The parliamentarians who spoke out on Thursday against judicial excess, and the courts’ tendency to overstep their proper Constitutional terrain, must ask themselves how much of the blame for this situation lies with themselves.
Few thinking people will disagree with an assertion that the courts have taken to passing executive orders; the question is why the courts are able to get away with it.
The answer is that the public is with the courts and not with the government, because people in general can see that the executive is failing to deliver and that the courts are trying hard to make politicians and bureaucrats do their job. But if you looked for real awareness of this in parliament debates, you would look in vain.
Of a piece with this lack of self-awareness is the speech given recently by Sonia Gandhi, in which she rightly scoffed at some of the talk of India becoming a superpower of some sort, but then went on to advise businessmen on their social responsibility.
Now, Milton Friedman, if he were still alive, might have had something to say on this recurring theme in politicians’ speeches; my limited point is that such advice to businessmen to step outside of their core function would have been better received if the head of India’s largest political party had admitted that politicians and governments have failed in what is primarily their area of responsibility. The appropriate tone therefore would have been, not to preach from the high ground, but to ask for help in solving problems of common concern.
There is a deeper problem here. An important systemic challenge confronting India is the growing disconnect between its economics and politics. The economy gets more productive and more prosperous, its markets get more efficient and the players get better at what they do; but in politics and in the government, much of the movement is steeply downhill - to the point where expectations with regard to both individual conduct and systemic delivery have hit rock bottom.
More noteworthy than the conviction of Shibu Soren on a murder rap last week was the lack of surprise that a Cabinet minister should have been up to such shenanigans. After all, the connection between politicians and criminal elements, and indeed the fusing of these identities in many cases, has been widely and repeatedly reported for years. So why would anyone be surprised by murder?
Nor would it have escaped notice that the Cabinet’s decision to ignore both judicial pronouncements as well as the recommendations of the standing committee, and to go ahead with reserving educational seats for the “other backward classes” without de-barring the “creamy layer” among the OBCs, is a decision that helps precisely the politicians who constitute that creamy layer. This is transparently a game of self-help in the name of empowerment.
Or take India’s cities. With growing urbanisation, more votes now lie in the cities than before. In Maharashtra, for instance, some 30 per cent of the legislative seats are from urban areas. The majority of votes is still in the villages, but if you alienate the city vote, a party is unlikely to win a state majority. Financial allocations have begun to recognise this—there is greater stress now on providing money for what is a hopelessly overstretched urban infrastructure.
But no one is addressing the need for proper city governments, and for an effective local voice. An infrastructure project in Mumbai needs clearance from no fewer than 13 state government departments, many of them presided over by ministers from rural constituencies who do not understand the urgency of having a properly functioning metropolis. How then can despairing Mumbai-ites find solutions to their many problems? Delhi didn’t, till the courts stepped in. Do they now have to do the same thing in Mumbai?
These are disparate examples, deliberately chosen so as to make the point that this is not a uni-dimensional problem; it manifests itself in myriad ways. And solutions are possible only if those in the political establishment stop pointing the finger at others and publicly admit their own problems and failures, as a starting point in the search for correctives.
TN Ninan is the editor and publisher of Business Standard, one of India’s leading business newspapers. An award-winning journalist and a member of various boards and professional bodies, he is a familiar figure on Indian national television as a commentator on economic issues. His weekly column, devoted to analysis of the Indian economy and business environment, now appears on FT.com every Tuesday. Visit the Business Standard website at http://www.business-standard.com
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