India Needs Some Radical Electoral/Political Reforms

Recently, a report in the Times of India said that the central government is planning to initiate an all party discussion on synchronizing Lok Sabha elections with the respective state assembly elections by 2019. If indeed implemented, this would be the first step towards rationalizing the currently dysfunctional political system that holds back India in more ways than one. More such bold reforms are needed, with a special focus on consensus building, a quality the Modi government clearly lacks, to usher in a new era in Indian politics and decision – making.

The committee set up by the government to look into this issue, the report mentions, says that in order to align the elections in 2019, the tenure of some assemblies would have to be curtailed while of some others would have to be extended. This would require serious intent on the part of the political parties, not simply because it would require some of them to cut short their term in office, but also because such a move, if enacted, could potentially transform the way elections are fought in this country.                                                 Presently, all political parties go an a charm offensive with their respective vote base right before their elections to ensure a victory, offering them freebies and announcing huge projects, which are seldom implemented when they actually get into power. But, a trend has emerged in Indian politics since the Lok Sabha election of 2014, or perhaps since the Gujarat Election of 2012, where electorates have increasingly started voting for development, not just on the caste or communal lines as preferred by political parties and have constantly busted the anti-incumbency myth by re-electing those leaders who have a proven record of ‘good governance’.                                                                                             Thus, in order to capitalize on that trend, simultaneous national and state elections is imperative since such a move would go a long way in diverging national issues from state level problems, thereby nurturing the much needed democratic maturity in the Indian electorate, the lack of which up till now has allowed vested interests to take advantage of them. But, as mentioned earlier, this group of vested interests would do whatever is in their power to stop such a development and it must be the responsibility of the Modi government, which constantly makes loud claims about its integrity, to make sure that such an important reform does not indefinitely remain in political limbo.

Notwithstanding the above, there are many such reforms in the political system which are needed urgently to unshackle India from socio-economic adversities. Although, one would like to see a cap on spending in elections or stricter regulation of political parties at large, such reforms are unlikely to happen given that all parties, including AAP, have many skeletons in their closets. That being said, one would like to see reforms which seek to divide the functions of the legislature and the judiciary as explicitly as possible. I am talking, of course, about the need to restrict the powers accorded to the upper house of parliament and to clearly define the role of the judiciary which constantly enters executive domain, leading to mis-governance.

Now, Rajya Sabha, the upper house of parliament referred above, is a touchy subject, with the central government being accused of bypassing it through constant ordinances or by introducing money bills like Aadhar, which do not require approval from the upper house. While some might argue that the government is indeed trying to sidestep the Rajya Sabha, I would argue that it does not have any other choice. This is because Rajya Sabha is a collection of unelected individuals whose job is nothing but to forward their party’s shallow agenda which often goes against the country’s interests. Although, the government might not be able to push through reforms that would limit its powers, given its record, it can think about using the ongoing cash-for-vote controversy in the Rajya Sabha elections to its advantage and attempt to introduce reforms that makes the upper house more accountable to the people of the country. This can be done either by initiating a discussion on turning Rajya Sabha into a Senate like body where its members are directly elected or by at least mandating the cancellation of elections if any foul-play is found.

Another area of concern for the political establishment of the country is the judiciary’s constant intervention in executive functions. Be it the diesel ban in Delhi or the shifting of matches in IPL or the formation of a drought management fund, the judiciary’s constant overreach into executive domain disturbs the balance of powers and creates further disruptions in the already dysfunctional system. Its argument is that it if the government did its job better, it wouldn’t need to interfere. Hard to argue against that. But this was the same judiciary which struck down the National Judicial Appointments Commission (NJAC) which aimed at giving the executive more power in appointing judges to the courts on the ground that government intervention would impact the independence of the judiciary. So, while it does not want the executive interfering in its workings, it finds no problem in directing the government on how to go about its job. Now, whether that is constitutional or not is best left to experts; what we must first realize that the judiciary is not perfect, simple because it does to the government what the government does to us. Such a situation creates a lot of confusion between the so called ‘three pillars’ of democracy and ultimately, it is the country which stands to lose. Thus, judicial reforms are an urgent need and the government must come up with comprehensive reforms to address the problems associated with the judiciary. Also, such reforms invite rare bipartisan support and government doesn’t stand to lose any political capital by coming up with the same.

In conclusion, there is long way to go before India can shred the tag of being a ‘Banana Republic’. Aligning central and state elections is a huge stride forward. But this would require all political parties to come on the same page vis-a-vis holding 32 elections in 2019. One can wonder in-numerous reasons why all parties would not agree to that, not the least of which is the fear of another Modi Wave!

What Can New Delhi Learn from London’s Mayoral Position

As London’s Mayoral elections draw to a close, all of us living in the capital city of India, New Delhi, must ask ourselves whether our Chief Minister’s office, currently head by the all to controversial Mr. Arvind Kejriwal, is as powerful as the Mayor’s office in London. The reason for such an introspection is that both London & New Delhi are densely populated metropolitan capital cities impacting millions of lives and the person responsible for governing those lives should have all the tools available to him in order to serve the people without any confrontation with the central government, a problem increasingly becoming routine in Delhi. So to the answer the question, no, Delhi’s Chief Minister is not quite as powerful as the Mayor Of London, the reasons for which I would attempt to dissect in this blog, while simultaneously arguing why it would be a good move to accede to Mr. Kejriwal’s demand of giving Delhi complete statehood status.

New Delhi and London – Key Differences

While the outgoing Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, has many a times complained that enough powers haven’t been granted to him, he would be surprised to know that his counterpart in Delhi is even more beleaguered than him. There are certain key differences between the two posts that one must take cognizance of, in order to understand the challenges faced by the Delhi government under the current status-quo.

Land Policy: While even the London Mayor has to exercise constraint over the housing policy adopted by him due to restrictions imposed by the central government, the Delhi Chief Minister has absolutely no jurisdiction over the same since the Delhi Development Authority (DDA), the body overseeing the state-sponsored housing & construction activities in the city, comes not under the control of the Delhi government but under the Ministry of Urban Development (MUD) of the Union Government, a decision that dates back to 1962 when Delhi wasn’t even a partial state. Any new project that requires government land needs to be first approved by the MUD, consequentially leaving the Delhi government with no real authority of the projects that see the light of day.

Police & Public Order: Every capital city needs proper security arrangements, not just for the VVIP’s therein, but more importantly, the vast population of people which reside in it. Unlike the Met Police in London which is governed by the Mayor’s office, the Delhi Police comes under the purview of the Ministry of Home Affairs (MOH) of the Union government. Confusion over who gets to govern the security personnel in the city not just inconveniences the ordinary lives of the people but ends up leaving lots of gaps over the pandemic security situation & general public order in the Capital.

Under the Constitution of India, Delhi is a union territory which is to be governed by a representative of the President, who has authority over the three aspects listed above. However, the current representative, Lieutenant Governor Najeeb Jung, is seen by many as a stooge of the central government who often crosses constitutional boundaries by interfering in the appointment of bureaucrats and the overall functioning of the state government. Thus, after taking cognizance of the above facts, one can argue that the Delhi Chief Minister ‘is in office but not in power.’

Full Statehood for Delhi – High Time?

We must recognize the fact that when it comes to urban cities like London or New Delhi, it is responsive & dynamic executive action that makes the difference & while some disagreements are bound to arise between two power centers, as I am sure they do in London, petty tussles like the ones in Delhi are just downright deplorable which end up depleting the quality of governance in the city. Delhi, which in my opinion is the finest city in the country, with such a rich history and unparalleled diversity, deserves better from its government. Delhi, like London, must have a Chief Minister who is responsible for all the aspects of the city and such a scenario is only possible if the Narendra Modi government grants full statehood rights to Delhi, bringing it at par with every other state in the country.

Granting full statehood to Delhi would not just be a gift to the people of the city but it would also be a politically significant move. It would not only put an end to the confrontational relationship between the Central & City government, but would also be a major image boost for the central government by pledging its adherence to democracy, amidst all the allegations that the its turning increasingly authoritarian. Statehood for Delhi is a movement that would likely gather steam over the next few years, given that the Chief Minister has made it abundantly clear that he does not accept the status-quo and the central government at the center would send a strong signal by accepting his demands without any political slug-fests.

However, one knows all too well that this is nothing more than a Utopian hope and it would take a long painstaking movement to achieve such a result. In the meantime, Delhiites would just have to keep tolerating an ultra-anarchist Chief Minister and an ultra-arrogant Prime Minister.

Budget Session Part 2: Crucial Times Ahead

The latter half of the Budget Session which would begin next week (25th April) is expected to be a crucial one, not only in terms of economic reforms but also for PM Modi’s re-election bid in the 2019 Lok Sabha Polls. The senior leadership of the Bhartiya Janata Party, in the cabinet & otherwise, must tone down the nationalism sentiment; keep the Hindutva moron brigade in check and instead focus solely on conducting critical legislation cleared in parliament, thereby kick-starting the economy & providing them with some talking points before the 2017 Uttar Pradesh & Gujarat Elections, the results of which would provide vital indications of the disposition of the electorate before the 2019 polls.

The spirits would be tense in the legislature with the questionable dismissal of the Uttarakhand government by the center, the access to Patankhot given to JIT from Pakistan, the never-ending confusion over the Provident Fund withdrawals, droughts in various parts of the country, amidst the  usual Dalit-Muslim vote-bank securing tactics of the opposition. The Prime Minister must drop his statesman-like silence on issues that dominate the news cycle & lead from the front in countering all possible attacks in parliament. He must not play into the traps set up by the opposition and  instead concentrate on highlighting the many successes of his government so far.

Inflation has been down ever since the NDA government came to power; highway construction is on an all time high of 28 km/day; there is tremendous focus on infrastructure augmentation with the Inland Waterways Bill or the Sagarmala Project; the focal point of Budget 2016 was resurrecting the rural economy & with the weather department predicting a better monsoon this time around, the agriculture sector is expected to turn around with assistance from the new crop insurance scheme, national agriculture market which aims to provide better market access to farmers or the RURBAN scheme which aims to modernize rural areas, thereby increasing economic activity around the area concerned. The Prime Minister’s foreign policy outreach is starting to bear results, the latest being Chabahar Deal which would give India access to Central Asian Markets or the Logistics Agreement signed with the United States, ostensibly to contain Chinese maritime influence in the region. The two biggest successes of the government have been responsive, efficient governance & cutting of red tape. Every minister in the cabinet is being lauded for the initiatives undertaken by their departments, a track record of which has been compiled by Swarajya magazine  (Oil Minister Dharmendra Pradhan is a notable exception in the above compilation).

But the job is far from over. The Banking sector is still in stress, due to inadequate debt recovery mechanisms & exports have been contracting for 18 months in a row, due to weak global demand. The latter can only improve with time but the former can largely be dealt with the Insolvency Code, one of the many important economic reforms currently stuck in parliament.

The Insolvency Code would expedite the process of debt recovery by creating an autonomous body to oversee the same & put a 180 day time limit on the process. The Goods & Services Tax would subsume the many indirect taxes currently imposed & turn India into a single market, a crucial reform to augment GDP growth. The Small Factories Bill would encourage small-medium size business to invest in the manufacturing industry by exempting them from various labour regulations. The Labour Ministry further plans to introduce four integrated labour codes which would replace the colonial era laws that currently operate in the domain. All the above are just few of the many other bills that are currently in the offing & which need to be passed urgently to unshackle the Indian economy.

The Prime Minister must not waste any more time in pushing through the above reforms in the upcoming parliament session, not the least because pushing pro-business reforms right before state assembly elections would be a major political miscalculation. The politics in this country has always been confrontational and would continue to remain so in the future, but its economics must not suffer as a consequence. The Prime Minister understands this all too well & he must play his cards right while dealing with the opposition. ‘Coz come 2019, he would be judged by the very standard he set for himself, SABKA SAATH, SABKA VIKAAS.

Budget Session: BJP on the Front Foot

With the backdrop of the Rohith Vermula Suicide in Hyderabad and the JNU crisis, political cynics expected that the Budget Session 2016 of the Parliament was heading for another washout. But, if the first three days of its functioning is considered reflective, then it can be said that it is this session where the sheer magnitude of differences between our political parties and in a sense, the people they represent, was truly on display. In this post, I give a quick summary of the first three days of the ongoing parliament session.

The stage was set was another round of meaningless demonstrations and benign accusations by the opposition on the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party(BJP), given their mishandling of the JNU crisis and the suicide of a Dalit scholar in Hyderabad, purportedly at the behest of two union ministers. But thanks to explosive revelations by our feisty HRD minister, Smriti Irani; fiery speeches by the likes of Arun Jaitley & Anurag Thakur and some reports in the press, the BJP has managed to divert the attention from the agrarian crisis or the troubled Public Sector Banks and put the ball in Congress’s court to defend their support for the unruly students at JNU or their distortion of a report in the case of Ishrat Jahan, a woman who was killed in an alleged fake encounter in Gujarat back in 2004 but has now been confirmed as a terrorist who was sent to assassinate Narendra Modi, then the Chief Minister of Gujarat.

The Congress party sought to attack the BJP on the arrest and subsequent sedition charge of Kanhaiya Kumar, initiated by the speech of Jyotiraditya Scindia, a Congress MP, which frankly sounded like a collection of angry tweets by a loony liberal, echoing the same half-literate rants which dominate our media and intellectual space. He said that the BJP was trying to impose the Hindutva ideology on the country and how freedom of speech should be unrestricted, even if it celebrates a convicted terrorist. His speech was immediately rebutted by Anurag Thakur, a BJP MP, who attacked on Rahul Gandhi for supporting the students raising the anti-national slogans raised in the JNU campus and how the Congress resorted to political opportunism without understanding the seriousness of the issue. After a round of political blame games, it was the speech by Smriti Irani which exposed the bigotry and absurdity that grips the JNU Campus.

She inundated, with damning evidence, that in the garb of free speech, how students at JNU constantly celebrate the Maoists who vow for the destruction of India and the killings of Indian soldiers who lose their lives defending them, apart from their not-so-subtle demonstration demanding Kashmir’s succession from the Indian state on the much controversial night of February 9th, 2015. She also presented evidence on how the Congress party sanctioned school curriculums which had a clear prejudice against the Hindus, leaving our eminent parliamentarians completely speechless. On the next day, she continued her attack on the opposition, presenting evidence that Rohith Vermula was in fact not even a Dalit, confirmed here by the Telengana Police. She asserted that the political elite in the country had reduced him merely to a caste and exposed the irony that it was that very problem of being labelled as caste which drove him to commit suicide, as expressed by himself in his suicide note.

Due to her, it can be said that the BJP has managed to at least put forth a formidable defence against the controversies which have rattled the party in the last couple of months. Never has been the Left hegemony of Indian politics such fiercely challenged.

That being said, the troubles for BJP are far from over. They still do not have a majority in the upper house of parliament and the opposition is bent upon stalling important legislation, no matter what concessions BJP makes. The Prime Minister’s silence on key national controversies doesn’t help their cause either. If he is indeed serious about legislative business being conducted, he needs to shred his hatred for the Delhi media or their political patrons and lead from the front, tackling every issue heads on, just like the way his HRD minister has been doing for the past three days.

Also, the ruling party is clearly in the driving seat after a far-sighted Railway Budget was presented by Suresh Prabhu and a sobering yet optimistic Economic Survey was presented in the parliament by the Finance Minister, Arun Jaitley. If the government capitalizes on the work of the past two years by presenting a strong, innovative yet practical budget, it will silence all its critics and retain its glory, which some say has been fading at the back of declining exports, debt ridden Public Sector Banks and falling stock prices, thus bringing back the focus on investment and growth.

As of Friday(26th Feburary), the BJP has steered itself out of controversy but the real challenge would only be addressed on the 29th, when the Budget is presented in parliament. India is keenly waiting.

 

 

New System of Government in India?

An important discussion on the need for change in the prevailing parliamentary system of government is slowly gaining prominence in India. This is particularly important in the current political discourse, which is witnessing the opposition  continuously blocking important legislation in the upper house, where the ruling BJP lacks majority. Now, it is the responsibility of the media to keep the debate well and alive in the mainstream, because, only a set of reforms in the system of government would usher in the transformative change which they wish to see in the Indian democracy.

The issue was first raised by Jay Panda, an elected MP from Orissa, who got slapped with a breach of privilege notice from prominent members of the upper house, a move which clearly iterated just how insecure they all are about the powers that they possess. Mr. Panda, in his article in a daily newspaper, had called for reforms in the upper house of parliament, which has turned into nothing but a way for nominated, unelected members to assert their political will. He suggested that the Rajya Sabha, must either be a democratically elected body or the powers vested in it must be systematically reduced. In my opinion, the former is a bad idea because a country which is perpetually in election mode, does not need another round of polls to deal with. Moreover, the current members are as it is nominated by state legislatures and given the sheer diversity of the Indian electorate, it is unlikely that a Rajya Sabha election would change the prevailing status quo. Thus, reducing its powers seems like a viable option.

At a book launch on the very topic, Dr. Shashi Tharoor, Lok Sabha MP from Kerala, suggested that India should adopt the presidential system of government, wherein the executive is separate from the legislative branch of government. The most prominent argument given for adopting the presidential system is that of United States, which became a dominant world power with such a system. However, one must realize that United States is a two-party state with both of these two parties, Democrat & Republican, having a sufficient degree of internal democracy, something we can’t say Indian political parties, leaving aside the BJP and the Left Front. Also, it is unlikely that one party would continue to hold majority in the lower house – the BJP does now – given the increasingly different electoral choices of the Indian people and having a weak coalition with a distant executive is nothing but a recipe for disaster. In any case, the ongoing political gridlock in Washington is testament to the fact the presidential form of government faces difficulties similar to the ones faced by India. Thus, in my opinion, the parliamentary system must continue, albeit with a much less powerful upper house. 

Whatever the ultimate decision may be, the underlying issue is that the current system needs fixing and we must rejoice that the discussion has at least begun on the same. However, as often happens in India, important debates usually lose momentum to make way for benign issues which keep dominating the news for no apparent reason. One can only hope that this particular issue finds it way in the prime-time discussions on news channels and someday we might see a consensus being built around the same.

I write this article, knowing that such debates are unlikely to become mainstream in the foreseeable future but, with a sincere hope that someday, the Indian parliament would truly become the ‘Temple of Democracy’ it claims to be.

India-Pakistan Talks Should Continue

Before one begins reading this blog, I would like to clarify that I am no expert on India- Pakistan relations and I write this entry only as a concerned citizen who firmly believes that the relations between the two countries can be far better than they have been in the past.

The last six months has seen tremendous movement with respect to India – Pakistan relations. We have had two terrorist attacks on Indian soil, suspectedly sponsored by the Pakistan military and ISI combined, but surprisingly, that hasn’t triggered a complete abandonment of engagement between the governments of the two countries. Maybe, both parties have come to terms with the fact that the Pakistan Military Establishment operates independently from the government and there is no point cutting ties with each other simply because some lunatic terror groups do not wish that to happen.

Although, the foreign secretary talks were cancelled previously, one saw renewed hope after the two NSA’s met in Thailand and after PM Modi’s spontaneous visit to Pakistan resulted in foreign secretary talks being scheduled again on January’15 2016. But after the recent Pathankhot attack, that too have been “mutually postponed”. One has to notice that both sides have refrained from using any strong rhetoric which would hamper the prospects of future engagement.

If they genuinely mean to only postpone the talks and not abandon it completely, I feel the talks should continue because, as I iterated above, there is no reason to abandon the talks merely because some small minded individuals don’t want the two countries to prosper. Besides, we are witnessing a never seen before embrace by the Pakistan government who have shown a keen interest in continuing the talks and are taking prompt actions against the groups who are suspected in carrying out the Pathankhot attacks. It would be incredibly incompetent of the Indian government to not pounce on this opportunity as fiercely as they can. Also, once the talks resume, we may see a focus on bilateral trade since the same has been a focus on Modi’s foreign policy and that might end up entrenching India’s relationship with Pakistan irrevocably. In conclusion, one can only hope that the initiative PM Modi took by making a surprise visit to Lahore does not end up being unfruitful but in fact helps forge a strong bond which has been long overdue.

The Sorry State of our Union!

One can easily infer that a country is in a bad shape when the opposition in it’s premier legislative body spends more than half of its session blocking government bills by protesting over trivial issues and then passes the same bills without any discussion at all. Well, this is what’s happening in the world’s largest democracy, India. Our beloved politicians have made it clear that they serve their respective political parties and not their country. The future remains uncertain.

The winter session of the Indian parliament commenced with the Modi led NDA government declaring November 26 as constitution day in honour of B.R. Ambedkar, the principal architect of the constitution. The next few days saw the Sonia Gandhi led Congress party brag about their party’s legacy, reminding the BJP that it was the Congress Party who oversaw the drafting of the Constitution and not the RSS, the ideological parent of the BJP. It was an incredibly saddening sight to see the Congress party stoop so low that it can’t even appreciate the Constitution without indulging in partisan politics.

The next third of the parliament’s session was wasted over discussions on unimportant issues like the perceived intolerance levels in the country and the Congress protesting over the Supreme Court’s summons to the Gandhis over the National Herald Case. Amidst all of this, it was the roll out of the ambitious GST regime which suffered along with other legislative business which remained in limbo.

Once the dust settled and efforts undertaken by the chairman of Rajya Sabha, the Congress decided to end the road block and pass six extremely important bills without any discussion at all, making it clear that the MP’s work on the directions of the party high command and not for the benefit of the constituent. Among the bills passed were the Juvenile Justice Bill, Atomic Energy Bill, Commercial Courts Bill, all of which had meaningful national interests underlying them but our parliamentarians did not find it prudent to have a debate on the same.

All the above issues reiterate the redundancy of the upper house of parliament, as contented by Jay Panda, a Lok Sabha member and I think a serious debate needs to commence on whether the Rajya Sabha should continue in its present form or not.
Conclusively, I think it can be ascertained that the political dynamics of this country is changing and some people aren’t rather happy about that who would constantly try to throw tantrums as and when they can. However, the Modi government should not pay attention to these morons and fearlessly continue with the development agenda. Lastly, I think it’s high time the Indian youth immerse themselves into politics and start speaking up about the injustices in society. Only then will the politicians listen.