy planners have the problem of managing plenty (record food stocks of 75 million tonnes, mostly rotting in the open), even while it continues to struggle managing the burden of poverty that it has carried for the last six decades.
The so-called laggard states such as Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa and Uttar Pradesh are poised on the cusp of a turnaround; just as more people in the country are materially trading up like never before—any wonder why the aspirations of millions are on fire.
At this stage, institutions have to be deepened just as new ones have to be created.
Sixty years ago, the state was the only player. Now, with the entry of private entities, the logic of independent regulators makes eminent sense. The rules of governance have to not only be transparent, but also be the same in practice. The era of discretion is over.
Which is why the mindset of the ruling United Progressive Alliance is disconcerting. Institutions such as UTI go headless, while others are destabilized by arbitrary actions of those in power. Unfortunately, the only institution that can debate this and other pressing issues, Parliament, is so polarized that it is virtually a dialogue of the deaf.
In the final analysis, therefore, while the special Sunday session of Parliament is indeed a great moment for Indian democracy, it is apparent that the challenges ahead are equally, if not more, daunting.
Fumbling and stumbling to manage solutions is not acceptable. Like Nehru and his ilk did, a fundamental strategy needs to be in place. In that, the first step is to restore governance.
Anil Padmanabhan is deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. Comments are welcome at email@example.com