January 6, 2012

The Trishanku problem

Parliamentary panels must look at investigative, legislative and oversight issues of statutory agencies

King Trishanku of the Ikshvaku (Solar) dynasty was a fascinating personality. An ancestor of King Ram, King Trishanku had a reputation of being a fair and just monarch. Like all good monarchs of that time, a time before sin became entrenched in society; he followed the rules of Dharma in all aspects of his life. King Trishanku had one wish. He wanted to ascend to heaven in his mortal body. To ascend to the heavens or descend to hell, normally one had to die. But King Trishanku wanted to achieve this aim without going through the natural process – death. Indra, The King of Devas was not deeply enamoured with the idea of a mortal ascending to the heavens—probably because he saw it as a threat to his own power base. After all, Indra had faced a threat to his position from the mortal king Nahusha—who replaced him briefly. The Devas refused Trishanku permission to ascend to the heavens without dying. While this would deter any other mortal, Trishanku was made of sterner stuff. He went to his guru, Sage Vashishta to help him achieve his goal. When the Sage turned him down, the king pleaded with Sage Vishwamitra, who promised to help him. Vishvamitra performed a great sacrifice to help Trishanku reach the heavens in his mortal body. However, as the King began to ascend, Indra began using his powers to block the ascent. The powers of Vishvamitra and Indra nullified each other and Trishanku was left suspended in the middle—neither following the laws of earth nor those of heaven. Vishwamitra then created a whole new universe around Trishanku—a universe which is born of compromise. Trishanku ruled Trishanku’s heaven, the rest of the universe was ruled by the Devas. The term Trishanku’s heaven, from then on, has been used to denote a compromise.

There is a point to recounting this ancient tale. Politics and institution building in modern India have more in common with Trishanku and the art of compromise,than Lord Ram and the rule of Dharma. Institutions are created and given form by the will of one person. Be it the Planning Commission and Nehru, the Election Commission and T N Seshan,or the Jan Lok Pal and Team Anna. Their suggestions for independence are linked to their own skill sets. But institutions have to be divorced from that which exists today, and built so that they endure the test of time and remain relevant. Institutions cannot exist in limbo —in their own universe, with their own rules that do not dovetail with the remaining system.

The Indian system is based on the separation of powers between the various arms of the government, and with a set of checks and balances that are inbuilt to ensure that the system functions smoothly. There is the Parliament—the supreme law making body in the country, that is supposed to debate, deliberate and pass legislation. There is the Executive—the working executive that comprises the Prime Minister and his Cabinet—the government of the Day. The Executive is supposed to govern the country in accordance with existing legislation, through various ministries staffed by bureaucrats, and also introduce new legislation, ; and an independent judiciary that ensures that justice is delivered, based on their interpretation of the law. And there is the President who is the Head of State, the Supreme Commander of the armed forces and the head of the Executive, the Judiciary and the Legislature. The Prime Minister of India, and the cabinet are accountable to the parliament, both individually—in that they are responsible for their ministries and departments, and collectively as the cabinet; and the parliament is accountable to the people. The President of India plays a ceremonial role and has no real executive powers. Those are vested in the cabinet, the Parliament, various state governments and their legislatures.

In addition to all these bodies that deal with administration, legislation, and judicial decision making, there exist a variety of independent departments—such as the Department of Atomic Energy, the Department of Space; independent agencies —CAG, CBI, CVC, Election Commission, Planning Commission, TRAI, and a host of others. In the very near future, the Jan Lok Pal is poised to join these agencies. These agencies are either in the cutting edge of research and development that could impact our future, or those that are meant to audit, investigate, monitor and ensure that systems are not compromised. All are stellar agencies, and all serve an important purpose. But whom are they accountable to? Theoretically, to the President of India—but the President has ceremonial powers.

India does not have a presidential form of government like the United States, nor is this column suggesting that she should. Instead, it would be good to borrow from some of their procedures—that ensures that these agencies act in the interest of the people. To do this, they need to report to the parliament. What the system needs is a set of bipartisan or multi-partisan parliamentary committees for each of these areas, that run concurrently with the parliamentary term. The panel would vet the appointment of the heads of these agencies through a process of hearings. Also, like the American system, the process of hearings needs to go beyond the confirmation (of appointment) hearings and look at investigative, legislative and oversight issues. Legislative hearings would look at policy issues that would become law. For example, if the government policy is targeted welfare, the hearing would look at how best this policy would work as law. The panel would ask for representations from interested parties, and all these would then form the basis for legislation. India needs a version of this in place. An Oversight Committee would look at various central government programmes and evaluate the quality of delivery of service as well as the conduct of public officials while delivering this service. An investigative hearing looks at suspicion of wrong doing on the part of not just public officials but private individuals and corporations. In all these hearings, the parliamentary panel will seek representations from not just politicians, bureaucrats, and civil society but also from citizens and corporates. This becomes a continuous process, which can only be good for the democracy.

Imagine if a parliamentary panel had consistently monitored expenditure and progress on a project like the CWG. The head of the CWG committee would have been answerable to parliament. The panel would have constantly monitored the delivery of various targets and cost overruns. Over a seven year period, the panel would have regularly interacted with the CWG board—understood project progress and costs. Such a system would possibly have spared the country a lot of what went wrong in both CWG and 2G, and possibly prevented the embarrassment of the appointed CVC having to be removed after appointment. Similarly, a system of continuous hearings could possibly get the CBI to deliver results. Another advantage of this would be to ensure the independence of these bodies from accusations of interference by the government of the day.

With more and more agencies being added to take on newer and newer roles, it is vital they don’t end up like King Trishanku—with their own universe where they reign supreme with no accountability to anyone else. There needs to be a chain of command established and accountability demanded. These bodies, including the proposed Jan Lok Pal need to be made accountable to parliament, for it is the parliament that is finally accountable to the people.

One is of course, assuming a parliament where parliamentarians turn up to work. But that is a matter for another column.

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