As Modi erodes democratic institutions at the Centre, can the states step up?

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Last week, the world witnessed a surreal sight as India’s Parliament voted on critical bills after nearly the entire Opposition had been kicked out of the house. These included replacements for the Indian Penal Code, the Indian Evidence Act, the Criminal Procedure Code, the Indian Telegraph Act, the Indian Wireless Telegraphy Act. Parliament also passed a new bill which gave the Union government unrestrained power to appoint Election Commissioners.

Taken together, the legislation passed during this winter session is wide ranging, affecting the entire architecture of criminal law in India, regulation of the internet and the conduct of elections. In any democracy, these sorts of policy changes would require significant public debate. Instead, they did not even get a fair vote in the legislature. Passing bills after disqualifying the Opposition is a bit like a batsman scoring a century after ordering all fielders off the ground.

Delhi belly

The sight of Parliament emptied of the Opposition is a stark example of democratic decline in India. However, it is only one among a long list of central institutions that have seen a steep drop in their performance and public image over the past decade.

For some years now, questions have been raised about the working of the Supreme Court. In theory, India’s Supreme Court is meant to act as the final check on the excesses of popular politicians. Except, this has certainly not happened in the Narendra Modi era. Controversial policies such as demonetisation, the demotion of Kashmir to the status of Union territory, electoral bonds or the Citizenship Amendment Act have either been rubber stamped or sidestepped.

A similar lack of independence has been seen in the conduct of the Election Commission, which has ignored Opposition complaints against the ruling party and concerns raised by experts. With the new law now handing over the power to appoint Election Commissioners completely to the Centre, to recruit another cricket analogy, this is a bit like the batsman getting to appoint umpires of his own choice.

Even as the courts have looked away, central agencies such as the Enforcement Directorate and the Central Bureau of Investigation have been used for partisan political ends. These agencies quite openly target the ruling party’s political opponents while BJP leaders invariably remain untouched.

Federal divide

India’s democratic decline in the Modi years is a much studied and commented upon phenomenon. What is often missed, however, is that this is very much a decline in the institutions of the Union. At the state level, Indian democracy has shown no such explicit trend. Institutions in the states have never been very robust but there has been no drastic decline either. In fact, in many states, there has been a quiet deepening of democracy as popular politics crystallises around institutions.

It wasn’t always like this. For much of independent India’s history, institutions at the Centre have been stronger. This is in spite of the fact that democratic government first started in the states with the British Raj conducting robust elections in 1937. India’s Constituent Assembly, in fact, was elected by its state assemblies.

However, after independence, the Congress fashioned a highly centralised Constitution. The Congress high command headed by Jawaharlal Nehru largely controlled the states. Much of the nation building effort that characterised Independent India’s initial decades was concentrated at the Centre.

The decline of the Congress by the late 1980s, however, saw a strengthening of Indian federalism and state politics. These political developments were formalised into law by the Supreme Court in 1994, as it laid down strict guidelines on imposing Central Rule in the states.

Soon this trend found reflection even in finances: state spending now outstrips that by the Centre. Even more interestingly, revenue spend by the state has far more economic impact than that by Delhi, research has found.

State surge

As a result, since the 1990s, there has been a steady increase in how favourably Indians view their state governments. Data shows that confidence in state governments has gone up from 2004-’05 to 2011-’12. Interestingly, this increase was the highest in marginalised groups such as Muslims and Dalits and, when cut in terms of class, poor Indians.

This increase in capacity and support is buttressed by the rise of state-based sub-nationalisms that play a critical role in oiling institutions of governance.

How does this map to democratic performance? For one, due to the factors listed above, voters seem to be more invested in state elections. Turnouts for Assembly elections are consistently higher than at the Centre. But maybe where this change can be seen most starkly is in the working of the legislatures. Half a century back, it was clear that the Union Parliament was India’s best-run legislature. State Assemblies were autocratically run, would barely sit and rarely heard the voice of the Opposition. However, today this is pretty much also the state of Parliament. In fact, the mass suspensions that Parliament saw would be unlikely in many state assemblies.

Much of this power shift from Delhi to the states is gradual and not visible to the average Indian – except when the Covid-19 pandemic happened. Even while Central institutions – from the Union executive to Supreme Court – froze, many state governments rose to the occasion.

Of course, even as this shift takes place, the Indian Constitution’s architecture still makes it quite certain that legally the country remains a very centralised Union. So even as institutions in the state strengthen and those at the Centre weaken, any significant change in their balance of power and how they are perceived by the average citizen will take time.

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