The common thread to all these instances seems to be a belief that independent institutions work best when they serve the will of the executive. This, of course, is the exact opposite of what such bodies are supposed to do. They are meant to constrain power, not enhance it.
But Modi prides himself on his image as a strong and decisive leader and, like many others before him, he seems to think that independent institutions stand in the way of strength and decisiveness. He will have learned from the plight of his predecessor, Manmohan Singh, whose power and authority were severely eroded by the actions of one institution after another.
It’s both a pity that this is how most institutions have fared under Modi -- and ironic. As it happens, his tenure’s biggest successes have involved the executive ceding power to new, independent institutions.
Early on, for example, the government agreed to let the Reserve Bank of India
adopt a formal inflation target. A new monetary policy committee, half of which is comprised of independent economists, has managed to keep inflation low and stable -- something that may well help Modi win reelection. A new nationwide goods-and-services tax took decisions out of the hands of bureaucrats in New Delhi and gave them to a GST
Council that included state governments. A new insolvency and bankruptcy code set up an autonomous process that leaves little place for government meddling and favoritism.
In terms of law and administration, these measures will be the lasting legacies of Modi’s first term -- and none of them add to the power of the prime minister and his government. Quite the reverse, in fact.
We shouldn’t think of the weakening of institutions in India as simply a power grab. It is, in fact, an extension of Modi’s philosophy of governance. He is as much project manager as politician. As chief minister of the western state of Gujarat, Modi managed all processes closely, centralizing decision-making in his office. He has tried to do the same thing in New Delhi. The institution that has arguably lost the most power in the last five years is the cabinet, as bureaucrats in Modi’s office make decisions formerly left to ministers.
The problem is that a large country can’t be run like the state of Gujarat. A large and complex economy needs multiple powerful and independent institutions to administer it. And a liberal polity needs power to be held in check, not concentrated.
The next government will have to reverse some of this damage if India is to grow fast and correctly. Decision-making is in fact swiftest and least arbitrary when independent institutions are empowered and given transparent rules to follow.