Editor’s note: Madhav Nalapat holds the UNESCO Peace Chair at Manipal University in India. The views expressed are the author's own.
Although independent India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, was a democrat, neither he nor apparently his colleagues in the Congress Party thought it necessary to do away with the colonial laws that had underpinned British rule. Across a wide range of functions that in normal democracies would be the prerogative of the citizen alone, the British-era laws retained by Nehru and his successors have ensured that the people of India have to routinely petition some government office or other in order to get official permission before embarking on any of a range of tasks.
In the past, businesspeople “paid and played.” Now, as some wags put it, they “pay and pray,” because decisions for which cash have been exchanged are seldom coming. The country has seen new projects slow to a crawl, even in sectors vital to growth such as energy and infrastructure. Should this paralysis in decision-taking continue into 2013, the continued deterioration of India’s economic performance could start to look a lot like the chaos of 1992.
Rather than chip away at colonial-style state prerogatives, successive governments in India have only added to the list of state functions and powers. As a result, “free” India’s legal system contains a dense overlay of regulations, many of which carry the punishment of incarceration if ignored. Most of those tossed into India’s fetid jails have been deprived of their freedom for deeds which would have merited at worst a reprimand in a more complete democracy. Whether it be a household, a factory or a service establishment, each has to run a daily gauntlet of dozens of laws to ensure that they stay within the country’s British-era laws.
There is, of course, an easy way of escaping accountability in India, and that is to pay a bribe. The colonial system being tailor-made for such illegitimate exactions, it is no wonder both politicians and officials in “democratic” India swear by it, and refuse to replace it with a system of laws that regards the citizen as being honest unless proved otherwise. Sadly, since Sonia Gandhi became the effective head of the government in 2004, a raft of laws and procedures have been introduced to compound this, meaning that even something as innocuous as a racy exchange on Facebook can land you in jail. Expect the debate over freedom of expression in India to be another feature of 2013. After all, the Information Technology Act passed without opposition in parliament, despite being draconian in its scope. It is being repeatedly misused to jail those who offend powerful interests.
While Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is, unusually in India, an honest politician, the government he technically heads is regarded by many as among the most venal of any since 1947. The silver lining is that the scale of graft has finally resulted in a fight back by the Indian public, and so we can expect to see growing demands next year among civil society for a governance structure under which the citizen has greater say over his or her own life.
Indeed, ever since the Commonwealth Games scandal exploded across television screens in 2010, civil society has been hyperactive in protesting government graft. The consequence has been that at least a small proportion of guilty individuals have actually been sent to prison, though not of course for long. The Indian media, itself often the creature of business interests that are less than ethical, has been forced by pressure from the blogosphere into giving prominence to stories about official graft and misfeasance, thereby pressing those at the top to take at least a few token steps towards punishing the guilty.
Yet although very few have been held properly to account so far, even these hesitant steps have been enough to scare several officials (and even a few of their political heads) from taking decisions of any magnitude. The consequence has been a paralysis in decision-making within the central government, a hiatus that has gone on for at least the past two years.
So where does all this leave us? One more year of this kind of paralysis at the central government level, and it will take a miracle to get India’s growth story back from the intensive care unit and to robust health. Sadly, under the current leadership, the prognosis for the next 12 months is not looking good.