THE ROLLER-COASTER SEQUENCE of ignoble events relating to the formation of a government in Maharashtra that houses Mumbai, the financial capital of India, marks a new low in Indian political life and the distinctive departures include an unprecedented revocation of President’s rule in the state at 5.47 am on a Saturday morning without even convening the mandatory cabinet meeting!
While breathless 24/7 TV coverage has dwelt on the audacious BJP coup in turning the tables on its one-time ally, the Shiv Sena, and fissures within the influential Pawar family of Maharashtra politics, the sequence of events has perhaps proved the adage that the truth about prevailing Indian politics is indeed stranger – and more sordid – than fiction.
Cumulatively this entire episode marks an unabashed assault on normative democratic norms and the spirit of the Indian Constitution. To add insult to injury, this is being hailed as a manifestation of Chanakya tenets – reference being to the astuteness of the political guru to the Mauryan emperor of the BC era.
Expressing grave concern at this ‘betrayal’ of democratic norms by the highest constitutional offices in the country, a major daily noted editorially: “In one stroke, the President, the Prime Minister and the Governor, all appear to be not as guardians of the constitutional order but collaborators in a clandestine, nocturnal scheme.”
Who are the guardians of the constitutional ethos in a democracy and what has been their track record and the institutional trend in India over the last decade-plus? Robust and healthy democracies are predicated on the will of the people – expressed through free and fair elections and the elected representative is the primary guardian of the democratic ethos.
Fidelity to law as derived from the constitution and enacted by the legislature is enshrined and implemented through institutional credibility, professional competence and individual rectitude. Theoretically, the checks and balances between the legislature, executive, judiciary and the media ensure the nurturing of an enabling and equitable eco-system that will allow for the welfare and safety of the citizen to be assured and protected.
What is the empirical record in India over the last five years after the BJP-led NDA assumed office having defeated the Congress-led UPA government over charges of corruption and constitutional malfeasance? As per a study conducted by the Association of Democratic Reforms (ADR), of the newly-elected Lok Sabha members in the 2019 election, as many as 233 or 43% of the 539 winning candidates have criminal cases against them. The ruling BJP has 116 such tainted MPs which is almost 40% of its successful candidates, while the Congress had 29 MPs or 57% of their winning candidates in the Lok Sabha.
This percentage of MPs with criminal cases against them has increased from 34% in 2014 to its current 43% and this augurs poorly on the ‘corruption-free’ promises made by the BJP in the campaign. In the 2009 election, the corresponding figure was 30% and the deduction that follows is that progressively the lower house – the Lok Sabha that epitomises the aspirations of the one billion-plus population of India – is becoming more tainted and these are the primary guardians of the democratic ethos.
The ADR report notes that in the current new Lok Sabha, nearly 29% of the cases are related to rape, murder, attempt to murder or crime against women. It gravely adds that there is an increase of 109% (in 2019) in the number of MPs with declared serious criminal cases since 2009.
To add to the discomfiture of the BJP-led NDA government, a recent RTI (right to information) report has revealed some uncomfortable facts about electoral bonds introduced by the current government. Overruling the reservations of the Election Commission and the Reserve Bank of India an opaque modus of anonymous donors was introduced in 2017, making India the only democracy in the world to have such a scheme.
RTI disclosures by the State Bank of India and other documents have revealed that the ruling BJP has been the principal beneficiary of these electoral bonds. Even well-wishers of the BJP are disappointed that the Modi-led government has reneged on its high-octane promise of eradicating black money, or illicit wealth, in the Indian electoral process.
Little surprise therefore that the cynicism of the Indian citizen has increased in recent years about the integrity of the guardians of democracy and their commitment to the spirit of the Constitution. The Maharashtra venality is illustrative of what ails Indian democracy and this, alas, is not the bottom of the barrel.
— C Uday Bhaskar (The writer is Director, SPS)
(This article has been reproduced here in arrangement with the South Asia Monitor. It can be accessed at https://southasiamonitor.org)