Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi gestures as he delivers his Independence Day speech ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images

An Assault on India’s Institutions

If the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party's assault on India’s institutions – from the judiciary to the central bank to the free press – is allowed to continue, the public could lose faith in the system altogether. This would carry incalculable consequences for India’s most valuable asset: its democracy.

NEW DELHI – In India’s Karnataka state, the governor is favoring the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to form a government, despite an opposition coalition having won more seats in the state legislature. The ongoing controversy has drawn attention to the way in which a constitutional position has been reduced to serving the political interests of India’s ruling party.

Strong public institutions that operate above the cut and thrust of the political fray are vital to any democracy. Yet in the last four years, every such priceless institution in the world’s largest democracy, India, has come under threat, as the BJP’s assertive Hindu-chauvinist government works to consolidate its own authority.

Leave aside governors (the BJP asked all to resign to make way for political appointees soon after its 2014 election victory) and start with the judicial system, which has come under scrutiny since January, when the Supreme Court’s four most senior judges held an unprecedented press conference to question Chief Justice Dipak Misra’s allocation of cases. Misra, their comments implied, was assigning cases to his preferred judges, presumably (though this was never stated) in an effort to secure outcomes favoring the government.

Three months later, several opposition parties circulated an impeachment motion against Misra in the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of parliament. After the Rajya Sabha’s chairman, Indian Vice President Venkaiah Naidu, rejected the motion, two MPs asked the Supreme Court to challenge that decision. But Misra named a bench seemingly favorable to him to hear their appeal – prompting the MPs to withdraw their case. Misra may be safe, but the judiciary’s image has taken a beating from which it will not easily recover.

The reputation of India’s Election Commission (EC) – which has a decades-long record of conducting free and fair elections, despite comprising largely retired civil servants appointed by the government for fixed tenures – also took a severe blow last year. In a break from its Code of Conduct, the EC’s BJP-appointed then-chief, Achal Kumar Jyoti, announced the dates for elections in Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat 13 days apart, even though the two states normally go to the polls simultaneously. The EC claimed that it delayed the announcement on Gujarat so that the electoral Code of Conduct (which would restrict government spending in the state) would not impede flood relief. But most Indians believe that the BJP pressured the EC to delay the announcement as long as possible, so that it could attract voters with last-minute giveaways that had nothing to do with flood relief. The Gujarat government and even Prime Minister Narendra Modi subsequently announced several such schemes. Former election commissioners unanimously condemned the EC’s decision, to no avail.

Making matters worse, the EC decided in January to disqualify 20 Aam Aadmi Party members of the Delhi Legislature on technical grounds – an action that could have benefited the BJP if by-elections to their seats had followed. The Delhi High Court overruled that decision, calling it “bad in law” and “violating principles of natural justice.” But, as in the case of the judiciary, the damage was done: what was once the impartial custodian of India’s democratic process has – under BJP pressure – distorted its role, weakening its standing among Indians.

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The list of increasingly discredited Indian institutions continues with the Reserve Bank of India. The disastrous demonetization process of November 2016 spurred widespread criticism of the RBI for failing to perform its fiduciary duties. To be sure, the RBI did not appear to have been properly consulted when the BJP made its decision. Nonetheless, it roundly failed to anticipate the problems that the scheme would cause, and to use its autonomy to improve implementation and minimize negative effects. Instead, the RBI issued 138 notifications about the demonetization process over 70 days, with each new announcement amounting to a tweak of an earlier declaration about, for example, how much money could be withdrawn and by when. It was as if the RBI had been reduced to a puppet, with the BJP government pulling its strings.

In January of last year, the United Forum of Reserve Bank Officers and Employees wrote to the government to highlight “operational mismanagement,” which they argued had “dented the RBI’s autonomy and reputation beyond repair.” The silence of the RBI’s governor, Urjit Patel, reduced him to a lamb. But, in this case, the “silence of the lamb” was cannibalizing the RBI itself, with – yet again – long-lasting consequences.

Modi’s government has been similarly willing to politicize security institutions. For example, in appointing Lieutenant General Bipin Rawat as Chief of Army Staff, the government bypassed two higher-ranking generals, flouting time-honored principles of seniority. Moreover, the government has repeatedly used the military in its political propaganda, making public operational details that previous governments had kept secret (such as announcing a “surgical strike” on terrorist bases in Pakistani-controlled territory). During the recent Karnataka state elections, Modi himself flagrantly exploited the Indian military for his own short-term ends, by denouncing India’s first prime minister for allegedly having insulted two army chiefs from the state, though this never, occurred.

The Delhi police and the federal investigative agencies – in particular, the Central Bureau of Investigation – are not safe from politicization, either. The CBI has even been described as a “caged parrot” under the BJP, with its work, once considered the gold standard in Indian crime-fighting, now often viewed as politically motivated. The Right to Information Act, intended to ensure transparency and accountability, has been hollowed out by government foot-dragging, and a national Ombudsman, or Lokpal, has not yet been appointed, nearly five years after a law was passed to create the position.

Doubt has also been cast on the integrity of the Central Board of Secondary Education, after questions for a national school exam were leaked, forcing 1.6 million students to re-sit the test. Similar problems have arisen over admissions tests to study law and medicine, as well as exams for clerical positions. At a time when there are far fewer jobs than workers, declining faith in the competitive examination system as a fair means of evaluating students could undermine social peace.

Even the Indian parliament – the “temple of democracy” – has seen its work reduced to a farce, as BJP allies and supporters purposely brought the budget session of the Lok Sabha (the lower house) to a standstill in April 2018. With the BJP-appointed speaker claiming that she could not count heads in the din, opposition parties’ motion of no confidence against the government was not even debated.

Such behavior is being facilitated by an assault on a final critical institution: the free press, which now seems largely to have been cowed by the government’s overweening power, not to mention its explicit intimidation and co-opting of mainstream outlets.

If this assault on India’s institutions is allowed to continue, the public could lose faith in the system altogether. This would carry incalculable consequences for India’s most valuable asset: its democracy.

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