There is an unmistakable tension creeping into our political and social life. A tension that arises from a barrage of unseemly events, unprecedented responses, uneasy social polarisation and uncanny silence of civil society. Approved channels of consultation, accommodation and consensus seem to have been disabled. Our democracy, which has been bolstered by several institutions and benign precedents, seems to be losing the inner vibrancy exposed as it is to the ethos of arbitrariness and confrontation.
In a federal polity like India with its rich diversity, the drying up of the internal lubricating mechanisms will have serious consequences, some early signals of which are already evident. When different political dispensations are in power at the Centre and the states, some friction is inevitable. However, it is often eased by an administrative ethos evolved over decades of resource sharing and ideation at the bureaucratic and political levels.
But when political considerations become an overbearing criterion in development administration and resource sharing, administrative morality becomes the first casualty. State governments have considerable authority on several subjects clearly demarcated in the Constitution. When the Centre, perhaps with some technical justification, overlooks the right of the states, and enacts legislations and adopts policies with far-reaching consequences, it is bound to create fissures and friction. This is amply demonstrated by the slew of legislative changes and policy shifts introduced by the Centre in the area of agriculture and marketing of farm products.
It was a fait accompli for the states and naturally several, of course on political lines, reacted with counter-legislative measures. The same is the approach in the matter of the National Education Policy 2020. A similar style informs several administrative measures of the Centre, including some highly beneficial schemes. Had the Union government shown a bit more grace, state governments would have been willing partners in many such schemes. After all, the Centre has no territory to implement the schemes other than the states!
Apart from development schemes and economic policies, the Centre-states rift is getting even more pronounced in the area of investigation into criminal acts and violation of laws and rules over which Central investigating agencies have mandate. While agencies like the ED, NIA, Customs, Narcotics Bureau and CBI have the authority and acumen to take up investigation anywhere in the country, state governments are normally taken along to facilitate the probe.
There are healthy conventions in place by which basic courtesies are exchanged without compromising the impartiality of investigation. When such civil decorum is violated, state governments will naturally invoke whatever authority they have to regulate the free access of Central agencies. Many governments that have given general consent to the CBI to take up investigations in their states without prior permission have revoked it.
Such a situation has both ethical and practical consequences. Making the Central laws more rigorous is the easy but dangerous temptation, which is not a solution but a cure worse than the malady. After all, the purpose of criminal investigation is to find the culprits and punish the guilty. If that process becomes a hurdle race, it is the delivery of justice that ultimately gets delayed or derailed. This sudden spate of reactions from state governments have thrown up cardinal issues relating to criminal investigations.
The Centre has to recalibrate the systems of mutual support and respect while assigning Central agencies to the states. The perception that extraneous considerations and selective targeting play a role in initiating investigations can do enormous damage to Central investigation agencies that have earned a reputation for professional competence. It will be a pity and a grievous loss if the political slugfest eventually sullies the professional integrity of these national agencies.
The Union government should be suave enough to guard against any action that would invite counter-action from state governments. As long as effective criminal investigation and punitive action against the guilty is the objective, the Centre and states should have no difficulty to be on the same page. The logic of common good applies to policies, programmes and seminal legislations governing economic development as well. Views and counter-views are the very stuff of democracy. Robust institutions with professional autonomy or institutionalised consultative mechanisms would act as cushion and help avoid confrontation.
Institutions have relevance only when dissenting voices are not treated as threats and accommodation is not considered as surrender. Constant confrontation is a prescription for collective weakening, while cooperative consultation nourishes a democratic polity. Institutional autonomy and consultative mechanisms are bound to weaken and wither when unilateral decision-making is hailed as panacea and blessing. Any decision can be justified as long as the citizens are able to discover the preponderance of moral justification over political expediency.
Strengthening institutions that would make it difficult to take morally indefensible decisions is what Indian democracy pines for today. Bypassing, weakening, discrediting or demolishing existing institutions may be convenient in the short term, but it will only force the citizens to conclude like Hamlet, ‘The time is out of joint’.
Former Kerala Chief Secretary & Ex-VC, Thunchath Ezhuthachan Malayalam Varsity