The Indian public want anti-rape laws and far-reaching economic reform to be implemented. And corruption - which is a serious dysfunction of the rule of law - must be checked. The big question is whether Rahul Gandhi’s strategy of creating Congress youth brigades and keeping the balance between old and new faces on party committees will create responsive and accountable governance in India.
Governance is about the institutions and procedures through which political and administrative decisions are taken and implemented. The anti-rape and anti-corruption protests have shown that the government responds to popular opinion only when public patience has been stretched to the limit. In their different ways both show the rule of law is not working properly. So questions about accountable governance arise.
The failure to deliver basic services is evident at both the national and local Delhi state levels. Delhi, India’s showpiece capital, is governed by five authorities, including the centre, which has responsibility for law and order. That is one reason why the belated reactions of Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi to anti-rape protests appeared to the public as cases of delayed opportunism. At another level, Delhi’s five authorities cannot supply Delhi’s hapless citizens with an essential like clean drinking water – even in better off areas.
The slow response to urgent public concerns was also evident in 2010 - during the 2G Spectrum and Commonwealth games scams. A. Raja, the minister who may have robbed India’s treasury of Rs. 176,645 crore (US $33 billion), and Suresh Kalmadi were sacked from the cabinet and Commonwealth games committee respectively– but only after strong and prolonged public outcry.
The cavalier attitude of the Congress towards corruption was demonstrated again when Raja and Kalmadi were nominated to parliamentary committees in October 2012. This looks like official contempt for public opinion; it appears that corruption is not taken seriously by the government and Congress party, who reward those who have been found guilty of illegal acts.
Questions of accountability and responsibility for delivery raise the vital questions: Who is in charge of law and order, or cracking down on corruption?First, it is unclear who steers the Congress-led government. Congress spokesmen like P.C Chacko boast that ‘the party takes the decisions which the government implements’ and that Sonia Gandhi ‘gives directions to the government.’ Neither Manmohan Singh nor Sonia Gandhi has denied this assertion. Their silence has left the public confused. The prime minister derives his authority from the constitution and represents all Indians, regardless of political leanings. He is the constitutional headof the cabinet and is accountable to parliament on its behalf. Political parties and their presidents represent only their supporters. Since the Congress is the main ruling party, the statement that Sonia orders the government raises awkward questions and results in a muddle about who is accountable for what, thus creating a crisis of political and institutional credibility.
This confusion must be sorted out if governance is to be made more credible.
That in turn raises the question why the Congress cannot hold an open leadership contest, as is the norm in mature democracies – which India should be after 65 years of independence. Young Indians want to live in a meritocracy. Rahul Gandhi is surely aware that his nomination as Congress Vice-President by dint of his family connection is out of sync with popular aspirations.
On another plane, the vitality of a national political party depends on strong grassroots organisation and vibrant inner-party democracy. How many Indians under the age of - say 40 - know that membership of the Congress party of Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi could be gained by paying the princely sum of four annas ( 25 paise)? This four-anna Congress became the largest independence movement in world history and led India to freedom from the mighty British Raj.
Moreover, the broad all-India post-independence appeal of Nehru’s Congress rested in part on the inclusion of strong regional leaders with grass-roots bases. Nehru’s internally democratic Congress won public support despite poor communications and the absence of Information Technology (which Rahul, unable to lead the Congress to electoral success in key regions including UP and Gujarat in 2012, wants to use on a larger scale). Since Indira Gandhi’s time, the Congress leadership has prevented powerful regional leaders from surfacing. That explains why the Congress lost major state elections last year, and the fact that it today singlehandedly rules only a fraction of states. It is hardly the pan-India party Sonia Gandhi claims it to be.
The Congress must put its own house in order – fast – if it is to persuade voters that it is capable of tackling the related crises of poor governance and the weak rule of law. By 2014, voters will rightly want to know what its long term political, social and economic vision is, and also how that vision will be implemented through institutions of governance. India’s citizens, their democracy – and their world standing - demand and deserve an answer. Can the Congress deliver a convincing response?
The writer has published widely on international democracy and security issues and is Visiting Professor at the Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution.