With the Supreme Court coming down hard on the government and the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, taking full responsibility for an “error of judgment”, the furore over P.J. Thomas’s appointment as central vigilance commissioner has come to an end. Although the Opposition had much more ammunition that could have demonstrated that the prime minister’s misjudgment wasn’t due to his being misinformed by a junior minister (who, incidentally, has also owned up to his full responsibility), Sushma Swaraj’s magnanimous tweet that the country must “move on” prevented a confused Bharatiya Janata Party from going for the jugular.
Although the BJP deferred to the leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, its heart wasn’t with the forces of magnanimity. Would the Congress, many disgruntled backbenchers argued, have been so forgiving had any BJP-led government been similarly devastated by the Supreme Court? Last Wednesday, when the leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, Arun Jaitley, attacked the government for its vindictive harassment of companies that had signed agreements to invest in Gujarat, he was targeting the political spite that accompanies official decisions. Even the communists who see red at the very mention of Gujarat couldn’t but agree with Jaitley’s larger assertion that the federal grandeur of India has been tarnished by narrow partisanship.
Indian democracy is moving in contradictory directions. At one level, the system of one-party dominance that prevailed till 1989 is now history. Rahul Gandhi may harbour ambitions of restoring the Congress to its dominant status but there is no indication as yet that India is inclined to revert to political uniformity. Most of the national parties have had a shy at power at the Centre and a change in government in the states has become routine. There is no party which can claim to have ruled uninterruptedly for a prolonged spell. The only exception, the Left Front which enjoyed 34 years of uninterrupted rule in West Bengal, may well find itself in opposition after May this year.
Paradoxically, the willingness of voters to experiment with alternatives has truncated the boundaries of political tolerance. There may be lots of convivial clubbability among the young, English-speaking members of parliament across party lines in the Central Hall of Parliament. The scions of political dynasties in particular are inclined to socialize with one another and even travel together for ‘leadership’ junkets organized by American universities. Yet, this fraternity rarely extends to political decision-making and governance. From the Republic Day awards and gubernatorial postings to placements in quangos and even institutions of higher learning, patronage is guided by the narrowest considerations of political loyalty. There is little space for generosity and broad-mindedness.
In determining the choice of the CVC, both the prime minister and the home minister seemed determined to ignore the legitimate objections of the leader of the Opposition. In insisting on Thomas, for reasons that still remain in the realms of feverish speculation, it gave the Supreme Court the necessary opening to make executive appointments justiciable. Had the principle of consensus been adhered to — although this is not easy if the Opposition decides to be cussed — the judges may have had no occasion to intervene in a matter that belongs to the legislature and executive.
It is said that Thomas was chosen for his malleability. If so, it is an example of political short-sightedness. By preferring unilateralism over reasoned agreement, the political class made itself vulnerable to judicial encroachment.
The use of executive prerogative to reward political loyalty is souring the spirit of democracy and encouraging confrontational politics. All parties have been infected by the perception that political power involves ‘adjusting’ the faithful in the State-controlled institutions. In the six years it was in power at the Centre, the BJP often reinforced its outlander image by placing bumpkins in positions of importance. In West Bengal, the backlash against cadre intrusiveness was occasioned by the single-mindedness with which Communist Party of India (Marxist) supporters were accommodated in all public institutions, notably schools and colleges.
The foibles of red and saffron, however, pale into insignificance at the systematic way in which the Congress has undermined governance. To most Congress activists, it is the exercise of political power that attracts them to the party. This has been so since Indira Gandhi chose to extend public ownership and exert political control over the entire public sector. From loan melas to the disbursement of industrial licences in a shortage economy, India came to be governed by discretionary powers.
True, many of these powers have been whittled down with the erosion of the licence-permit-quota raj but in the psyche of the Congress, political patronage still remains an entitlement. The politician who lost his seat in a parliamentary election still demands to be ‘adjusted’ in some job so that he can retain a white Ambassador and official accommodation in the centre of Delhi. The man approaching senility still manages to pressure the government into sending him to a Raj Bhavan. And obliging ex-bureaucrats and lesser political functionaries expect to be provided berths in the thousands of State-funded bodies that have mushroomed all over India. Most important, the party is unhappy if this special courtesy is extended to either a non-party professional or, worse, to someone linked to an earlier regime.
The mindset of exclusion that is implicit in the exercise of political patronage has had a debilitating effect on governance. For a start, it has distorted the conduct of our legislatures. The government believes that all decision-making is its exclusive domain and, by way of a reaction, the Opposition is convinced that obstruction and street politics are the only options available to it. Many important economic reforms have been kept in abeyance because the government is not convincingly placed in the Rajya Sabha. But rather than take the route of meaningful consultation — as was done in the case of the Nuclear Liabilities Act — it prefers to keep the Opposition in the dark. The Congress and the BJP have broadly similar approaches to many facets of economic management. Yet there is precious little display of bipartisan politics.
Finally, the appointment of party hacks to public sector bodies has seriously hindered good governance. With the State underwriting sinecures, there has been a temptation to constantly add to the number of useless bodies funded by the government. In his first year in office, the prime minister promised thoroughgoing administrative reforms which would have rationalized and professionalized quangos. After seven years in office, he is yet to take even a modest step in that direction, not least because it would be unacceptable to a parasitic class that conducts its politics on taxpayers’ money.
As India’s governance deficit intensifies, it is time to look more closely at the strands linking inefficiency and venality with the culture of partisanship.