Integrated development, politics and social empowerment in India and beyond

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Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

Centralisation in a highly diverse society in multiple stages of economic and social development can be authoritarian and strain the democratic dharma. Meaningful participation is essential to carry forward governance through the broad consensus required at all times

Better Governance Not New System

Parliamentary style or Presidential, it is not the system but the manner in which it is administered that counts.

By B G Verghese

Deccan Herald, 18 December, 2011

The debate triggered by Shashi Tharoor’s suggestion that the present parliamentary system of government has run its course and that it is time to consider switching to the presidential system is not new. The idea has been mooted more than once earlier and has always been wisely rejected. Frustration with the impasse created in the working of Parliament and decision making from time to time, as at the present juncture, is understandable but unwarranted on merits. As it is, we have sometimes been troubled by the presidential style of some of our prime ministers in a federal polity.

The future thrust has to be towards greater decentralisation, going down to the level of the panchayat and municipal government, with appropriate coordination mechanisms to ensure harmonious functioning both laterally and vertically. Centralisation in a highly diverse society in multiple stages of economic and social development can be authoritarian and strain the democratic dharma. Meaningful participation is essential to carry forward governance through the broad consensus required at all times. It is particularly necessary in an era of coalition politics.

It was the poet, Alexander Pope who wrote, “For forms of government let fools contest; Whatever is best administered is best”. It is not the system but the manner in which it is administered that matters. A badly administered presidential system is unlikely to work any better, apart from its inherent demerits for a country like India. Our Parliament has malfunctioned because MPs and parties are sometimes more interested in playing politics than in good governance and the national interest, howsoever perceived. Poor governance and drift by the Government has also contributed to a sense of destructive anger. Neither is a product of the system per se.

Healthy elements of a presidential system that could provide stability and competence could be incorporated in the parliamentary system by mandating that a vote of no confidence in the government of the day shall be accompanied by a constructive vote of confidence in any other member of the House. A partial list system that allows a certain (small) percentage of total party members to be selected by proportional representation could also draw in the specialised talent required to run a modern, complex, technologically driven government. Both these practices are followed in Germany.

It is well established that one of the major engines of corruption and mal-governance is election funding, which generates and is greased by black money and, with muscle-power, has criminalised politics. Registration of political parties by law, based on a constitutional amendment, would also help clean up politics and make political parties genuinely democratic and subject to financial accountability. However, the very discussion of political reform seems taboo!

Corruption is both a cause and consequence of poor governance and must be attacked from both ends. But the disease is surely more important than the symptoms and is therefore reason to look beyond the Lok Pal Bill to put things right. Reforms are necessary not merely in the Vigilance, CBI and judicial structures but, specially, in the police whose independence must be ensured through mechanisms spelt out by various commissions and committees. Protracted administrative processes with several and, often, parallel filters and the new practice of handing decision-making to ad hoc Groups of Ministers, unlike the permanent committees of the cabinet, tend to blur accountability and collective cabinet responsibility. There has been more than one administrative reforms commission whose findings have languished, much like those of the Law Commission and similar bodies. The Adhaar (UID) programme offers promise of better governance but is now a target of attack.

All parties and Parliament are responsible for taking their eye off the ball and perpetuating business as usual. Anna seems unable to see things in the round and has been parroting his my-JPL-or-nothing mantra with threats of fasting, gheraos and jail bharo agitations if his deadlines are not met. The irresponsible slogans of Team Anna too, such as demanding panchayat and street legislation to be endorsed by Parliament, are nothing but a call to violence and anarchy. The man has been given a very long rope and cannot hold the country to ransom. Government and Parliament must be given reasonable time to formulate and adopt a broadly consensual Lok Pal Bill and related legislation.

The economy is slipping into recession and the rupee was in free fall. Food prices are down but bold decisions on reform and reviving production and investor confidence are required to turn things around. The Prime Minister needs to broadcast to the nation to reset a purposeful national agenda and improve the government’s appalling public communications so that people are made aware of what is going on instead of having to depend on motivated leaks and “breaking news”. All institutional spokespersons have been sidelined in favour of Congress Party and ministerial voices seeking to counter Opposition charges and daily innuendo, mostly in TV panels. This makes for poor reactive rather than proactive public relations. There is simply no public information philosophy or policy so vital in this information age.

Meanwhile, in J&K a suggestion by Farooq Abdullah that cinemas and bars, earlier banned by jihadis, be reopened has aroused separatists to fury on the ground that it offends Islamic sentiment and will promote immorality. The Mir Waiz and the Jamaat leader, Geelani, have both called for a “religious decree” against the former chief minister. This nonsense must be rejected out of hand as J&K is not under Taliban rule.

As mystifying is the resurrection by the J&K Human Rights Commission of an old red herring - the alleged brutal mass rape of a large number of Kunnan Poshpora women in Kupwara district by an Army detachment from Trehgam on a cordon and search operation in February 1991. The current complaint is that the case was prematurely closed by the authorities. A committee of the Press Council, including this writer, investigated this and certain other incidents on a reference by Army Headquarters and found the Kunnan Poshpora case to be without foundation after visiting Kunnan, Trehgam and Kupwara and meeting everybody involved on all sides – the affected families, the villagers, the police, the Kupwara hospital, the district authorities, the Army, the Divisional Commissioner, senior government officials, politicians and the media. Absolutely nothing said by the “prosecution” tallied with the facts on the ground. A subsequent video film reconstructing the tales of the alleged victims, made and circulated for propaganda purposes, misfired and only served to show up the hollowness of the rape charge. No positive evidence other than say-so was led by any of those espousing the Kunnan Poshpora “atrocity”. Hearsay, fear and militant-politics prevailed over hard facts.

Now that the Kunnan Poshpora incident has been revived, the State HRC will hopefully conduct a proper investigation rather than run a kangaroo court under militant pressure, which has time and again resulted in the issue in question, hysterically argued, petering out when the weight of evidence turns against those making the charges.

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