When institutions rule, citizens enjoy protections, irrespective of the party or individuals in power

India is in the midst of a high voltage election, which commentators and politicians alike have described as the battle for the idea of India. And yet, there is nothing remarkable about the face-off between the ideas of secularism and Hindu nationalism. Ideological polarisation is a staple of most democracies across the world. Still, we continue to witness fear and concern at the prospect of Narendra Modi becoming the next Prime Minister.

The fact that this fear persists, in spite of India’s proud record of holding regular elections, reveals something deeply disturbing about the Indian state; a state that is governed, first and foremost, by a Constitution. Built into that Constitution are checks and balances and they are backed by an independent judiciary, the president, the opposition, a free press, and civil society. Meanwhile, public institutions like the civil services and the armed forces have their own institutional norms and gatekeepers tasked with the responsibility of protecting these institutions from political pressure. If we think Mr. Modi will be able to ride roughshod over these institutions and bend them according to his whims, then something very significant has gone wrong already.

The shadow of the past

It is still in the public’s collective memory that India’s institutions were trampled over by the will of a few powerful individuals during the Emergency period of 1975 to 1977. Some fear that if it could have happened once, it could happen again. But it should not, not if a proper inquiry is conducted and policy recommendations are implemented.

In the case of the Emergency, the inquiry was conducted by the Shah Commission, which found that former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and a list of individuals, whose careers seemingly did not suffer after the Commission’s publication, subverted both the Maintenance of Internal Security Act and the Defence of India Act in order to damage political opponents. It also found that numerous officers from the Indian Administrative Service accepted orders from above even though they believed these orders were made on improper political motives. Still, the Shah Commission report was, by most accounts, stillborn, and very little was done after the Emergency to ensure that India’s institutions prevail, regardless of the leadership.

The pogroms against Sikhs in Delhi in 1984 and against Muslims in Gujarat in 2002 also remain in the public’s collective memory, reminding us that similar incidents could happen again. The police and civil bureaucracy could look the other way as citizens are butchered for days before the Army is called out to put a halt to the violence.

Our vulnerable institutions

If institutions like the intelligence services (currently without legislative oversight), the police, civil bureaucracy, and the courts are protected from capture, citizens know that they can turn to them when a governing party transgresses their rights. In other words, when institutions rule, citizens enjoy protections, irrespective of the party or individuals in power. India rightfully takes pride in her longstanding record of peaceful transfer of power after every election. But this transfer should also be free of fear for all her citizens.

So why has so little been done in response to the Shah Commission and similar reports? The answer may lie in the fact that elections are often viewed as the means to institutional capture in India. It is understood that the party in government can bend institutional rules to fulfil its agenda. This is partly a design problem, with some of the public institutions not enjoying the kind of autonomy that would protect them from the ideological changes that often accompany electoral swings in democratic countries. But it is also an erosion problem whereby normal institutional behaviour has gradually been subverted to meet political objectives. Today, if the worry is indeed that India’s critical institutions do not have the strength to withstand an ideological assault on their norms, then Mr. Modi is just a symptom of a much larger problem: weak institutional design in need of fire-walling from political pressures. Moreover, the blame for undermining the autonomy of these institutions and the failure to bolster their design is shared by all major political parties.

Even as some worry that a coalition government led by Mr. Modi will threaten the idea of India, we must remember that India’s state institutions are the premier embodiment of this idea, and therefore, we must ask why that idea is so defenceless in the first place.

(Amit Ahuja is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Susan L. Ostermann is a doctoral candidate at the department of Political Science at University of California, Berkeley.)

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