Minimalist expectations of the Republic’s institutions
Ambassador Talmiz Ahmed, speaking with Karan Thapar on the diplomatic ‘crisis’ brought on by the ruling party spokesperson going ballistic on prime-time against Prophet Mohammad, said that the External Affairs Minister, Dr. S Jaishankar, was an ‘instrument’ of the ruling formation comprising the ruling party and its support base, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. He implied that Dr S Jaishankar’s hands were tied, presumably by the government’s Hindutva-agenda driven. Seemingly letting Jaishankar off the hook, Talmiz Ahmed is playing the thorough diplomat he is.
Being decked by the Gulf States, followed by others in the Islamic world, suggests the crossing of the line by the BJP was unintended. The BJP was sanguine that Prime Minister Modi’s charm had worked to turn off any attention from those quarters for the plight of India’s Muslims. While the international reaction has predictably petered out, protests are being suppressed using tactics imported from strategic partner, Israel. This goes to show that alerted to red-lines abroad by the controversy, the saffron camp can continue its anti-Muslim crusade as precursor to Hindu Rashtra.
Under the circumstance of an onrushing future in a Hindu Rashtra, what is the responsibility of heads of institutions? Can the State mid-wife the birth of a Hindu Rashtra, even if it is decreed by the twice-elected ruling party? While apparatchiks as Jaishankar and National Security Adviser, Ajit Doval, can be expected to have an ideology-informed reading of their functions, this only increases the premium on official level leadership in institutions.
For purposes here, the State is defined narrowly as an amalgam of instruments of governance answerable to political masters subject to rotating into and out of office by the democratic vote. Though ‘instruments’ in a technical sense, these are ‘institutions’ with a life of their own, outside of Constitutional legalese and bureaucratic Rules of Business. Institutions contribute to policy set by political masters. Their input to policy and decision making is thus informed by norms and precedence.
Given this, they are in a position to – and indeed are expected to - moderate political predilections of the ruling party, albeit democratically elected. In the Constitutional scheme, the ruling party-run executive is responsible to the people by opposition parties in parliament holding it accountable. The balance is further maintained by the courts keeping vigil. There are Constitutionally-mandated and empowered bodies and agencies as part of the system of checks-and-balances. To what extent are State agencies qua institutions part of this system?
State institutions are expected to improve a policy by their considered input and where a policy choice is afoul of Constitutional obligations, theirs’ is an enhanced moral and legal compulsion. Where orders are illegal, they are duty-bound to revert with their reservations. Institutions have the credentials to reflect on the constitutionality and legality of policies and have to exercise this faculty. The premium on this is inversely proportional to efficacy of checks-and-balances system. ‘Yes, Minister’ is very serious business, as General Milley, the head of the joint chiefs, demonstrated during the fag end of United States’ (US) President Trump’s tenure by ensuring that Trump’s idiosyncrasies did not upend stability.
The Indian democratic system allows for parties to go about implementing their manifesto-outlined policies when in power. Where a government has the majority, it has greater scope for delivering on campaign promises. However, given that a plurality has not voted it into power, but the first-past-the-post system has bought it majority in parliament, a ruling party does not have a blank cheque on policy. Ruling party ideological preferences have to be moderated by a responsibility for and accountability to those who did not vote for it and its policy plank. A ruling party must understand that its stewardship of government is not only in fulfilling the party’s campaign promises, but the governmental and national agenda. In case it falls short in understanding this, the institutions of State are to remind it, particularly those owing allegiance to the Constitution rather than an itinerant ruling party at the Center. The policy-relevant role of institutional heads is to intercede on behalf of their institutions in fulfillment of an institution’s Constitutional commitment.
Even if a government were to come to power with majority of the votes, in a democratic system it cannot override interests of the rest, leave aside be actively arraigned alongside antagonists of any particular section. If a government fails to aggregate interests of others makes it unrepresentative; therefore majoritarian. The term ‘majoritarian democracy’ is an oxymoron in a polity as diverse as India’s. However, over the past eight years majoritarian and authoritarian are conjoined with democracy. Democracy withered under the onslaught of the ruling party, a political front of the right wing. To resurrect democracy, a roll back of the right wing requires first the rescue of captive State institutions.
State institutions have been overawed by right wing information warfare targeting a domestic audience that over-hypes the image of the prime minister. The decimation of the opposition twice-over makes the narrative credible. There are also shenanigans, such as appointing favourites, downsizing opponents, setting State agencies after political challengers etc. that are par for the course in the rough and tumble of politics. Some benign tactics are age-old, including sending off potential trouble-makers to sinecures outside the country, such as to the Asian Development Bank in one case.
However, these have acquired Mafiosi proportions, such as by inserting ‘evidence’ of anti-national activity into computers by hacking, and using this as evidence against ideological opponents and use of new age hacking means as Pegasus. Besides, there is knowledge of the manner of the rise of the prime minister in provincial politics, which witnessed the setting aside of Raj Dharma. A prominent female fan called this aspect of the persona of the prime minister, ‘viraat roop’. The unexplained deaths of former minister of Gujarat, Haren Pandya, and later of Justice BH Loya, are silent reminder of untold consequences.
Prima facie, to expect institutional heads to show spine in such a circumstance is delusional. This would be possible if the political opposition had some fight left in it. The dominance of political culture by Hindutva hardens the refrain on New India, the difference from the ‘old’ being departure from secularism in favour of a religion-anchored cultural nationalism, artfully propagated as Indic – and therefore authentic - civilisation. In this narrative, all other tributaries that have gone into this civilization only pollute. The reported quest for examining Indian racial purity is indicative. An apologist’s argument on ‘correcting of historical wrongs’ is another. Inclusion in talking points of all and sundry of terms as ‘geo-cultural’, ‘civilisational’ etc. and the recent intellectual brouhaha over the fount of nationhood are to shift the goal posts towards a primordial definition of nation predicated on Hinduism, as against a modern, rational-legal one consonant with the Constitution. The thrust for paradigm dominance is apparent. No institution can stay unscathed.
No institutional head can be sure of carrying the institution against the currents. Consequently, to look for well springs of a push back in these quarters is self-deceiving. However, to expect institutional heads not to further the Hindutva project by deeds of omission and commission is not too much to ask, since the Constitutional order has not quite changed as yet. Once the ruling party gets two-thirds of seats in the upper house of parliament and proceeds to do so, such expectations would lose any content. Till then, a minimalist expectation needs being in place, if only to decelerate the Republic headed downhill and hold incumbents of consequential chairs accountable. They cannot use the argument of force majeure to abdicate responsibility.
This yardstick should serve to guide institutional heads and judge their output. As illustration, the scrapping of Article 370 of any content is an example. While Ajit Doval has kept the Valley quiet – though aided by Covid in some measure – it is fairly self-evident that the problem has only been kicked down the road. Whether Doval should have exercised some moderation using a worsening national security in the long term as argument over the right wing’s eagerness to go about its long-standing position on merger of Kashmir with India is moot. The near-term effect in terms of Chinese intrusion into Ladakh was also not factored in by either Doval or Jaishankar. Persuaded by the logic of correctives to history need being applied, the two went along with the Constitutional caper.
To their credit, as political appointees to head national security institutions they have played their part as apparatchiks. But, can the apex of the official level that serves them be absolved? This level is by now staffed on the basis of like-mindedness. Consequently, there was nary a whisper of dissent. Agile consequence management in both union territories created on dissolution of the state cannot paper over that the jury is still out on the role of both political and official leaderships of national security institutions.
The yardstick of minimalist expectation can be usefully applied to the ongoing controversy. By tidying over the foreign policy fallout (Modi is expected to visit the United Arab Emirates soon to presumably woo it back) and continuing with brazen rule of law violations in suppressing Muslim protest (Israel-emulating house demolitions of Muslim protestors continue in BJP-ruled states), the Modi regime has yet again demonstrated its capacity for snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. Alerted to the red-lines of the Muslim world, it can now proceed post-haste and unconcerned by external fallout (it has already fobbed-off the US, knowing that the US needs it more in relation to China than it does the US) with continuing the conditioning of the minority to tamely accept its subordination in New India qua Hindu Rashtra.
What does the doctrine of minimal expectations of officials heading institutions call for in a circumstance of transition to Hindu Rashtra? Hindu Rashtra is the putative destination; it isn’t quite here. So, in the first instance, institutional leaders need reminding that they are office holders beholden to the Constitution as it exists, not one in the pipeline. They remain tied by their oath to it, so cannot act as if repeated electoral feats of the right wing imply that a new Constitution is already at hand (such as those taking decisions on dozer activity in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh seem to be doing).
Second, with power equations being what they are and spines being supple a via media of shirking-on-the-job suggests itself. Institutions need to pull their punches in face of orders contrary to the Constitutional straight and narrow: ‘Don’t say ‘No’, but don’t do it either.’ For instance, if the government wishes to underplay the Ladakh intrusion, the military does not need to ease its doing so. That the military understands this is evident from its watering down the Tour of Duty (Agniveer) scheme. However, that was in protection of its own interests. It had better take this approach also in Kashmir, where it has been amiss in being hand-maiden to Doval’s bid to project stability as another feather in his cap as a national security wizard.
Finally, the pushback from institutions will sensitise the right wing that control of the levers of power is not enough to be able to push the country over the brink into Hindu Rashtra. The shift to Hindu Rashtra needs not only to be procedurally correct (unlike the vacating of Article 370 of content), but constitutionally compliant. Since the judiciary has been slovenly in adjudicating on the latter, institutional pushback assumes significance. An institutional ‘go slow’ serves to deter, providing time and space to help generate the political will in the opposition to take up cudgels. A ‘dissent channel’ within institutions and between institutions needs setting up, informally to begin with.
In the national security domain, official heads of institutions – such as military Chiefs – must not kowtow to political appointees. There is a political appointee as military adviser each in the National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS) and the Ministry of Defence. The latter has acquired significance since being military adviser was the job of the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), an appointment in abeyance for now. Doval – a political appointee - has usurped ministerial and higher official functions by his stewardship of the Defence Planning Committee and the Strategic Policy Group. This has resulted in the CDS being reduced to military adviser to the defence minister, rather than for the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) as a whole. It is only in his nuclear role is he ‘military adviser’ to the Nuclear Command Authority, whose membership is akin to the CCS. If and since such arrangement would heighten the ideologically-driven content in policies, it is all the more reason for the military leadership to dig-in on its professional turf.
Deep selection-based military chiefs must be made wary of their limits of playing the party line by collegial pressure from within the brass. This preserves the military’s parochial interest, but must expand to include issues in its ken, such as policies in Kashmir and in relation to the North East on Bengali Muslims. In Kashmir, the military must act as a strategic level headquarters, rather than an operational level one. Its inability to discern the distinction has led to the Article 370 debacle. As regards the Bengali Muslims, it does not readily appear on the military’s radar, but the regime-friendly mouthings of the last CDS and the current military adviser in NSCS indicate otherwise. The impending national security mess in relation to the Bengali Muslims being engineered by the Assam chief minster’s messianism needs forestalling by the Eastern Command making its strategic-level presence felt. The national service of such a stance is in alerting the ruling party against venturing down the Hindu Rashtra route without due process and taking the country along.
The doctrine of minimal expectations here is a yardstick that can retrospectively hold institutional heads to account, both political and official. At a political juncture in which genocide and civil war have found uncharacteristic mention in the same breath, the importance of retrieving the State from capture by the right wing has increased. The prospects of shirking as a legitimate tactics come to fore and can help deter, preempt and prevent unconstitutional moves. Institutions may yet preserve the Republic as we know it, even if the four estates – parliament, executive, judiciary and media – have withered.