The loaves and fishes of office

The recent brouhaha over the extension of tenures for specific officers of the Government of India even when they are well past the normal age of retirement has brought into focus again the issues of the sanctity of the retirement age and the possible interference by government in the independent functioning of officers handling crucial organisations, especially those endowed with enormous powers to investigate offences, both economic and otherwise. However, this is no recent development: fixed tenures for the Cabinet Secretary, Home, Foreign and Defence Secretaries, and Directors of the Intelligence Bureau and Research & Analysis Wing, extending beyond the normal age of superannuation, have been in vogue for a number of years now.

What has occasioned concern in recent days has been the Government of India’s decision to give five-year tenures to the heads of two Central Government investigative agencies that have often been caught in the crosshairs of political wars. The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) is no stranger to controversy: no less a body than the Supreme Court termed it a “caged parrot”. To the CBI has been added the Enforcement Directorate (ED) which has come into the public eye only in recent years. These two agencies, along with their country cousins, the Income Tax department, the National Investigation Agency and the Narcotics Control Bureau, have developed into falcons from parrots, with their deployment by the Central Government in a wide range of cases, amidst concerns as to whether these serve merely political ends or the ends of justice (the Sushant Singh Rajput and Aryan Khan cases serve as examples). Of even greater concern are the cases of raids, and selective disclosures, that surface whenever election time surfaces. Karnataka in 2018, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu in 2021 are states where politicians of parties opposed to the BJP received special attention from central investigative agencies.

It is significant (and glaringly obvious) that officers were being given tenure posts or extensions in service just days before their date of superannuation (as witnessed in the appointment of the Police Commissioner of Delhi and the last-minute extension of tenure of the Director, ED). The recent amendments in Fundamental Rules and the changes in the Acts governing the CBI and ED aim to legalise extensions and attempt to put them beyond the pale of judicial challenge.

What is equally notable is the plethora of appointments to post-retirement posts, from the ranks of both the higher judiciary and the top echelons of the civil services. That this practice has the sanction of precedent is no cause for comfort. There have been far too many cases in the past three decades where the appointments to crucial posts of retired judges and bureaucrats have raised uncomfortable questions about possible quid pro quos for decisions favourable to the government of the day taken by the beneficiaries while in positions of power. While some of the pre- and post-retirement appointments go through a committee which has, apart from the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court as its members, other crucial appointments, as for example, the Election Commissioners, are made purely at the discretion of the executive.

At a juncture in our democratic existence when many executive decisions are viewed with some measure of suspicion, there is need to evolve norms for appointments to the highest positions in the civil services that ease such suspicions as also mitigate the rising apprehension that serving civil servants are being induced through the carrot of continued service to shed their independence and impartiality in decision making. I venture to make some suggestions below to address this vexing issue.

Superannuation from public service should be mandatory on attaining the age of 60 for all members of the civil services. On attaining the specified age, civil servants should follow the shining example of RCVP Noronha, former Chief Secretary of Madhya Pradesh, who refused any extension and rode away happily from the Secretariat on his Luna moped on the day he superannuated.

For all senior positions in constitutional/statutory bodies, like Members/Chairpersons of Commissions and Tribunals, where judicial/administrative experience is required, selection should be through a process of application. This should also apply to the heads of major investigation agencies, which enjoy powers of. search, seizure and confiscation. The final selection should be done by a Committee which comprises representatives of the concerned government, the judiciary or the Union Public Service Commission and representatives of opposition parties (for specific constitutional/executive posts, as is the case at present).

Most importantly, the selection of civil servants for all higher posts (administrative and quasi-judicial) should be structured such that the person superannuates from the post at the age of 60 years. This would imply that a person would be selected for such a post around the age of 55 years (for those in government), so that (s)he would cease to hold office, after a tenure of five years, at or just before her/his normal superannuation date. This has certain implications, both for these functionaries and for those in the organisations they have left in order to hold these select posts. For one, those who move to posts outside the government structure will create openings for their juniors to move into senior positions in their departments/organisations. There may also be cases where, in full knowledge of the fact that (s)he is not likely to be in the running for the top job in the executive, a person may choose to move laterally to these posts. It would certainly enable governments, both at the centre and in the states, to dispense with many posts at apex levels, which (especially in state governments) seem to be virtually dished out with the rations.

As for the contention that officers’ talents will not be used beyond their age of superannuation, these talents and competencies can well be displayed in a variety of other fields — media, business, academics, social service and politics being obvious avenues. Rephrasing the recent utterance of a noted senior advocate, “the heavens will not fall if a worthy replacement takes on the responsibility of the retiring incumbent.” Nor does it preclude the truly ambitious from aspiring to governorships/ambassadorships/Rajya Sabha memberships, depending on their equations with the central government of the day.

In the final analysis, such a change would spare us the unseemly spectacle of persons jockeying in their final days of service with the powers that be to ensure their continued access to naukar-chakar-bangla-gaadi, apart from the heady access to power and prestige that continued occupation of prestigious posts brings. Civil servants, indeed all humans, would do well to heed the words of Adi Sankaracharya in the Bhaja Govindam:

दिनयामिन्यौ सायं प्रातः, शिशिरवसन्तौ पुनरायातः।

कालः क्रीडति गच्छत्यायुस्तदपि न मुन्च्त्याशावायुः ॥१२॥

Day and night, dusk and dawn, winter and spring come and go again.

Time sports and life ebbs away, and yet the gust of desire never leaves us.

The Road to Authoritarianism

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity…” (Charles Dickens: The Tale of Two Cities)

The opening words of Dickens’ novel capture the situation today rather forcefully. Liberal democracy, which has seen many ups and downs since 1688, through 1776, 1789, the 1940s-50s and 1989, is facing an existential crisis circa 2021. Human society is no stranger to authoritarian domination but its creeping engulfment of liberal democracies one after another in the absence of major wars or other crises (barring possibly the COVID pandemic) threatens the values that inspired the numerous movements for self-determination over the last few centuries. An analysis of authoritarian trends, whether in religion, society or the polity, shows that four A’s (Abnegation, Ambition, Apprehension, Apathy) nourish the growth of the fifth A (Authoritarianism).

Abnegation

Whether in social groups, religious denominations, ‘godmen’ cults or nation states, surrender of the members is the first step towards the development of an authoritarian environment. Tribal and caste loyalties and the divinity ascribed to an omniscient being, ruler or ecclesiastical organisations were prominent in pre-industrial societies. Norms and rules ostensibly handed down by prophets served to keep the masses in thrall to those in authority, with no challenge to the established order. The ferment engendered in societies worldwide over the past two and a half centuries for the establishment of the values of justice, liberty, equality and fraternity seemed to have ensconced the idea of liberal democracy as the guiding principle for nation states since the 1990s. The 2008 economic crisis and the failure of most liberal democracies to tackle growing economic inequalities in their societies, coupled with a growing disillusionment with the governing elites in most countries, have deepened insecurities and led to a desperate desire for a strong man (no woman currently in sight) in countries across different continents, ranging from Trump and Bolsonaro in the Americas to Erdogan in Turkey, Modi in India and Duterte in the Philippines. “The leader can do no wrong” is the mantra chanted by the glitterati and the chatterati, with enough support from sections of the electorate to see the leader and his party safely home.

This phenomenon of surrender of one’s critical faculties is rooted to some extent in the authoritarian environment that obtains to a significant extent in families, the education system, religions and the workplace. But it is equally, if not more, a reflection of the deep insecurities that confront humans as they struggle to come to terms with their lives and the desperate need to entrust their ‘souls’ to a comforting, omniscient being or organisation. The terrifying prospect of a lonely contemplation of one’s existential dilemmas is mitigated, and even removed altogether, by participation in a group with a larger purpose. A messiah with whom one can lodge all one’s worries and anxieties is the path that most such souls crave for.

However, this Faustian bargain of complete surrender of one’s soul comes with the tag of unquestioned obedience and willingness to act according to the commands of the messiah and his organisation. We have been witness over the past century to millions of humans blindly obeying the diktats of autocrats, even if it meant the extermination of countless of their fellow humans. That this was seen in supposedly “rational” societies was bizarre; that we observe its continuance today in countries with a long history of liberal democratic practices indicates that basic human traits have undergone little change despite education and exposure to liberal, humanistic values.

Ambition

Sections of society feel that they never got their just due in a liberal environment. These could range from academics with a pronounced right-wing orientation (as in India) to disgruntled politicians in opposition parties to those in the permanent employment of government who are of the view that their talents were not recognised. However, there are also many other individuals, from sectors ranging from the media, entertainment, academics and the bureaucracy, who smell the coffee in hitching their stars to an ideology that loathes liberal democratic ideals and places emphasis on adherence to nationalism, in its narrowest, exclusivist sense. Expediency rules the day: echoing the mantras of the ruling dispensation and providing unquestioning (and unthinking) “intellectual” and administrative support to the ideas propounded by the ruling dispensation enable these individuals to rise to and continue in positions of power and influence in the ruling order of the day. But ambition, to be really successful, must be accompanied by a willingness, indeed a fanatical urge, to outdo other potential competitors in anticipating the wishes of the leader (what, in Nazi parlance, was termed working towards the Fuhrer). This includes blindly implementing hairbrained schemes of the leader, unquestioningly harassing dissenters and opponents of the regime and indulging, repeatedly, in nauseous and fulsome praise of the thoughts and actions of the leader.

Apprehension

In this third category fall those who, though not really sold on the vision of the leader and his party or not ambitious by nature, fear the adverse consequences of not being seen as loyal to the ruling regime. These could include bureaucrats who fear being sidelined or media tycoons who fear that action may be taken against their empires. This group includes many political leaders who, apprehending executive action against them, find it more convenient to join hands with the ruling party. It may also cover those who participate in activities approved by the regime to avoid being perceived as not sympathetic to the ruling ideology.

Apathy

By far the largest segment of societies moving towards authoritarianism comprises those who choose to distance themselves from taking any ideological position. Their horizon comprises themselves and their immediate families and they are unwilling to, in any way, be seen as supporting or approving actions that may be perceived as inimical to the interests of the ruling group. Their attitude manifests itself most starkly at election time, when they vote for the leader’s party without any real conviction or understanding as regards its programmes and ideas. They will parrot the WhatsApp views of their neighbours, family members and friends, who are enthusiastic votaries of the ruling ideology, though they themselves would be hard pressed to explain what it is about the ruling dogmas that attracts them. The Eichmanns of the world arise from this category: even when sending Jews to the gas chambers, he was not moved by any emotion but merely saw himself as efficiently executing his job.

When the above four categories of individuals predominate in a society (generally with a combination of more than one of the four traits), the descent down the abyss of authoritarianism can be fairly rapid, even though the warning signs were probably there for decades prior to the actual denouement. The consequences for liberal democracy can be disastrous. Institutions charged with maintaining checks and balances on unbridled executive power are the first victims, as the regime sets about stripping them of their powers and packs them with its apparatchiks. Civil society is the next target: a combination of saam-daam-dand-bheda is employed to persuade / purchase / dissuade / divide people in this sphere to ensure that no effective dissent remains to question the actions of the government of the day. The stage is then set for the executive to fashion laws and rules to meet its ends: the rule of law, as understood in a liberal democracy, ceases to operate.

The real tragedy lies in the ratchet effect of the change brought about in society. Societies that go through these traumatic transitions to authoritarianism find it much harder to reestablish a liberal democracy years later. Institutions, once destroyed, are not so easily established again. The psyche of a people that has undergone a metamorphosis from a liberal underpinning to an authoritarian grip will take years, if not generations, to change. After all, it has taken not even seventy years after the trauma of the Second World War (and thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall) for serious crises to develop in liberal democracies. How people endowed with wisdom and foresight handle this existential threat to liberal democracy will determine its trajectory for the rest of this century and probably future centuries.

The alap of Raga Alapan: Musings of a retired bureaucrat

A considerable amount of heat and dust (but not light) has been generated in the past couple of weeks on account of l’affaire Alapan. The storm in a teacup (and, Yaas, I am not referring to the cyclone) may have abated somewhat but its reverberations will be felt in the country’s federal architecture and in the bureaucratic structure for quite some time to come. The perennial animosity between the PM and the West Bengal CM has led to collateral damage. As a former bureaucrat who has dealt with general administration matters during his career, I cannot resist offering my two bits on the latest Delhi-Kolkata Mahabharata.

            For over two decades, at the district and divisional levels, I hosted central teams deputed by the Government of India to assess the damage to crops, houses and public infrastructure because of floods, drought and hail. Following a wrap-up meeting with the Chief Secretary and other Secretaries of the state government, the team would submit its findings to the central government and its recommendations on the financial relief to be given to the state. I never saw the Prime Minister visiting my state in this connection. It seems things have changed now, with the hands on approach of the person at the top. But I cannot really fathom how a meeting at the Kalaikunda Air Force Base, without the presence of senior central and state officials, contributes to an understanding of the extent of damage and the financial restitution required. A formal meeting at Nabanna, the state secretariat of the West Bengal government, would have been far more useful.

            Be that as it may, the CM could also have, given the current circumstances, been present for the meeting with the PM. Granted, there were irritants in the form of certain personalities with whom she has had many a verbal joust. And yet, whether to raise the political temperature so quickly after an acrimonious electoral contest is an issue that merits consideration. Choosing one’s battles is also a matter of strategy, keeping one’s gunpowder dry for sterner conflicts that lie ahead.

            However, one would have to conclude that the central government, in this case, used a sledgehammer to try and kill a fly. Granted, the PM may have felt insulted, but his ire could have been vented at the political level. To slap criminal charges was surely overdoing things, especially when the Chief Secretary being proceeded against was carrying out his duties under the same Disaster Management Act. Nor has one heard of a case in the past (except during the recent Bengal elections) when an All India Service officer has been peremptorily ordered to report to the Central Government (rather like a soldier being sent to barracks or a policeman to the police lines), when the officer has not sought central deputation, his state government has not been consulted and no justification for his presence being immediately required by the central government is given.  A strong letter from the Cabinet Secretary to the Government of India, addressed to the Chief Secretary, conveying the displeasure of the central government, would have been more than adequate in the present case, especially since the officer concerned was at the fag end of his civil service career.

            Such moves create dangerous precedents for the future. If the same strategy is applied in future, the central government can requisition the services of the senior most officers of those state governments with which it has adversarial relations and order that they report forthwith to the centre. Not only will this cripple the functioning of the state governments, it will also create a fear psychosis in All India Services officers working in a state that their careers (and lives) can be transformed in a moment by one whimsical act of the central government.

            I have also not understood this prattle in the media about the supposed political loyalty of the Chief Secretary. By all accounts, Alapan was as acceptable to the former CPM government as he was to the successor TMC government. One thing is very clear: an All India Service officer is somewhat like the bahu in a traditional Indian household. She has been birthed by the Government of India (with the UPSC as midwife) but, once allotted a state cadre, she moves to the in-laws (state’s) house. She may visit her parents’ (centre’s) house during her career but, while in the state, she goes entirely by the diktats of the political executive in the state. I have personally worked closely with five CMs of Maharashtra, from across the political spectrum, and have attempted to implement their lawful orders to the best of my ability. At no point in my career were allegations made about my loyalty to a particular political formation and I enjoyed the best of relations with politicians from all the major political parties of Maharashtra. One point bears repetition: while serving in the state, an All India Service officer is bound by the orders of the state political executive of the day, headed by the CM.

            How this newly discovered Raga Alapan, the opening to which we have been privy so far, develops in the days to come will be watched by the bureaucracy and political observers with interest. What should not be affected is the steel framework painstakingly created by that giant among men, Sardar Patel. Securing the independence of and ensuring the efficient functioning of the All India Services is one of the keys to the federal health of the country.

The Seven Pillars of Authoritarianism

  • “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime” – Sir Edward Grey, Foreign Secretary, United Kingdom, August 1914
  • “I have often felt a bitter sorrow at the thought of the German people, which is so estimable in the individual and so wretched in the generality…” – Goethe
  • “The river of fire flowed past the French Embassy whence, with heavy heart and filled with foreboding, I watched its luminous wake.” – Andre Francois-Poncet, Ambassador of France to Germany, quoted in William Shirer: The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich

The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, an autobiographical account of the exploits of British army man T.E. Lawrence (played by Peter O’Toole in the 1962 David Lean starrer Lawrence of Arabia) draws its title from the Book of Proverbs. In todays’ world, the growth of authoritarianism in liberal democracies across America, Europe and Asia bring to mind the fateful words of the British Foreign Secretary, except that what we are increasingly witnessing is the feeble flickering and extinction of liberal democracy across the globe. This is by no means a Black Swan event; rather it reminds one of the frog getting roasted in increasingly hotter waters till it is too late to avoid the scalding. The path to authoritarianism is paved with the cobblestones of the veneer of democracy. What explains the inability of significant sections of the population in many liberal democracies to learn from past history? The answers lie in the seven modern pillars that support authoritarian structures.

  1. The need for an authority figure

Voltaire’s famous statement “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him” can be paraphrased into its twenty-first century version “If a strong man does not exist, it is necessary to create one”. Human beings are exposed to authoritarian tendencies right from infancy – the family, education system, job hierarchies, religious dogma, fear of the police, etc. Independent thinking is punished at different stages of life, sometimes severely. Repeated chastisements, perceived or real, at the hands of an authority – father, teacher, boss at work, policeman, God – convince a very large section of humanity that it is better off submitting to a “superior” force. The myth of the need for a “strong” leader is built on the gradual erosion of religion as an institutional authority over the past four hundred years. With no traditional belief to cling to, the modern human has shifted his/her allegiance in the past few decades to either the different versions of Marxism or to those claiming to provide alternative spiritual paths.  The greater danger arises when this unquestioned submission to an authority figure transmutes into blind reverence, more so when the authority figure is a political leader. Dr. Ambedkar’s prescient warning of the dangers of going down this path find resonance in what goes on in a number of democracies around the world today: “Bhakti in religion may be a road to the salvation of the soul. But in politics, Bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship.”

  1. Narrative based on a mythical past and a glorious future

The majority group which brings the leader to power needs to have a point of reference in the past when it was a dominant force and exercised firm control over society. Centuries when other groups exercised political and economic power have created bitterness in the minds and hearts of this group. Hence the hearkening back to a past that was perfect, one where milk and honey flowed in the land of one’s birth. The invader is blamed for all the infirmities that apparently hobble the majority community and prevent the nation from attaining its true pedestal in the world. This emphasis on the perfect past is buttressed by the contention that a glorious future awaits citizens of a culture who are proud of their superior heritage.

  1. Cashing in on insecurity and fear of the “other”

The failure of the neoliberal framework to address the problems of inequality and joblessness has led to disenchantment with existing governing elites and the yearning for a messiah who can lead the flock to the Promised Land. The messiah paints a picture of the rosy future s/he will bring about. Since the objective conditions that obtain in the economy and society are unlikely to bring about any appreciable improvement in the economic conditions of the populace, recourse is taken from the outset to identify an entity which is the ‘enemy’ of the dominant group that the messiah claims to represent. This ‘enemy’ could be one outside the country’s border, such as a hostile neighbour. But history and current events point to many instances where this ‘enemy’ is a group within the country’s borders, which aligns with the perceived ‘enemy’. This group is often a minority population, based on race, religion or ethnicity, which is accused of having received favoured treatment from political dispensations of the past. To these are added other sections of the ‘discredited’ elite, often liberals, intellectuals and academics.

  1. Working towards the leader

The task of the leader to achieve complete control is facilitated by factotums who anticipate every wish of their leader. The system operates on a logic where the leader does not have to spell out his/her wishes. Very often, the leader may not even be aware of the undemocratic excesses that are executed in his/her name. With the media being muzzled or playing to the tunes of the ruling regime and its leader, the ‘truth’ is often hidden from view. The political and administrative machinery strains its sinews to project the image of the leader as omniscient and omnipotent, even without any compulsion being exercised on it. Such ‘‘workers’’ fall in three categories. The first comprises those who blindly revere the leader. Nothing s/he does can ever be wrong. In this grouping are often those who have the intrinsic need for domination by a strong authority figure. It is not surprising that many who started their lives as ardent Marxist followers reach the extreme right wing recesses of the polity in their later years, as their need for authority trumps the use of reason and skepticism. The second group are the rank opportunists, who have perfected the art of switching masters during their tenures in politics, the bureaucracy, mass media or other civil society institutions. In the third category fall those who fear the adverse consequences of opposing the diktats of the state or voicing their opposition to patently illegal acts by organs of the state or non-state actors. When these three attitudes permeate those in the ruling elite, a situation develops where the decisions of a small coterie at the apex will be blindly obeyed without the rationale being questioned. This may well see repeated flip-flops in decision making, as inadequately thought out policies are first rushed through, then rolled back and finally implemented in a revised, piecemeal manner.

  1. Only doing my job, not aware of the larger picture

The Eichmann syndrome is very much visible in sections of the bureaucracy, including the police, which reassure themselves that they are only following orders. What they conveniently overlook is that these orders often violate not only existing laws but also constitutional principles, as well as eternal human values, which are the bedrock of a democracy. The political theorist Hannah Arendt has termed this phenomenon the “banality of evil”. Adolf Eichmann helped organise the deportation and mass murder of six million Jews by the Nazi regime. As I have brought out in an earlier blog (The Evil That Men Do Lives In Them), “…Eichmann was no more than a mediocre bureaucrat executing as efficiently as possible the orders he received from above. It is chilling to contemplate that the Holocaust was the product of the thoughtless actions of numerous individuals: there was never any reflection by them on the consequences of their actions, no stirring of what we term as “the voice of conscience”. The Magistrate who blindly signs a proforma detention order or the police officer who registers a case on directions from others without ascertaining the true facts are symptoms of this malaise. The history of the forced sterilisations carried out by the bureaucracy and police in different parts of India during the 1975-77 Emergency period is still fresh in memory.

  1. Looking the other way

In the words of Martin Luther King Jr. “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.” A democracy unravels through the indifference and inaction of the bulk of its citizens who rationalise their failure to protest or stand up for the truth by pointing to their insignificance and their inability to make any difference to the current state of affairs. This preoccupation with the future of oneself and one’s near and dear leads to a situation where the violation of the democratic rights of others and the emasculation of independent institutions charged with safeguarding democracy do not raise even a whimper. Such silence is seen as tacit support by those who seek to alter the democratic framework of society and emboldens them to pursue their goal of absolute control. It is reflective of modern societies that their educated, “intellectual” elites have little acquaintance with the Constitutions of their respective countries, leave alone having heard of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is as though overweening consumerism has consumed all the finer elements that comprise human existence.

  1. Destruction of the system of checks and balances                                             

            A major fallacy in many liberal democracies today is the mistaken perception that elections equal democracy. In actual fact, a democracy is better defined by the events that occur in the interregnum between two elections. Chief among the characteristics that constitute a democracy is the independence of institutions that act as a check on the arbitrary exercise of executive power — the judiciary, media and other statutory bodies that conduct elections and monitor the actions of the executive in different spheres. What marks out present day authoritarian regimes from those of the twentieth century, notably Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia and Communist China, is their ability to control and manipulate independent institutions within the facade of a seemingly functional democracy. Elections are held regularly, there is a judicial system in place and the executive appears to function within the four corners of a constitutional structure. Institutional capture by the state (what some authors have termed as colonisation of the state) is revealed in the insidious manner in which independent institutions function. Whether motivated by adulation (for the ideology of the ruling dispensation), fear (of possible reprisal by the state) or anticipatory collaboration (in the expectation of future rewards), institutions hitherto deemed to be independent comply with the wishes of the government of the day. Ultimately, it is individuals who determine the strength of institutions and their ability to withstand the pressures of the executive. When individuals are compromised, either through blind belief, fear or prospects for self-advancement, institutional health suffers. Such a development during the tenure of a particular regime has its deleterious effects, which continue into the future and imperil the continuance of liberal democracy in a country.

Epitaph for liberal democracy?

            It is significant that the written Constitutions of the two largest democracies in the world — the United States of America and India — start with the words “We, the people”. Implicit in this is the clear assertion that it is the people of the country who have resolved to govern themselves in accordance with the provisions laid out in their Constitution. Both Constitutions stress the liberty of the Individual. In fact, the cornerstone of both the Constitutions is the centrality of the Individual, as against the age-old practice of giving the privileges of the social order primacy over individual rights. Securing these rights requires a vigilant citizenry, aware of and watchful over any transgression on these hard-earned rights. As the foregoing paragraphs bring out, it is the individual who will determine the character of democracy. When the individual chooses to forego this privilege, won after centuries of arduous struggle, it can truly be said that the death knell of twentieth century liberal democracy has been sounded.

The Castor-Chomu dynamics in Indian society

I was introduced to the Castor-Chomu classification of individuals when I visited BITS-Pilani in 1975 to participate in its cultural festival, OASIS ’75. Apparently, the city-bred, convent educated students, whose lingua franca was English and who favoured Western pop and rock music constituted the Castors. In contradistinction were the Chomus, the students drawn from mofussil towns, who were patrons of Vividh Bharati and Hindi film music and communicated with each other to a large extent in the vernacular tongue, especially Hindi. This distinction struck a chord in me, a person who fitted into neither mould. To avoid being accused of a class bias, Castor, for the purposes of this blog, refers to the largely metro-based individual who received education in ‘elite’ institutions in India and abroad, coming from families that qualify as upper/upper middle class, securely employed or possessed of inherited wealth. Chomu covers those from medium to low income families, educated mostly in vernacular medium schools, whose parents sweat and toil to give them access to quality education that will open up remunerative job avenues for their wards. The distinction I employ here resonates with my classification of two elites in an earlier blog, the Lutyens ‘47 gang and the Lutyens ‘92 group (see The Lutyens’ Class Wars).

Although educated in a ‘mission’ school, I was nowhere near constituting part of the Castor elite. I still remember my first appearance for my school team in the Bournvita Quiz Contest when, in reply to a question on my hobbies from that doyen of quizmasters, Hamid Sayani, I mentioned Hindi film music, only to see the opposing girls’ school team dissolve in a fit of giggles at my plebeian choice. This dichotomy continued when I joined St. Stephen’s College (or Mission College) to pursue my undergraduate studies. A significant number of Stephanians were from public schools (a more correct term would be ‘private’ schools) like Doon School and Mayo College. Aping our colonial forebears, those of us in hostels were deemed to be “in residence”. The English-vernacular dichotomy was again quite pronounced: it was more fashionable to attend English debates and Western music shows rather than listen to Hindi film music and Hindi debates. The election for the President of the College Union Society (Stephanian isolation from the rest of the University did not allow for sullying one’s hands in sordid University politics) saw a metro-based candidate pitted against a rival from what we would today call a Tier-2 town. The former could be said to have to have broadly had the support of the Castors and the latter of the Chomus, though in the best of democratic traditions, there was a fair amount of floor crossing and cross voting. As it transpired, the metro man won.

History reversed itself in 1980, which I consider a watershed year in the Castor-Chomu epic struggle. I qualified for the civil services in the first year when a new system of examinations were introduced, which gave candidates from hinterland areas a far better chance of being successful. The Castor-Chomu conflict manifested itself in the Mussoorie training academy during the election to the Presidentship of the Mess Committee. The Castor nominee, supported largely by Delhi-bred and educated probationers lost to his Chomu rival from a second tier town, supported by the officers from small town and rural backgrounds. More significantly, the civil services, in the years to follow, saw the entrance of officers from smaller towns from all over India and a large influx of professionals from the engineering, management and medical fields. The hegemony of the Delhi University history postgraduate in the civil services literally became history.

Even though the social composition of the younger echelons of the civil services underwent a radical change, the veterans were still the old urban-based class, most comfortable with English and tied to each other by the common bonds of an elite university education and membership of a closed Delhi group which had access to the rarefied portals of the Delhi Gymkhana, the India International Centre and the Delhi Golf Club. Coveted positions in the bureaucracy, especially choice foreign assignments, still went to those younger officers who were the protégés of these venerable worthies. Journalism and academia were two other areas where the Castor influence was still evident, with those educated in Delhi’s premier universities dominating the landscape. The bureaucrat, journalist, academic and the increasingly ubiquitous representative of international organisations formed a cosy set which frequented the same watering holes, attended the same seminars and went on junkets abroad, financed by the aforesaid international organisations.

1992 marked the second watershed in the upward ascent of the Chomu. The demolition of the Babri Masjid gave cheer to a large number of Indians who had never been accepted in the rarefied environments of Lutyens Delhi or South Bombay (as it was then). The eclipse of the Congress in the 1996 Lok Sabha elections paved the way for governments that comprised persons removed to at least some extent from the Castor influence. Gradually, those who would, in the normal course of events, have comfortably continued in the Castor group shifted their allegiance to the Chomus. The years 1998 to 2004 saw this internal churn in the Castor group, with a goodly number of educated intellectuals, especially those who felt they had been bypassed in the issue of just rewards in terms of high office and posts in government, moving firmly to the ranks of the party that was seen as espousing and supporting Chomu aspirations to a more exalted position in society and in the political framework.

But it was undoubtedly 2014 that ushered in the decisive shift in the balance of power to the Chomus. The previous decade of UPA rule had witnessed a gradual disillusionment about the Congress party in influential sections of the Castors, who pined for a decisive leader and a party that was not tainted by widespread allegations of corruption. (That they forgot to imbibe the lessons of George Orwell’s Animal Farm is another matter altogether). The last seven years have seen many who would earlier have been visualised only as Castors casting their lot with a party that relies to a considerable extent on Chomu support and makes no bones about its dislike for the descendants of the Castor class, pejoratively referring to them as the Khan Market gang (for those not familiar with Delhi, Khan Market is supposed to be the watering hole of the swish, westernised set of Delhi).

Little wonder then that there have been systematic efforts in recent years to create a new weltanschauung in the Indian psyche. Universities, under enthusiastic Vice-Chancellors, have sought to reframe the academic curriculum, long seen by right-wing academics as overly influenced by liberal and Marxist thought. The Indian middle class from the majority community has been inundated with a surfeit of rhetoric and propaganda designed to stir its nationalist instincts and invoke pride in its cultural heritage spread over millennia. The Central Vista project to redesign and rebuild the entire architecture of Lutyens-designed New Delhi represents the apogee of the aspirations of those who seek to give a specific shape to the Chomu identity. India’s masses will no longer have to genuflect to the symbols created by an imperial power and by those who, though Indian in name, represented the same world view.

As the Castor-Chomu dynamics of politics and social power play out on the Indian landscape, there is only one crucial issue that remains to be kept in mind, namely the Holy Grail that represents the Constitution of India. If Abrahamic religions can be said to rely on a holy book, the Indian nation has come into being on the foundations of this document. Having drawn on the best principles of different Constitutions from around the world and on healthy democratic practices, the Constitution of India came into existence as the result of the informed deliberations of an august body of individuals in the years immediately preceding and following India’s independence. This is a Constitution that is meant to be followed not just in letter, but in spirit. As Dr. Ambedkar stressed in his speech to the Constituent Assembly on 25 November 1949 “The first thingwe must do is to hold fast to constitutional methods of achieving our social and economic objectives.” He also emphasised the close interrelation of the concepts of liberty, equality and fraternity enunciated in the Preamble to the Constitution of India. It is the manner in which citizens of India abide by these cardinal precepts of democratic behaviour, in thought, word and deed, which will determine the future of India as a haven for democracy, in a world buffeted by the storms of autocratic practices.

 

The major distractions of humans today

Hindu theology speaks of Shada Ripu or the six vices. These are:

1) Kama: lust; 2) Krodha: anger 3) Lobha: greed; 4) Moha: delusion/attachment; 5) Mada: arrogance; 6) Matsarya: jealousy.

I will illustrate these enemies of humankind in a subsequent blog and explain how we can try to curb them. Today, I intend to highlight how these emotions are fuelled by the major present-day distractions that put paid to one’s peace of mind.

Media (print/electronic)

I often wonder about our great-grandmothers/grandfathers and their ancestors who never had to wake up to the morning newspaper. My great-grandfather was an agriculturist who woke up by 4.30 AM to visit his fields early in the morning. He never had the irresistible desire many of us have to rush for the newspaper first thing in the morning, sometimes without even completing our morning ablutions. And what do we get as our morning dose? A murder here, an abduction there and a diatribe against some action or inaction of the government of the day. A maelstrom of emotions is generated in the next thirty to forty minutes, composed generally of a mix of anger and greed.

The early morning practice in my childhood years was to tune in to All India Radio (AIR) at 6 AM (those overcome by nostalgia can listen to the AIR signature tune here). Devotional music on AIR was followed by half an hour of old Hindi film songs on Radio Ceylon. The Hindi news read out to us by Devaki Nandan Pandey or Indu Wahi at 8 AM was dry and factual, without any sensational tidbits. Listening to the radio is now passé: the Indian TV scene underwent a sea change after the 1982 Asian Games. Doordarshan dominated the early years, till the advent of NDTV and a host of private channels from the 1990s onwards. What we get on TV today 24 by 7 is the same mishmash of nonsense parading as information, aimed at titillating our senses and exciting lust, anger, greed and envy. As the day progresses, every absurd event is brought to us by breathless reporters, many of whom have had no grounding in the basics of economics and politics, leave alone news coverage. And then there are the interminable soap operas to keep viewers in a state of perpetual stupefaction.

Time wasted: two to four hours a day.

Internet/email

This phenomenon came alive only in the mid-1990s in a significant way. Over time, search engines of Yahoo, Google and Microsoft have given humans access to a huge load of information. While much of this material is useful, we also suffer from an overload of data, more marked at times like the current COVID crisis. People tend to explore, for example, for reasons for symptoms they seem to be experiencing and possible remedies for the same. They are then exposed to a variety of cures, many propagated by charlatans and fake healers. Ditto for those who fall for tips on stock market winners from motley investment gurus. The urge to keep checking for emails is itself an addictive pastime, as is the habit of aimless browsing of pornography and game sites.

Time wasted: anywhere from one to five hours a day.

Facebook/Instagram/YouTube

It is, however, the offspring of the internet, the applications designed to involve people as participants, which have truly revolutionised and trivialised internet usage. Facebook, Instagram and YouTube are social networking sites that provide space for the narcissist and the voyeur. The aim is to expand one’s ability to reach out to a wide audience, many of whom have no direct or proximate link with the entity they follow; in fact, the follower and followed may well be located in different continents. Facebook and Instagram allow users to share stories of their last holiday in Corfu or Nice or their latest revelry in an upmarket restaurant in New York or Paris. The old Onida ad heading of “neighbours’ envy, owners’ pride” was never truer than today. A prime cause of the feeling of worthlessness in people can be traced to this ready mechanism of comparison. YouTube started off well with access to plenty of audio-visual content, especially music from the past, and useful hacks to deal with the variety of confusing modern equipment we seem to have surrounded ourselves with. However, it has also fallen prey to the consumerist ethic. Of late, India has developed its models of Kim Kardashians, who flaunt their daily life on channels developed by them, which yield the presenters a handsome return based on the number of subscriptions they are able to secure. While some of these channels restrict themselves to domestic matters like the daily life in an urban flat, they also provide the opportunity to flaunt the ability to purchase items that are just a dream for the majority of viewers. A number of these channel managers have, in a short space of time, developed cult followings, enabling them to peddle a variety of goods and services online and even to dabble in promoting superstitious trends: Lobha, Moha, Mada and Matsarya are in full view on these YouTube channels.

Time wasted: Two to four hours a day

Twitter

            This application arrived somewhat later in the internet world, but has caught on like wildfire. This is probably because of the limited content of 280 characters that can be put out on a single tweet. Even persons not too confident of their writing skills can comfortably type out the twenty five or fewer words needed in a message. What this has led to is an explosion in the number of Twitter accounts over the years. In particular, Twitter (and Facebook) have become the social media tools favoured by political parties/movements and politicians, because of their extensive reach out to huge populations. Some recent developments on Twitter have set the political classes in different countries atwitter. A trend that is particularly noticeable in recent years with the advent of populist politicians in a number of countries has been the emergence of trolls, bots and fake accounts. IT cells of populist parties rely on these mechanisms to unleash a barrage of criticism, often bordering on or openly abusive, to dampen potential dissenters. Even otherwise, the advent of Twitter has seen a coarsening of language and an end to meaningful dialogue. The result is a stream of hatred, born of anger and delusion. Positions have hardened on all sides of the political and social spectrum, as the boundaries of civility and decent language have crumbled under this onslaught. Twitter is also a facile time-waster: it takes little effort to keep scrolling on one’s Twitter handle to keep abreast of the latest tweet.

Time wasted: Anywhere from two to eight hours at all hours of the day and night

WhatsApp (WA)

WA, which was meant to be an improvement on the short message service (SMS) in vogue since the 1980s, has acquired a life and momentum of its own. Its features include sending of audio-visual messages, a task which was cumbersome or not feasible earlier. But WA has also amplified the human characteristic to spread gossip like wildfire and has contributed, through paranoid reactions in recipient populations, to appalling actions like lynchings and other acts of violence. Its group features have also enabled groupings with similar worldviews to come together on a single platform, secure in the knowledge that they share a common ideology with their fellow beings. Ironically, this has also helped contribute to the systematic brainwashing of significant sections of the so-called “thinking” classes on issues relating to religion, race and perceived economic and social grievances. In the absence of responsible forwarding of information, which they have verified to be true, by members of WA groups, the basest instincts of group members have been activated, linked to their fears and insecurities. WA, because of its easy access on mobile phones, is seen at all times of day and night by its users.

Time wasted: Two to ten hours, depending on the reasons for usage

            The human race, with a finite period of existence between its first and last breath, thus spends a large part of its waking hours engaged in one or more of the distractions mentioned above. Marshall McLuhan referred to the medium being the message (or massage). The medium today is almost entirely the mobile phone, with the me(a)ssage catering to the different aspirations, fears and anxieties of increasingly rootless earthlings. Have we not seen the face of the student/office goer on her/his way to study/work, immersed in a mobile phone? Reading has now become a luxury, with the inundation of the mind, through the eyes and ears, by a continuous stream of audio-visual material. This has implications, not necessarily pleasant to visualise, for citizens of liberal democracies across the globe who are being subjected to a relentless barrage of “alternative truths”, which they have no inclination to question or critically examine.

            At an individual level, what can we do about this insane movement towards uniformity of thoughts and attitudes? At a personal level, I have eschewed the reading of newspapers (two years now) and accessing TV, especially news, channels (three years now). Although still maintaining a Facebook account, I almost never open it. YouTube is limited to listening to old Hindi film songs and viewing some classic movies of yesteryears. I have severely restricted surfing on the internet, except to download articles of interest or for research purposes. I try to resist, not always successfully, the temptation to go through my incoming emails, though I plan to confine this activity to just half an hour every afternoon, with a break on the tw0-day weekend. I plan to limit WA use to downloading links for Zoom meetings (where these are not sent on email) and am trying to take a break for days at a time from Twitter. In any case, I plan not to respond (react?) to others’ tweets. Will these actions help me control the six emotions I mentioned at the start of this blog? I certainly hope so and I hope you find me an easier human being to deal with the next time we interact. 

Opposition In Residence

(James Hacker, Minister in Her Majesty’s Government: “The Opposition aren’t the opposition…They’re only the opposition in exile. The Civil Service is the opposition in residence.” – Yes Minister, Antony Jay & Jonathan Lynn)

Politicians in India, at least from Indira Gandhi onwards, have, notwithstanding their pious public utterances, always veered in favour of a “committed bureaucracy”, faithfully executing the dictates of the party in power. The general public, therefore, has this mistaken impression that civil servants mindlessly toe the line of their political masters (I don’t dare use the feminine equivalent). This is not quite the whole truth, at least in the three decades when I was in service from 1980 onwards. Not that we did not have our share of those who were ready to oblige the political executive for a mess of pottage. But there were sections of the civil service that did their utmost to ensure that their political bosses did not get their way in issues that reeked of impropriety or financial wrongdoing.

I have written earlier on the tactics that can be employed to forestall patently illegal requests from the political class (see here). These include (a) let us see, “Parkalam” in Tamil and “Baghoon sangto” in Marathi; (b) making oneself scarce; (c) sending the file into orbit; (d) setting up a committee; (e) recording one’s views on file; (f) asking for written orders; and (g) asking/getting  ready for a transfer. These distracting tactics are not necessarily a reflection of bureaucratic ego or of an innate desire to take no decisions. Mostly, they are intended to give time for reflection on the proposed course of action or to make the vexed issue irrelevant with the passage of time.

Apart from the bureaucratic bulwark against impetuous, risky decision making, there are even more crucial checks and balances in a functioning democracy which are intended to check autocratic tendencies in the political executive. Brute majorities in the Lok Sabha (think India 1971/1984/2019) tend to invest a sense of infallibility in the minds of the majority party leaders. It is easily forgotten that democracy is not just the exercise of their electoral rights by citizens at five year intervals but also the giving of voice to their hopes and aspirations in the interregnum between elections. Four institutions play major roles in this theatre of democracy: legislatures, the judiciary, media and civil society.

Central and state legislatures are the first check on arbitrary executive actions. Even where the opposition is in truncated numbers, its voice can be powerful when its representatives speak fearlessly on issues of public importance. In the Nehru-Indira heyday, politicians like Minoo Masani, Piloo Mody, Nath Pai, Madhu Dandavate, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Jyotirmoy Basu commanded respect with their scathing denunciations of ruling party actions, couched always in parliamentary language. House committees were dreaded by bureaucrats for their interrogation of executive actions. Parliamentary debates, reported fully by the print media, gave citizens an idea of what their leaders were up to. Bills went through discussions in select committees before they were put to vote. Ordinances were resorted to as a last, emergency option only when the House was unlikely to convene in a reasonable time period. That these vital functions of the legislature have been given the go-by in recent months and years is a cause for concern. Important bills are either subject to inadequate legislative scrutiny or are rushed through as money bills, obviating the need for passage by the Upper House – abrogation of Article 370, passage of the CCA and farm bills are prime examples of legislative bulldozing. Ordinances are now the new flavour, with the COVID pandemic providing a ready excuse to bypass legislatures.

The courts are the main support of citizens against arbitrary executive actions backed by pliant legislatures. While the seal of approval given by the highest court of the land in the early years of our democracy to preventive detention and sedition laws caused unease in liberal minds, the court did qualify the exercise of such sweeping powers by the state in a number of landmark judgments. The enunciation of the principle of “basic structure of the Constitution” in the 1973 Kesavananda Bharati case had reassured the public that the judiciary would safeguard the Constitution against executive encroachment. That the Supreme Court went against this principle in the 1976 ADM Jabalpur case was a setback to personal freedoms, though the court corrected its position in this case forty years later. With the Supreme Court entertaining public interest litigations (PILs) and taking suo motu cognisance of issues of vital public importance, the next few decades saw a phase of judicial activism that seemed to bode well for a healthy democracy where the judiciary kept the executive in check. This trend has, unfortunately, gone into reverse gear in recent times with a number of executive and legislative actions yet to go on the anvil of judicial scrutiny. Prominent among these are the electoral bonds issue, demonetisation, the abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution, the CAA law and the three farm laws. More worryingly, the Supreme Court (and many High Courts) are yet to pronounce on executive actions that have impinged on basic freedoms of citizens: the large number of pending habeas corpus petitions, the internet restrictions in Jammu & Kashmir and the incarceration and denial of bail in many cases involving civil society activists, journalists and intellectuals.

The media, both print and electronic, has largely abdicated its role as guardian of the qui vive. During the 1975-77 Emergency, it crawled when merely asked to bend: now it is, with notable exceptions, ready to lend its services for dissemination of inaccurate, sensational news and take partisan positions on issues of public importance. The spread of digital and social media has mitigated this one-sided view somewhat but, with the likely introduction of curbs on such independent media, the prospects for free and frank expression of points of view appear dim.

Finally then, it is left to civil society, especially those in its ranks who cherish the values enshrined in the Constitution, to raise the flag for the fundamental rights listed in Part III of the Constitution. When all other avenues to secure timely justice and redress of grievances seem to be foreclosed, sections of civil society have resorted to the satyagraha route propounded by Mahatma Gandhi during the freedom struggle. This was vividly illustrated in the two mass movements — the anti-CAA and the farmers’ protests — over the past year. As the Mahatma was to emphasise in his experiments with satyagraha, it is based on an inviolable relationship between the means and ends, with its essence in the purity of means, totally non-violent in nature, adopted by a pure person, as also in the constant quest of this person to purify her/himself through self-examination. The satyagraha effort can be undermined and brought to a close because of external “Chauri Chaura” events, such as civil disturbances (riots/violence) or natural occurrences (COVID), as witnessed in recent times.

Mutual tolerance and respect for institutions are the hallmarks of true democrats. A democrat at heart is aware that (s)he holds the position of power for only as long as the people wish and that there has to be space for opposing viewpoints in a functioning democracy. Equally, other political formations have to be given due regard and the space to function freely. But even more important is the recognition of the inviolability of institutions meant to safeguard democracy. It is these institutions that, as the checks and balances in a democratic society, act as the real “opposition” in keeping the executive under control. As in the case of charity, democracy too begins at home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Congress Needs A New Raga

As an IAS probationer in the Foundation Course at the Mussoorie Academy, I participated in a debate on the topic “This house awaits the coming of another Gandhi”. Most of the speakers, including yours truly, bored the audience with references to the need for another Mahatma Gandhi. Till an intelligent batchmate from the Foreign Service electrified the audience by asserting that the time had come for Rajiv Gandhi to don the mantle of leader of the Indian National Congress (Congress). This was just after Sanjay Gandhi’s unexpected demise, at a time when Indira Gandhi, having demolished a fractious post-Emergency opposition, looked set to rule for another fifteen years at least. All of us probationers were unanimous in our opinion that he deserved to win. Alas, the hoary eminences comprising the judges (drawn from the faculty) took a dim view of his brilliant exposition, probably because of his biting satire on dynastic politics and how the Congress party could not survive without it.

The above incident came to mind after the bombshell of the 2019 election results which swept the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to power. Since then, we have been witness to the Grand Old Party of India’s independence, the Congress, going through agonising paroxysms of introspection on its dismal performance. As expected, Rahul Gandhi (RaGa to friend and foe) decided to quit as party president. After the tamasha of weeping courtiers asking him to stay put and wild speculation on possible successors, the garland fell once again around the neck of his mother, Sonia Gandhi, an affine if not an agnate of the Nehru-Gandhi lineage. Meanwhile, the Congress is hemorrhaging rapidly, aided by a liberal supply of anticoagulants from the BJP. Its performance in the Maharashtra and Bihar Vidhan Sabha elections and the recent Hyderabad municipal elections indicate a party in terminal decline. The revolt that is yet to be of 23 prominent party functionaries is a pointer to the agonies of many loyal Congressis of a directionless drift of the party and the complete absence of a charismatic leader. Clearly, a new Raga has to be added to the Congress’ repertoire to replace the old RaGa. I venture to offer certain suggestions for ensuring India does not become a single national party polity.

  • Go back a century and enroll committed party members

It is interesting to note that the Congress, a party of the elite, propertied and professional class, broad based its membership in the early 1920s, thanks to that master organiser, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. A party which had an almost nonexistent mass base was, in the course of a few years, able to draw a large mass of women and men into the freedom struggle. I am not aware of any concerted effort by the Congress party of today to actively draw citizens, especially youth, into its fold. The 1920s Congress encouraged two types of members: (a) persons over 18 years of age who accepted the objects and methods of the party; (b) those who, in addition, paid an annual subscription of four annas. The paid-up members alone could become members of primary organisations controlled by the Provincial Congress Committees. A similar strategy could be envisaged in the present day, rendered simpler and far more wide-ranging through use of modern technology. Those wishing to play a role in the organisations functioning under the Congress may pay an annual fee of, say, ₹500. The aim should be to build up a cadre of committed party workers, both paid-up members and otherwise, wedded to the party ethos and culture.

  • Develop a strong organisational structure

The Constitution adopted by the Congress in 1920 had provisions for Committees right from the All India Congress Committee at the apex level to Town and Village Committees at the cutting edge of interface with the populace. Given today’s electoral politics, party cadres need to be involved right from the polling booth level, during elections, of course, but, more importantly, in the interregnum between elections. Party workers must interact with the public to understand and redress their problems, especially with the local bureaucracy. The ideology and values of the party must be conveyed to voters to win their support. An area where party workers can play a significant role is in checking voter lists and ensuring that all eligible voters are included in the electoral rolls: there have been innumerable complaints of names missing from electoral rolls.

  • Build inner party democracy and create stakes in the party

            The flight of talented political workers from the Congress party has been occasioned in no small measure by the widespread feeling that “dynasts” have an edge in getting nominated for elections and that merit has little role to play in candidate selection and in important organisational posts. The 1920s Congress had elections at every level to organisation posts: thus, town and taluka Committee members elected the Provincial Congress Committee members, who, in turn, elected members of the All India Congress Committee. Care was also taken to maintain a balance between provinces. While local economic and caste/religion considerations will still influence elections to organisational bodies, there should at least be a feeling that a level playing field is available to all contestants, giving them full scope to exercise their powers to sway their electors on the basis of their personalities and programmes.

  • Empower regional leaders

            Ever since the Indira Gandhi years, powerful state leaders have repeatedly been cut to size and hounded out of the party. The recent legislative assembly elections in states like Punjab, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan show that giving a free hand to powerful local leaders pays handsome dividends. Leadership changes during the five year tenure of a government should be eschewed, save exceptional reasons. In states where the Congress plays a secondary role to regional parties, strong ties should be sought to be built up with these parties, with the Congress willing to accept the role of junior partner till such time as it strengthens its political base in those states. Maharashtra is an example of the Congress playing third fiddle, a role it has to accept with grace, given its limited options.

  • Keep Aaya Rams-Gaya Rams and cynical power brokers at arm’s length

            Rajiv Gandhi had this objective in mind in 1985, but failed because he surrounded himself with a coterie completely out of touch with the mood of the masses. The recent example of Madhya Pradesh is a sobering reminder to the Congress of how vaulting personal ambitions of a single, disaffected party man can bring down an elected government. Given the “saam-daam-dand-bheda” tactics in Indian politics today, it would be the height of naivety to hope for undying loyalty to a party. A beginning can, however, be made to cleanse the Augean stables by investing the party with a new sense of purpose linked firmly to the principles enunciated in the Constitution of India and forswearing the use of money and muscle power to achieve narrow, short-sighted political ends. Eschewing the use of power brokers could render the party less liable to arm-twisting of its finance gatherers by an opponent who has no qualms about the opportunistic use of investigative agencies to hound political rivals. A rule should also be enforced that no recently admitted former Congressperson-turned-defector-turned Congressperson or her/his near relatives will be eligible for tickets at any level of elections, both party and legislative, for a period of ten years after readmission to the Congress.

  • Convey to the people the priorities of the party and keep the incumbent government(s) on its/their toes all the time

            Elections are now being viewed by all political parties as a mere instrumentality for them to gain power, with no further engagement with the people in the intervening five year period between elections. The recent ramming through of ordinances and legislation without any public consultation or debate, whether it be the CAA, triple talaq, labour laws or farm bills, is indicative of a mindset that treats the people as sheep, faithfully moving wherever the shepherd takes them. It is here that a party like the Congress must clearly state its position on various issues related to the economy, polity and society and enunciate its vision of where it sees the country in twenty years’ time and what it seeks to offer different groups in society. Above all, the party needs to combat the spread of hatred, bigotry and divisiveness that is strangling increasingly larger sections of the Hindu community through exposing the falsehoods conveyed to them to feed on their sense of victimhood. As a responsible opposition, the Congress has to take up the cause of those who face the brunt of misuse and abuse of legislation and arbitrary state actions, through continued political and judicial interventions and through a vigorous media campaign. It should also not shy away from espousing the causes of groups which have legitimate grievances about the adverse impact of government policies and legislation on their livelihoods and the fundamental rights guaranteed to them under the Constitution.

            For initiating the steps indicated above, the Congress needs, above all, a leadership imbued with a sense of purpose and a determination to come to power in the next general elections. The current scenario for the party is, to say the least, pessimistic. Its not so young leader, RaGa, was apparently away from India at a time when thousands of agitated farmers were braving the bitter cold to voice their opposition to the recently passed farm legislation. The Congress or, for that matter, all opposition parties are conspicuous by their absence at the Singhu and Tikri borders with Delhi. The party has not taken a resolute stand on matters like the “love jihad” ordinances in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh or the misuse of draconian legislation like the UAPA and sedition provisions to stifle legitimate dissent.

            Most noticeably, the Congress does not seem to have any strategy in place to contest the crucial polls in West Bengal, due in a few months. When all political pundits are forecasting a grim tussle between the incumbent Trinamool Congress (TMC) and an aggressive BJP, the Congress seems bent on hara kiri by allying in West Bengal with a vanishing left front, when common sense dictates that it tie up with the TMC to keep its principal national opponent from grabbing power. The same Congress seems to develop cold feet in contemplating an alliance with the left in Kerala, a state that is on the BJP’s radar in the near future, if not immediately.

            All these developments indicate a party with no sense of direction. The Congress needs to find a new leader: the Gandhi magic has outlived its utility. A new Raga (definitely not the toady (Todi?) raga in vogue so far) is needed to reinvigorate the party. State units need to be revamped, not through nominated office-bearers, but through elected politicians. A new national front needs to be contemplated, where the Congress takes the lead in roping in strong regional parties. The Congress needs to realise that, for the foreseeable future, it needs to play second fiddle in many states, keeping its sights on attaining power at the centre and leaving its regional allies to come to power in the states. Federal democracy, which has been buffeted in recent years, will thereby receive a fillip. The hour needs to find the (wo)man now.

 

 

 

Brevity is the soul…

As an undergraduate economics student in Delhi University, I was required to submit tutorials every Monday to my tutors on subjects ranging from Soviet economic development to the problems of economic development in the Indian economy. As always, I postponed getting down to writing one of these tutorials till late Sunday evening. Fortified by strong South Indian coffee, I completed my 21 page magnum opus at 2 AM on Monday morning. My tutor, a former debater in the university, gave me an excellent grade for my effort, along with a rather wry comment “Brevity is the soul not only of wit, but also of exams.”

I took this message to heart for my subsequent postgraduate venture. But where it really paid dividends was in the examinations for the Indian National Lottery, also known as the Civil Services. I had resolved to stick to four or five handwritten pages per question: I felt the poor evaluator would be fed up reading regurgitated knowledge on reams and reams of paper. I was just comfortably reaching the end of my first answer (forty minutes or so after the start) when a loud shout for extra sheets of paper from an old classmate of mine jolted me. In the next hour, there were many such requests, when I was barely through ten pages or so. I must mention here that the answer sheet provided to us in the beginning was twenty pages, so people had crossed the 100% margin when I was still to cross 50%. My faith in brevity was not jolted at this point by a recollection that it was the time honoured tradition in British varsities for the senior don to collect all answer papers the night before results were to be declared and climb to the top of a flight of stairs. From there, he would throw the papers down the staircase. Answer papers that lodged on the nearest landing were failed, with progressively better grades being given to papers as they progressed further and further down. The papers that reached the bottom of the staircase were evaluated “first class first.” Presumably, the heaviest papers, obeying the laws of gravity, were expected to make it to the lowest landing. Be that as it may, I did not waver in my resolve and, thanks to lady luck (and possibly a relieved examiner) managed to make it into service. Since then, attempts at brevity have been my constant companions in my travels through the minefields of government file noting and letter drafting. Of course, I do recognise the limits to brevity, exemplified by this tale you may have heard before:

A man set up a fish stall displaying the advertising signboard FRESH FISH SOLD HERE. His first customer said “Why do you have to say ‘fresh’? Surely you are not selling rotten or stale fish!” Out went the word FRESH. Another bystander remarked “Why mention the word fish! Anyone can smell your wares a hundred feet away.” FISH joined FRESH in the dustbin. It was the turn of a well-wisher next “There is no need for the word SOLD. You are obviously not giving it away free.” SOLD met the same fate as its two word-brothers. The final nail in the coffin came from a cousin “Why mention HERE? You could hardly be selling it anywhere else!” With HERE gone, there was nothing left on the advertising signboard.

NOTE: There is no indication whether the fish seller prospered in the absence of advertising.

My philosophy of KISS (Keep It Short and Sweet) has stood me in good stead on many occasions. Never more so than when the Secretary of my Department informed me at ten in the morning that he wanted a note to be presented to the Cabinet that very afternoon. Placing my trust in brevity, I stuck to a three page Cabinet note, in an age when no respectable Cabinet note was less than twenty pages in length. The proposal went through, probably because the Finance Minister was the learned Dr. Manmohan Singh and the Prime Minister the well-read Narasimha Rao. The same applied to speeches to be made by the Minister: find out the allotted time at the international conference and prepare a speech that finished within the given time slot.

Brevity, however, can be reflected not just in the written word but in actions as well. I have always been a strong votary of the Minimum Energy Movement. Since all matter is energy, what does it matter anyway? The advent of the personal computer (PC) in ministries of the Government of India by the early 1990s had already revolutionised the Cabinet note. There was no need to check the full retyped version for errors: cut and paste ensured that amendments suggested by the bosses could be incorporated in the draft in minutes. I carried the revolution a little further in the matter of preparing the Note for Supplementaries to Starred Questions to be answered by the Minister in the two Houses of Parliament. Since Starred Questions allowed MPs to ask supplementary questions to clarify the written answers given to them, which the Minister had to answer on the floor of the House, it was necessary to brief him on the answers to possible (generally uncomfortable) questions that might be raised. Since these supplementary questions could be on themes tangential to the main issue, my Ministry colleagues and I devised a master copy of answers to supplementary questions. The subject that was the immediate focus of the question was dealt with in the first part of the Note for Supplementaries, with the rest of the material being attached thereafter. The PC played its cut and paste role well, so we were always ready to trot out the note at a moments’ notice.

Since “brevity” is the subject matter of this blog, I must be mindful of the length of this piece. With apologies to what Shakespeare wrote in another context, nothing in my career became me so much as the manner of my leaving service. True to my commitment to brevity in words, my notice for voluntary retirement from service was just three lines, as below:

“I propose to retire from government service with effect from xxxx. As required by Rule 16(2) of the All India Services (Death-Cum-Retirement Benefits) Rules, 1958, I am giving notice more than three months in advance of the date of retirement.”

My tutor, who passed away over a decade ago, must, from his perch somewhere on high, have smiled approvingly at his former student. 

Farm Laws: Good Economics, Bad Politics

The road to hell is paved with good intentions”. This saying sprang to my mind once the three Farm Bills were rammed through Parliament, with the opposition not even being given the parliamentary freedom to have its say in the Rajya Sabha. The absence of collegial decision making seems to be the signature tune of the present central government, as I have had occasion to bring out in an earlier blog (see here). Starting with the enactment of anti-beef laws in different states and moving on through demonetization, triple talaq, Kashmir, CAA, COVID lockdown, labour laws, farm laws and now ‘love jihad’ laws, the governments of the ruling party at the centre and in states ruled by them have relied on legislative majority, Prime Ministerial 8 PM pronouncements and the Ordinance Factory route to push policy down the throats of the citizenry.

The three bills focus on (a) freeing private entities from the oversight and jurisdiction of the Agriculture Produce Marketing Committee (APMC) in respect of transactions outside the APMC market yard area, with no licences being required from and no fees being payable to the APMC; (b) easing up the Essential Commodities Act to allow for far greater price variation in commodities before state restrictions on prices kick in; (c) providing for direct contractual arrangements between farmers and private entities. On the face of it, these measures seem to be exactly what are required to free the agricultural sector from the clutches of exploitative middlemen, ensure a fairer deal for the farmer in terms of better prices for his produce and encourage the growth of entrepreneurship to promote innovation and investment in the farm sector. Why then have these “reforms” attracted so much ire from the farming community, leading to a virtual blockade of the national capital?

It would be easy (and the lazy option) to dismiss the present turmoil as a political gimmick, sponsored by vested interests who stand to lose from the reforms process. Deeper reflection would, however, reveal the inadequate homework done by the authors of these three bills on critical issues, with the lack of clarity sowing major doubts in the minds of farmers. Though it might appear on the face of it that the agitation is largely driven by the interests of the better-off farmers, the issues that remain unresolved need to be squarely faced as they will raise their heads in the years to come and continue to act as flash points for farmers’ discontent.

The future of Minimum Support Price (MSP)

The first issue that has reverberated over the past couple of months has been the future of the MSP. While this has largely been operative only in respect of the two major cereals, paddy and wheat (and, to a far lesser extent, in respect of some other crops), the farmer is apprehensive that the move to a “free trade area” outside the APMC and the entry of contract farming on a large scale in the days to come will sound the death knell of the MSP. While the Government of India has been at pains to stress its commitment to retain the MSP in the future, it has not spelt out its strategy in respect of the MSP in an environment where there is extensive private entity-farmer trade, with prices being determined by direct negotiations between the farmer and the private party. This issue assumes importance especially in a set up where there is an unequal relationship between the farmer and the purchaser of his produce. If there are just two or three big oligopsonistic buyers, there would be grounds for apprehension that, sooner or later, the few buyers could start dictating prices to the farmers. In the absence of a trading licence system and the lack of institutional oversight by the APMC or any other regulatory body, the field would be open for the entry of any oligopsonistic private entity to attempt to dominate the market on its terms. The dilution of the stocking limits in the Essential Commodities Act can also justifiably give rise to fears in the farmers’ minds that end-buyers (read large corporates) will build up stocks to drive down agricultural product prices. At that point, the farmer would expect the government to step in and guarantee purchase of his produce at the APMC at a price that meets the cost of production plus a markup for profit. The legislation, as it stands at present, is silent on this eventuality.

The MSP system needs to be remodelled over time to achieve a much greater diversity in the crops procured, from millets and maize to pulses, oilseeds, horticulture and cash crops. This is essential if the huge surplus stocks of rice and wheat in Food Corporation of India (FCI) godowns are to be reduced. Not only does this increase the financial burden on the Government of India of paying the FCI for these stocks, it also increases wastage percentages. Reducing the incentive to grow water-guzzling, input intensive paddy in states like Punjab and Haryana is also crucial to checking environmental degradation, reflected in the deteriorating soil quality and depleting groundwater levels in these states. It should also not be forgotten that the MSP will have an important role to play as long as government has to guarantee the supply of foodgrains through the public distribution system (PDS), with the FCI as the prime supplier to the PDS.

Marketing issues (including price discovery)

Mandi/APMC related prices play an important role today in fixation of the price at which trade takes place outside mandi/APMC areas between farmers and traders. There is little clarity on how price discovery will take place in future in direct contracts between traders/sponsors and farmers, where there may be few buyers and a vast body of sellers. Realisation of a price that is fair to the farmer presupposes availability of price information and the ability to source the buyer who can offer the most favourable price. This requires the presence of a well-developed electronic marketing network, as envisaged by the announcement of the e-National Agricultural Market (e-NAM) system in the Budget of 2016-17. The e-NAM drew on the Rashtriya e-Market Services Private Limited (ReMS) initiative launched in Karnataka in 2014, which has been analysed in a November 2016 paper by researchers of the Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research, Mumbai. Their study reveals three major areas where reforms are essential if a thriving national e-market for agricultural products is to flourish: (a) a legal framework which supports a platform for agricultural transactions across the country; (b) incentives to all stakeholders — farmers, traders, commission agents, mandi/APMC officials and others who are part of the agricultural marketing ecosystem — to participate in the new electronic platform at locations across the country; and (c) development of physical and financial payments infrastructure to facilitate seamless real-time trading across multiple locations.

Unless APMCs/mandis act as countervailing centres to forestall efforts to dictate prices of agricultural commodities through the more powerful bargaining position of a few buyers, farmers would be placed in a position where they are compelled to accept not so favourable prices. But this requires vibrant APMC/mandi centres fully linked to e-NAM, so that farmers have a ready alternative site to sell their produce in the event they are not happy with the terms offered by private buyers. Governments, especially at the state level, will need to invest in physical and financial infrastructure in terms of many more APMCs/mandis, facilities to grade produce, accurate weighing, quick delivery and easy online payment to attract farmers to the APMCs/mandis. Winding up APMCs does not promote a flourishing trade in agricultural products, as the experience of Bihar, which abolished APMCs in 2006, amply shows. Opposition from traders and commission agents, who stand to benefit from opaque transaction systems, will need to be effectively countered by assimilating them into the new marketing process.

Regulation and dispute resolution

The provisions for regulation and dispute resolution in the new laws are woefully inadequate. Conciliation and adjudication of disputes between seller-farmers and buyers have been brought solely within the jurisdiction of the executive magistracy. As one who has functioned as an Executive Magistrate during his career in the civil service, I can safely assert that the Executive Magistracy does not have the requisite knowledge skills to adjudicate on commercial disputes. More disturbingly, this responsibility comes on top of multifarious responsibilities already cast on the executive magistracy. Even with the best of intentions, cases are going to pile up in their courts. The absence of alternative avenues to redress grievances through the judicial system will not only adversely impact the rights of farmers but is also, in my view, a violation of the fundamental rights guaranteed to every citizen under part III of the Constitution of India.

The absence of a regulatory framework to oversee the proper conduct of transactions between buyer and seller will also, without doubt, affect the weaker side, clearly, in this case, the farmer. The uncertainty caused by prolonged litigation will have its deleterious impact on agricultural investments and will contribute to significantly weakening the bargaining position of the farmer.

What should the Government of India do to restore farmer confidence?

The quotation with which I began this blog in effect means“…promises and plans must be put into action, otherwise they are useless”. The Government of India (GoI) needs to:

first, repeal the two Farm Acts and the amendments to the Essential Commodities Act;

second, come out with a White Paper listing the issues that are crucial to the success of farm reforms, especially the backward and forward linkages that will enable the farmer to access the marketplace as an equal. These include availability of credit and insurance, easy access to efficient markets and a legal framework that honours contracts promptly;

third, give a guarantee that the APMC/mandi system will continue on the same basis as before the enactment of the Farm Laws;

fourth, involve all stakeholders in discussions on the future directions that the MSP and procurement should take, especially in relation to changing cropping patterns to both meet nutrition needs of the population as well as to tackle the growing ecological degradation caused by rampant overuse of fertilisers, water and power, with its attendant implications for high-cost agriculture;

fifth, while meeting the food requirements of the population, notably its vulnerable sections, through the PDS, work out mechanisms to ensure a fair deal for the farmer as well, without taxing the government budget to breaking point;

sixth, consult with state governments on a subject that falls squarely within the State List in Schedule VII of the Constitution of India. The GoI could possibly incentivise the adoption of these reforms in different states, starting with those states where its party is in power. The demonstration effect of successful reforms can then percolate to other states.

In the final analysis, I have to come back to where I started this blog. The present government at the centre has, in the recent past, pushed through too many measures without adequately consulting stakeholders or taking the advice of those who have the benefit of years of experience of working in those areas. The damaging effects of such unitary approaches not only sow distrust about the intentions of the central government in the states ruled by opposition parties and in the population at large, they also adversely affect the lives of millions of people. It may be good politics in the short run (from the viewpoint of the ruling party) but it leads to disastrous economic, political and social consequences, in the short, medium and long term, for the country. The government at the centre now needs to talk the walk (i.e., discuss before framing policy) since its approach hitherto has been to walk through without talking.