January 18, 2013

Look down, not up

A system of upward accountability is unable to answer the demands for downward accountability.

At first glance, there is little to compare between the infamous political incident that occurred in Montana at the turn of the 20th century, when William A Clark bribed state legislators to win a seat at the United States Senate, and the infamous murder trial of Commander Kawas Nanavati in 1959. The similarity is that both incidents led to systemic changes, the former in the United States, the latter in India. Mr Clark’s act of corruption contributed to the passage of the 17th amendment to the United States Constitution, which mandated direct popular elections to the Senate. Commander Nanavati’s acquittal by a jury sympathetic to his position as a cuckold led to the abolition of jury trials in India.

In other words, when faced with an instance of dysfunction in the system, the United States made changes that strengthened downward accountability. India, on the other hand, moved accountability upwards, from the jurors to the judges.


The idea of a contrast between upward and downward accountability was introduced by Pratap Bhanu Mehta at the keynote address to the Takshashila GCPP workshop, where he observed that the Indian establishment was unused to the idea of downward accountability and more comfortable with upward accountability. He indicated that the Jan Lok Pal movement, being a grassroots movement, was a demand for downward accountability, while the Indian establishment is more used to a system where a superior holds a subordinate to account.

This is an intriguing idea. Democracy, by definition, requires that the people have the ability to hold their government accountable. But democracies may differ in three ways. First, in the extent to which popular sovereignty is constrained by the constitution. Second, in how much of a role the citizens have in lawmaking, policymaking, execution of policies and administration of justice. Some democracies give their citizens voice, but leave it up to the rulers to formulate laws and policies. Third, in the extent of centralisation of powers.

It can be made clear, using multiple examples, that India is an Upward Accountability Nation, both structurally and by instinct. Its Parliament has limited role in law-making. Its functions seem confined to making the people’s voice heard, and acting as a sort of electoral college to choose the government, which then proceeds to make laws as it sees fit. The structure of government, while federal in form, is centralised to a much larger extent than would seem to make sense in a country of this size.

It has given to itself the longest constitution in the world, and the constitution is of this length because the document specifies in great detail what would, in other countries, be handled via ordinary laws. While this curious feature of the constitution has meant that the document has had to be amended all too frequently, the Supreme Court has found that some aspects of the constitution cannot be amended at all. It has also ruled that all loudspeakers be shut off all over the country at 10PM, thereby elevating what ought to be a municipal regulation into a constitutional guarantee. Local self- government itself barely exists in the country.

This article started off comparing 17th amendment to the American constitution with abolition of jury trials in India. Arguably, a better comparison is with India’s Anti-defection amendment. Faced with widespread corruption among its legislators, India’s system responded by taking away legislators’ powers to vote on legislation as they think fit. Once again, the instinct to enforce accountability from above rather than to rely on people punishing faithless legislators asserted itself.

Where did India’s systemic accountability problem come from? The initial conditions established by the British certainly played a part. Jay Panda, Member of Parliament from Odisha, has documented how Parliament still functions under the British Raj era rules that were designed to limit its powers vis-a-vis the executive. The strange model of local self- government, where executive power resides with bureaucrats appointed by state- governments, has its origins in the system established by the British- it is instructive to note that cities with more powerful municipal corporations were the ones with a larger concentration of the British.

But there is only so much we can blame the British for. Dr Ambedkar’s distrust of village societies and Mr Nehru’s dreams of central planning must surely account for the continuation of the system the British established.

And what of the middle-class distrust of ‘politics’ and the fear of the great mass of illiterate people making bad choices at the polls? That must surely account in some part for the surfeit of rules, the over-reliance on civil servants in preference to elected officials, and when all else fails, on the Supreme Court.

And that brings us to the paradox of the great middle-class upheaval that India has experienced over the last few years. The movement is certainly an example of citizens demanding downward accountability from an establishment unused to it, but the demands of this citizenry indicate a continuing distrust of the political process and a continuing preference for rules imposed from above, bypassing the political system.

This needs to change. In a functioning democracy, peaceful protests and demonstrations have their place. They serve to organise other like-minded people into a cohesive unit and put the rulers on notice that if their demands are not acceded to, the group will vote them out at the next elections. The protests cannot be a substitute for voting.

Unfortunately, in India, because of the weakness of institutional mechanisms of enforcing accountability, it has come to pass that most people believe that direct action through protests is the only way to bend state action in their favour. This is sub-optimal.

Organising, protesting, and forming pressure groups is a vital first step. Voting is not the last step, but it is certainly the essential second step, without which the first step is pointless. We cannot run Justice for Jessica campaigns every time a Jessica is shot or gather at India Gate every time a woman is raped. What we need is a mechanism to ensure that good laws are made and those charged with enforcing them are held accountable if they are not implemented well.. And to ensure accountability, there is no substitute for politics.

Photo- blog100days

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