The vigilantes are here. How do we fight them?

Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath continues to inspire service-minded citizens to lead the fight against illegal slaughterhouses. Some other men have also ganged up to combat the menace of eve-teasing “Romeos,” but expanded their scope to harassing couples in consensual relationships.

Those accused of the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992 defiantly declare that their actions are as pious as that of the brave men who fought for the country’s independence from the British.

India has finally got the vigilantes it always wanted – those who protect our honour, fight against corruption, and restore pride to the country. Cattle traders are thrashed in the heart of Delhi, even as the police vacillate between booking the culprits and charging the victims with ‘animal cruelty’. As expected, superstar vigilantes inspire several more in their mould, and we have at hand a spate of incidents. So we have videos surfacing on social media of a man threatening to kill Muslims while brandishing a gun, and public hoardings in Uttar Pradesh threatening Kashmiris with dire consequences unless they leave immediately. Meanwhile, a has-been Bollywood singer, Abhijit, raves and rants on TV and on Twitter, threatening violence against Muslims. Also, some men in our armed forces in Kashmir think its fun to slap around some young men and force them to shout “Pakistan murdabad” slogans.

And do not forget the events from the recent past:

Late last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi suddenly announced a decision to revoke the legal tender status of 86% of currency notes circulating in the economy.

And this year, finance minister Arun Jaitley’s Finance Bill 2017 sneakily included 33 (yes, thirty three) amendments that were hardly discussed in Parliament.

These are other forms of vigilantism, barely sanctioned by law (usually exploiting every possible loophole and a complete disregard for propriety). A government that will push through a faulty universal identification system and will amend political party financing rules with impunity to make them less transparent.

Tales are spun to justify these acts of vigilantism. The Uttar Pradesh assembly election threw up its own set of post-facto theories, most of which sought to assert that Modi’s demonetisation was a great success, that caste and religion-based voting was a thing of the past, that the voters in UP wanted Adityanath for better ‘law and order’. All of this happened just as Dalits and Muslims started being targeted across the state.

The vigilantes are taking over everywhere, and the constitution is slowly taking a backseat. In the cacophony of a reactive news cycle, it is difficult to maintain a consistent battle against an increasingly communal and authoritarian government. In a country beset with serious socio-economic problems, where job creation is at a record low, and farm distress shows no signs of relenting, we are busy debating cows, statues, and couples in love. On the one hand, this reflects the absolute failure of the political opposition, which have lurched from poll to poll, failing to counter the government’s divisive narrative. On the other hand, this is an indictment of our own inability as citizens to hold on to values of morality and empathy. We have allowed lunatics to set the agenda, as we sat back to ‘consume’ (and occasionally react) via traditional and social media.

Some people are of the view that as a country we went too far with constitutional principles (especially secularism, welfare and equity) even as the masses were not ready for it. While that argument itself is elitist, they go on to argue that what the ‘intelligentsia’ (another derogatory label these days) see as progress has always been opposed by a voiceless majority who felt their glorious culture and traditions were being taken away from them. The moral voice on Kashmir, for instance, is now seen as a weakness and a failure to assert our territorial sovereignty. Progressive voices on protecting minorities is now widely derided as appeasement. Support for equity through affirmative action is brutally criticised as being anti-merit. A free press that questions those in power is suddenly anti-national. A kind of free-wheeling vigilantism is seen as the answer.

Last week though, former Delhi high court chief justice A.P Shah delivered a stinging indictment of the current state of affairs in India, asking what nationalism really meant and questioning whether the state’s tendency to interfere with people’s food habits, film censorship and the wider curbs on freedom of expression behoves a country that aspires to greatness. I quote:

At the end of the day, it is important to question, what is the defining characteristic of a nation – is it the territorial boundary or the collection of people that is a country’s defining feature. Our constitution starts with a solemn declaration of “We, the people of India…” In this context, is being anti-national equivalent to being anti-Government or is the hallmark of an anti-national that they are against the interest of the people, especially the minorities and the depressed classes? Can an entire University and its student body be branded “anti-national”?

It is heartening to read this in these depressing times – a voice of moral authority that is in contrast to our elected leaders and most public voices. If we are to win the battles against these vigilantes, it is moral voices like these that we have to amplify – not just from eminent jurists and other public figures, but from the ordinary man on the street.

A firm adherence to constitutional principles by elected leaders can set the tone for citizens. But it can also work the other way around. A country benefits from a large majority of its citizens adhering to a core moral code, and willing to rely on the constitution to iron out differences. Can a movement for change begin with them? This is not a case against the utility of political parties. But there is a need to mobilise people around issues that extend beyond immediate electoral cycles. Civil society has to lead this effort.

This might sound like asking for too much, but when you see the vigour with which this government has cracked down on dissent in academic institutions, it gives you a clue as to what they fear the most. Remember how vehemently artists and writers who opposed the government’s intolerance were attacked and even partly blamed for the BJP’s loss in the Bihar elections? Could the voices of students, farmers, artists, writers and army veterans come together and challenge the government’s narrative? Even if they don’t win, imagine how spectacular the fight would be.

I live in hope.

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This column was first published on The Wire

Where is the promised windfall from demonetisation?

The Economic Survey 2016/17 was striking not only for its literary references, but also for its circumspect nature. One of major the drivers of this circumspection (which is not a trait one associates with the Narendra Modi government) was the yet-to-be-ascertained impact of demonetisation. The Economic Survey was cautious in saying that it would take long for us to accurately calculate the gains and losses from demonetisation, but ventured to claim that it would result in at most, a 0.5 percentage point fall in the GDP growth rate.

Of all the benefits of demonetisation that the government has been at great pains to sell, the simplest one is a spike in direct tax collections in the form of both taxes and penalties (on black money declared). The second, is an assurance that banks that are now flush with deposits will significantly lower lending rates to spur consumption. Both these do find mention in the Finance Minister’s budget speech, along with a host of benefits that have repeatedly been promised to us — a war on black money, corruption, counterfeit currency and terror funding.

But the government failed to make good these promises in its own budget, and at the moment, we are forced to conclude that the promised gains from demonetisation have just not materialised. Total Tax Revenue of the government in 2016–17 increased by 17% over the previous year. Next year, the government anticipates a 12% increase. Similarly, income tax receipts in 2016–17 went up by 23% over the previous year, and is budgeted to increase by a further 25% next year.

Chief Economic Advisor the Government of India, Arvind Subramanian in an interview yesterday named service tax receipts as one of the four measures of the impact of demonetisation. He did also admit that because of the impending Goods and Services Tax regime, it would be hard to isolate the impact of demonetisation. Here too, the numbers suggest that the Finance Minister is not expecting a great deal of change. Service tax receipts, after having increased by 17% this year, are expected to go up by only 11% next year.

In none of these collections, or projections, can one see a tangible increase in tax receipts as a result of demonetisation. An important caveat is that for the current year, the figures are based on the government’s Revised Estimates, which may well change by the time the Actual figures are recorded once data from the last two months are accounted for. But the surge that one expected from demonetisation is missing — especially when you consider that the difference in Total Tax Revenue between the Revised Estimates and the Budget Estimates for 2016–17 is only 4%. It does appear that on the revenue side, the government was lucky to receive an unexpected additional Rs. 23,167 crores of non-tax revenue in the form of dividends public sector enterprises.

It is not surprising then, that the Finance Minister has little to no room to give away post-demonetisation bonanzas. Neither are there any significant increase in allocations to welfare schemes, nor are there any big bang announcements that would help the government actually implement some of its high-decibel rhetoric. For instance, the allocation for Smart Cities of Rs. 9,000 crore is actually lower than the Revised Estimates of this year at Rs. 9,559 crore. The record allocation of Rs. 48,000 crores for MGNREGS is impressive only until you realise that the estimated expenditure this year is Rs. 47,499 crore. To take another example, the Start-up India Aspiration Fund, after having used Rs. 100 crore out of its allocation of Rs. 600 crore this year has disappeared from next year’s budget.

In many ways, today’s union budget was Finance Minister Arun Jaitley’s moment of truth. With a budget speech that had to shun rhetoric, Jaitley was forced to admit — in deeds, if not just through words — that several glamorous schemes announced by the government have struggled to match up to their rhetoric. In a way, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley may have presented his most honest budget so far. As they say, numbers don’t lie.

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This column first appeared on Catch News

An important transfer of power in Ghana

Ghana has been different from many of its contemporary African nations especially in terms of its ability to see through peaceful transitions of power since 1992. Often, the credit for this is given to former President JJ Rawlings, who after being responsible for two military coups (1979, 1981), stood for democratic elections in 1992, and organised the next presidential election in 2000. But greater credit must go to the Ghanaian people who cherish this ‘difference’ enough to ensure that in every subsequent election, the outcome was democratically determined, and acknowledged by the main contenders to power.

Over the last two decades, the NDC and NPP have established themselves as the chief contenders in what is essentially a two-party system in Ghana. Prof. John Atta Mills (NDC) took power in 2008, passed away just before he was up for re-election in 2012. John Mahama, then the Vice President, took over the office and later, won the 2012 presidential race over Nana Akufo Addo (NPP). Anyway…the tale of presidential contenders in Ghana is slightly repetitive one, as you can see below.

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Having lived in Ghana for two years from 2009 to 2011, I have a massive soft corner for the country and its people. In 2009, buoyed by the promise of oil revenues, Ghana was seen to be doing quite well. Although experts cautioned Ghana against the pitfalls of over-reliance on oil revenues and that infamous ‘Dutch disease’, there was hope all around that continued into 2012.

In 2016, Ghana was clearly in trouble. The exchange rate stood at about 4 GH Cedis to 1 US$, down from 1.7 in 2011. Corruption scandals had erupted in recent years, and while the opposition’s campaign had been relatively muted (primarily because they were starved of resources), public discontent was reportedly widespread.

While Ghana has witnessed tightly contested elections, with both principal political parties respecting the popular mandate, this system is prone to other forms of mal-governance – the most prominent of which is a tacit consensus between the main contenders regarding the appropriation of state power (and resources). There is indeed very little that is different in the stated policies of the two parties, and the popular experience of the functioning of the two governments led by them respectively (2000 – 2008 and 2008 – 2016).

However, the NPP has been out of power for two terms and in terms of its economy and resource revenue potential, Ghana is finds itself in 2016/17 in a vastly different from the situation from that in the 2000s. Having come back to power after eight years in the wilderness, hopes are high from President-elect Nana Akufo Addo and the NPP. 2016 has been a depressing year if you try to frame the narrative in terms of elections around the world.

As Ghana voted on 7th December, it was an opportunity for Ghanaians to usher in their version of ‘change’ and they have succeeded in effecting a transfer of power. Unsurprisingly, Nana has two major promises: Jobs and an anti-corruption drive. We will be watching.

 

The battle against corruption should not end here

Since the 8th of November when the government declared that 500 and 1000 rupee notes were no longer legal tender, there has been much talk about the need for ordinary citizens to join the battle against corruption. Rather dramatically, Prime Minister Narendra Modi too announced from the pulpit, his resolve to continue battling corruption even if he is destroyed, or burnt alive. While failing to fathom why the Prime Minister must fan conspiracy theories about sinister enemies waiting to hurt him, I do think that we must respect the overall sentiment he has expressed, and support the government in taking forward this battle against corruption.

More importantly, now that crores of Indian citizens have borne the “minor inconveniences” towards this cause by waiting up in bank queues and rationing consumption, we need to make sure those sacrifices count for something. This battle against corruption should be a fight to the finish. Surely, no one can argue that a battle against corruption is the sole preserve of a conservative right-wing party – it is something in which we all must take part.

So here, I suggest seven steps that will irrefutably signal that India’s fight against corruption is one with serious long-term intent:

  1. Scrutinise all large transactions, including bank deposits: Tax authorities should be routinely checking all large cash transactions or bank deposits made by individuals, businesses and political parties. Since we expect large transactions to take place through inter-bank transactions, outliers must be investigated. This tax scrutiny should be prompted by a standing policy at the banks where information is shared regularly with tax authorities. Alongside, tough consumer protection laws should apply that punish any tax authority that unduly harasses an innocent citizen. As a follow-up to the current currency swap scheme (misleadingly now known in popular parlance as ‘demonetisation’), all large bank deposits in the large six months must be immediately scrutinised. We already know of the land purchases by the BJP in Bihar, and the large deposits in West Bengal. Could the Income Tax officials raid those establishments?
  2. Go after the big fish next: Starting from the biggest defaulters to our public sector banks, to tax offenders who have illegal assets stashed away abroad, the big fish are still out there, almost completely untouched by this ongoing demonetisation drive. In order to demonstrate its seriousness, Government of India must go after them, irrespective of how powerful they may be. Getting Vijay Mallya back would be a good start. The trails from those Panama papers and the HSBC accounts that seem to have gone cold need to be revived, pronto. The Prime Minister should prove that he means business.
  3. Strengthen the Right to Information (RTI) and Whistle blower Protection acts: In a fight against corruption, as was amply demonstrated during UPA 2, the RTI is absolutely critical. Prime Minister Modi must act to strengthen these acts. The RTI compels governments to be transparent, by putting responses to questions from citizens in the public domain. Whistle blowers do the same, from within government and outside, and their government must step up to protect them from the dangers they face. The Government of India should consider making a start to this with the Vyapam disclosures in Madhya Pradesh. Needless to say, political parties should not be exempt from RTI for even one more day. A midnight announcement to that effect would be best, so that culprits don’t have a chance to make amends before the deadline.
  4. Make data on natural resource deals public: Following a Supreme Court order, the new government was forced to conduct open auctions for the allocation of national resources – minerals, spectrum, etc. In order to take forward the emphasis on transparency, governments – both at the centre and the states – should make public, in an easy to understand format, all deals involving natural resources. This would also be the natural and well-intentioned follow-up to the Supreme Court’s orders to conduct open auctions for allocating natural resources that offer potential for extractive rents. These disclosures should start from the deals involving coastal lands in Gujarat, and extend to the mining contracts in Chhattisgarh and Odisha.
  5. Make election finances transparent and strictly regulated: All cash contributions to political parties should be considered contributions to the Consolidated Fund of India. Any contribution above INR 2,000 should be made by cheque, bank transfer, or a mobile wallet. If this threshold is considered acceptable for daily ATM withdrawals, and since many Indians just don’t have 500/1000 rupee notes in their possession, mass contributions of those amounts are bound to be a miniscule portion of the total contributions anyway. The BJP and Congress could do well to open up their books for independent audits of their massive election finances.
  6. Disqualify election candidates with pending corruption cases: This would be the most path-breaking step of them all. Prime Minister Modi is committed to cleaning corruption from India, and his party should be ready to embody the message. My humble suggestion is that starting with the upcoming state assembly polls, BJP should set an example and not nominate for party tickets, anyone with a pending corruption case. This might lead to some electoral setbacks, but will be widely lauded as the greatest act of self-sacrifice by a political party in seventy years of independent India.
  7. Investigate income declarations of politicians and prosecute rapidly: Extending the effort to clean up the electoral process, all pre-election affidavit declarations must be investigated by a national investigative agency. One often laments that the affidavits mean little unless the data is used beyond generating infographics for the media. Candidates must face legal consequences if they indulge in under-reporting income or assets. Any unexplained spike from one election year to the other should attract the investigator’s attention.

I am confident that Prime Minister Narendra Modi will not stop in his mission to eliminate corruption. There is another huge advantage – they will give people a chance to take genuine pride in being honest, without having to endure the public chaos and personal inconvenience caused schemes such as the ongoing currency mop-up drive. Not only will people – especially the poor – bless the government, but also the brave men guarding our borders will be proud of us.

Judith Tendler, and learning from ‘good government’

On 24th July 2016, Judith Tendler, former Professor at the Department of Urban studies and Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Boston, passed away. She was 77. A Ph.D from Columbia University, Judith Tendler spent several years at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), before a long career as a Professor in MIT. A significant share of Prof. Tendler’s work focused on the Americas, but she also studied South Asia and parts of Africa over her long career.

Prof Tendler’s book: ‘Good Government in the Tropics’ (1997) is one of the most influential books in the field of international development — an essential reading for students of governance and public policy studies. In the book, Prof Tendler and her research associates studied four cases of successful government in Ceara, a relatively poor state in north-eastern Brazil. In each of the cases, the government at different levels played an effective role, facilitating and brokering relationships, and submitting itself to mechanisms which could be used to hold themselves accountable. Those were rare, but rich, examples of ‘good government’.

These cases highlighting the achievements of ‘good governments’ challenged the dominant pessimistic thinking about governance in the so-called ‘third world’. Prof Tendler argued that much of the advice from international development agencies to developing countries was based on an analysis of poor performance of the public sector and governments. This resulted in a tendency to ‘import’ good practices from the successful developed countries, as well as a resistance to looking deeply into poor countries to identify variations in performance. In many ways. Prof Tendler consistently challenged the pre-suppositions that development agencies and policy advisors nurtured and which, as a result, shaped the advice they dispensed into narrow straitjackets often unfit for the context in which they were to be applied.

One of the interesting, if surprising, conclusions of Prof Tendler’s research for the book is that local governments (or non-government organisations, for that matter) were not inherently any better at service delivery. In the 1990s, the push for decentralised governance was very strong, and several countries, including India, made significant progress in decentralising power to tiers of government closer to its citizens. At the same time, policymakers and advocates were locked in debates over whether decentralisation led to positive outcomes. In this context, a call to look beyond established models of decentralisation and look for variations in implementation in different contexts was highly valuable.

The researchers found that service delivery improved in Ceara not because the central government got out of the way and allowed the local governments and civic action a free hand, but because it involved itself in a self-interested fashion, monitoring delivery by local governments, and playing an active role in civic education. This was quite unlike the conventional thinking around decentralisation at the time, and we are better off for it. In the book, Prof Tendler does not argue that her cases represented the norm. Instead, her point was simply that the politics of implementation merit far more attention than it had so far received. More and more now, researchers studying public policy are expected to focus on ‘implementation’ — looking beyond ‘what works’ to the ‘why’ and ‘how’. The learning agenda that is fast gaining currency too has been enriched by this focus on implementation, as it takes organisations into reflecting deeper on how to make change happen.

The questions Prof Tendler posed about an uncritical belief in the merits of decentralisation, the ability of civil society as an agent to hold the government accountable, or the fatalism that prevails regarding the commitment of public sector employees, are highly relevant today in India. It has been clear for some time now that the model of decentralised governance in India will look different in each state, and rightly so. A single framework for analysis therefore, will not work. Similarly, hybrid forms of civic action continue to thrive, as there is increasing pressure to work with government, and yet retain its independence. Finally, implementation capacity of the state remains a challenge, as the state attempts to restore credibility. The experiments with technology-enabled solutions and motivational messages directed at the bureaucracy are efforts in that direction.

As we analyse public sector reforms, the work of Prof Tendler will remain a great source of insight: there is no silver bullet, other than incremental improvement, and evidence-based iteration.

‘Achhe din’ giving BJP a miss?

The excuses are running thin; The photoshop has lost novelty; The joke is on us; When will ‘Achhe din’ come? – my latest livemint column

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I watched the video clip of Union minister Nitin Gadkari’s disarmingly candid chat in mid-September, where he talks about the origins of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) slogan—‘achhe din aayenge’ (good days will come). He said that Narendra Modi had once told him that at a non-resident Indian (NRI) event in Delhi, the people had asked then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh when would it be achhe din for them? Singh had apparently said: In the future,achhe din would surely come. Gadkari went on to add (chucking all the time), that since Indians are inherently aspirational, there is no such thing as an ultimate achhe din. He also said that wherever he goes, the people (and the media) ask him about the promised achhe din, and that the now-famous slogan has become something like a millstone around the neck.

As expected, this provided much mirth to all critics of the government, and probably some discomfort to the government’s supporters. I am not sure though if anyone enjoyed this more than Gadkari, who was clearly having a good laugh not only at the expense of his party for hyping that slogan, but also us (the people), for constantly demanding to know when achhe din would be delivered.

Commentators pointed out that it will not be easy for the BJP to escape from the wide-ranging promises it had made during electioneering. Gadkari obviously realizes the scale of promises made by his party. His remark, which referred to the unquenchable desire for acquiring more, is spot on. The problem then, is of having stoked unrealistic expectations, and used every trick in the book, and off it, to run down the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government.

On this count, Modi, then as the prime challenger, led the charge. Promising the moon on every conceivable issue, he and his campaign managers successfully created an aura of invincibility, built upon the so-called Gujarat model of governance. The bubble has now well and truly burst. The list of promises not kept have mounted. A host of individuals have made a mockery of Modi’s promises to the nation—from lawmakers in the BJP who have put paid to all hopes of ‘sab ka saath, sab ka vikas’ (development for all), to people like Vijay Mallya, who represent the rot of crony capitalism. The economy, propped up by cheap oil, is also not quite humming the tune the BJP would like it to. Recent projections suggest that the rupee will fall further against the US dollar, and our gross domestic product estimates are still being met with widespread scepticism.

One can quibble about the intensity of opposition the government has faced and how it compares with previous governments, but it is undeniable that any political party that campaigns using such outlandish promises must face the music when its failings surface. Even after assuming office as prime minister, Modi went from stage to stage—at home and abroad—proudly declaring that Indians who were once ashamed of their country are now roaring with pride. That some of these statements were made within weeks of the BJP coming to power should have been a telling statement of the hubris that this government came with. But it is more important to use these occasions to disseminate a more important message to the people at large—that no government (and certainly no man) will come to rescue us with a magic wand. The goods and services tax, Aadhaar and National Rural Employment Guarantee Act clearly show that policy continuity is a fact of life in governing India.

But it is perhaps the rhetoric on national security that must be weighing most heavily around the government’s neck. Modi and associates, who seemingly possessed a perfect soundbyte-sized solution to every national security and foreign policy issue, have been forced to reflect a bit deeply for a change. The controlled ‘surgical strike’, followed by uncontrolled jingoism, suggests dangerous possibilities. For a government struggling to deliver on several other fronts, will it be able to escape the temptation for more expansive adventurism along the border? After all, war would be the perfect spectator sport for a populace fed up of India’s tepid anti-terrorism strategy. This is the constituency that cares little about growth and development, but is intensely conscious of India’s ‘atma-samman’ (self respect). Humouring it is likely to be a key priority, but the consequences could be disastrous.

For the restless India of today, this is a good time to look back at its recent past. What was it that made it kosher for an electorate to overlook the limits of reality, and cheer in chorus for a messiah? I have consistently argued in these columns that we recognise that governance is more than delivering rousing speeches; that no one man is going to transform India; and that we must not restrict our political choices so much that we settle for leaders with narrow communal and authoritarian tendencies.

So let this be a moment that tempers the triumphalism of 2014, and of the sobering realisation that an election campaign, mounted on an epic scale, pulled off one of the greatest cons in recent times. We should be thankful that sensible leaders such as Gadkari are owning up to the electoral jumlas. That will come in handy when the BJP looks within for alternative mascots to redeem its beleaguered self.

India @ 70: time to stop being complacent about our democracy

For the seventieth time since independence, India celebrated its incredible democracy on 15th August 2016. There are several theories for why India is such an implausible democracy, and our ability to be an exception in a troubled neighbourhood evokes great nationalistic fervour. However, this celebration of our democracy sometimes distracts us from taking a hard look at the state of our democracy..

I want to contrast this with the focus on the economy. As this year coincided with 25 years of India’s liberalization project, there has been much written about how the economy needed to be unshackled from the tyranny of the licence raj, and about how much more remains to be done in our quest for economic growth. When the Goods and Services Tax (GST) legislation was in Parliament recently, reams were written about how it was a seminal piece of reform, and how this should herald a series of institutional reforms to unlock the economic potential of the country. This restlessness that one sees when it comes to the state of the economy isn’t quite visible when it comes to discussing the state of our democracy. In fact, it is fair to say that while we have strong lobbies pushing for economic reforms, we have become largely complacent about the state of our democracy. Recent actions by the government (across political parties) have exposed huge gaps that need to be addressed urgently.

Let me start with electoral reform. Two reports of the Law Commission—on Electoral Disqualifications (2014) and Electoral Reforms (2015)—lie largely ignored by political parties across the country. The latter report, especially, made strong recommendations for curbing the flow of black money into electoral financing, as well as taking action against the phenomenon of ‘paid news’ used as electoral propaganda. It is indeed a little ironical, then, that the last significant move by the government in the area of election financing was the amendment brought to retrospectively alter the definition of what counts as a ‘foreign entity’—a move that benefits the top political parties in the country that had been in potential violation of the Foreign Contributions Regulation Act (FCRA) until then. Meanwhile, official advertisements for “friendly” media has been a tremendous growth industry in recent times.

Another area of concern has been the state’s ham-handed response to dissent. From organisations such as Amnesty International to student bodies such as in JNU and private individuals airing their views on freedom of expression in India—they have been met by a state response that sought to not only crush dissent through hooliganism by affiliates and spurious legal action, but also saw fit to make light of such incidents at public forums.

The next area of concern I would like to highlight is our federal structure. While the GST was lauded by all economics commentators, the implications for federalism were left unclear. Finance minister Arun Jaitley’s insistence on ‘pooled sovereignty’ will not convince critics who see a systematic erosion of the power of state governments to govern according to their priorities. Centrally-sponsored schemes, which were openly criticized by Narendra Modi when he was the chief minister of Gujarat for their straitjacketed nature, have not seen any significant reform either. Instead, there has been plenty of rhetoric about ‘Team India’ and ‘cooperative federalism’. This leaves plenty to be desired even if you take into account the committees and task-forces run by NITI Aayog. And even the rhetoric does not seem to apply when it comes to non-BJP ruled states. Kashmir is a special case, but it blatantly exposes the limitations of a central government driven by nationalistic rhetoric and paternalistic benevolence.

A final area of concern is the neglect of the democratic decentralisation process. The reforms of the early 1990s now appear toothless; both urban and rural local governments are hamstrung by poor resources and poor leadership, and an institutional framework that has not been reformed to keep up with the mounting responsibilities entrusted to local bodies. Governments have also taken a series of steps that erode local-level democracy. For instance, states such as Rajasthan and Haryana have hurt local governance by introducing questionable eligibility criteria for contesting elections; Nitish Kumar’s Bihar Prohibition and Excise Act, 2016 empowers the District Collector to impose fines on a village/town (presumably with no involvement of the panchayat); in Maharashtra (and elsewhere), the forest department has violated the rights of tribal communities to manage their forests.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. But it points to the rapidly worsening state of our democracy at all levels—right from the centre of power in Delhi, down to our villages. Seven decades after independence, the state of our democracy should concern us all, and erase any sense of complacency that might exist regarding how great a nation we are. But we need to be careful: the incredible democratic project that India represents will not be corrected by chauvinistic nationalism. It is as important to guard against those agitating against the current state of our democracy, and in favour of reversing the progress we have made. True reform requires a partnership between a liberal state and a constantly watchful civil society. Is the current government up to this task?