By any measure, these aren’t the best of times for the government in India. With corruption cases tumbling out of its closet in quick succession, popular perception of governance has, to use a fashionable metaphor, gone for a six. One would imagine that a group of ministers (GoM) constituted to deal with corruption would somehow try to dig out the roots of the problem. But that doesn’t seem to be in the government’s nature.
More often than not, and certainly in the cases that have hit headlines in the last year, those roots lie in the abuse of discretionary powers held by the government. Yet the GoM on corruption declared earlier this week that such powers were entirely pertinent to the “bona fide duties” of ministers. Then, as if realizing that an ode to good faith wasn’t likely to cut much ice, the GoM on Thursday recommended that each usage of ministerial privilege should be posted online.
Will this help curb corruption? The answer could be obvious, if you consider that ministerial bona fides has had such astounding outcomes as the 2G telecom, Commonwealth Games and Adarsh scams. Besides, it is disingenuous to claim that online transparency over ministers’ activities can somehow keep discretion in check, when transparency itself is made discretionary.
To be sure, such powers can also be used for the good—to go the extra mile in governance or development when playing by the book isn’t quite sufficient. But if recent events are any indication, such uses have been gravely outnumbered by abuses.
Perhaps that was to be expected. Discretion is similar to monopoly. Once it is attained, the temptation to extract utmost value from it can easily be overpowering, and indeed rational. And if strong institutional checks and balances could have prevented such abuse, they have been sorely missing in India. Corruption is just one of the results. Such distortionary capabilities in government have led to short-sighted, often skewed policy decisions that have threatened the country’s overall interests.
Given such wide evidence of debilitating ministerial discretion, it is unfortunate that the government insists on hiding behind platitudes on faith and transparency.
How should ministerial discretion be dealt with? Tell us at firstname.lastname@example.org