[op-ed snap] An Independent Institutions Bill remains a long-unrealised constitutional aspiration

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Mains Paper 2: Governance | Important aspects of governance, transparency & accountability

From the UPSC perspective, the following things are important:

Prelims level: Not much

Mains level: Maintaining independence of fourth branch through legislation.


NEWS

CONTEXT

An independent institutions bill should seek the following objectives: One, multi-partisan appointments, two, operational independence and impartiality, and three, accountability to the legislature rather than the executive.An Independent Institutions Bill should feature in their manifestoes.

Credibility in danger

  • The independence and credibility of our (admittedly imperfect) state institutions have never been so thoroughly in doubt since the Emergency.
  • Characterised as the fourth branch of the state — because of their distinctiveness from the executive, legislature and judiciary — these institutions are tasked with the protection of key constitutional values such as democracy, legality, impartiality, probity, human rights and price stability. 
  • The Indian Constitution secures these institutions implicitly by expecting Parliament to enact a law prescribing detailed mechanisms for appointments to and functioning of such institutions — for example, through Articles 280(2) and 324(2).

What is fourth Branch

  • In the Indian context, institutions of the fourth branch include the Election Commission, Lokpal, Central Bureau of Investigation, Reserve Bank, National Statistics Commission, National Human Rights Commission, Information Commission, commissions for various marginalised groups, Central Vigilance Commission, Comptroller & Auditor General, Attorney General, Public Service Commission, University Grants Commission, Finance Commission, Niti Aayog, media regulators and many others.
  • Some of these institutions are constitutional; others have quasi-constitutional status.

Purpose of Independent Institutions Bill 

  • An Independent Institutions Bill should seek the following objectives
    • One, multi-partisan appointments
    • two, operational independence and impartiality
    • three, accountability to the legislature rather than the executive.

Ways to achieve it; outline of bill

  • Parliamentary IICs could include two nominees of the ruling party/alliance (including any party providing support from the outside) and a nominee each from the three largest Opposition parties in each House.
  • The vidhan sabha IICs could have one governmental nominee and one each from the two largest Opposition parties.
  • Thus designed, the IICs will include the voice of the powerful regional parties of the day, and not just the two national parties.The IICs should be guaranteed adequate staff and resources to permit the proper discharge their functions.
  •  Based on applications and consultations with relevant stakeholders (including existing members of that institution, MPs from the relevant state for state-level appointments, area experts and activists), the IIC should draw up a shortlist of at least two — and no more than five — names to fill up the posts.
  • From this shortlist, the final selection should be made by the Lok Sabha’s IIC for central institutions, and the relevant vidhan sabha’s IIC for state institutions.
  • The appointments should be for a fixed term.
  •  Removal from office should require at least four votes in the Rajya Sabha IIC, after a specially-instituted independent inquiry finds a breach of a statutorily specified offence.
  • All institutional decisions should be made by a governing committee rather than the chief officer acting on her own.
  • A robust guarantee of non-interference by the executive should be anxiously policed by the courts.

Way Forward

  • The Bill should require fourth branch institutions to regularly publish reports about their functioning.
  • Based on these public reports, the Lok Sabha or vidhan sabha IIC, as the case may be, should question their senior staff in annual, televised, hearings.
  • Yes, we must “Save the Constitution”. But a slogan is not enough.
  • The current Opposition should put its money where its mouth is, and make a manifesto commitment to enact the Independent Institutions Bill.
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