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The combination of two key non-elected institutions—CAG and the Supreme Court—has prevented, to an extent, the hollowing of democracy in India. Photo: Satish Kaushik/Mint
The combination of two key non-elected institutions—CAG and the Supreme Court—has prevented, to an extent, the hollowing of democracy in India. Photo: Satish Kaushik/Mint

The case for salaried caesars

There is a strong case today to re-engineer the equilibrium between our institutions, elected and non-elected

In the last one month, there have been umpteen occasions when the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) has been criticized by members of the Manmohan Singh government. Others have flung wild charges at the country’s apex auditor. Prime Minister Singh’s words have been mild, but in essence even he has disputed CAG’s findings in the coal block allocation issue.

CAG, however, is not the only non-elected institution that has been criticized. The higher judiciary, too, has been criticized for encroaching on the executive’s domain. Most recently President Pranab Mukherjee cautioned the judiciary against activism that blurs constitutionally prescribed separation of powers. The Election Commission has been the subject of attack in the past.

The usual criticism against such institutions is that they are authoritarian in nature and are largely unaccountable. Unlike legislators—who have to renew their mandate periodically—the former are not subject to pressures of the kind that politicians have to bear. Darker comparisons point to the destruction of democracy at their hands in many parts of South Asia. These criticisms are mistaken and a comparison with other countries in the region shows an interesting contrast.

These developments should be seen in perspective. Never before in India’s history have there been scams of such magnitude in so short a span of time. The 2G spectrum allocation scandal and now the coal block allotment issue have come out in rapid succession, within two years. This is bound to rattle any government. A vibrant Press and a hyperactive public sphere add to the pressure being exerted by the opposition.

It is not unusual for governments to cut sweet deals during their life to prepare for a fighting chance at the hustings five years later. All governments do that for elections are an expensive business. That is one part of such efforts. The other part is to game the political business cycle to woo voters. Crudely put, this usually entails putting additional disposable income in the hands of the voters in the year when elections are due. There is a vast literature on the subject: In the US, for example, it has been seen that in the year the presidential election is due, disposable income usually goes up. In the year after the election, inflation usually inches up. In India, the empirical literature on the subject is virtually non-existent, but anecdotal evidence suggests that freebies are thrown around, usually, in the fifth year of a government’s run.

What is unusual about the present government is the intensity of efforts to secure its longevity, term after term. One the one hand, it has virtually “rigged" the policy space in a bid to please the electorate. On the other hand, its different constituents have tried, as much as is possible, to defalcate public monies. The result has been that instead of a political business cycle, there is a permanent economic crisis: growth has declined considerably, rising inflation and corruption are permanent.

It is against this background that CAG reports have been issued pointing to serious erosion in government revenue from what are patently illegal decisions. Similar allegations of loot and misappropriation of money have been levelled against populist schemes such as the National Rural Health Mission and other flagship programmes. The result is that populist programmes and shady deals—two very different propositions—have virtually collapsed into one big cesspool of corruption. In many cases, intervention by courts after the supreme auditor issues reports usually lead to annulment of these dubious contracts and other sources of illegalities in public programmes.

Viewed thus, the combination of two key non-elected institutions—CAG and the Supreme Court—has prevented, to an extent, the hollowing of democracy in India. Unlike other South Asian countries (such as Pakistan), the switch in the nature and effects of non-elected institutions is marked—in other countries they have led to an erosion of democracy, in India they have prevented lasting damage to it. If anything, the danger to the quality and content of democracy comes from elected institutions: non-elected institutions have acted to clean up the slate after the legislature and the executive have landed the country in a mess. The latter retain the initiative, so there is no question of trampling on the government and cramping its policy space. If CAG says that non-auction of coal blocks led to the problem, it is laughable for the government to suggest that the former is arrogating policy initiative to itself. If this has happened, it is solely due to the government’s own doing.

There is a strong case to re-engineer the equilibrium between our institutions, elected and non-elected. It has been 60 years since the first elections were held. In these six decades, the results have been mixed, there has been growth and poverty alleviation, but much more could have been done. A large part of the blame for this lies in the efforts of legislatures and governments to promote their corporate interests at the cost of general well-being. To prevent further damage and have rule-based governance it is important that there be real limits to governments’ discretion. Perhaps the better levels of legitimacy enjoyed by non-elected institutions coupled with public distaste for corruption will lead to that.

Siddharth Singh is Editor (Views) at Mint. Reluctant Duelist will take stock of matters economic, political and strategic —in India and elsewhere—every fortnight. Comments are welcome at siddharth.s@livemint.com

To read Siddharth Singh’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/reluctantduelist.htm

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