Now to Call the Shots

Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi now faces the pri­mary test of au­thor­ity

The Economic Times - - The Edit Page - Pranab Dhal Sa­manta

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

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