One man does not the nation make
Dictatorships have historically claimed that the will of the people is above all, and that it is embodied in a single person - themselves
Finance Minister Arun Jaitley and BJP president Amit Shah appear blind to the necessity of checks and balances in India's constitutional democracy. While governance and law-making are the prerogative of the people, as expressed through their elected representatives, the structure is maintained by the enduring institutions designed to be impervious to political currents.
The bureaucracy is an institution long subverted. It is evident in the struggle to control the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) between Prime Minister Narendra Modi (through favoured police service officer Rakesh Asthana) and CBI chief Alok Verma (appointed by Modi himself). To hide the PM's ineptitude, his gang rote chant the unsubstantiated mantra that the bureaucracy is riddled with Congress moles like Verma. The truth? Ever since AB Vajpayee came to power, the bureaucracy has favoured the BJP. No wonder the national security advisor, a long-time intelligence bureaucrat, now gives policy and political advice, and says India needs a strong government till 2030 for us to reach our destiny as a global superpower.
The Election Commission is another institution on shaky ground, made so by its former chief who disqualified 27 Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) legislators in Delhi, a decision overturned by the courts. The current CEC is on test with the Assembly elections in progress, but in any case there is an argument for stopping this unnecessary practice of appointing retired bureaucrats to constitutional positions. If no one objects to a politician becoming President, then why not start appointing politicians as the CEC? In fact, retired bureaucrats, diplomats, soldiers and spies should not be appointed to any constitutional position, especially governorships; it will help de-politicise the bureaucracy.
An institution that remains independent but itself sees a threat to its insulation is the Reserve Bank of India (RBI). Its independence is especially necessary when India is saddled with as inept and incompetent a finance minister as Jaitley. The central bank of every country in the world plays a critical role in regulating the velocity of money and targeting inflation. Modi's favoured economists have chastised the RBI for not lowering interest rates fast enough to enable industry to borrow easy money to invest in economic growth and raise the country's income. The RBI, however, rightly says its job is not to assist the private sector achieve growth, but to assist the common man in his daily living. Clearly, the RBI was forced into the November 2016 demonetisation; from deputy RBI Governor Viral Acharya's remarks on Friday (apparently cleared by Governor Urijit Patel), it is clear that the RBI is unhappy with the utter uselessness and stupidity of demonetisation, for which it has had to take the blame. Acharya is right in now insisting on the RBI's independence.
However, both Jaitley and Shah in what is clearly a concerted attack, on Saturday made the falsely constructed argument that institutions could not be above the nation. They were unhappy with Acharya's remarks; with the Supreme Court's apparent speed-breaker on Modi's plans regarding the CBI; and with the Supreme Court's judgment allowing women devotees into the temple at Sabarimala, Kerala. (About 2,000 BJP activists, by Shah's own admission, got violent with women who wanted to enter the temple.) Both Shah and Jaitley made the same argument: that the Constitutional right to equality could not subsume the Constitutional right to practice one's faith. This is a strawman argument.
In no case has an institution attempted to rise above the nation. What each has done is assert their independence from the government of the day. Anyone who wants India to remain a democracy should be thankful for these checks and balances. The government of the day does not equal the nation. The government is inevitably bound to change - if not today, then tomorrow. Jaitley disingenuously said the nation was higher than any institution or government, as if to impute that institutions like the RBI or the Supreme Court were trying to establish themselves above the nation or the national interest. But they were not. They cannot. It is just that their assertions were not to the liking of the government of the day.
This government forgets that Parliament is also an institution (which is probably why it disdains Parliament). This government tries to identify itself with the nation. More specifically, it tries to identify one man with the nation: Modi. Pick up any textbook, and you will find that historically, fascists or dictators have claimed that the will of the people was higher than all institutions, and that it was embodied in a single individual, namely themselves.
Modi seems to be growing insecure about his prospects of returning to power; thus, his anti-democratic tendencies are sharpening. We can only hope that during his remaining months, the RBI or the Supreme Court do not go the way of the bureaucracy.
Aditya Sinha's latest book, The Spy Chronicles: RAW, ISI and the Illusion of Peace, co-written with AS Dulat and Asad Durrani, is available now. He tweets @autumnshade Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org
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