Next govt has to undo power-grab that has hijacked India's institutions

Left: Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora; Ashok Lavasa
India’s long and exhausting general election is almost over. One of its casualties has been the reputation of the Election Commission of India, the constitutionally independent body that oversees the polls.

For decades, the commission -- presided over by three former civil servants -- has had a reputation for enforcing the relatively strict rules governing Indian election campaigns impartially and firmly. But, in this election, it’s been accused of favoring the incumbent government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The election calendar, the opposition alleges, was set up to favor Modi’s party; the commission failed to take down a rule-breaking channel dedicated to Modi; and it ruled that numerous controversial statements and actions by the prime minister and his party’s president, Amit Shah, did not violate the campaign code of conduct. One of the commissioners stopped attending meetings because, he said, his dissenting opinions about the prime minister’s cases were being ignored.

What’s unfortunate is that the commission is far from alone in this: Many of India’s liberal institutions have suffered since Modi came to power in 2014. Last year, four judges of the Supreme Court went public with complaints about their Chief Justice, including one related to investigating the death of a judge in a murder case against Shah. The anti-corruption commission was headed by a bureaucrat who himself faced numerous accusations of corruption. The two most senior officers of the Central Bureau of Investigation played out a messy feud in full public view -- and then one of them was sacked in the middle of the night as, the opposition alleged, he was about to investigate a corruption scandal. And, of course, not one but two central bank governors left office amid attempts by the government to push the Reserve Bank of India into doing its will.

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.

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