THE ROT WITHIN - India's core democratic institutions are crumbling

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By Brijesh D. Jayal The author is a retired air marshal of the Indian Air Force
  • Published 7.01.10

Much like the tsunami waves that devastated many coastal areas five years ago, the closing weeks of 2009 saw an ill wind sweeping across many of our democratic institutions, highlighting that beneath the veneer of the nation’s aspirations towards great power status was a crumbling institutional core.

To look at the fourth estate first. The preface to the Press Council of India’s “Norms of Journalistic Conduct” has a section that significantly reads: “There was a time when journalism was a mission. Soon it became a profession and is now run as a full-fledged business activity like any other enterprise.” True as this is, the press remains a watchdog of democracy and responsible journalism involves accurate and impartial presentation of news along with true and objective analysis of it. Any departure harms the credibility of the institution and strikes at the very root of democracy itself.

It has, however, been widely reported that during the recent elections, print and electronic media took money from political parties and candidates to plant stories. Inaugurating a recent seminar in Delhi on the subject, the human resource development minister reportedly admitted that his ministry knew how the stories were planted and paid for. An equally disturbing phenomenon is when news channels and print journals indulge in self-promotional competitions to grade the performances of state governments or select public figures for their achievements. The organizers become benefactors rewarding state governments, or public and private citizens alike, with publicity and adulation. In a free market atmosphere, an unholy nexus is waiting to develop. Clearly, what the Press Council preface says for journalists can now also be applied to public service, and when the two meet, Indian democracy is in for a turbulent future.

Coming next to the institution that must remain the last resort of a democracy — its armed forces. A recent episode involving four general-rank officers, the seniormost being a principal staff officer at army headquarters, reportedly relates to the irregular grant of a ‘no objection certificate’ for civil construction adjacent to military installations. As is its norm, the army had already instituted court of inquiry proceedings and there is little to suggest that these would not have reached the logical conclusion of punishing anyone found guilty. However, the inquisition and finger-pointing by the electronic media over-sensationalized an already delicate investigation. One channel insisted on calling the PSO the “right hand man of the army chief”, creating the false public impression that this officer was especially close to the chief. In a nation where justice takes decades to be dispensed, if at all, some in the electronic media wanted instant retribution without allowing the standard military disciplinary procedure — which involves a court of inquiry leading to a summary of evidence and then a court martial — to be followed.

Two concerns emerge from this unfortunate episode. The first relates to the increasing number of corruption cases amongst the senior crop of the armed forces. This weakness is not something that has developed overnight. It has been in the making for decades. For very long, not merit but contacts have been used to further promotional avenues. Some senior officers compromise on principles to look at post-retirement appointments, others for opening in politics. The unwritten message is clear. Integrity, forthrightness and professionalism carry less weight than pandering to the bureaucracy and political godfathers. If now the chickens are coming home to roost, all are culpable.

There is, however, a bigger concern. The media, specially the electronic media, while legitimately reporting what is negative news concerning the armed forces, must not take on the mantle of jury and judge. By dramatizing, over-simplifying and insinuating in order to enhance viewer ratings, the news channels are contributing to lowering the morale of the armed forces. This is neither good for the institution of the armed forces, nor for the credibility of the media and certainly not for the security of the country as it is being exploited by forces inimical to our national interests. If the line between journalistic ethics and commercial interests is getting blurred, then some form of self-regulation must be seen to be enforceable in the larger interests of democracy and fair play.

The case of a ‘child molester’ director-general of police, whose victim committed suicide and who got away with mild punishment after 19 long years, has truly put the nation to shame. It reflects on the institution of national governance. The very fact that past ministers, bureaucrats and senior police functionaries are all scurrying for cover and passing the buck indicates not just the bankruptcy of the institution of governance but also of the quality of people that pass for elected representatives, civil servants and law enforcers. Even school administrators buckled under unlawful pressure.

If the nation has any self-respect, every politician or official, big or small, serving or retired, who contributed to the inaction or cover- up and harassment of the family of the deceased girl must be brought to book and made to face national humiliation. The school concerned is not an exception. This is the price public servants and institutions must be made to pay for trampling on the life and liberty of citizens of our democracy. That the media actually facilitated this exposure and public outrage points to the strength of the fourth estate. But will it continue its battle or lose interest like it did for these 19 long years?

Delivering the Intelligence Bureau Centenary lecture the other day on a new architecture for India’s internal security, the home minister indicated that never before had the Indian State faced such a formidable challenge and never before had the Indian people been asked to prepare themselves for such fundamental changes in the manner in which the country will be secured and protected. He made out a strong case for a radical and thorough restructuring of the home ministry. Recognizing the pitfalls, he cautioned about difficulties arising out of the jurisdiction of different organizational responsibilities and the tendency to protect turfs. Emphasizing on the urgency, he said that this change had to be brought about now.

Here is a home minister whose purposeful handling of the rapidly deteriorating internal security challenges does inspire some confidence, coming as it does after many years of benign neglect. What he stated was also unexceptionable, although one could add that today internal and external security and intelligence are interminably linked and it is national security as a whole that must draw our attention. But beyond this, surely, he must know that he is telling us nothing new. He would know that the nation was faced with a similar situation after Kargil, when glaring weaknesses in our institutions of security were exposed. And he would know that the four task forces set up post-Kargil on management of defence, intelligence, internal security and border management had made comprehensive recommendations on the entire security framework which stand approved by the cabinet committee on security. He would also know that the primary reasons for which complete progress has not been made possible are the precise questions of jurisdiction and turfs that he now cautions against. And, finally, he surely must rue that had action been taken on these recommendations, 26/11 would not have happened.

In spite of all this knowledge, if we are still at the stage of ‘seminar lectures’ on change, then it would be fair to say that our institutional approach to national security remains unfocused and fragmented and needs purposeful leadership, and not platitudes, to overcome the odds. If we are really serious about national security, then instead of reinventing the wheel all over again, it would be far better for the National Security Council to review the status of all past recommendations and order a limited and time-bound review to encompass changed threat parameters. It would enhance public confidence if past recommendations and progress on implementation were shared with the people. The fourth estate can play its rightful role as watchdog in bridging this information and confidence gap between the State and its hapless citizens.

Finally, the shenanigans at the Andhra Pradesh Raj Bhavan, unveiled to the nation on Christmas Day, were what brought the constitutional institution of state governors to unholy shame. That too at a time when the state is in the midst of great political and constitutional uncertainty. That it involved sleaze only points to the depths of national institutional deprivation. For far too long, the governor’s office has become a sinecure for out-of-work politicians and the like. Scandals surrounding governors have not been uncommon. Coming at a time when the state needed a sensitive and healing touch, the damage to the highest constitutional office in the state is unfathomable. To add insult to injury, our political worthies tell us that in keeping with high moral standards, the governor resigned. As the year drew to a close, one more glorious institution of Indian democracy thus lay bruised. One can only wish the institutions of our democracy a constructive new year.