India these days is being better served by its independent institutions than by its political class. Agencies such as the Supreme Court, the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Election Commission have given citizens reason for hope amid the political gridlock, corruption scandals and crony capitalism. In the area of economic management, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) has done a far better job managing the economic cycle than the spendthrift government ministry has.
The situation is not an ideal one. The elected representatives of the people should be at the forefront of protecting the Constitution, managing the economy and cleaning up public life. Their failure to do so has forced select institutions to step into the vacuum.
Other countries have had similar episodes. Even as he criticized the dictatorial tendencies of the Bonapartist state, Karl Marx pointed out in his classic political tract, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, that the state can sometimes have relative autonomy thanks to the inability of competing classes to maintain their hegemony. Civil servants get a greater degree of freedom to push through change. In another age, French bureaucrats led by Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman took the lead in building a European community after the destruction of World War II, taking advantage of the political chaos in much of Europe at the time.
The experience of the past few years suggests that India needs to do more to strengthen its institutions. There are two opportunities here. The public mood is such that the political class can be pushed towards setting up a Lokpal (though not necessarily the draconian monster that is being dreamt up by Anna Hazare and his team) to check corruption in high places. The second opportunity is to empower the regulators tasked with overseeing oligopolistic industries such as telecom where the opportunities of corruption are very high. A strong competition watchdog would also be welcome, since this newspaper continues to believe that open markets have a role to play in curbing corruption.
The country is at a dangerous crossroads, with inchoate public anger threatening the very legitimacy of the state. The attraction of zealots with simplistic answers is growing, a throwback to the chaos of 1975.
The Indian political class is not as uniformly venal as is commonly supposed, but there is no doubt that the incentives created in our sprawling democracy encourage myopic action and rent seeking. It is against this background that we think the time is ripe for an institutional renewal, both in terms of strengthening existing institutions and setting up new ones.
What ails India’s elected institutions? Tell us at firstname.lastname@example.org