Now to Call the Shots
Prime Minister Narendra Modi now faces the primary test of authority
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has reached a very delicate and significant phase of his term, one that has little to do with his party’s prospects in Uttar Pradesh but a lot to do with the stamp of authority he wants to cement on his office by the time he is up for re-election in 2019.
This relates to the PM’s institutional role as head of executive. And, by now, the broad consensus is that he runs a tight ship, steered by a powerful PMO that has sought to actively explore the boundaries of executive authority. The impact of the change he brought has been felt on other institutions: legislature, judiciary, even the bureaucracy.
This was well in tune with the sweeping mandate for change that catapulted him to Delhi. But three years down the line, Prime Minister Modi is no longer an outsider correcting the system. He is very much at the heart of the system: as much the rulekeeper as the challenger. Why is any of this power nuance relevant? Because change is in the air again: in judiciary, legislature, the presidency and a range of other statutory authorities. This, in turn, will test the relatively stable executive.
By August, when there’s a new president and vice-president, which also means a new chair of the Rajya Sabha, Modi would appear every bit a veteran on Raisina Hill. The onus to guide these relationships would lie very much with him and his executive regardless of who is elected and how.
The conversation with the judiciary is already on test with a new Chief Justice of India (CJI) at the helm. Both sides are striving hard to close the gap on the Memorandum of Procedure to appoint judges. CJI J S Khehar also doesn’t go beyond August. Which means we may have another new head in the Supreme Court along with the president and vice-president. Thus, the constitutional responsibility of harmonising these new relations will fall on the PMO.
On Uneven Keel
This task is harder than it seems. Take the case of the RBI governor, a statutorily autonomous office that has been under scrutiny for the nature of its role since Raghuram Rajan’s last few months in office to the recent handling of the demonetisation issue. GoI has had to engage in coursecorrection of late to ensure that the grammar of the relationship doesn’t get skewed against RBI’s institutional autonomy.
Yet, there’s no doubt that a powerful executive through higher offices of the government will have a dominant say in reshaping these new equations. A typical example was the RBI-Election Commission (EC) standoff on candidates in the ongoing state elections unable to access fund amounts mandated by the EC.
RBI said it could not grant an exemption just to election contestants. Eventually, GoI’s silent intervention and honest brokering at the highest levels resolved the matter.
But it’s not easy to attain the same degree of effectiveness each time. In the Jallikattu case, the Tamil Nadu government did engage in a sleight of hand by categorising ‘bull taming’ as a sport, hence a state subject on which it could legislate. So, all it sought was an approval on a point of law. The Centre played along, ostensibly to ensure the crowds got off the streets but knowing well that the stage for a fresh court battle was being set.
Events like J Jayalalithaa’s death did alter the board in a way that the TamilNadugovernmentcouldauthor such a script with the Centre. Similarly, one can say Rajan’s departure did impact the nature of RBI’s response on key issues with the government.
But broadly, all of this firmly indicates that the executive — and, so, the PM — will probably take institutional centre-stage in the rejig of the constitutional balance of power within the next few months. This, especially, after the gradual exit of powerful political personalities, including some key UPA appointees.
But with centre-stage comes greater scrutiny. Questions will be asked that if GoI can exercise more institutional muscle on the Supreme Court to develop a screening mechanism to shortlist judges for appointment, will it also initiate a conversation with its own party back end on the quality of the selection of governors, a crucial constitutional office?
Governors selected for the sensitive northeast states of Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya have had to re- sign within the first two years. They were outright political appointees, who became a source of embarrassment for the government. There are a few others constantly treading the thin line. One of them has even been told off for venting political views on social media.
Chill, Deep Dive Ahead
And then there’s the other side of the problem in Jammu & Kashmir. There, the Centre is struggling to find its own suitable candidate to replace octogenarian N N Vohra, who is now in the fourth year of his second term.
From meeting standards to setting standards is always a challenging journey. It can be both heady and humbling at the same time. Not all PMs have had the popular mandate to traverse this space with authority. Modi is among those rare exceptions withtheopportunitytodefinehisown institutional stamp. And it’s that leg that’s now begun, where winning elections is not necessarily the primary test of authority.
A little touch-up won’t harm you