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Saturday, June 22, 2002

The events of the past one month in Maharashtra hold a mirror to the crisis in our democratic polity.  Once again, the nation witnessed buying and selling of legislators, party hopping, back room deals, political instability, holding MLAs captive in tourist resorts in other states, a vote of confidence, and the usual scramble for loaves of office in the impending cabinet expansion.  This has been seen in several states all over the country over the years.  Now this culture of ayarams and gayarams has inflicted a grievous blow to India’s most prosperous state.  Quick, if questionable, disqualification of defecting legislators even before they voted against the ruling combine on the floor of the house saved the day for the government.From time to time we are rudely awakened to face the ugly realities of our politics of pelf and self-aggrandizement devoid of all principles and public good.  We all suitably express our distaste for the low standards of public life, and get on with our lives once the visible crisis passes.  What we fail to understand is the deep and continuing crisis in our political process, reducing our democracy to shambles.  A legislator is elected in our country not as a law maker and custodian of public interest.   A legislator is essentially a disguised executive, and his primary objective is to exercise unaccountable power.  He is often the uncrowned king of the constituency.  Politics has become big business.   A lot of money, often a crore of rupees, is spent by a leading candidate for election as MLA.  Once elected, the MLA decides everything that matters – transfers, postings, promotions, contracts, tenders, licenses, public projects and police cases.  Robert Wade graphically documented this intricate web of corruption and abuse of office mediated largely through transfers and placements in states.  While influence and power flow in one direction, money flows in the opposite direction.  All functionaries in the state machinery are willing or passive players in this vicious cycle of dangerously stable equilibrium.The administration has to do the MLA’s bidding, or else there will be dissidence, rebellion and defection leading to the fall of government.  Candidates spend exorbitant sums because they get multiple returns.  Such returns are possible as they are the de facto and unaccountable executives.  The government has to satisfy legislators because its survival depends on their good will.  Given the conditions of our society, there is always this unspoken compact between the government and the legislators in a system in which the executive is drawn from the legislature, and survives only as long as it  enjoys legislative majority.  Honesty and political survival  are thus no longer compatible under these circumstances.  Our politicians are not crooked by nature. They are compelled to venality and corruption in order to acquire power and survive in office. The price paid by society to sustain governments is horrendous.  Rule of law, justice, competent governance, integrity, fairness, economic growth – all are causalities.  What we have in the process is change of players, but the rules of the game remain unchanged.  No matter which party is elected to office, the people end up being losers.   Therefore voters look for the short-term gains and either sell their vote or are swayed by emotion and divisive impulses.In this system, the state government, legislators and senior officials - all want centralization, discretion and patronage.  That is the reason why the corrupt, centralized, automatic system of governance is very resilient.We need to take a hard look at our system of drawing executive from legislature.  A clear separation of powers between legislature and executive with sufficient checks and balances to prevent abuse of office alone will break this vicious cycle of money power, corruption and survival of governments.  We need to elect the head of the government directly, and he should be free to choose his cabinet from outside legislature.  Such a government will have fixed term of office, and will have to carry the legislature with it in order to get laws passed.  Its powers are actually more limited as the legislature will zealously guard its independence.  Now the legislature is least interested in making laws, and whatever the government wants is enacted, as long as it enjoys majority support in legislature.Yet, many people harbour legitimate fears of authoritarianism at the national level if a single individuals is seen as the fountain of all executive power.  In reality, a directly elected president is much less powerful than a prime minister enjoying a comfortable majority.  However, these fears of bonapartism cannot be dismissed lightly.  Therefore it would be best if we continued with the parliamentary executive as the national level.  But there cannot be any fear of authoritarianism of the directly elected executive at the state level.  The Union government, Supreme Court, Election Commission and other constitutional authorities are more than adequate to check executive tyranny in states.For too long we persisted with the disguised executive model in states based on the Westminster system.  Governance has been a causality, and the nation paid a heavy price as a result. It is time we woke up from our deep slumber and redesigned our democracy to ensure integrity, stability, competence and good governance through separation of powers.

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