Last week, India’s media was abuzz with reports of a meeting that did not take place — the one between officials of the Ministry of Finance and members of the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI). Around the same time, the sacked chief of the United States’ Federal Bureau of Investigation deposed with candour about his interactions with US President Donald Trump, in the midst of a probe into whether the latter had obstructed justice.
Both the events point to one question: What level of intervention by the “government” is acceptable in the functioning of governmental institutions that have their own institutional governance mechanisms? For many, the point of discussion itself is meaningless: To their minds, once an institution is “governmental”, the government in office has every right to dictate terms on how to “govern”. If you believe in that approach, feel free to stop reading further. If not, remember this is an issue even more critical for India than for the United States. Here’s why.
Most Indian economic legislation — the Acts that led to setting up regulators for the capital markets, insurance sector, pension funds or telecommunications and airports, and so on — have specific provisions that enable the central government to issue directions on matters of policy to regulators. If more than one view is possible on what constitutes “policy”, the government’s view is final. For many policy wonks, such a legal position is adequate for the government to have an unconditional say in the running of a regulatory or investigative institution.
Indeed, when controversy over interference erupts, government servants usually point to these provisions. Worse, potentially diabolically, it is usually pointed out that in fact government records have no evidence of these provisions being actually put to use. Indeed, there is even a reluctance to use these powers formally. For example, when the finance ministry could have issued policy directions to the regulators of the capital markets and the insurance sector to resolve their differences over how to regulate unit-linked insurance plans that appeared to have features of both insurance policies and mutual funds, the finance ministry instead asked the regulators to litigate. Formal use of the policy-direction power requires taking a stance in writing and exposing the decision to accountability in the form of judicial and academic review. Informally, the clubby-chummy world of “moral suasion” enables unbridled intervention and “guidance” with no statutory accountability involved.
This is the context in which traditional central bankers were chafing at the very mention of the idea of setting up a MPC — where nominees of the finance ministry would engage in discussion with central bankers — although the central bank would have the last word thanks to a casting vote of the RBI governor. The finance ministry’s thinking in wanting to meet the committee members points to the central problem with governance in India, whether it is corporate governance or statutory governance. When a governance system entails representation in the form of people trusted by the nominating authority being appointed to a forum, it would not follow that the nominee is a postman or a spokesman at the forum for the nominating authority. She is not meant to be a messenger or agent, who is to carry out instructions of the nominating authority.
For example, once a director is nominated by a shareholder to the board of directors of a company, the director has to play her statutory role in the governance of the company. If the fact that she is a shareholder-nominee were to be a licence for the nominating shareholder to dictate terms to her and to the board where she sits on how business must be conducted, not only the very office of the director but also the entire forum of governance, that is, the board of directors, stands eroded. They would be rendered as rubber stamps in reality and office-bearers only on paper.
It would be akin to the mob’s view in “people’s rule” (yes, that sounds Maoist) prevailing over the rule by those voted to power, because it is the people who voted them to power and the mob belongs to the people. It is this principle that led the United Kingdom’s Supreme Court’s ruling in the Brexit case, too. It was for Parliament to take a decision and pass a law on leaving the European Union and not say that it had no role on the premise that the people had spoken through a referendum. Identical is the case with a gay marriage plebiscite in Australia, where wary of popular reaction either way, members of parliament sought to wash their hands of the matter and sit on the fence by referring the question to a plebiscite.
Instituting the MPC with governmental representation does not mean the government can tell the committee what it must do. Having chosen them, it is for committee members to function and take independent decisions of their own volition. Indeed, there is one very important element in all this: Such a nuanced governance narrative could push underground, the influencing of the committee members by the government. Instead of openly seeking meetings, these discussions would be pushed to the sidelines of think-tank discussions, the cocktail circuit and the drawing rooms of those influential in the lobby.
However, the potential abuse of rightful conduct of governance does not mean that right governance systems should themselves get shunned. It is for transparency systems such as the law on right to information, or parliamentary oversight (indeed that is what led to the deposition in the United States) to keep in check abusive underground activity in governing a nation.
This column was published in the Business Standard’s edition dated June 15, 2017 under the title Without Contempt