[This is the second part of a series on India’s Constitution and how the Modi led govt. has undermined and subverted it]
In five years of Modi’s rule, various Constitutional institutions – pillars of the republic – are under an unprecedented siege. In the 69 years since the Constitution was promulgated, there have been several occasions when these institutions, like the Supreme Court, RBI, Election Commission, CVC, CBI, CIC etc. have had to deal with political rulers wanting to misuse or even subvert them. But never before has such a sweeping disregard for the Constitution been experienced at this scale, except perhaps the 19 months of Emergency in 1975-77.
We give below some of the most flagrant examples of Modi’s attempts to subvert the Constitution through attacks on institutions.
After getting a comfortable majority in Lok Sabha, the BJP and its allies have treated the Parliament as a tool for propaganda only and often downgraded or by passed its sovereign authority. The Constitution recognised the Parliament as the supreme expression of the people’s will. But Modi and his govt. treats it like a nuisance. For example, the 2018 Union Budget was bulldozed through the Parliament without any debate. It was for the first time since Independence that this happened. A no confidence motion was disallowed and the session was adjourned by the Speaker who belongs to the ruling party BJP. The motion to impeach the Chief Justice was unilaterally dismissed by Chairperson of the Rajya Sabha, even though he had no powers to decide on the merits of the motion. Earlier, the govt. had ‘passed’ the Aadhar related laws too by a sleight of hand, smuggling them in with finance bills at the last minute. Another trick used to bypass the Parliament is the systematic use of ordinances to bring in laws that it feared would be opposed. The ordinance on Land Acquisition was one such which had to be taken back after massive resistance from the farmers in 2015. Ordinances on allotment of Rajya Sabha seats between Telengana and Andhra Pradesh, textiles, re-promulgation of coal mines ordinance and for appointment of Principal Secretary to the PM are other such examples where the institution of Parliament and its democratic functioning has suffered damage.
Interfering with Supreme Court
In January 2018, four Supreme Court judges took an unprecedented step of holding a press conference to voice their protest against arbitrary allocation of cases to benches by the then Chief Justice of India. The real issue was that the CJI was allegedly distributing cases to different Benches to suit the Modi government. The rebel judges wanted transparency and accountability so that this perversion in the functioning of one of the pillars of Indian democracy could be ended. They also wanted certain cases to be probed or carried forward, which seem to have got side-lined due to the struggle between the court and the government on appointments.
In the Modi era, severe friction has emerged between the RBI and the Union govt. The previous governor’s term was not renewed as Modi feared that he would not be pliant enough. But the new governor Urjit Patel too resigned midway. A deputy governor came out openly against repeated interference by the govt. There were several friction points including policy issues and the desire of the Modi govt. to set up a separate payments regulator and the most important one of the govt.’s desire to take more and more funds from the RBI reserves to pad up its balance sheet. While ultimately, the RBI needs to heed the govt. and the Parliament, the resistance was to destroying it altogether and using it as a treasure chest in the run up to the general elections.
Earlier, in 2016, the country had watched with shock as the disastrous demonetisation of November 2016 was rammed through the RBI Board. Currency management is the RBI’s responsibility but Modi secretly planned it with a group of outside consultants and told the Board hours before the decision was announced by him.
Of late, the Modi govt. has adopted the usual tactic of appointing RSS ideologues to all bodies in order to make them conform to his thinking. S.Gurumurthy, a well-known RSS ideologue, has now been inducted into the RBI Board.
Pressurising Election Commission
This is a Constitutional body that plays an important role in managing India’s electoral system. It appears to be under pressure from the govt. as can be seen by several instances of flagrant partisanship. In 2017, it delayed the announcement of Gujarat Assembly polls schedule, allegedly to allow the PM and his party to continue distributing largesse in the state. Another instance was the hurried disqualification of AAP MLAs from Delhi on the office of profit charges, after which the Supreme Court rejected the EC’s decision, and castigated it for not looking at the whole thing more thoroughly.
The all-important general elections are weeks away now and the EC will have to play a crucial role in determining the dates and phases, as also ensuring that the Code of Conduct is followed meticulously by the Modi govt. How much accommodation this body will provide to the Modi govt. and BJP will soon be clear.
CBI, the caged parrot
The recent war between the top two officers of the CBI also appeared to be an internal spat, but was actually a direct result of the Modi government first appointing its favoured nominee Alok Verma as the director in January 2017, and then putting his back up by inserting another favourite Rakesh Asthana as his number-two. After the Verma-Asthana fight came out in the open, the government arbitrarily, and illegally, sent both of them on leave, and appointed a third favourite, Nageshwar Rao as the interim director. The whole sorry spectacle exposed the deeply compromised investigation agency. Subsequently, the Supreme Court had to reappoint Verma as the director – but he was again removed by the select panel headed by Modi himself within hours. The CBI’s role as a handmaiden of the central government, its misuse to target opposition parties and political targets, and the concomitant growth of the corruption inside it have destroyed an agency that was supposed to be in the frontline of the fight against corruption in high places. While this hollowing out of CBI has undoubtedly been going on for decades, the Modi government’s usual flagrant interference has led to the ongoing implosion.
CIC and RTI Diluted
In a move to curb the use of Right to Information (RTI) Act to expose government malfeasance, the Modi government has moved amendments to the Act itself, which do away with the present five-year fixed term for information commissioners both at the Central Information Commission (CIC) and State Information Commissions (SICs). The amendments also enable the Centre to prescribe the term of office, salaries and allowances, and other terms and conditions of service of chief information commissioners, and information commissioners at both central and state levels.
In this case, the government has attempted to subvert the RTI Act and its machinery through pushing amendments – a legislative way of curbing transparency and accountability. In the process, the whole mechanism of information commissions will be made dependant on the government, further weakening it. It has also made fresh appointments of commissioners based on its own choice violating set procedures.
The Central Vigilance Commission, another statutory body, has been headed by a Modi appointee KV Chowdary since 2015. At the time of his appointment, several eminent persons had raised a red flag saying that there were allegations of his involvement in various criminal/corruption-related cases including the Nira Radia tapes case, the Moin Qureshi case (which involved the present warring CBI officers too), and others. However, the government went ahead with his appointment. The CVC’s role in “sorting out” the ongoing CBI imbroglio is well known. The CVC is the supervisory body for CBI.
State Governors as Trojan Horses
Extending the practice of previous Congress govts., the Modi govt. has not only appointed RSS loyalists as Governors in most states but it is actively using them as its tool to trample democracy. The tussle between the AAP led Delhi government and the Centre has been carried out through the Lt. Governor who is appointed by the Centre. The elected chief minister has not been allowed to govern due to constant obstruction by the Modi govt. In Goa, Manipur, Meghalaya and Karnataka BJP has used Governors to capture power, though in Karnataka the move fell apart after the Supreme Court directed a floor test and BJP’s Yeddyurappa had to quit. Acting in a partisan way, these BJP Governors have opened the path for BJP to form govts. through horse trading, making a mockery of their constitutional authority.
In many other official bodies ranging from the UGC to top officers in research and academic bodies including university appointees like vice chancellors, the Modi government has played fast and loose, freely appointing its own supporters, and thereby tilting the balance in favour of their ideological positions. These appointees have also played an active role in destroying democratic functioning in the institutions they head, as most flagrantly brought out by in the case of JNU and its BJP-supporting VC. This is not just a matter of convenience and patronage. This is a long term strategic takeover of democratic institutions for spreading the RSS ideology far and wide, beyond the term of the present govt. The other side of the coin is that anybody who objects to either this takeover or to the policies coming out of RSS controlled bodies is branded as ‘anti-national’ and a witch-hunt ensues.