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Battering ram

Battering ram

Author: Pratap Bhanu Mehta
Publication: The Indian Express
Date: April 29, 2009
URL: http://www.indianexpress.com/news/battering-ram/452416/0

Introduction: Congress's propensity for institution-wrecking might cost it this election

There is much analysis of why the Congress is struggling, despite ostensibly favourable circumstances. Many explanations are familiar and spot on: the organisational revival is still uneven; its ability to adapt to local conditions remains spotty. There is also a deep problem with its message. Watching Rahul Gandhi's speeches gives you a couple of clues. There is a constant refrain on the theme "hamne apke liye yeh kiya...", almost like a throwback to the '70s. It fundamentally misunderstands how India has transformed. Voters, including the poorest of the poor, find this kind of language patronising. The real revolution that has come about because of the social churning over the last two decades is that voters are looking for instruments of empowerment, not palliative handouts from the state. The Congress still has not found a language to articulate this. While the focus on the poor is sincere, the critique of India Shining plausible, there is no politics of aspiration associated with the Congress's message. In their own limited ways, various regional parties appeal to a sense of vicarious pride, Mayawati's articulates a dream of Dalit empowerment and visibility. Successful messaging is not about a claim to noblesse oblige, not only about attacking opponents with outdated issues. It is as much about being a source of hope; looking at people in the eye and instigating dreams. But somehow, hope gets dissipated in the fog of Centrally-sponsored palliative welfarism that is the core of the Congress message.

But another explanation is that the Congress carries unsavoury baggage: its capacity to wreck institutions. The Congress lost credibility because Indira Gandhi went about destroying institutions, from the judiciary to her own party. As the recent reports in this paper of the government's interference with the CBI suggest, this propensity has not gone away. Not just the CBI, but the authority and credibility of independent constitutional offices have been consistently undermined. The quality and partisan conduct of some of the governors appointed under the UPA did not reflect well on the office. The appointment of Navin Chawla to the Election Commission did not do much for the credibility of that institution.

Having closely watched two terrible ministers of human resource development, this has to be said: Murli Manohar Joshi was interested in furthering his agenda, but Arjun Singh was worse in a deeper sense. He was out to destroy institution after institution, treating all proprieties as things to be laid aside for instrumental goals. In some ways he was not an isolated case; he was symptomatic of what the Congress can do to institutions. Take another small recent example. Ashok Gehlot, the chief minister of Rajasthan, appointed an inquiry commission to probe his predecessor, Vasundhara Raje Scindia. The commission was not formed under the Commission of Inquiry Act, and its mandate was so indiscriminate, its composition so controversial that even if it speaks the truth, it will be easy to dismiss it as political vendetta.

It could be argued that if the Indian state cannot make a case against Quattrocchi in more than two decades, even with non-Congress governments in power, it has no business prolonging the matter. But when there is a history of handling the CBI in a particular manner, it is difficult to make even commonsense judgments.

Why does this matter for mass politics? Who cares about seemingly esoteric institutions like the CBI or inquiry commissions? There is something to this scepticism, but it misses the point. Its propensity to treat institutions casually and instrumentally disables the Congress on so many critical fronts. The Supreme Court has given another half political opening to the Congress to attack the BJP. But in institutional terms, what can they accuse the BJP of? Interfering with the police and investigations? Not prosecuting the perpetrators of crime? Using Commission of Inquiry Reports selectively? What one might think of the danger that the BJP's central ideology represents, of Modi's guilt or innocence, is separate, and the danger that stems from them needs to be highlighted. But will the Congress be able to say with a straight face that it has never used similar instrumentalities to prevent the truth from coming out? The instrumentalities of evasion that the Congress has often resorted to, disables it from capitalising on the opposition's weaknesses.

In politics, it is not issues, but trust and credibility that are central. If politicians have credibility, they can survive horrendous mistakes; if they don't have credibility, there is a cloud even over their good deeds. An allegiance to strengthening institutions adds to trust and credibility. Second, weak institutions disable you from being effective mediators in social conflict. Part of what institutions do is providing authoritative mediation of facts. The state faces a crisis of credibility when it is easy to impugn the facts it produces as partisan. Under those conditions, every group feels more entitled to continue believing what they were predisposed to believing, because there is no authority they can trust. The crisis can deepen when there is no authoritative mediator in civil society either. By treating institutions as mere instruments for short-term goals, by using them selectively, governments undermine their own authority. In those circumstances, even when they do the right thing they are not trusted. In part, the Congress's capacity to mediate social conflicts declined precisely because it was not trusted on institutions.

Institution-building is difficult. But the CBI saga suggests that the Congress violated the simplest rule: stay out of the way. There are still enough professionals in the system who can deliver. The reason Nitish Kumar got so much credit early on, was not because he transformed institutional capacity in Bihar. It is simply that he sent out the message that we will not stand in the way of professionals doing their job - and the result was a phenomenal increase in the conviction rate, and a palpable dent in the power of organisations like the Ranvir Sena that had flourished precisely because Lalu made such a mess of institutions.

Alas, no party has a deep commitment to building institutions. In part, our discourse also trivialises them. The issues are not only the guilt or innocence of a Tytler or a Modi. It is whether a government can create the impartial conditions for the truth to emerge. Simply dropping Tytler does not answer that deeper question. It is said that in infrastructure the Congress cannot be accused of dropping the ball since it never picked it up. In institutions, it has a history of picking up the ball, and then using it to batter them.

- The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi

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