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!

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.

 

 

JNU ROW: An Exemplar of an India Divided under MODI

During the campaign phase of the 2014 Lok Sabha Polls, which resulted in a historic mandate to Narendra Modi, many of his critics worried that, as Prime Minister, he would irrevocably polarize the country, on the same lines as he did in Gujarat. Two years hence, their predictions have come true, albeit partially. While the relations between Hindus and Muslims remain as sensitive as ever–they haven’t worsened as the critics predicted–, it is the distance between the Nationalist Right and the Intellectual Left which has constantly widened ever since he was elected to office. Nowhere has this been more exposed than in the events of the preceding week on the campus of Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.

A few days back, a group of student activists organised an event to protest against the “judicial hanging” of Afzhal Guru, who was convicted and later hanged by the Supreme Court over his role in the attacks on the Indian Parliament which took place in 2001. After the event, videos emerged which showed some protesters calling out for India’s destruction during the rally. One might think this was just a benign attempt by an over-excited 20 year old to provoke university officials, but, over the last three days, the JNU Campus has turned into nothing short of a Stalingrad between the right-wing BJP government at the center and everybody in the opposition, alongside the Left leaning intellectuals in the university as well as in the media.

ABVP, the student wing of the BJP, termed the protesters as ‘anti-national’ for celebrating a convicted terrorist,  while the protesters claim that the event was just another manifestation of the ‘anti-establishment’ culture, quite mainstream on the JNU campus.

The conflict really intensified when the JNU Students Union President, Kanhaiya Kumar, who organised the protest was arrested and charged with sedition by the Delhi Police. The scuffle at the Patiala House Court, where the accused JNUSU President was to be produced, led to an all-out fight between the Left-Wing and the Right-Wing fractions of our political system. The Left asserts that the Modi government is trying to micro-manage the central universities by stifling dissent, while the Right claims that those raising ‘seditious’ slogans in the name of dissent would not be spared. It is hard not to draw parallels between JNU and the case of Rohith Vemula, a Dalit scholar at the University of Hyderabad who committed suicide after the University suspended him, allegedly due to the pressure of the Union governement, for condemning the execution of Yakub Memon, another convicted terrorist, or with that of FTII Pune, where the Union Government is accused of appointing a director with, shall we say, questionable credentials.

While the center had to lose face in the case of Rohith or FTII but the JNU row has managed to polarize the country like never before. Now, we have one side avowedly supporting Modi and all his policies, but at the same time, we have the other side who are ready to cross any possible line to defame his government. It is clear that, as we progress forward, one would most likely be forced to pick a side. It is up to every individual to decide which side he/she wants to defend.

As far as I am concerned, I find myself leaning to the right.To be clear, I am no bigoted patriot and an extremely strong proponent of unrestricted freedom of speech, but, if reports are to be trusted, even I find it hard to defend the provocations by some of students present at the JNU event. What happened at the Patiala House Court was appalling, without a doubt, but playing the ‘victim card’ after provoking the state to take action has been a marked characteristic of the Left Circuit in India. The truth remains that the reason university conflicts dominate the news is because the opposition does not miss to seize any opportunity to divert attention from the policies undertaken by the Modi government. What they really should be worried about, is the drop in agricultural productivity after two consecutive bad monsoons or the eminent banking crisis in the Public Sector Banks or the decline in exports after the fall in oil prices. But that seems to be the least of their concerns. All they are trying to do is find an excuse to further stall the parliament in the next session. Although I am no psephologist, but one can easily conclude that the 2019 Elections are not going to be won on an ‘Anti-BJP’ campaign or a ‘Free Speech’ campaign and definitely not on an ‘Anti-National’campaign. This would prove to be grave miscalculation on the part of Rahul Gandhi or Sitaram Yechury.

I know that as soon as one reads the above paragraph, I would be dismissed as a ‘bhakt’ or a ‘sanghi’. And there lies the problem with India. Anyone criticizing Modi is deemed ‘anti-India’ by the right and anyone supporting Modi is deemed ‘pro-RSS’ by the left.

It is clear that the age of discussion is over and the age of confrontation has begun. My advice? Well, sit back and enjoy.

 

 

 

 

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.

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.

Juvenile Justice Bill 2015 is a Much Requited Piece of Legislation

With the release of the juvenile convict in the Nirbhaya Case and the Juvenile Justice Bill 2015 being stalled in the Rajya Sabha, the debate on whether juveniles between 16-18 years of age shall be treated as adults in case of heinous offences has never been as fierce as it is now.

The 2015 bill would replace the Juvenile Justice Act 2000 and it seeks to permit juveniles between the ages of 16 – 18 to be tried as adults for heinous offences, resembling the infamous December 16 incident in New Delhi which shocked the entire nation. Although, the new bill is a massively populist move which panders to feminists and women’s rights activists in general, but it also aims to provide a legislative solution to an increasing epidemic in India, that of heinous crimes committed by juveniles. In the last decade alone, rapes and murders committed by juveniles have more than quadrupled and a comprehensive mechanism is urgently needed to deal with such situations which attempts to grant appropriate punishment to the convict but at the same time, upholds the sensitivity that is required while dealing with juveniles.

The current Act, last amended in 2000, does not allow juveniles to be tries as adults in case of heinous offences and is essentially considered the reason why the Nirbhaya convict was released by the criminal authorities. The above provision would be replaced under the new Act, which would also require Juvenile Justice Boards (JJB) and Child Welfare Committees (CWC) to be constituted in each district. The JJB would conduct a preliminary enquiry whether the juvenile offender is to be sent to rehabilitation or be tried as an adult. At the same time, CWC’s would determine institutional care for children in need of protection.

In my opinion, it is high time that we start holding juveniles accountable for their actions. It is a disgrace that someone convicted for a crime as horrendous as the Nirbhaya incident can walk out of jail simply because he was a minor when the crime was committed. The critics of the bill say that lowering the juvenile age would not act as a deterrent for crimes for juveniles committing heinous crimes. While they may be right in contending that, they must be told that no person shall be eligible to get a free pass from jail merely because of their age. Moreover, the JJB and CWC would ensure that the convicted juvenile gets as much counselling as possible which may ultimately help him in mending his ways. At the same time, it is desirable that the Women and Child Development Industry ties up with local NGO’s to conduct regular workshops in ghettos and other backward areas around the country to sensitize young men about women security; the same may help in building a mechanism that brings down the crimes committed by juveniles.

That being said, I think the Juvenile Justice Bill 2015 is an important piece of legislation which would, if nothing else, keep the accused where they are meant to be, that is in jail. After the release of the Nirbhaya Convict and the winter session of the upper house coming to a close, there is an urgency being displayed by legislators and activists alike with respect to the passage of the bill in parliament and one can only hope that sanity would prevail.