2016: A test for India’s democratic institutional (cap)abilities?

It’s that time of the year when most newspapers and digital media platforms get flooded with articles and op-eds evaluating the economy in 2015, and presenting an advisory “to do” for the government in 2016. 2015 was indeed a high voltage year for Indian politics. It started on a positive note, with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government attempting to push for key economic and institutional reforms in both houses of Parliament (since the Budget session). However, we soon witnessed a shift in deliberations across both the political and non-political spheres, towards safeguarding principles and values that form the bedrock of Indian democracy.

Tolerance, secularism, right to free speech, and protection of minority interests became subjects of reflection in an urbanizing India. Meanwhile, the bans imposed by the government, from Maggi noodles to beef, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to pornography, invoked a wide range of reactions from Bollywood celebrities as well as western media.

An upsurge in the usage and impact of social media molded such discussions, becoming a chief instrument for political communication in 2015. Trending posts on Twitter and Facebook went beyond shaping the course of primetime debates on national media; they became breaking news. Alas, those committing suicide due to crop failure, those under pressure due to acute poverty, or those suffering from disease in rural India failed to acquire news weight in most discussion spaces.

Institutions in Peril

2016 begins with India’s institutions facing a major credibility crisis.  On the legislative side, the disruptive practice of tit-for-tat policy is routine now, followed in both the parliamentary houses. This has made discussion on and passing of bills (with most states’ consent) like the goods and services tax (GST), the insolvency and bankruptcy code, and the real estate bill a major hurdle in the near future.

On the executive side, the progress on implementing announced economic reforms has remained sluggish. The issue of non-performing assets (NPAs) in public-sector banks has largely remained unresolved. Further, no lucid implementation strategy has been put in place for better management of public sector undertakings (PSUs). Little progress can be seen on energy reforms, and the disinvestment target of $11 billion has been put on hold. Things seem even worse when we closely examine the performance of the health and education sectors, where central funding (budgeted) has been cut, and hardly any meaningful reforms are on their way.

On the judicial side, there is way too much pressure on the existing number of courts to perform their function of delivering speedy justice. There remains an urgent need to increase the number of district courts staff. Moreover, with poorly functioning legislative and executive wings, the Supreme Court seems to have acquired an overarching responsibility (through its judicial review powers) in sometimes acting beyond its constitutionally derived powers, to put checks and balances on the law making exercise. While the purview of the Supreme Court to act in this regard remains debatable, one can argue for an institutional need to ensure judicial accountability.

2015 also saw uproar over the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the 99th constitutional amendment for setting up a National Judicial Appointments Commission (NJAC), whose function was to select and transfer judges in the higher judiciary. The Supreme Court in its judgment effectively claimed for itself the right to appoint judges.

The growing institutional crisis in these three building blocks of democracy reveals weak political will, and disdain towards constitutionally-derived separation of powers. Prime Minister Narendra Modi cannot be held solely responsible for this current mess, nor can one blame stalled progress in enacting laws on the Indian context. In the United States too, President Barrack Obama in 2015 faced extreme difficulties over issues such as relaxing deportations, closing Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, and gun control. Most of these goals have been stalled by the U.S. Congress, making any form of unilateral executive action challenging. Leaders like Vladimir Putin, on the other hand, have exercised more discretion in using unilateral executive decision-making in 2015, pushing forward Russia’s national interests of extending its military might and ensuring territorial sovereignty.

Fault Lines Concomitant with Democracy

Rodrik and Mukand, a few months ago, wrote that three rights characterize a functioning liberal democracy: property rights, civil rights, and political rights. For India to ever emerge as a global economic and political player, it is imperative that any elected government, including members of other political groups, ensure effective functioning of institutional frameworks in safeguarding these three rights.

Entering into 2016, Narendra Modi can take heed from what F. Scott Fitzgerald once said: “Genius is the ability to put into effect what is on your mind”. By revising the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) series numbers, the growth rate may have bounced by a few percentage points, but with low levels of domestic investment, decreasing export demand, and local business confidence weakening, the state of the economy doesn’t look too promising as of now.

After losing Delhi and Bihar elections in 2015, Prime Minister Modi and the BJP government are gradually finding it difficult to build political consensus in parliament. With no major state-level electoral victories in line for the party this year, the central government will find it more arduous to get the GST and other vital legislations passed. A cabinet reshuffle to provide greater decentralization in decision making processes at a ministerial level, integrated with a friendlier outlook towards the state-level governments in building a feasible consensus, would  help (especially before the budget session of 2016).

Narendra Modi himself, by spending more time in India than abroad, can achieve more in this regard by ensuring smoother implementation of existing economic policies, and mobilizing domestic resources for higher private investment, instead of pushing for greater foreign direct investment. Being cautiously optimistic, 2016 remains a crucial year, not only for the current government, but more importantly, for addressing the issue of eroding faith in India’s own democratic institutional frameworks.

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Image: Money Sharma-AFP, Getty

Posted in , Economy, Human Rights, India, Politics

Deepanshu Mohan

Deepanshu Mohan

Deepanshu Mohan is an Assistant Professor of Economics at the Jindal School of International Affairs. He holds a BA in Economics from Fergusson College, Pune, and a Masters in Economic History from London School of Economics and Political Science. His main research interests lie in International Economics, History of Financial Crises and Indian Economic & Social History. Of late, Deepanshu has been researching and exploring the politico-economic impact of some of the major historical events in India’s Economic History (e.g. 1857-War of Independence, 1906-Partition of Bengal) and studying their socio-economic relevance. He is also currently associated as a Columnist with the India at LSE website.

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