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Citizen-centered Governance: A Tribute to Our Founding Fathers

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[An article written by Dr. Jayaprakash Narayan in Yojana, a development monthly published by the Ministry of Information & broadcasting.]

The 60th anniversary of Indian Republic is a fitting occasion to recollect the spirit of our founding fathers, for which the Constitution of India was the culmination. Responsibility and accountability were the two values of governance that B.R. Ambedkar citied as reasons for preferring parliamentary system to that of presidential one. The architect of the constitution explained that a parliamentary executive, who was dependent on majority in Parliament, would act with more responsibility. He was convinced that, at least as matter of possibility, the daily assessment would be done by members of Parliament, through questions, resolutions, no-confidence motions, adjournment motions and debates on addresses.

Dr. Ambedkar incorporated the values of the national movement, which were embedded in the Constitution of India Bill proposed by Annie Besant and Lokmanya Tilak in 1895 and the Nehru Report, drafted by a committee under chairmanship of Motilal Nehru in 1928; into the constitution. Civic rights such as universal suffrage and fundamental rights irrespective of the creed, class, caste and gender were results of advocacy by the leaders of national movement.

Despite the successful incorporation of values and standards into the constitution, Ambedkar warned that the state will fail, despite the constitution, if the people and the parties that represent them act irresponsibly. He said, “However good a Constitution may be, it is sure to turn out bad because those who are called to work it, happen to be a bad lot.”

The values adopted in the foundational cannons of the republic were gradually diluted by unprincipled politics. The result was a severe crisis of governance. The manifestations of this crisis – the all-pervasive inefficient state, increasing lawlessness, directionless populism, ever-growing criminalization and commercialization of polity, excessive centralization, serious erosion of legitimacy of authority, tardy and inefficient justice system – all these are only too evident to all of us.

Root of Crisis – Design of Democracy

Our founding fathers were undoubtedly men and women of great caliber, commitment, depth and understanding. However, the compulsions of establishing and maintaining order at the earliest in the wake of the trauma of partition forced them to opt for continuity in the instruments of governance. Given these cataclysmic events at the time of partition, restoration of order and maintaining the unity and integrity of India were of paramount importance and our leaders understandably opted for continuance of time-tested instruments of governance. Many scholars have pointed out that there is about 80 per cent congruence between the Government of India Act of 1935 and the Indian Constitution of 1950 because of these compulsions.

In addition, the euphoria accompanying the transfer of power led to a general belief that the moment the Indian leaders acquired power, things would automatically improve even with the old instruments of governance. However, the subsequent events belied these hopes. In the early years after the independence, the aura of freedom struggle, the towering stature of the early leaders associated with that struggle, the hope of better things to come and the inadequate understanding of the loopholes in the mechanics of governance ensured certain measure of stability, hope and harmony. As all such hopes are dashed, and persistent rejection of parties in power does not seem to result in any significant tangible improvement, people are increasingly sullen and resentful.

Essentially, the crisis is a result of two major flaws in our governance structure. Firstly, good behavior is not consistently recognised and rewarded by the state and bad behaviour is not checked and punished. In fact, the contrary is true, and there is a strong feeling throughout that corrupt behavior ensures rewards and successes in our system. The second major flaw is the nature of power in governance system and its exercise by the officialdom. If power is defined as the ability to influence events, processes, resources and human behaviour for the larger public good, then such power is severely restricted to state functionaries at every level.

However, if power is defined as pelf, privilege, patronage, petty tyranny, harassment, or nuisance value, then almost all our state functionaries enjoy this negative power in abundance. As a result, all state functionaries have perfectly plausible, rational and realistic explanations and alibis for non-performance. The hapless citizen, who expects results, is perpetually frustrated.

Due to these characteristics, all institutions of state have failed grievously and are on the verge of collapse. This collapse encompasses the political executive, the legislatures, the bureaucracy and the judiciary. None can be blamed in isolation, nor can any segment escape the blame. However, this failure is not because individuals have failed, nor is it because the society lacks values, but it is a result of the fundamental flaws in our governance structure, which make this crisis inevitable.

In the face of the state’s failure to optimize results, and its incapacity to check malignant use of power, the citizen is increasingly frustrated. Unlike the elites, who laud the modest accomplishments of state functionaries against heavy odds, the ordinary citizens are deeply discontented as they perceive the vast area of non-performance, and the pervasive insensitivity, corruption and unresponsiveness. As repeated rejection of status quo and voting out the party in power do not yield any positive results, there is increasing frustration, and recourse to violence.

Holistic Reform – The Way Out

The crisis of governability is undoubtedly grave. The nature and magnitude of our problems are daunting. What we are witnessing is the collapse of the Indian Republic . However, the Indian crisis is by no means intractable or immutable. There is no reason why India should inevitably succumb to the spectres of anarchy, authoritarianism which could lead to eventual balkanization of the nation. Over the years, the intractability of the Indian crisis, and the impossibility of successful reform have been overemphasized.

India has the strength, resilience, intellectual and moral resources to respond to this crisis with courage, imagination and creativity. However, we must first recognize that the only realistic and enduring solution to the crisis engulfing the Indian state is a holistic, peaceful, democratic transformation of the republic, with the objective of building at all levels free, self-governing, empowering, self-correcting institutions, capable of maintaining peace and harmony, preserving order and stability, strengthening unity and integrity, enabling freedom and participation and promoting growth and prosperity.

Limitations of Isolated Reforms

Isolated efforts to correct individual ills have largely been frustrated or failed because of the evil engulfing all facets of governance. Even the egalitarian discourses such as inclusive development and governance innovations such as Unique Identity Card would only reduce the absurdity in governance, but will not result in a paradigm shift. No matter how well meaning and necessary an isolated reform is, it will not yield adequate dividends, when it is unaccompanied by the other necessary changes.

In this backdrop, parties with vested interests can argue for status quo citing the failure of the partial reform, can use it against any serious reform. Time and again, isolated, necessary but insufficient reforms have failed to energize the polity and improve the content of our governance. The sporadic attempts to improve conduct of elections, repeated attempts of various Administrative Reforms Commissions, Law Commission Reports, introduction of Panchayati Raj institutions in the 50s, anti-defection acts, 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments in the 90s, and efforts like the amendment of the constitution are all examples of sporadic, isolated, insufficient and ultimately ineffective efforts to reform the governance system over the years.

In this all-pervasive crisis of governability, the only realistic way out is a peaceful, democratic, holistic transformation of Indian governance structure. Such a transformation must address the basic processes of power and ensure that truly democratic, self-correcting mechanisms are in place. Every facet of reform must adequately counter the elements of crisis in Indian governance. This includes non-performance on account of the disjunct between vote and welfare of citizens on one hand, and authority and accountability on the other; the incapacity of the administrative and legal structures to reward good behaviour and punish bad behaviour consistently; and increasing incompatibility between honesty and survival in political executive office.

In such a comprehensive reform process, each element of reform will reinforce the other elements, bringing out synergies and minimizing risks. A holistic reform also ensures the placing of adequate checks and safeguards against failure of any institution individually. Instead of letting failure at one level lead to failure at other levels, arresting failure quickly and effectively can prevent it from posing a serious damage to the polity. All the elements of transformation of our governance structure, together, must be capable of strengthening every facet of our democracy – freedom, self-governance, empowerment, rule of law and self-correcting institutional framework.

Reform Agenda – Stakes for all

We must always keep in mind that the objective is to transform our governance structure. Such an effort calls for the broadest measure of agreement among all segments of society, irrespective of competing, sometimes conflicting, sectional interests. All segments of society must have stakes in the agenda, and highly divisive and contentious issues must be left to public choice through the normal competitive electoral process. We should aim at creating a truly democratic framework that offers a platform for various ideologies and policy options to be discussed, debated and chosen by the people from time to time. It necessarily follows that policy issues should be left out of the national reform agenda. To be precise, those issues that have a bearing on the basic process of governance and the five ingredients of democracy – freedom, self- governance, empowerment of people, rule of law and self correcting institutional frame work, should constitute the agenda for democratic reform.

Those issues which have no universality in their application and form part of the `zero sum game’, whereby one segment gains at the cost of the other, must be excluded from the reform agenda and must be left to the competing political forces of the day. Only the essential principles of democracy, the basic rules of governance and constitutional safeguards are sacrosanct and non-negotiable and must be constitutionally sanctified in order to provide the basic framework for competing political parties and individuals to acquire power and pursue those policies which have the broadest measure of public support from time to time. The reform agenda has to be minimalist and non-partisan, and must deliberately eschew highly contentious and divisive issues, so that the widest measure of consensus is possible. It must be practical and rooted in the Indian ethos, and must take into account our experience of working of the Constitution so far.

Democracy should become the philosophical basis for the reforms of governance, which can make it responsive. Freedom is the right of any individual to do as she pleases as long as her actions do not impinge on the freedom of others. The Indian state can be ranked, over all, quite high in terms of freedom its citizens enjoy. However, there are serious limitations to enjoyment of freedom for the bulk of our poor due to inadequate resources and skills, which is a result of the failure of the Indian state. Each citizen should be provided with the opportunities, which enables him to be free in every aspect of life.

Self-governance is the right of citizens to govern themselves directly or indirectly. What happened in 1947 was mere transfer of power from the colonial masters to the indigenous oligarchies. In our anxiety to preserve unity and order at all costs, we accepted centralization of power and bureaucratization, and marginalised the role of the people. As a result, self-governance is limited to an occasional exercise of franchise, when permitted by the local bigwigs. As the choice is often between Tweedledom and Tweedledee, this franchise has no real impact on the outcome, and self-governance became largely illusory. Proper implementation of the existing constitutional and legal provisions should be the first step in this direction.

Empowerment is the ability of citizens to influence the course of events on a sustained basis and make meaningful decisions on matters of governance that impact their own lives. In a highly bureaucratized and centralized milieu most local institutions are beyond the reach of stake-holders’ influence, as stake-holders and power-wielders are distinct. Hence, empowerment of citizens is at a low-level.

The local school, Primary Health Centre, or civic services – are all beyond citizen’s influence. The local public servant is unaccountable to people, and is often their master, rather than their servant. Many procedures are rigid, incomprehensible and highly formalized, preventing access to, and influence by, most ordinary citizens. Citizens should be given utmost importance in decision making on each aspect of governance, and no decision shall preclude just demands of citizens.

Rule of law is the concept of people being governed by law, and all citizens, irrespective of station and rank, being subject to the same laws to the same extent. It is the basis of all democratic governance, and all our institutions, including the executive and judiciary, swear by it. However, in reality, the centralised autocratic functioning of the political parties, the flawed electoral system, highly secretive, opaque functioning, the ubiquitous patronage system, the all-pervasive corruption and the excruciating delays in obtaining justice in law courts – all these made sure that the people with access to power, muscle and means are more equal than the ordinary citizens. As a result, rule of law has been given the go by in most cases and most citizens have resigned themselves to lives of indignity and quiet desperation.

Self-correction is the ability of institutions of state to constantly learn from past experience and improve them selves in order to serve the people better. No design is ever perfect and no system, however well-constructed, can ever conceive of all possible eventualities, and provide for them. In any reasonably efficient and responsive governance structure, there must be a high degree of flexibility and self-correcting mechanism, so that the system is functional. In India , almost all institutions of state have become moribund and dysfunctional. There is no real self-correction visible on an enduring basis or in a meaningful manner.

Any reform that does not factor in the ideals of democracy can have serious repercussions. The failure of reforms initiated in the past should not prevent us from initiating reforms in governance. Reforms do not necessarily bring in progress, but no progress is possible minus well thought of, well meant reforms.

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Written by jujung

January 23, 2010 at 10:29 AM