Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Congress is at war with institutions

What is it about the contemporary Congress party, that it has a penchant for  undermining and destroying institutions, rather than creating and nurturing them? The attack on the Comptroller and Auditor General is of a piece, as is its earlier strike on the venerable, if ineffectual, Public Accounts Committee.
If the Congress party had its back to the wall, it would have been understandable. But currently neither is any state assembly election due, nor does the Opposition have the numbers to seriously worry the government. Yet the UPA seems determined to destroy anything and anyone that questions its policies, whether it is the CAG established in 1950, the PAC which has been around since 1921, or the 74-year old Anna Hazare who says that the Congress is trying to dig out dirt on his past.
An abiding feature of a great power is its ability to shape global institutions. In the decade after World War II, as it assumed world power status, the United States helped create the United Nations, the International Bank of Reconstruction and Development aka the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. It is another matter that in our times, the US has sometimes sought to undermine these very institutions.
In India, the Congress party has always had the kind of dominance the US has had in the global system. The party played a key role in the freedom struggle, the writing of the Constitution and the establishment of the Republic under its laws. More than that, in the first decade, the great leader of the party, Jawaharlal Nehru, shaped the key national institutions— Parliament, the Supreme Court, the Planning Commission, and so on. He left his imprint on the secular and progressive politics of the nation which remains a benchmark of sorts to this day.
In all this the Jana Sangh and its successor the Bharatiya Janata Party has not mattered much. For one thing, it did not, and many of its members still do not, accept the notion of the nation that the present Constitution has given us. Their politics has often been about undermining this concept of the nation. Arguably, their aim, or at least that of their controlling authority, the Rashtriya Swyamsevak Sangh, is to take over the government, capture all its organs and overthrow it. Most think this can be done peacefully, but we have also seen that the Sangh Parivar has elements who think that a bit of a violent push may not be such a bad idea.
Given its role in national politics, it is the system destructive propensities of the Congress party— which accompanied the reconstruction of the Grand Old Party in the image of Indira Gandhi in the 1970s— is more worrisome. That was the era when the Congress actually sought to overthrow Constitutional law, or to amend it to the point where it would reflect their party’s view, rather than that of the country. The party called for a “committed” judiciary and as for the bureaucracy, there was little problem. To quote L.K. Advani, when asked to bend, they crawled.
The party’s attitude today, then, is not the reaction to some crisis or situation, but is part of the DNA of the Indiraite Congress.
A look at its appointments to key institutional positions will tell you that. Take the one institution that has shone in the bleak landscape of the politics of the country in the past two decades—the Election Commission.
Ever since T.N. Seshan somewhat surprisingly empowered the body, it has gone from strength to strength. The election process has become more stringent and this year in the assembly elections of Tamil Nadu, the EC began the much needed crackdown on the movement of large volumes of cash. The routine claims of rigging after a lost election have gone, simply because they no longer hold any credibility.
 Yet, what did the UPA do? They actually put forward as the EC, a person who was a close family retainer of the Gandhi clan. We can only speculate as to the motive, but you can be sure it was not benign.
A similarly casual approach has been taken to the office of the Central Information Commission where a ministerial adviser was parked on the eve of the 2009 general elections as a means of providing  her job security during the government turnover. Since the Congress won that election, she promptly abandoned the commissionership and got new advisory appointment.
In all fairness, it needs to be pointed out that the UPA has given us a new institution through the workings of the Right to Information Act. But the success of the Act was in great measure due to the decisions taken by the first Chief Information Commissioner, Wajahat Habibullah. Ever since he has left, efforts are being made to dilute the Act.
Another instance was the appointment of a tainted Central Vigilance Commissioner whose appointment was quashed by the Supreme Court.
Another manifestation of this tendency was revealed in the whole episode relating to the Lokpal Bill. The consultation with Anna Hazare and his crew was a positive action on the part of the government, but the summary manner in which his suggestions were thrown out points to the government’s aim of ensuring that the Lokpal does not emerge as an office of any consequence and its determination to keep in its own hands the power to misuse the state machinery to harass political opponents and others on the issue of corruption.
In the post-Independence era, the party had leaders like Nehru, Patel, Rajendra Prasad, S. Radhakrishnan and others to set its moral compass. The party no longer boasts of such leaders, probably because there would be no place for them in the party.
Fortunately, the country has attained a critical mass which will prevent its regression. We have an odd alliance here of civil society activists and former, and in some cases serving, bureaucrats willing to do the needful. Their power comes from the anger of the middle classes who are fed up with the poor governance, official lawlessness and corruption.
In this, the huge media apparatus that has emerged has played an invaluable role in amplifying their concerns and creating a national platform outside the party system. In this, no one bothers about where the true division of authority between Parliament and judiciary lies, or that between the CAG and the PAC. Anyone willing to fill the vacuum is welcome; this has its dangers, but anything is better than the alternative. We can’t really wait for the country’s largest party to rediscover its glorious past.
Mail Today August 11, 2011

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