The power of one
(This writeup is in response to an article in Indian Express date July 31, 2010. The main theme of the article is that "that is all it takes to transform an instituion - just one person with no past and no greed for the future.")
I entirely disagree with the views expressed by Shekhar Gupta. (The Power of One - Indian Express dated July 31, 2010). He appears to have fallen to our usual failing wherein we are dazzled by the brilliance of the firework failing to notice that it will be followed by more intense darkness. A nation becomes strong by having strong institutions, no matter who heads them. The British Raj lasted in India through these institutions and did not have to depend upon the brilliance of the Viceroy of the moment. In comparison, our empires - Maurya to Mughal - disintegrated as soon as the rulers became weak. At lower level, we can consider the institution of Collector at the district level which was set up by the British. Even after all these years, the Collector, as an institution, still wields considerable influence in the district. Persons come and go but the institution lives on.
As for his examples, they are mistaken in their approach. Unfortunately when a person does what he is not supposed to do but does it brazenly, he is considered to be a hero. Seshan did not make Election Commission strong. He only fed his ego. He seized upon the weakness of the constitutional provisions and the weakness of the politicians to establish his supremacy. I remember how he humiliated a Chief Minister of a major state by making him sit with the driver. The CM was not an MLA and his continuance depended upon being elected to the legislature. The holding of the election depended entirely on the Election Commission which made Seshan behave as he did. The Parliament had to amend the Act to make it mandatory to hold the bye election within six months to overcome this sort of tyranny. Seshan also postponed the elections by three weeks to enable a party to take advantage of assassination of a PM hopeful. In similar circumstances Sri Lanka held the elections on the due dates. To assert his supremacy (sic), he forbade the use of ballot boxes, as if they were his personal property, for the municipal and the panchayat elections forcing the state governments to duplicate the set leading to national wastage. Another Election Commissioner, though charged with holding the elections, withheld them. This was in Gujarat on the plea that some persons had been displaced and would not be able to cast their votes. He had no hesitation in holding elections in Jammu and Kashmir, in similar circumstances, despite the fact of many persons having been displaced. We need not go into motive for such behaviour but it is clear that the powers that were given to the Election Commission were misused. This does not entitle any one to claim that thereby he made the institution strong.
As regards Judiciary, a similar weak Government enabled it to usurp powers which did not belong to it. The contemptible Contempt of Court Act gave it the powers to ride roughshod over the constitutional provisions. It fixed its own pay scales and perks. It increased the retirement age of its members. It refixed their pension. It insisted that 'consultations' means 'concurrence'. It started the practice of Public Interest Litigation which has no constitutional back up to take up issues which did not fall in its jurisdiction. Despite the allegations against some of its members, it stonewalled attempts to expose them using, or rather misusing its powers.
The writers laments the lack of efficacy of CBI, CVC and such other institutions. This is not the result of the lack of intelligent and dedicated persons occupying these posts. They were of the same mould as the persons who were bureaucrats before they became Election Commissioners. What has prevented them from asserting themselves is inability to find the loophole which would enable them to do so. We have to think of the constitutional provisions which can make these institutions strong so that they can deliver. Failure to make such provisions and such conventions is the problem, not the absence of strong persons. When we have reached a stage where the individual occupying a chair does not matter, but the conventions and the reputation of the institution does, only then we would be able to have a strong Election Commission, Judiciary, CBI and CVC which can make the nation strong. Meanwhile we can only lament our own shortcomings in this regard and wait for an incarnation to deliver the goods.