Friday, December 3, 2010

Largest Democracy or Elected Monarchy?

The latest season of corruption scandals in India, starting with the Commonwealth Games, has left everyone baffled and more skeptical than ever. It is one of the rare moments where every pillar of our state is tainted with corruption charges. One doesn't need to state about the corruption in the executive and legislature, but this time around the media, the corporates, the army and the judiciary are also implicated in one or the other scam.

Today, the three wise monkeys of Gandhi ji stand for a different message: one should not hear anything as whatever they say is biased, one should not see anything as what they show is half truth, and one should not speak because what we believe is most probably not true. Who should we believe in these circumstances?

I feel the problem lies in the question itself. It is high time that we stop blindly believing in any institution or person. Every one is vulnerable to corruption and any other wrong doings. The root of this problem lies in the fact that after independence we inherited a colonial system of  government and we did not change most part of it after independence. Thus the British raj has been replaced by the elite raj in India. This has made every democratic dynamic go wrong.

Democracy has become a mental block in our heads and we see it as a panacea for all that is bad. Democracy has become synonymous with having free and fair elections. It that enough? Democracy is supposed to work because it provides a free, fair and peaceful arena for competing ideas and programs of different parties. Also the four branches of the state: executive, judiciary, legislature and media are supposed to be independent of each other to keep a healthy system of checks and balances. The Colonial system, we inherited, has combined all the parties into one and all the four branches of the state into one united in despoiling the nation and making sure that their colonial privileges do not get eroded in the new democracy.  

In this colonial state the executive remains the most hegemonic. While this is true for many modern nation states, in India the executive brazenly interferes in the judicial process. The government has special powers, which are used more than often, to shield it self from the eyes of the judiciary. Any prosecution of a high ranking government employee needs the assent of the government. It can sit for ever on the request to prosecute an official or a minister. This has lead to corruption with impunity and also extra judicial killings by the army. All this is occurs in the largest democracy and the government need not utter a word on why sanction to prosecute a culprit was not given. We do understand the need for "special powers"that should be used in the rarest of the rare cases, but we have a right to know why the special powers of the government were invoked or why is the government sitting on the decision to prosecute an offender? There is no provision for justification or any time limit on when the government should take a call on such issues.

Similar is the case with corruption and wrong doing the in the courts. Any wrong doing by a judge of a high court or supreme court can only be investigated after receiving sanction from the chief justice. This judicial immunity is required but again not without full transparency and responsibility for one's actions.

So is the de-facto case with the corruption in media houses. The government is too scared to investigate the filth in the houses of the opinion makers of India, lest they put a wrong spin to everything government does or says.

Not surprisingly,none of the politicians or journalists want to raise this point in any debate on corruption. They want us to believe that they are squeaky clean and would discuss only those events where others are more culpable than them.

We need to have a better check on the government and its "special powers." The government should have a constitutional responsibility to act within a time frame on any request to invoke its special powers to interfere with the other branches of the state and it must state in public all such cases on which it has taken a decision and why, and all those cases on which it is yet to take a call and why.

Second and most importantly, we need to have ombudsmen for the government, the media houses and the courts. These persons should have no relation with any branch of the state in any form and they should be able to investigate, independently and without any pressure, any complaint of wrong doings in the house and also have powers to prosecute the wrong doers. A few state governments have a Lok Ayukt who have already become a source of great discomfort for the government. The Hindu newspaper has an ombudsman to look into complaints against the paper. But these examples are more like exceptions than the norm. Most of the media houses are content with passing judgments over others and have no fair mechanism to deal with graft in their own backyard. The judiciary is yet to have an ombudsman. The bill for ombudsman for the central government, the Lokpal bill, has not been passed into a law since 1960's. Most of the cases of corruption and wrong doing by government officers lead to temporary suspension of the officer and an in house inquiry. Such inquiries almost never reach their conclusion and the belief is strengthened  that the corrupt are the kings of our country.

We are also a unique nation where there is fair amount of transparency now, thanks to more than thirty years of campaigning by Aruna Roy which gave us Right to Information Act, but we lack accountability.  Thus the reports of graft keep piling in the CAG reports but we rarely see any one convicted. Will we wait for another thirty years to bring accountability in our system? I hope not.