Road to perdition: Don’t sacrifice institutions like the National Statistical Commission at the altar of political vanity
India has failed to meet its own potential as a modern, prosperous democratic society. Its undoubted successes have been overwhelmed by the scale of its failures. Perhaps the most disturbing among them has been the wanton sacrifice of its governance institutions at the altar of political vanity.
Indira Gandhi’s “committed bureaucracy” and “committed judiciary” were part of a wider attack on the very structure of the Indian system. It took a long time for the country to recover, and the Emergency remains a huge stain on the reputation of the person whose spectacular political achievements and military triumph over Pakistan stand out in history.
So, what can explain the Modi government’s assault on institutions – the Central Bureau of Investigation, the Reserve Bank of India, the Central Information Commission, the National Statistical Commission, Jawaharlal Nehru University, the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library and so on. Of course, there is the disdain for the “Nehruvian” past, but there is also a touch of political wantonness here.
The government has clearly outdone its predecessors in messing up CBI, the country’s premier investigating agency. After a year in which its director Alok Verma and his deputy Rakesh Asthana slugged it out, the government took recourse to a midnight surgical strike to remove Verma, allegedly when he was readying to probe the Rafale issue.
To compound this, there is a more recent fulmination of a Union minister from his sickbed in New York, rebuking CBI, now headed by his own government’s chosen interim director, for “investigative adventurism”. The minister’s call for professionalism rests uneasily with the reality where investigating agencies like CBI and the Enforcement Directorate coincide with the ruling party’s political needs. CBI is no longer a parrot, it could well be a dead canary in the cage.
The untimely exit of two successive RBI governors tells its own story. A renowned economist of Raghuram Rajan’s calibre did not fit with the agenda of jumlanomics, and neither, eventually, did his successor Urjit Patel who fell afoul of government nominees to the RBI board that included the ideologue S Gurumurthy. In essence, the government nominees wanted a policy that would enable the ruling party to cruise into re-election on a low interest rate regime, while Patel, like Rajan, maintained a relentless focus on checking inflation.
The attack on official data is more insidious, but perhaps more damaging and more widespread. Earlier this week, the two independent members, including one who was the acting chairman of NSC resigned. They charged that the government had failed to publish the new National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) employment survey data for 2017-18, that had been readied in December.
The reason why this has not happened is well known: India has seen a sharp rise in unemployment in the last couple of years and a slowdown of economic growth. Then Modi government has made it a policy to not only withhold data that tells this story, but script its own one generated by having the data massaged by agencies other than NSSO, which is the country’s apex statistical body.
The government’s jumla is that the NSSO report is being processed and needs Cabinet approval, both blatantly untrue assertions. This is the second, equally serious instance of prevarication after revising GDP data to show NDA years looking better than those of UPA. The work of institutions like CBI, the data integrity provided by institutions like NSSO, or the autonomy of central bank, are not exercises in vanity, but a crucial element in the economic and political growth of the country.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has an intense desire to put his stamp on the country. In the process he wants to reject the past and create a new paradigm. Destroying the old to create something new – creative destruction – is in itself not bad. But taking apart working institutions without any serious efforts to replace them with something better is the road to perdition.