Populist impulses in democracies can often lead to actions that compromise democratic processes. Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan attributes such impulses to a “crisis of effectiveness” of democracy when compared to the concurrent successes of authoritarian regimes. “While the US Government’s plans to overhaul its infrastructure have been stuck in Congress for almost a decade, China has built the Three Gorges Dam and thousands of kilometres of new railways and roads,” Annan told the Athens Democracy Forum on September 13, 2017. In India, such impulses are becoming pronounced as ‘democratic’ governance faces a certain crisis of credibility in the face of socio-economic issues that have not been addressed for decades. Today, there is a restive population wanting quick-fix solutions.
The politically savvy BJP has been quick to grasp this restiveness, with its acting President JP Nadda claiming that the new regime will achieve “in 50 days what earlier governments could not in 50 years”. If proceedings in the ongoing session of Parliament are anything to go by, it appears that efficiency has been equated with reduction of procedural checks and balances, oversight mechanisms and accountability, seen as roadblocks to governance. The mechanism of parliamentary scrutiny was painstakingly set in place to check arbitrariness and introduce a considered approach to lawmaking. None of the 14 Bills already passed in this session was referred for legislative scrutiny either to a Standing Committee or a Select Committee. This is the culmination of the trend that started in the 16th Lok Sabha that sent a mere 26 per cent Bills for scrutiny to parliamentary standing committees (PSC) as opposed to 71 per cent Bills in the 15 th Lok Sabha and 60 per cent that were routinely examined by committees in the 14th Lok Sabha.
This trend dis-empowers the citizen of civil liberties vis-the-vis the state. A glaring instance of this overreach is the dismantling of the Right to Information (RTI) infrastructure through amendments that reduce the status and autonomy of central and state information commissioners to government servants by disrobing them of the fixity of tenure, salary and allowance that were carefully embedded in the statute. The Government provides no logical explanation for diluting these provisions, in fact introduced in the statute by a PSC which included current President Ram Nath Kovind as a member. To make statutory authorities subservient to executive orders on critical matters concerning tenure of service and salary is a direct attack on the autonomy of an institution that has been globally hailed as an instance of India’s maturity as a democracy. The Centre must check this trend of doing away with structural checks and balances, in the name of speedy decision making. Optimal decision-making stems from the state being more responsive and transparent, not less. The consequences of authoritarian decision-making in the name of ‘efficiency’, some 45 years ago, should not be forgotten.