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Friday, December 14, 2018

Undermining Democratic Institutions: Fact And Fiction

Ever since Narendra Modi became prime minister in 2014, the charge of “undermining institutions” has been a constant refrain in what is popularly but not factually known as the mainstream media. He has been accused of “undermining” every known institution from the Indian Council of Historical Research to the Reserve Bank of India. The raucous babble reached its crescendo after Urjit Patel (a Modi appointee) announced his resignation for personal reasons as the Governor of the Reserve Bank of India. The crescendo reached even a higher pitch after Shaktikanta Das a former IAS official was appointed as RBI Governor to replace Patel. Notwithstanding the fact that he served as the Revenue Secretary, the Economic Affairs Secretary and as a member of the Fifteenth Finance Commission, it was his educational qualifications that became the bone of contention.

It must be remembered that when Modi assumed charge as prime minister he left most of the ‘steel frame’ that he inherited in place except for a few minor changes. It is against this backdrop, it may be instructive to look back and review who “undermined institutions” the most. Jawaharlal Nehru ruled for nearly eighteen years since he became the interim prime minster in 1946 till his death in 1964. His daughter Indira ruled the nation for sixteen years, from 1966 to 1977 and from 1980 till her death in 1984. Her son Rajiv ruled the nation between 1984 and 1989. His wife Sonia ruled by proxy between 2004 and 2014. Political chicanery of that magnitude – which amounts to nothing less than undermining the highest political office in the land – would not have been possible in any other democracy in the world.

Deception, Disinformation and Psychological Operations have been originally employed by intelligence agencies but politicians caught on to them fast. The Congress party has for long invested in an ecosystem of academic institutions and the media. They come in handy to discredit and disarm political rivals by deception, disinformation and psychological operations. Coming back to the issue of “undermining institutions”, here is a non-exhaustive list of examples of how institutions were undermined or worse sabotaged to suit political whims and fancies under various Congress leaders.

Jawaharlal Nehru

Let us begin with the reign of Jawaharlal Nehru who has been hailed as an epitome of democratic values.

Curtailing freedom of expression India’s best and brightest minds toiled for about three years to craft the longest written Constitution of the world. It was adopted on January 26, 1950. Even before the ink on the original Constitution dried, Nehru proposed the first amendment. The Americans amended their Constitution about thirty times in two hundred and forty years while we enacted a hundred and one amendments in seventy years. Whereas the American first amendment strengthened freedom of expression, Nehru’s first amendment, enacted on June 18, 1951 curtailed freedom of expression.

Curtailing powers of the judiciary The Indian first amendment did more. It created the Ninth Schedule which barred judicial scrutiny of legislations included in it.

Downgrading the Finance Ministry Enamoured as he was of the Soviet system of governance, he created the Planning Commission an extra-Constitutional body, which in a way reduced the importance of the Finance Ministry.

Dismissing state governments When Nehru used the Art. 356 of the Indian Constitution to dismiss the Kerala state government in 1959, he set a dubious precedent.

Undermining the Cabinet and Parliament Nehru took many decisions which have had long-lasting adverse effects without consulting the parliament or his own cabinet, thus undermining the institutions. The decisions include

Calling a ceasefire in Jammu & Kashmir in October 1947 when the Indian army was winning the war. The effect of this ill-advised decision was to lose a third of the state and altering international borders with India’s neighbours. Had India retained PoK, we would have retained Gilgit-Baltistan too. We would have had a border with Afghanistan. His decision to refer the issue to the UNO was equally inexplicable.

Dilly-dallying on Junagadh and Hyderabad against the wishes of the Cabinet. But for Patel’s timely action, these states would now have been part of Pakistan.

Concealing intelligence reports about the construction of a mountain road network in Aksai Chin by the Chinese.

Withdrawing unilaterally the extra-territorial rights in Tibet which India inherited from the British.

Sacrificing Tibet by accepting the Chinese claim that Tibet was a part of it.

[The last two ill-advised decisions removed a buffer state between India and China.]

Refusing to accept United Nations Security Council seat when it was offered on a platter to India but instead demanding that it be granted to China.

Refusing accession of Kalat and Nepal At the time of partition, a few neighbouring States wished to accede to India. These include Nepal and the Kingdom of Kalat which forms a large part of modern Baluchistan. Nehru rejected them. Oman which owned the port of Gwadar on the southwest coast of Baluchistan offered to sell it to India. Again for reasons best known to him Nehru rejected the offer.

The worst undermining of all was refusing to look after the needs of the Indian armed forces in terms of manpower recruitment and training and equipment.

Inducting dynastic succession. Nehru made his sister Vijayalakshmi ambassador to the United Nations and the USSR. His daughter Indira was unofficially Nehru’s personal assistant through his years as the prime minister. This made her privy to government documents despite the Official Secrets Act. Later he made his daughter the president of AICC.

Awarding himself the Bharat Ratna The award is recommended by the prime minister. But Nehru was the first recipient of the award in the year of its institution. Nehru’s apologists argue that Rajendra Prasad did it off his own bat to signal truce between them but nothing prevented Nehru from refusing to accept it. 

Indira Gandhi

Revocation of Privy Purses to the former Maharajas. It was a sovereign guarantee given to them by the Constituent Assembly. Her action amounted to undermining the authority of the parliament.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s she had had several judicial reverses. They include the Bank Nationalization case, the Privy Purses case and the Fundamental Rights case. Unlike her father who simply amended the Constitution in response to adverse judicial verdicts, she went a step ahead and undermined the judiciary itself. Within hours after the verdict in the Fundamental Rights case was delivered in 1973, she superseded several judges and appointed a pliant judge as the CJI.

Refusing to heed the judicial verdict about her parliament seat.

Declaring the (internal) Emergency which undermined democracy itself. Technically the (external) Emergency declared in 1962 after the Chinese invasion was still in force. Neither her father nor she saw it necessary to repeal it! Fundamental rights including the right to life suspended.

Dismissing state governments and Governors at will.

Her refusal to accept a split in the Congress party and her lust for power led to the 1969 Gujarat riots which lasted – six months – and resulted in the death of about 5000 people. The 1983 Nellie massacre in which 3000 Muslims were killed occurred in Indira’s reign. By the by, more than 90% of communal riots in India occurred during the reigns of Jawaharlal, Indira and Rajiv.

Making her son Snjay a supra-Constitutional authority. Chief Ministers danced to his tunes.

Her propping up Bhindranwale to undermine the Akalis and her war on the Golden temple.

Awarding herself the Bharat Ratna This time the fig leaf of Rajendra Prasad was not there.

An action that has long-lasting adverse effects was handing over the universities and other intellectual institutions to the left-illiberal elite as a quid pro quo for political support.

Rajiv Gandhi

His reign began with the Sikh genocide, in which between 8000 and 10000 Sikhs were killed. The genocide was a blot on democracy, and the biggest undermining of the institution of democracy.

Sacking his Finance Minister to alter the import policy (for importing PTA and other chemicals used in the manufacture of polyester fibre). This was to favour Dhirubhai Ambani. The policy declaration was a replica (or was it a template) of the 2G spectrum auction.

His grandfather sought to control freedom of expression through his first amendment. His mother used carrots and sticks to reign in the media. He sought to control the media through an amendment to the Posts and Telegraphs Act, but had to drop it due to widespread criticism.

He sacked his Foreign Secretary, A. P. Venkateswaran in a press conference

Sonia Maino (the de facto PM)

Creation of the institution of ‘UPA Chairperson’. It was an extra-Constitutional authority.

Creation of the extra-Constitutional NAC which was a supra-Cabinet superintending the work of the prime minister’s Cabinet.

Commissioning social “activists” like Teesta Setalvad to draft legislation (the impugned Communal Violence Bill) and school text books.

Now let us see the other argument about an IAS officer being appointed as the Governor of RBI. The following RBI Governors were from the IAS: B. Rama Rau, K. G Ambegaonkar, H. V. R. Iyengar, L. K. Jha, S. Jagannathan, R. N. Malhotra, S. Venkateswaran and Y. V. Reddy.

Finally, let us look at the argument that only economists should head economic institutions. In the years between 1970–1973; 1976–1983; 1985–1987; 1990–1997; 2000–2013 and 2017–2018 Americans won the Nobel Prize for economics. India’s Amartya Sen won it in 1998 giving us bragging rights! While the Americans won the maximum number of economics Nobel prizes or shared them with others, the American economy has had its ups and downs. The American economy saw recession in the years 1969-70; 1973-75; 1980-82; the early 1990s; the early 2000s and the worst in 2007-8. The 2008 collapse wiped out life’s savings of many Americans including Indian expatriates, making millions paupers overnight. So much for economists!