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Harvard India Conference - Day 2

Vijay Basra

Part 2 provides a summary of three events from Day 2 focusing on:

Global Implications of India’s 2014 Election

Delivering Public Services: Fixing India’s Achillies’ Heel, and

Debating Judicial Activism in India

Global Implications of India’s 2014 Election

The panel for this discussion consisted of Mr.  B K Agnihorti, former Ambassador for India and past Dean of the Oklahoma Law School and a BJP advocate,  Mr Ahishek Manu Singhvi, an eminent lawyer,  political leader and Congress Party Member of the Rajya Sahba representing Rajasthan, and Dr. Abhishek Mishra, Minister of State  for Science and Technology representing  the Samajwadi Pary in Uttar Pradesh.    This was overall a cordial discussion between the panelist with the usual jibes as expected from opposing party adherents active in the upcoming elections.
Each of the two national parties had their pet peeve regarding their real life colleagues and adversaries .  The first central point of discussion covered the ineffectiveness and low activity of the current Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh, a charge spearheaded by Mr. Agnihotri.    Mr.  Singhvi in his attempt to diffuse this characterization of the Prime Minister by reminding the audience that the Prime Minister-ship role is a national role and once in that position you are not a representative of the party, which in this case would be the Congress Party.    Though an interesting technical counterpoint that is appreciated and is courageous to make, it was seen as a meek side step attempt by the Congress representative.      Mr. Agnihotra was pained by the barrier to entry into politics when there is such favoritism for dynastic rule and the wish that electoral politics and vote buy between parties was would not be there.

Both were living in their dream words:  Mr. Agnihotra with his wish that regional parties would dwindle to nothing and Mr. Singhvi wish that the Gandhi family be seen only as an unfortunate act of providence that Rahul Gandhi happens to be related to Sonia Gandhi and such well known past Indian leadership.    Amusing thought to be presented to a relatively well educated audience, by any standards,  in Boston Mr.  Mishra remained on the more contentious issue though on the matter of regional parties added that regional parties were closer to the electorates regarding language and association and hence truer representatives.  Though all three played down the role and criticized the failing of the Amm Adami Party accusing it of pure symbolism and gimmickry, their underlying wish that honeymoon for AAP as over, Mr. Singhvi this time again show real courage and did admit without reservation  the positive paradigm brought by the AAP to governance.   He also recognized opportunities as a result of this though none of the party representative to the opportunity to discuss exactly what they will do and in what time frame.  In summary, for Mr. Singhvi the Indian Government is over-legislated and under enforced.  For Mr. Mishra the merits of delivering what you promised to the electorate.  Mr.  Agnihotri essentially lamenting the use of family band names in Indian politics as indicator of lack of confidence and found it personally shameful.
So what was new?   As much as the AAP term in office was short of definitive obvious long term results in legislation, none of the parties presented a case on how they would address the short coming and problems tackled by the AAP.  Regarding a question on gender and gender inequality the standard solutions were presented, that of change in the expectations for girls in the more rural areas.   Mr. Agnihotri reminded the audience of an initiative by one Chief Minister of the introduction a “parents day” honoring the mother and the father that had elements of values support both the sexes in the younger generation in term of expectation and opportunities in society.  

Overall this session was true to form in that it was lively, relatively cordial, gave some insight into the sentiment and position toward the new make-believe “nameless party “in Delhi but with little new information.   Mr. Singhvi litany of statistics on the performance of the present government was largely ignored.

Delivering Public Services: Fixing India’s Achillies’ Heel

The keynote speaker was Dr. Ajay Chhibber the newly appointed Director General of the Independent Evaluation Organization, Government of India.  This is a newly created position that has the rank of Minister of State and the appointment is made by the Prime Minister of India.  Prior to this position Dr. Chhibber has held senior positions including those in the United Nations, World Bank, various government agencies and taught at Georgetown and Delhi Universities. He has also published five books.  Only recently has he returned to India to accept to his position.

A central insight brought by Dr. Chhibber’s talk was that the Indian regulatory structure separates the audit and evaluation bodies.  The result of this is constant auditing of the evaluation  bodies.  Dr. Chibber provided examples of how this is often  counter-productive.   In the United States the two bodies are combined.  It was interesting note that an auditory body has already asked Dr. Chibber to justify why he was selected for his position after his appointment had already been made!  

Dr. Chibber explained that there are too many program, too many regulatory bodies, too many rigid rules and redundancy.  Many of the problems are in the design of the programs themselves and not always in the implementation.  With the recent passing of the food security bill as a highlight Dr. Chibber points out that India has become a welfare state before it has become a development state.  This is not usually the sequence of steps for a nation.

The post independency years have referred to as the license raj.   Later this was abolished in resulting in significant societal benefits.  Dr. Chibber says we are now in “relicense” raj.  Here those who benefited from license raj have learnt to adjust to the changes and are back in the same position as before.   This along with earlier factors mentioned are the driving reasons for the initiatives to revisit the regulatory structure.

The two cornerstones of Dr. Chibber’s  thrust in the evaluation process will be increased competitive analysis and bench marking of programs, and review of product based versus people based subsidies.  Dr. Chibber is on a long and arduous path and the Indian-American community wishes him the best.

Debating Judicial Activism in India

This panel consisted of, Ms. Menaka Guruswamy, practicing lawyer at the Supreme Court of India , Mr Ahishek Manu Singhvi, an eminent lawyer,  political leader and Congress Party Member of the Rajya Sabha, and Dr. Sanjy Ruparelia,  Assistant Professor of Politics of  The New School of Social Research in New York.   The panel presented many  insights in the  working of the Supreme Court along with potential solutions to the problems currently present.

All panelists agreed that there is judicial activism by the Supreme Court and that this activism was non-uniform and inconsistent direction.   The court acts like 12 different benches as opposed to having a collective position.  So a Supreme Court decision arrived at is primarily dependent on the Supreme Court judge.   Mr. Singhvi pointed out that this is no different from the lack of cohesive views presented by the individual parliamentary parties that are in power as a coalition government.  Ms. Guruswami reminded the audience that there is a presumption of constitutionality that is highly rebuttable and talked of the need for textually manageable judicial standards.  All agreed that the court system is into borderline Indian politics.

Ms. Menaka Guruswamy view is that the court is indeed immensely over-burned, and further the legislative branch of government, namely parliament, is not conducting discussions on topics on which they make decisions.  Consequently, the supreme court is in fact doing the parliaments job.   Mr.  Singhvi further reinforced this premise by stating that the supreme court is playing to the expectation of the electorate.  The electorate expects the supreme court to support their interests and provide fairness giving the court their trust.  He confirmed that the supreme court is being populist.  Mr. Singhvi also pointed out that as soon as parliament starts to do its job through improved conversion and debates the electorate’s expectation would change and the court would stop its current activism.  So is a sense there is true representation of the electorate in this activism though it is not the intended role given to the supreme court by the Indian Constitutional.   Mr. Singvi’s though very uncomfortable with this form of representation revealed his pragmatism by his desire “not to throw the baby out with the bath water”.  The panel pointed to two other problems:  to many cases are far too slow and that the supreme courts elect their own members.

So what is the solution?.  A reduction of the case burden on the court would result in more introspection by the supreme court ensuring more discussion and a better quality of decision. This would require more resources.  Mr.  Sangvi proposed that the bench use data and specifically statistical data and analysis first to determine what the issues are so that judges can make informed decisions.  All of this ties into how much time and resources can be freed up. It was suggested there be rotation of the judges with the benefit of faster case closure of and increased uniformity of standards.  The fact that supreme court self elects its own members was seen by all as an aberration of the intent of the constitution that need correction.  This would require a passing of a bill.  Ms. Guruswamy explained some to the history behind the formation of the Indian Constitution.

Regarding the fast track case process particularly in response high profile rape cases , Ms. Guruswamy view was that their effectiveness was  very difficult to assess.   Ms.  Guruswamy pointed out that there are many case categories that are made fast track and for all of them there is a dearth of data on their effectiveness.  Throughout the session, Dr. Ruparelia brought historical context to the workings of the Indian courts and comparison with other systems.  As a political scientist he pointed out that the emphasis on “rights” cases was a result of other political avenues not functioning.   This was one of the more enjoyable and informative discussions in the two day session.

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