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The Hindu Editorial Analysis | PDF Download

Date: 06 February 2019


Cracks in the framework

  • With the systematic weakening of institutions, the government risks pushing all resistance to the streets
  • The Government of India has reportedly suppressed its own data on current employment, or rather job loss, in the country.
  • It has, thereby, compromised the autonomy and the standing of the National Statistical Commission. This is the latest instalment in the rather sordid story of institutional decay in India, overseen by the leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). This is not to suggest that previous governments did not undermine institutions.
  • The internal Emergency imposed on the country from 1975 to 1977 initiated the process. The government tried to tame bureaucrats as well as the highest court in the land. Postings and appointments were manipulated to suit the ruling dispensation. The BJP government has, however, earned the dubious distinction of sabotaging the autonomy of several political institutions in rapid succession.

 Necessary checks

  • Institutional decay occasions worry because it affects ordinary citizens in disastrous ways.
  • All governments, even those which have been democratically elected, betray an inexorable will to power. Expectedly, expansion of government power violates constitutional rights to freedom, equality and justice.
  • The only way citizens can be protected against any arbitrary and unlawful exercise of power is by limiting the power of government. Liberal democrats, always skeptical of state power, have tried to contain dramatic surges of power by charting out of constitutions and institutional design.
  • Institutions, as the embodiment of formal and informal rules, assure citizens that the government exercises power according to some norms that enable as well as regulate state capacity.
  • This makes for good political sense when we remember that most human activity is structured by systems of rules — take the intricate and rulebound game of chess or cricket. Relationships, households, the economy, society, the games we play and do not play take place and develop within the framework of rules.
  • Human beings are social, but we cannot be social unless we know what is expected of us, and what we should do or not do. Without rules that govern relationships — for example, the norm that friendship is based on trust— we will not know what is worthwhile and what is not, what is preferable and what should be avoided, and what is appropriate and what is expedient.
  • The Canadian political philosopher Charles Taylor has argued in his famous work, Sources of the Self (1989), that institutions embody ‘strong evaluations’.
  • We learn to discriminate between right and wrong, better and worse, and higher and lower. These evaluations are not judged subjectively by our own desires or impulses. Institutions, which stand independently of us, give us standards that allow us to evaluate. Following Taylor, we can rightly wonder why political power should be exercised, implemented and executed without rules. Assertions of political power adversely affect our interests and our projects.
  • We should be in a position to judge when this power is exercised fairly or unfairly. Rules in a democracy assure us that justice is synonymous with fairness.
  • Moreover, rules make our worlds predictable. We know what the boundaries of the freedom of expression are, we know that if the police arrests us tomorrow, we have the right to appoint a lawyer and appeal to the judiciary. Without institutions and rules our life would be chancy, unpredictable and fickle. We would inhabit a space empty of certainties, expectations, aspirations and evaluations.

Rules, not whims

  • In a democracy, individuals are governed by institutions, and not by men.
  • If we do not live in an institutional universe, we will be at the mercy of capricious individuals.
  • Democrats would rather be administered by a system of rules we can scrutinize and evaluate. Of course, rules can be, and are, unfair. But at least we can struggle against rules. We do not have to commit murders to get the ruling dispensation out of power. We might have to carry out a thousand peaceful demonstrations, approach the courts, lobby our legislative representatives, engage in civil disobedience, or withhold our vote. In a world stamped by the decline of institutions and the exercise of arbitrary power, the only way to dislodge a government is through violence.
  • The present government has tampered with institutions by appointing its own people to positions of authority, and by using the Enforcement Directorate, Income Tax authorities, the Central Bureau of Investigation and the police as bulldozers to flatten out any site of opposition.
  • In civil society, human rights organisations have been pulverized by blockage of funds, raids and arrests.
  • The shameful way in which human rights activists have been incarcerated without a shred of evidence testifies to the subversion of the rule of law.
  • The ultimate aim of government action is to dismantle institutions, and the delicate relationship of checks and balances among them. This bodes ill for democracy.
  • The development contravenes the spirit of the freedom struggle. As far back as the 1928 Motilal Nehru constitutional draft, the leadership of the national movement opted for constitutionalism to abridge unpredictable use of power, and grant basic rights to citizens.
  • On November 4, 1948, B.R. Ambedkar, responding to criticism of the draft Constitution in the Constituent Assembly, clarified that the Constitution provided but a framework for future governments. But: “If things go wrong under the new Constitution, the reason will not be that we have a bad constitution. What we will have to say is that Man was vile.” The Indian Constitution established major political institutions, Parliament, executive and the judiciary, laid out the relationship between them, provided for judicial review, and codified political and civil rights. The constitutional framework does not provide thick or substantive conceptions of how we shall think, and in what we shall believe. It provides us with a thin framework that guarantees constitutional morality, or respect for the Constitution as the basis of political life.
  • Today the ruling party wants to legislate a thick conception of the good. We are instructed to worship the nation, respect the cow, glorify the coercive arm of the state, and listen on bended knees to leaders. Frankly the discourse is reminiscent of the naïve, and often crude, nationalist scripts authored and acted out by the film star Manoj Kumar in the 1960s. We can avoid watching his films without fear of harassment, but we cannot defy the government without being abused and subjected to violence of the pen and tongue.

 Upending the balance

  • The who engage with policy, and vigilante groups attack individuals who dare transport cattle, legitimately, from one part of India to another. Immediately the sympathies of the police and magistrates, some sections of the media and public opinion swing towards the perpetrator, not the victim. The leaders of our ruling dispensation seem to have no respect for the rule of law, nor for the rules that regulate speech in public spaces.
  • Ultimately institutionalised power that is subject to regulation, and that can withstand the scrutiny of the political public, is meant to protect citizens. Unfortunately, in the India of today institutions are used to protect the ruling class, and its sins of omission and commission. The people who rule us should know that when the relationship between citizens and the state is governed not by institutions but by individuals, politics takes to the streets. And then a thousand revolts happen. We pay heavily for institutional decline.

A series of unfortunate missteps

  • Fixing the federal fallout of the Kerala flood relief funding row requires care
  • The differences between the Kerala and Central governments over the denial of external assistance to rebuild the State after the devastating floods of August last year surfaced again last month, in the Kerala Governor’s policy speech in the Assembly as well as the statements of a Kerala Minister at the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas in Varanasi. Governor Justice P. Sathasivam had said that the Kerala government had requested the Centre to enhance its borrowing limit to mobilise additional resources for rebuilding the flood-hit State. “We are still awaiting a favourable response from the Central government in this regard,” he added. Minister K.T. Jaleel, who represented Kerala at the conclave, complained that he was not allowed to raise the issue there. The bitterness over the flood money still persists.
  • Competitive federalism, in the context of interaction with foreign countries, promoted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has proved to be a double-edged sword.
  • Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan now stands accused of violating rules regarding the seeking of foreign assistance. He remains unclear on how to make up for the shortfall, of several crores. The Central government is unable to provide the funds while Kerala has been stopped in its tracks from seeking resources from abroad, either from the Kerala diaspora or from friendly foreign governments.
  • The present situation is a result of a series of errors of judgment and misunderstandings on both sides.
  • Mutual political suspicion and a lack of appreciation of the complexities of the international situation have brought about a confrontation. The Chief Minister may have even made diplomatic and tactical misjudgments.

Diplomatic trajectory

  • India had no qualms about receiving foreign assistance for disaster management till 2004. But when India’s aspiration for permanent membership of the UN Security Council met with strong resistance, New Delhi hit upon the idea of forcing a vote in the General Assembly.
  • The game plan was to secure a two-thirds majority and then attempt to embarrass the permanent members into supporting the expansion of the Security Council.
  • The two false presumptions were that India would win the required number of votes and that the Security Council would wilt under pressure from the General Assembly.
  • In fact, many Assembly members were opposed to the veto even for the existing permanent members and had no interest in creating more permanent members with veto. India thought that it could win over the other countries if it was seen to be helping them in emergencies rather than seeking such assistance for itself.
  • The tsunami of 2004 and the threat of piracy in the Indian Ocean provided India an opportunity to test its new posture.
  • Everybody was grateful, but it made no difference to India’s claim to permanent membership. There were other factors too which militated against India’s claim.
  • The Modi government decided, however, to lay down the rules regarding foreign assistance in order to bring some clarity to the situation.
  • The rules, which were framed in 2016, clarified that India would not solicit any assistance but would receive relief assistance, even as cash, from individuals, charitable institutions and foundations.
  • If cash were to be offered bilaterally by foreign governments, the matter would be considered on a case-by-case basis.
  • Even before the extent of the damage was fully known, I had urged the Central government in early August 2018 to make a suitable amendment to the rule as the damage in Kerala was beyond the capacity to handle it. Needless to say, nobody responded at that stage.
  • The UAE’s offer
  • The saga of the offer by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) began well when the Prime Minister was informed by the UAE authorities that relief assistance was being put together as a special gesture, which the Prime Minister reciprocated with a warm reply of gratitude.
  • But the Kerala Chief Minister’s announcement that the UAE would provide ₹700 crore, made on the same day as the Central government’s announcement of a provision of ₹500 crore, opened a Pandora’s box.
  • It appeared as though the UAE was more generous than New Delhi was to Kerala and that the Central government was not empathetic to Kerala’s plight because of political considerations. Moreover, the source of the information was supposed to have been an Indian businessman in the UAE. An embarrassed UAE government then asked its Ambassador in New Delhi to deny that there was any specific offer of ₹700 crore.
  • An immediate consequence was a reluctance by other governments to make any offer of bilateral assistance. No one could answer the question whether any offer from other governments would be accepted. When the Thai Ambassador in Delhi was stopped from being at a ceremony to hand over relief goods to an Indian official, the world was convinced that India would not accept resources. The issue was politicised as one between the Bharatiya Janata Party and the ruling CPI(M) in Kerala.
  • It was against this backdrop that Kerala put forward an unwise proposal to dispatch its Ministers abroad to collect donations. This was unacceptable in the context of the policy that had crystallised after the floods in Kerala and the Central Government having refused permission for Ministers other than the Chief Minister to travel to countries.
  • Apart from the ignominy of soliciting donations, there was a clear likelihood of receiving very little by way of cash donations.
  • The possibility of loans from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank became distant as the Centre refused to raise the limits on loans from these global organisations that a State government could take.
  • The emergence of the Sabarimala crisis further eroded the credibility of the State Government and much of the empathy over the flood damage was also lost.
  • The Prime Minister had always maintained that marshalling of resources is the responsibility of the Union government according to the Constitution.
  • Now the only option before Kerala is to demand more funding from the Centre to make up the shortfall. Undoubtedly, the situation is a tragedy of errors caused by an inadequate familiarity with decision making and the complexity of international relations.

Bullet train gets green light via flamingo haven, national park

  • Environment Minister Harsh Vardhan-led panel gives nod Wildlife clearance to the Mumbai-Ahmedabad highspeed train corridor that encroaches upon a flamingo sanctuary and the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, home to leopards, in Mumbai. The proposal involves diversion of 3.2756 hectares of forest land from the Thane Creek Flamingo Wildlife Sanctuary and 97.5189 hectares of land close to the boundary of the forest’s protected area. The project for one of India’s first ‘bullet trains’ was inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe in Ahmedabad in September, 2017. It is expected to be ready by 2022. A wildlife clearance is a critical part of the forest clearance process. A person privy to the process said forest clearance was not part of the original agenda of the meeting.

‘Ayushman Bharat world’s largest health scheme’

  • Union Minister launches PM-JAY app “Ayushman Bharat has stabilised as the largest health scheme in the world, benefiting over 10 lakh patients since its launch, and created an atmosphere of positivity,” said Union Minister for Health and Family Welfare J. P. Nadda at the inauguration of the newly-constituted National Health Authority (NHA). The minister, who also launched the Ayushman Bharat (PMJAY) mobile app through a live demo, said that the States which had not opted for Ayushman Bharat were denying the poor the opportunity to benefit from the scheme. The app has been introduced within just four months since the launch of the scheme and is aimed at helping users get easy access to information on the scheme, check eligibility, find hospitals nearby and get assisted help. The app which was under testing for the last few days, has already achieved more than 10,460 downloads and an average rating of 4.6. It is available on Google Play Store for Android users.