This crisis of authority does not have an easy fix

The sight of a weak prime minister humiliated repeatedly by a coalition partner has been too much for most Indians. Time and again Mamata Banerjee, chief minister of Bengal, has undermined actions of Manmohan Singh’s government that were approved by the Cabinet and patently in the nation’s interest. They have ranged from an agreement with Bangladesh over the sharing of waters of the Teesta river, foreign investment in the retail sector, a reformist Railway Budget, and more. The latest embarrassment has been over the setting up of a counter-terrorism centre. Even the most avid supporter of states’ rights does not want to see central authority paralyzed. Regional parties pull the national coalition in all directions. Parliament is gridlocked, unable to pass laws. Courts are dictating policy. Timid civil servants are too scared to put pen on paper. Seeing this, people wonder how could their proud democracy have come to this pass?
Many think that India is rising despite the state. Hence, the saying ‘India grows at night when the government sleeps’. So, they ask insistently, why do we need a bloated government with venal, unresponsive bureaucrats and corrupt politicians? Prosperity is, indeed, spreading across India even as governance failure pervades public life. But not having a state is worse than having one. Even markets depend on the government to enforce property rights, contracts, provide security of life and liberty. A state is a precondition for a flourishing society and economy. Let’s not succumb to the peculiar fantasy of the American Right that a nation’s success depends on keeping government out of the way. And frankly, shouldn’t India also grow during the day?

A successful liberal democracy has three elements, says Francis Fukuyama in his sparkling new book, The Origins of Political Order. It has a strong authority to allow quick and decisive action; a transparent rule of law to ensure the action is legitimate; and it is accountable to the people. Combining these three elements is not easy. Our Constitution makers were so concerned with checks and balances to prevent anyone in government from amassing too much power that it has led to a system where no one has enough power to act. It takes eight years to build a road that takes three years elsewhere; nine years to get justice rather than three. An aggressive civil society and media are enhancing accountability, but they also weaken the state’s ability to act. We have forgotten that the government was created to take action. 

The dilemma is that the circumstances which encourage strong authority are opposite to the conditions that promote civil society and democratic dissent. Hence, the sturdy institutions of governance built by the colonial state gradually weakened after Independence as government became accountable to the people. Last year the Supreme Court, combined with pressure from Anna Hazare and the media, jailed a few officials but this has also brought about paralysis in the bureaucracy. Parties are inevitable in a democracy but they need to learn to cooperate and not merely oppose. The Congress often behaves as though the party is more important than the government. The BJP would do well to remember Arun Shourie’s rule: never oppose anything that you would do in office.

In this depressing scenario there is a silver lining, however. Power is shifting to the states where strong, decisive leaders have emerged. Nitish Kumar, Raman Singh, Gogoi, Modi, and Shivraj Chouhan are delivering good governance, attracting investment and jobs. We may not approve of all their actions but they are partially making up for a feeble Centre. Federalism is thus coming to our rescue. India’s democracy doesn’t need a strong presidential state, as some have suggested. It needs to decentralize even more. Some leaders of panchayats and zilla parishads have shown great ability to take decisive, transparent action while reflecting the peoples’ wishes. But in the end India cannot do without a central executive whose writ is at least obeyed. Other nations have also faced this weakness from time to time, but they were able to reform their institutions. India will need a bit of luck to throw up a strong, courageous leader, who is willing to take on vested interests and push through such institutional reform.


S.n.iyer said...

It is not weakness of the executive, but a possible difference in perception by the party from the, actions of the Govt. it is easy for those not in the hot seat to be carried anyway by stray thoughts on 'Aam admi', to economic reality. Tough Situations require tough decisions. Andre Druze has dealt with this aspect recently in an article where he draws a line between right 'policy' and politics. Opposing right policy without debate and consensus is ruining the country. Politicians like Mamatha should be exposed when they do not understand what is right under the garb of populism.

S.n.iyer said...

This garb of federalism is only to look after regional interests over national interests. Most States in one way or another have created various problems and expect the Centre to come to their aid. Some have consistently used their own funds in indiscriminate ways and blame the Centre. All projects in Karnataka are only those supported by the Centre. High time the centre state issues are sorted out in national interests.

S.N.Iyer said...

In my commment, I mentioned the name of Jean Druze by mistake. The article I refer to is by Andre Betteile. This is in The Hindu. Worth reading!

gautam said...

Ram Mohan Roy once said " just consider how terrible the day of your death will be, others will go on speaking and you will not be able to argue back". Like everything in India, politics also necessitates split personality but one peculiar trait of this so called disorder is that the one who displays it remains ignorant, i.e. the two traits shown are diverging in nature but in the case of MMS they seem to be converging. It appears as though he is writhing with an identity crisis and proxy management. By not retorting back isn't he questioning the inheritance of an argumentative tradition, is he dead ????

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