- Key structural reforms
- Charter of Freedom
- Institutional reforms
A charter for Political reforms in India
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India has its political strengths: A democratic Constitution, regular elections, institutional checks and balances, a relatively free media, and vibrant civil society. But there is little doubt that key elements of Indian politics too need structural reforms and unless that happens, India will continue to be a flawed democracy.
Key structural reforms:
1. Individual Rights:
- The first reform is with regard to individual rights. The personal freedom which is the cornerstone of fundamental rights is presently under jeopardy.
- The executive through a range of draconian laws has succeeded in curbing the extent of liberty.
- The political affiliation, geographical location, caste and class background often become a determinant in shaping the extent of individual’s liberty.
- Governments across party lines have cracked down on free speech and political activity when it has not been convenient, even if they fall within democratic norms.
2. Institutional Autonomy:
- The second reform is regarding institutional autonomy.
- The executive has its powers but it is important to constrain these powers and ensure that it operates within the framework of the law.
- Over the past few decades, Indian institutions have seen an erosion in their autonomy.
- The EC is perceived as playing favourites; the SC’s decisions and sometimes the absence of decisions have been questioned.
- Parliament seems weak in front of a strong executive; and the Central Bureau of Investigation is seen as a political tool.
- The party in power intervenes in institutions today and in the process, the faith of citizens in the wider system gets broken.
- The second urgent reform is a charter of institutional autonomy which restores the spirit with which these institutions were envisaged in the Constitution.
3. Cooperative Federalism:
- The third is with regard to cooperative federalism.
- The COVID-19 crisis has shown the importance of states in the governance structure.
- There remains a trust deficit, especially with states which are ruled by Opposition parties.
- This is compounded by an increasing sense of the centralisation of power within the Indian State.
- The Goods and Services Tax regime has tilted the balance of fiscal federalism towards the Centre with adverse consequences, with states at disadvantage.
4. Political parties:
- The fourth reform is with regard to political parties.
- Parties are the bedrock of electoral democracy.
- But in India, barring a few exceptions, political parties are anarchical.
- They are centred around a leader or a family; run autocratically; the structure of parties creates disincentives for people who may want to actively participate in political life; ticket distribution is arbitrary and leadership is often hereditary.
- While parties perfunctorily follow EC rules and norms to hold regular elections, this is often a mere formality.
- And that is why a charter for political party reform, with an eye to making it more democratic is essential.
5. Electoral Finance:
- And the fifth reform has to be in the realm of electoral finance.
- Elections are expensive; parties and leaders rely on funds; this then creates room for candidates with criminal backgrounds.
- The flawed system creates room for crony capitalism and policy corruption once a party is elected, to return favours to private donors.
- This deprives many good candidates even of having a chance to make a mark in the electoral exercise; and it undermines the spirit of equality.
- The government brought in electoral bonds, but there are now serious questions regarding the lack of transparency in the process of financing through bonds.
- If India has to get its democracy right, it has to get electoral finance right.
Charter of Freedom:
- India requires a charter of freedom which should have bipartisan support.
- It should include a commitment to scrap the sedition law that is used indiscriminately to silence dissent; institute the right to access the Internet within fundamental rights.
- It should make defamation a civil rather than criminal offence placing adequate safeguards to ensure that the right to life is not undermined.
- At the same time, freedom cannot mean breaching the reasonable restrictions stipulated in the Constitution; nor can it extend to hate speech which is increasingly witnessed during elections and on social media.
- India requires an Election Commission which ensures that the ruling party does not have an unfair advantage in polls.
- It requires a strong Parliament which ensures that the executive is accountable to the legislature in a meaningful way.
- It requires a judiciary that is solely guided by the Constitution and is both independent and seen as independent of executive influence.
- It requires independent investigative and vigilance bodies which track the corrupt, but are not used as political instruments to hound rivals.
- The governor should not just be a political representative who is advancing the interests of the party at the Centre — but an honest intermediary between the state and the Centre.
The real structural reforms which India needs today is more freedom for citizens, more autonomy for institutions, more power for states, more openness in political parties, and a cleaner electoral system. A strong political will is needed to use the crisis as an opportunity to reform Indian politics, with all other political parties on board, which will leave a strong political legacy for the upcoming generations.