The fragmentation of political power is key to institutional autonomy | Analysis

Over the past few years, we have seen a wholesale capitulation of our institutions. Democracy requires institutions to enquire into and produce truth, mediate, uphold the rule of law, and protect citizens from the State’s excesses. The diminishing of institutions must be resisted.

Democracies are premised on the separation of powers and a system of checks and balances. However, this works well only when political power is factionalised. In a democracy, political power is derived from organised public opinion. The State’s executive power is acquired by winning elections. Institutions work when political power and executive power are distributed among competing factions. At some threshold of consolidation of political and executive power, institutions start collapsing. It would be wrong to see this as a result of individual failings, and examine systemic factors.

First, a large part of institutional power is essentially delegated power because the executive controls most institutional appointments such as the election commissioners and heads of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and Reserve Bank of India (RBI). Even in the selection of the Central Vigilance Commissioner (CVC), where the appointment committee includes the leader of Opposition, the executive has a majority and appointments do not require a consensus. In such bodies or agencies, institutional capture is a real danger, especially if executive power is not transferred periodically between opposing factions. The executive can also make it difficult for independent-minded individuals to function to a point that they may wish to exit on their own.

Second, even where institutional design insulates the appointment process from the executive to a large degree, such as the judiciary, the executive has considerable official and unofficial coercive power. Dissent can be neutralised through inducement, marginalisation, intimidation, harassment, propaganda, transfers, even incarceration. A determined State only needs a pretext.

Third, institutions derive authority from normative legitimacy. Over the years, this normative legitimacy has been undermined due to various factors, including the (perception of) fallibility and venality.

Moreover, most institutions are dependent on the coercive power of the executive for the implementation of their orders. This requires the executive to voluntarily accept the authority of other institutions and imposes an automatic horizon of acceptable opposition on institutions when facing down the executive. It is evident that while democracy needs institutions to function, this happens within a context. When the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) 2 government was thought to be on its last legs, institutions acquired a radical oppositional streak, driven not by any streak of independence but by political calculation. Similarly, executive overreach and countervailing institutional pusillanimity is greater in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s second term with consolidation of political power and its willingness to bypass normative thresholds to further consolidate power. This underscores how much our democratic systems rely on the strongest player in the game to voluntarily abide by the rules (Nehru did).

This moment is an inflexion point. Institutions may always have been fallible but when political power is distributed, this fallibility is ad hoc to defuse specific issues or capricious in response to competing levers of power. Such institutional fallibility does not impede democratic contestation. The institutional capitulation of today is designed to consolidate political power and dismantle the constraints on State power which make it possible to contest it. Speaking up without organising is no longer enough because we are no longer working within the framework and logic of liberal democracy where the State is responsive to principled criticism and institutions act as countervailing power to the State.

But India is still a democracy. Contrary to common rhetoric, democracy is not a binary construct but operates on a continuum. Important checks and balances have been lost but political and electoral contestation remains open. This underscores the importance and urgency of the political process at this point in Indian democracy and the need to go beyond outrage in an echo chamber.

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