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.