By Shiv Kant
Historian Lord Acton famously said, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. Hence the principle of checks and balances is applied in democracies to ensure good governance by preventing the concentration of power. But the counterbalancing of power among the executive, legislature and judicial branches of the government is creating gridlock in the United States, the oldest and the most powerful democracy in the world.
The Biden administration is unable to get an effective gun control law and an infrastructure bill passed or prevent Republican states to pass anti-abortion laws in spite of overwhelming public support and the need for such legislation.
India, the largest democracy in the world, appears to be heading for a similar fate. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is unable to implement some of the key reform bills in spite of a comfortable majority in the parliament. Mr Modi, for all practical purposes, seems to have put the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in cold storage, which was designed to fast-track Indian citizenship for persecuted religious minorities from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, after vociferous public protests.
In 2015, the Modi government was forced to roll back amendments to the Land Acquisition Bill to make the process of land acquisition simpler and faster for the industry. Then the long overdue farm reforms had to be withdrawn after long and protracted protests by the farmers. Widespread youth protests erupted against the proposed reforms in the recruitment process for the Armed Forces. Economic and labour reforms and privatisation had to be put into cold storage and adoption of a Uniform Civil Code is no longer on the plate for now.
In a parliamentary democracy like India, the balance of power between the legislative and executive is established by allowing the legislative oversight over the government through the process of vote of no-confidence and by granting the prime minister the right to dissolve the parliament. The judiciary applies checks and balances through the constitutional review of the law and its implementation. The three branches of government are expected to work in harmony.
The role of a well-functioning civil society can also be crucial in ensuring that democratic governments are responsive. What appears to be happening in India is that the legislative is almost abandoning its role of scrutinising the legislative process and the government through parliamentary debate and teaming up instead with the active elements of civil society to veto economic and social reform programmes.
The Modi government came to power in 2014 with a promise of job creation by cleaning up corruption and red tape and furthering economic reforms. But the legislative programme of the government soon ran into rough waters as the opposition got united to derail it staging incalcitrant protests in the parliament and on the streets. Most of the sessions were wasted on acrimonious sloganeering and walkouts on controversial non-legislative issues such as hate speech and phone tapping or executive orders such as demonetisation and abrogation of Article 370 that gave the special status to the state of Jammu and Kashmir.
The intensity and the language of protests became sharper and louder when the government rolled out its agenda of social reforms including the CAA, national digital identity and a national register of citizens. Since the opposition didn’t have the numbers in the parliament to stop the legislative programme of the government, it teamed up with pressure groups that launched protest campaigns to frustrate and derail them. Civil society protests against the CAA and farmers’ protests against farm reforms forced the government to shelve or roll back its programmes. Youth protests against the Agnipath scheme and short service recruitment to modernise and revitalise the Armed forces are the latest in the series.
The opposition looks at the protests as a rising of a civil society increasingly frustrated by an unresponsive government. Some observers like to see them as a sign of a vibrant democracy taking on an autocratic government. But is it so? Modi’s government has been elected by an overwhelming majority of people with a mandate to legislate and implement the policies promised in the manifesto.
Who has mandated the pressure groups of the civil society to impose their will and grind an elected government to a halt? Do they represent a majority of the people? Why bother electing a government if pressure groups are allowed to veto whatever it does? At least in the case of the US, it’s the partisan politics of the duly elected members of Congress who are causing gridlock. But in India, the gridlock is caused by the unelected pressure groups of the civil society which can’t be good for an accountable democracy.
In 1978, the Chinese leadership realised the country cannot progress without massive capital investment and technology. They agreed to own up that the Maoist model of development failed them completely and they will have to adopt the American and European models to grow faster and attract the all-important capital and technology from the US and Europe. India too had a similar realisation, though late, in 1991 and launched economic reforms. But there was never a consensus on giving up the Nehruvian socialist policies responsible for a tepid growth. This dichotomy of aspiring for massive investment and technology for rapid growth but keeping the socialist framework intact is one of the main causes behind the political gridlock.
Whenever a government tries to acquire land for industrial development, throw open the market for healthier competition, liberalise rules for foreign investment, privatise low-performing public sector companies and lower corporate tax to make India more attractive for investment, the opposition teams up with various pressure groups to launch protests that often get violent. India’s political spectrum needs to reach a consensus on economic policy if it seriously wants the country to realise its true potential. Gridlocking legislation through pressure group protests is not only undemocratic but also economically disastrous.
Contributing Author Shiv Kant is a senior media professional, editorial leader and strategist. He worked with the BBC for 24 years in a range of senior positions across multiple platforms including radio, TV and online. Mr Sharma is a Content Quality Consultant for Netflix and Language Consultant for the Cambridge University International Examinations. He is a regular columnist with several Indian publications. He has won a number of international awards including the Asian Broadcasting Union award and the Global Media Award. He is also on the roster of the UN Peacekeeping Mission for the position of the Chief of Radio. He specialises in Sanskrit, Indian culture and ecology.
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