A view from the backbench
by Bimal Jalan
William Fulbright’s notion of expressing differences in a democracy as a matter of conviction has found fruition in Bimal Jalan’s latest book, India’s Politics: A view from the backbench. The advantage of being a ‘backbencher’ is the benefit of a panoptic view – a view that Jalan, the former Governor of the Reserve Bank of India, underwrites as an inevitable one for every keen observer of India’s economy and politics. This view is reminiscent of a simultaneous use of the methodologies of participant and non-participant observation, and proves the importance of reminding ourselves that, as Jalan writes, “neither democracy nor economic resurgence can be taken for granted”.
This new work is a sequel to Jalan’s 2006 The Future of India, but can, nevertheless, be read separately. While the earlier book considered “effective governance and responsible politics [to be] of utmost importance in shaping India’s economic future”, the present volume draws attention to the need to engage in political reforms, keeping in mind the “established tradition of electoral freedom” that India has enjoyed over the past six decades.
Over that time, power mongering, vested interests and vote-bank politics have also become inextricably entwined in India’s political structure, accentuating the already growing trend of political opportunism. Eventually, public services also became a casualty. What is democracy worth, Jalan laments, if it cannot address basic issues such as food security and access to civic entitlements? Economic equations have yielded to political ones: it is no longer a question of having faster economic growth to ensure a rapid decline in poverty; it is rather a case of combining votes with patronage governance. All of this must be thought of with respect to the state’s inaction, coupled with its insular agenda. Apropos coalition governments (which, since 1989, have become the norm at the Centre), horse trading and defection have compromised the socio-economic objectives of the government, and have led to the steady attrition of political maturity. A direct outcome, the author notes, is escalating corruption. But all is not lost, for India’s democratic set-up still ensures space for public discussion and dialogue. It is nowhere but in a democracy that wrong policies can be righted through public pressure and consensus.
After his time at the Reserve Bank, Jalan continued his connection to the Indian political and economic scene at the Rajya Sabha. But there were other surprises awaiting him there. Transacting business at the Parliament cannot have been better; on 29 August 2005, notes an astonished Jalan, the Women’s Succession Bill was passed in four minutes flat. Level-headed discussion and deliberation seem to have become a thing of the past. Another snippet of Jalan’s experience inside the Parliament relates to the dwindling role of the representative house, wherein it is the ruling government that decides what must be transacted. Such a scenario is replete with “behind-the-scene consultations” with select party leaders. As a result, accountability – individual and collective – cannot be enforced, except through the judiciary. There begins the disjuncture between the three establishments, and there arises the contentious issues of the supremacy of the executive over the judiciary, and of the judiciary over Parliament.
Widening economic disparity is a phenomenon that points unflinchingly at the impotence of a political-economy institution – the government. Multi-party democracy having become the standard, it is now vital for India to redefine its priorities and fabricate a politico-economic system that will “work better for the people as a whole rather that only for the few”. Jalan delineates ten areas of change in his “limited agenda”. A few of them will be rather unwelcome in certain Indian political circles: allowing a government to appoint a minimum of one-fourth of cabinet members from outside the Parliament (in recognition of the criminalisation of politics and corruption in elections); discontinuing the Member of Parliament Land Development Schemes, due to large-scale misappropriation of funds; scrapping of the Official Secrets Act, 1923, which gives undue protection to civil servants (in the face of politicisation of the bureaucracy); and reducing the ‘non-working’ days of the courts, which remain the sole institution for redressal of actions and omissions by the state. Elements of economics also find their way into the suggested reforms, in the decentralisation of funding, the ensuring of transparency in governance, and the monitoring of election expenditures.
It is not unusual for retired government servants to look back and make the obligatory comments on the infirmities in the prevailing system of governance. India’s Politics, however, does not come under this genre. Rather, it is the work of a sincere intellectual, whose revelations are more than just a methodical record of the pros and cons of his country’s system of governance. It is also an earnest appeal to readers to recognise the prevailing challenges that India faces. At a deeper level, Jalan’s work explores the opportunities that India has to seize upon in order to become a powerful and able country. This, along with the simple style of narration, peppered with memorable anecdotes, makes Jalan’s book easy to read and to assimilate.
But it must be said that Jalan’s straightforward dissensions with India’s politics do not stimulate or challenge the reader nearly enough. At the same time, although the author’s observations are from the backbench, and therefore lacking in detail, the view is neither distorted nor are the arguments reactionary. The book reiterates US political commentator George Will’s observation: “Voters don’t decide issues; they decide who will decide issues”. But voting in a democracy is not only an option for deciding who should decide issues; it is also an opportunity for dissent.