Strengthening of Indian democracy key to unleashing economic reforms

True reform requires a partnership between a liberal state and a constantly watchful civil society. Is the Modi government up to this task?


When the Goods and Services Tax (GST) legislation was in Parliament recently, reams were written about how it was a seminal piece of reform. Photo: Mint
When the Goods and Services Tax (GST) legislation was in Parliament recently, reams were written about how it was a seminal piece of reform. Photo: Mint

For the seventieth time this month, and during every general election, India celebrates its incredible democracy. There are several theories for why India is such an implausible democracy, and our ability to be an exception in a troubled neighbourhood evokes great nationalistic fervour. However, this celebration of our democracy also sometimes distracts us from taking a hard look at the state of our democracy.

I want to contrast this with the focus on the economy. As this year coincided with 25 years of India’s liberalization project, there has been much written about how the economy needed to be unshackled from the tyranny of the licence raj, and about how much more remains to be done in our quest for economic growth. When the Goods and Services Tax (GST) legislation was in Parliament recently, reams were written about how it was a seminal piece of reform, and how this should herald a series of institutional reforms to unlock the economic potential of the country.

This restlessness that one sees when it comes to the state of the economy isn’t quite visible when it comes to discussing the state of our democracy. In fact, it is fair to say that while we have strong lobbies pushing for economic reforms, we have become largely complacent about the state of our democracy. Recent actions by the government (across political parties) have exposed huge gaps that need to be addressed urgently.

Let me start with electoral reform. Two reports of the Law Commission—on Electoral Disqualifications (2014) and Electoral Reforms (2015)—lie largely ignored by political parties across the country. The latter report, especially, made strong recommendations for curbing the flow of black money into electoral financing, as well as taking action against the phenomenon of ‘paid news’ used as electoral propaganda. It is indeed a little ironical, then, that the last significant move by the government in the area of election financing was the amendment brought to retrospectively alter the definition of what counts as a ‘foreign entity’—a move that benefits the top political parties in the country that had been in potential violation of the Foreign Contributions Regulation Act (FCRA) until then.

Meanwhile, official advertisements for “friendly” media has been a tremendous growth industry in recent times.

Another area of concern has been the state’s ham-handed response to dissent. From organisations such as Amnesty International to student bodies such as in JNU and private individuals airing their views on freedom of expression in India—they have been met by a state response that sought to not only crush dissent through hooliganism by affiliates and spurious legal action, but also saw fit to make light of such incidents at public forums.

The next area of concern I would like to highlight is our federal structure. While the GST was lauded by all economics commentators, the implications for federalism were left unclear.

Finance minister Arun Jaitley’s insistence on ‘pooled sovereignty’ will not convince critics who see a systematic erosion of the power of state governments to govern according to their priorities.

Centrally-sponsored schemes, which were openly criticized by Narendra Modi when he was the chief minister of Gujarat for their straitjacketed nature, have not seen any significant reform either.

Instead, there has been plenty of rhetoric about ‘Team India’ and ‘cooperative federalism’. This leaves plenty to be desired even if you take into account the committees and task-forces run by NITI Aayog. And the rhetoric also does not seem to apply when it comes to non-BJP ruled states. Kashmir is a special case, but it blatantly exposes the limitations of a central government driven by nationalistic rhetoric and paternalistic benevolence.

A final area of concern is the neglect of the democratic decentralisation process. The reforms of the early 1990s now appear toothless; both urban and rural local governments are hamstrung by poor resources and poor leadership, and an institutional framework that has not been reformed to keep up with the mounting responsibilities entrusted to local bodies. Governments have also taken a series of steps that erode local-level democracy.

For instance, states such as Rajasthan and Haryana have hurt local governance by introducing questionable eligibility criteria for contesting elections; Nitish Kumar’s Bihar Prohibition and Excise Act, 2016 empowers the District Collector to impose fines on a village/town (presumably with no involvement of the panchayat); in Maharashtra (and elsewhere), the forest department has violated the rights of tribal communities to manage their forests.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. But it points to the rapidly worsening state of our democracy at all levels—right from the centre of power in Delhi, down to our villages. Seven decades after independence, the state of our democracy should concern us all, and erase any sense of complacency that might exist regarding how great a nation we are. But we need to be careful: the incredible democratic project that India represents will not corrected by chauvinistic nationalism. It is as important to guard against those agitating against the current state of our democracy, and in favour of reversing the progress we have made. True reform requires a partnership between a liberal state and a constantly watchful civil society. Is the current government up to this task?

Suvojit Chattopadhyay works on issues of governance and development. Over the last decade, he has worked with a range of development agencies in India, Ghana and Kenya.

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