A Growing Tyranny

Magazine National Political

Narendra Modi’s first term has witnessed a steady erosion in the institutions of governance

“Today, democracy is at stake, secularism is in danger, the economy has collapsed, independent institutions are being destroyed and centre-state relations are deteriorating,”Andhra Pradesh chief minister Chandrababu Naidu recently warned at a political rally in Vishakapatnam.

Ever since the Emergency of 1975, the Sangh parivarhas accused the Congress Party of political overreach, governing through remote control and eroding the institutional framework of our democracy. But astheir protégé Narendra Modi’s first term ends anda general election approaches, BJP’s record in office doesn’t look very different. And it’s not just the cow-vigilantism, Muslim baiting, shrill nationalismor the pervasive air of intolerance that worries observers.

Alarm bells rang in January 2018 when the four senior-most judges of the SupremeCourt called an unprecedented press conferenceto accuse the then Chief Justice of India (CJI), Dipak Mishra, of being biased in assigning cases to them. On matters the Modi government deemed sensitive, Mishra would allegedly exclude his senior colleagues and conduct proceedings along with a junior judge.

Says Abdul Razack, a political analyst //WHERE & AFFILIATION//, “At the press conference, the current CJI Ranjan Gogoi made a statement that the cases were being assigned in a manner to favour someone. The statement in itself clearly speaks volumes of what exactly was going on in the apex court.”

In fact, the government’s efforts to influence judicial appointments was apparent in its foot dragging over the appointment of Justice KM Joseph to the apex court. In 2016, a bench of the Uttarakhand High Court presided over by him had struck down President’s rule in the state to Mr Modi’s great embarrassment.  Even though the collegium kept suggesting his name, the government took its time to accept him. And even when the government accepted his elevation to Supreme Court, there were questions whether the work of the court was being remotely managed.

The Supreme court though is not the only institution that faces such a crisis under today’s government. “There is dictatorship imposed on all the institutions of the country, sparing not even a single one,” says Saoumya Bakshi, Trinamool Congressyouth president in Kolkata.The autonomy of the Election Commission (EC) too has beenin question.

In 2017, the government had proposed the idea of electoral bonds. They were proposed as a means to ease poll funding by enabling citizensto contribute to the party of their choice anonymously. The bonds were supposed to have a short life span and be open to subscription for just a short while before the elections. While the government was still in the process ofdebating how exactly such a bond could be created, the ECdenounced the idea as ‘retrograde’. According to a PTI report, in a written deposition to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Law and Personnel, the EC had said, “The amendment in section 29C of the Representation of the People Act, 1951 making it no longer necessary to report details of donations received through electoral bonds is a retrograde step as transparency of political funding would be compromised as a result of the change.”

A year later a new Chief Election Commissioner, AK Jyoti, took charge and promptly reversed the commission’s previous position, saying electoral bonds were just what the country needed. As Mr. Jyoti told The Indian Express,“What I am saying is that now there will be digital and banking trail of donations. That is one step towards the right direction. I have not said that it will solve all problems.” He didn’t explain how a digital banking trail could be reconciled with anonymity or indeed how anonymous donations contributed to electoral transparency.

Another shocker came when the dates of Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat Assembly Elections were suddenlychanged. There was some speculation that the Centre was planning to announce a few projects in the states and the EC quietly agreed to the dates the Centre wanted. Even after numerous questions were raised, the EC could not explain its actions. There was also a delay in announcing the election dates for Mizoram, Madhya Pradesh,Rajasthan, and Chhattisgarh.

Though the EC pointed out that the timings were changed for the convenience  of all the parties, the opposition clearly saw it to be linked to Modi’s rally in Ajmer. “It seems as if the BJP is trying to put a Hitler-style dictatorship regime,” says Bakshi of Trinamool. “Only difference there was that Hitler was open about it, but BJP keeps defending its act.” Defending the EC’s actions, Rahul Sinha, BJP national secretary says, “The Election Commission always has been doing its duty. They can change the dates whenever they wish and feel the need to, that is not even an issue.”

But the institution the government seems to have had the most difficulty with is the Reserve Bank of India (RBI). The resignation of governor Raghuram Rajanin the third year of his tenure, came as a shock to financial markets worldwide. Although Rajansaid he wanted to return to academia, it was public knowledge that the governor was too independent minded for a government bent on micromanaging the economy.

By then the government had a well-earned reputation of taking monetary decisions without consulting the RBI. Demonetisation was one such a move. The decision, which invalidated all Rs. 500 and Rs. 1,000 notes and thus 86% 0f the currency in circulation overnight was an avoidable disaster. It was a reckless political decisionhatched and carried out by a tiny cabal surrounding the prime minister’s office and RBI was left to deal with the massive economic disruption that followed.

In his September 2016 resignation letter Dr.Rajan wrote, “While all of what we laid out on that first day is done, two subsequent developments are yet to be completed. Inflation is in the target zone, but the monetary policy committee that will set policy has yet to be formed. Moreover, the bank clean-up initiated under the Asset Quality Review, having already brought more credibility to bank balance sheets, is still ongoing. International developments also pose some risks in the short term.While I was open to seeing these developments through, on due reflection, and after consultation with the government, I want to share with you that I will be returning to academia.” In an interview to Business Standard, Rajan clearly hinted he resignedbecause he wasn’t not offered an extension, as would be routine especially for an economist of international standing.

Dr.Rajan’s reference to the bank’s asset quality was the nub of the problem. The government had initially backed the RBI’s tough stance on cleaning up the banks. But after the demonetisation fiasco, when nationwide credit shortages crippled the rural economy, medium and small-enterprises (MSME) and the wholesale trade, the government panicked and started pressuring the RBI to go easy on the banks and to allow them to lend freely to the MSME sector. Thus, the air around Dr.Rajan’s resignation had barely cleared when his successor, Dr.Urjit Patel put in his papers too.
In a public lecture, RBI deputy governor, Gopal Acharayawarned, “Governments that do not respect central bank independence will sooner or later incur the wrath of financial markets, ignite economic fire, and come to rue the day they undermined an important regulatory institution.” His remarks infuriated the finance ministry. The government blamed the country’s central bank for having created the bad-loan problem through its “lax supervision” and even for failing to detect the Nirav Modi-Punjab National Bank swindle.

More alarming, for the first time the government hinted that it might invoke Section 7 of the RBI Act to overrule decisions by the RBI board. “Section 7 was threatened to be invoked probably only to take over RBI and get hold of the RBI’s Rs.9 lakh crore emergency funds for a massive bout of public spending in the run up to the 2019 Lok Sabha election,” says analyst Razack. With the resignation of two highly-trained, professional economists from the head of India’s central bank in quick succession, the stage was set for a recently retired bureaucrat from the finance ministry,Shaktikanta Das to be drafted in. Unsurprising, his first act as governor was to ease interest rates.

Recent events involving the Central Bureau of Investigation have been no less worrisome. In what journalist BakhaDuttcalled an ‘Indian version of President Trump’s sacking of his FBI chief’, the CBI chief and his deputy were sent on leavefollowing an acrimonious fight between them. Alok Vermahad been appointed CBI director in 2017 and had objected when the government appointed Rakesh Asthana as his deputy, on the ground that he was corrupt. But Asthana has been known to be Mr. Modi’s favourite even before Verma was appointment. According to a Scroll report,Mr. Verma, in his petition to the Supreme Court challenging the government’s order, said: “Not all influence that is exerted by the political government would be found explicitly or in writing. More often than not, it is tacit, and requires considerable courage to withstand.”

This statement was perhaps a clear indication on how the government was misusing its powers. Even now,the appointment of Nageshwar Rao, another Modi favourite, as interim director, has put the focus on CBI.“The government is using the CBI as an extension of the Prime Minister’s office which is definitely a threat to the country. CBI is something which the country trusts and believes in, but it is unfortunate that today whoever speaks against Modi gets arrested,” saysBakshi.

“It is quite absurd to see that every person who is not in favour of the government has his/her office or home raided;whether it be Mayawati, DK Shivkumar, or Akhilesh Yadav. Akhilesh’s house was raided for a case that happened seven years ago. Was the government sleeping for these years?It is quite clear that they are using the CBI as a tool to curb the opposition,’’ points out Razack.

“The government has never interfered in the operation of independent institutions. All these people who have resigned never provided any clear reasons which might point to meddling. It is only the opposition that believes there is a crisis. On the contrary, steps to strengthen these bodies are being taken continually,” replies the BJP’s Sinha.

The Modi government’s insidious attack on the institutions of our country in fact runs deeper. They have sought to take over the country top educational institutions and the bodies that fund and regulate them, to rewrite the school curricula to elevate mythological and obscurantist ideas to ‘scientific’ status and have used their student organisations to hound and drive out independent scholars. In their zeal to burnish the image of the government, they have fabricated economic and employment data and destroyed the credibility of the country’s premier statistical organisation.

As Razack sums it up, “The autonomy of our institutions is being jeopardised. They are in need of immediate protection. If something concrete is not done right now, the pillars that we have spent so many years building up might just crumble. And, with it the whole edifice will come down.”


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