Rhetoric, Plato said, is the art of ruling the minds of men. In modern democracies, political rhetoric is the instrument of weaponising allusions into accusations to capture eyeballs. The presentation of perception as proof precludes any analysis or review of history. Worse, it would seem electoral relevance does not demand answers to questions or solutions to problems but a narrative of victim and villains.
The copyright for the script and slogans is portable and available for lease—and could well be a unicorn if modelled as a start-up. The parties and leaders in Opposition frequently find occasion to accuse the ruling party of not doing what they did not do while in power. Essentially it all boils down to a simple political construct: the stand of political parties permanently depends on where they sit.
The issue of institutional autonomy globally is contingent on context, pitched for political purpose. In India, autonomy for institutions is frequently wrested by individuals—and the most eloquent display of this truism was by T N Seshan as Chief Election Commissioner.
The Central Bureau of Investigation is back in the news. The myth of its autonomy is known since Bofors and before. It was first exposed in the Jain hawala case and evident in the need for institution of court-monitored investigations. The autonomy of CBI has been a constant quest of those in Opposition—during UPA it was BJP leaders like Arjun Meghwal, and now it is Bhartruhari Mahtab of BJD.
Over the years the CBI has acquired many monikers—the most recent being caged parrot. In 2012, L K Advani described CBI as the UPAs most dependable alliance partner. In October 2013, Arun Jaitley, then the Leader of the Opposition, demanded in a letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that “charges of politicization and motivated investigation should all be subjected to a Commission of Inquiry headed by a sitting judge of the Supreme Court.”
Post May 2014, the Congress, in episodic bursts, has charged the Modi government with misuse of CBI for political benefit, and of targeting those inimical to the BJP agenda. On Friday, Manmohan Singh charged that the environment in national institutions, such as CBI, was being vitiated. There is little doubt that the seasonal quest for autonomy and questions of independence will persist in future on the Opposition benches—there is no incentive for a ruling dispensation to change the status quo. The result is the premier investigative agency is stranded between scepticism and cynicism.
About 1,500 km south-west of Delhi, the rumble of rebellion is gaining momentum in Mumbai at the Reserve Bank of India. It is true that muffled misgivings did follow demonetisation, and these grew as RBI revealed data on return of cash to its vaults. However, what raised the volume is the public spat on accountability between the FM and the RBI governor as bad loans touched a stunning `10 lakh crore. At the heart of the issue is the need for financing, the interest rate regime and the shacking of public banks under prompt corrective action in election season.
On Friday, Viral Acharya, deputy governor at Reserve Bank, raised the flag on autonomy of the RBI. In a breathless academic sentence of over 55 words, Acharya warned that “governments that do not respect the independence of central banks sooner or later incur the wrath of markets”. Historically, governors have disagreed with the political establishment—on the value of the rupee during the Asian contagion during NDA I, the interest rate regime before the 2008 global crisis during UPA I. In this regime the spats have been on recasting of SEBs debt, on accountability for the Nirav Modi-Mehul Choksi scams, on funding infrastructure, loan waivers and dealing with NPAs. Must disagreements be personified, descend into disagreeable relationships?
In Opposition, the BJP raised the issue of the rupee’s slide and coined the phraseology of “phone banking” for politically-directed loans. The Congress, out of power, repaid in kind on the value of the rupee, on scams, and even the exit of Raghuram Rajan. Manmohan Singh accused the Modi government of whittling down the autonomy of the RBI. The issue of independence of RBI, like other critical institutions, continues to be a question and a seasonally shifting goalpost.
The issue of employment—a permanent chestnut in the political discourse—symbolises the neglect of alternative ideas or approach. India adds roughly 10 million persons to the job market every year. For sure, data on employment is far from credible given the size of the informal sector– not that it detains parties from declaring failure and crisis. What is astonishing is that this has not persuaded parties to derive data based on government spending—on roads, irrigation projects, power generation et al.
What is worse is the shallowness of concern. Vacant posts in police, schools, hospitals, railways in Central and state governments have been a perennial issue. But political parties scarcely make the effort to contrast joblessness and vacant posts – whether in the states or at the Centre. Sloganeering has emerged as the substitute for serious politics, serving a cause. This column flagged the issue of vacancies and failure of systems (bit.ly/1rEHhMo; bit.ly/2xw1gTD). Last September the government asked all departments and states to report on the level. Nobody quite knows if this data has arrived. And parties have not bothered to ask!
The issue of institutional decay represents a core malaise. The debate on critical issues of governance is drowned in rhetoric of personification whereas there is a crying need for a collaborative construct to pave the unpaved economy and enable empowerment.
Author of Aadhaar: A Biometric History of India’s 12 Digit Revolution, and Accidental India