Even before Narendra Modi’s personality added a new dimension to the question, many have viewed the BJP’s attitude towards institutions of parliamentary democracy with suspicion

“Trust in institutions is going down” and “audiences want to connect with personalities,” was what Pierre Omidyar, e-bay founder and one of the reigning deities of the digital world that we have come to occupy, said when he decided to fund Glen Greenwald’s journalism venture last year after the latter shook the world with his exposés on the global surveillance regime run by the United States and the United Kingdom. The world over, in fields ranging from politics to business and sports to media, the emphasis on personalities as a substitute for institutions is an evident trend, even as governments, and bodies ranging from the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) to Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to the United Nations are facing serious questions of credibility and relevance. Strong personalities can strengthen institutions that they represent, but whether they can be a replacement for institutions is a question that comes up occasionally. The emergence of Narendra Modi as a strong Prime Minister, who won the election on the slogan ‘Is baar Modi Sarkar’ (it’s a Modi government this time) brings this question to the fore once again.

Toning down the narrative

Though Mr. Modi’s campaign was highly personality centric, towards its last leg and in speeches after winning the election, he seemed particularly conscious of the need to whittle down that narrative. Mr. Modi made a series of pronouncements that appeared to deny himself the supremacy that he claimed only weeks earlier. At the first Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) parliamentary party meeting, where he broke down, Mr. Modi said he owed everything to the party and protested L.K. Advani’s reference that he was “being kind to the party.” Before he walked into Parliament house, he said it was the “temple of democracy”; later, in his first speech in Parliament, he said he valued the role of the Opposition and went to the extent of saying, “without your support, my mandate is incomplete.”

He has repeatedly declared that he is not above criticism and even exhorted the media to keep an eagle eye on his actions. Mr. Modi also appeared keen to dispel the notion that he centralised authority. In several interviews he has emphasised the point that as Gujarat’s Chief Minister, he had little day-to-day work as “all works were delegated,” and “systems and processes have been in put in place.”

Mr. Modi’s apparent inclination to tone down the personality cult that surrounds him, in favour of institutional solutions has led to various responses over the recent weeks. Some have said it is Modi version 2.0; some others have said Mr. Modi has always been like this — switching over from “campaign mode” immediately after elections to “governance mode.” Another group has warned him against the temptation to follow in Mr. Vajpayee’s footsteps to seek the middle path, and advised him to stay his course of being the great disrupter. The real situation that Mr. Modi holds out to the nation is a bit more complex than any of these views.

Even before Mr. Modi’s personality added a new dimension to the question, many have viewed the BJP’s attitude toward institutions of parliamentary democracy with suspicion. The BJP manifesto of 2009 said: “Leaders like Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Sri Aurobindo, Mahatma Gandhi and others who spearheaded the freedom movement … had a vision to reconstruct the political and economic institutions of India as a continuum of the civilisational consciousness which made India one country, one people and one nation. It is unfortunate that the leaders of independent India quickly discarded this vision and continued to work with the institutional structures created by the British ….” The party did not say this in its 2014 manifesto, but it is unclear whether the BJP has formally given up its opposition to “foreign” institutions as it reinvents itself as a globalising political force.

The institution of Prime Minister

Mr. Modi’s emergence takes place against the backdrop of the awful weakening of the institution of the Prime Minister. His predecessor ran a government in which ministers ran their own environment and telecom policy. The weakening of the institution of the Prime Minister used to be a recurring — and valid — critique in many speeches of the then Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha and now senior Minister, Arun Jaitley. It is a different matter that the BJP also found ingenious ways of undermining the institution — such as Mr. Modi making a speech in 2013, parallel to the Prime Minister’s customary Independence Day address to the nation from Red Fort.

Therefore, the case of re-establishing prime ministerial authority cannot be overstated and Mr. Modi has made a good beginning. In a stern message to his ministerial colleagues, he has barred them from handpicking private secretaries as they please. Personal staff and ministers often form a cabal that ruins norms of good governance by extending networks based on caste, linguistic or financially vested interests across various arms of the government and striking at the root of this rot has been a long overdue reform. The dubious role played by some private secretaries of ministers in the sensational scams of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) regime is still fresh. But this cannot and must not be an excuse for undermining another institution, that is the Council of Ministers.

As it stands today, there is little scope for any genuine discussion or multiplicity of opinions in the council, as Mr. Modi lords it over them. Will he allow them to grow as leaders and decision-makers in their own right? In his pursuit of establishing the authority of the institution of the Prime Minister, is he mindful of the authority of the Council of Ministers that the Constitution says is “collectively responsible to the house of the people?”

The judiciary and media

The Modi government has pushed back on the autonomy of another crucial institution, the judiciary, by rejecting one name it recommended for appointment as a Supreme Court judge. The merits of the recommendation and the rejection apart — indeed there is an ongoing debate on the desirability of judges appointing themselves — the government’s refusal to accept the Supreme Court collegium’s unanimous recommendation does not bode well for the institutional prestige of the judiciary. Available indications are that the judiciary is likely to cede to the government’s line rather than assert itself.

In his dealings with his own party, the BJP, Mr. Modi has already made it clear who the boss is. In a meeting of party office-bearers recently, called for at the Prime Minister’s residence, he has listed out the dos and don’ts with a firm message that their interactions with the media must be restricted.

Indications are that this government’s engagement with the media is going to be limited. There is no disputing the fact that practices such as privileged access in exchange for motivated coverage and journalists doubling up as political and corporate dealmakers have thoroughly corrupted the terms of engagement between the media and the government. But is that good enough reason for the government to make communication a one-sided affair in which announcements will come on the website, with no scope for questioning or explaining?

The authority of some other institutions such as the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) and the future Lok Pal is going to be weakened for another reason. As there is no designated Leader of the Opposition, the decisions on appointments to these bodies will be taken without the Opposition playing any role.

The checks and balances offered by institutions working within the constitutional scheme is the bedrock of democracy. The Council of Ministers is collectively accountable to Parliament; then there is the judiciary and other autonomous bodies such as the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), the CVC, and outside government, there are political parties, the media and civil society organisations.

The concept of checks and balances has become dysfunctional in recent years due to the aggressive overreach of some institutions and the corresponding caving in of some others, depending on personalities at the helm. While the authority and majesty of the office of the Prime Minister has to be asserted, and in fact, reclaimed from usurpers such as the CAG, the autonomy and prestige of other institutions must not be diminished in the process.


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