The forthcoming parliamentary elections have strong presidential overtones. It is turning out to be a contest more between individuals than political parties. It is also taking place against a backdrop of institutional corrosion. The performance of the executive, legislature, judiciary, media and even the armed services have come under a cloud. These two trends raise a worrying question. What might be the consequence of the hollowing out of our institutions? The question should be discussed not so much to get a definitive answer but to invigorate a debate on the appropriate balance between the need for strong and decisive leadership on the one hand and, given the fraying of the checks and balances embodied in our Constitution, the possibility that this might push us down the pathway of democratic autocracy on the other.
That our institutions have corroded is without doubt.
The executive branch is paralysed. Our bureaucrats “refuse” to sign files. More accurately, they deem it safer to do nothing than to do something. The reasons for this attitude are rational and understandable. The CVC, the CBI and the CAG have collectively hung the sword of Damocles of vigilance over their necks. There is no statute of limitation and these bodies have the statutory authority to put any official under scrutiny including those who have long retired. CB Bhave, for instance, left the IAS long back. He embodied the best qualities of the civil service and was well regarded for his integrity, performance and commitment. Yet, today, his name figures in an enquiry. There are approximately 600 officials in the rank of joint secretary and above and of these 122 are currently the subject of scrutiny. The legal raison d’être for such vigilantism is the prevention of corruption act which requires bureaucrats associated with decisions benefiting the private sector to establish that they did not personally benefit from such a decision. The act presumes, in other words, their “guilt” until “innocence” has been established. It is scant wonder therefore for bureaucrats to deem the “act of omission” to be more prudent than the “act of commission”. The PM and the finance minister have tried hard over the past year to repair the economic damage caused by the 2G scam, coal allocation controversy and red tape. They have failed in large part because of this attitude. The new government will be equally unsuccessful if they fail to safeguard the civil service