Lessons from an Indian Humphrey Appleby

These are increasingly difficult times for the civil services in India. As if sending a former Coal Secretary to jail wasn’t enough, sleuths have now zeroed in on former senior Finance Ministry officials and a former national airline head. With our penchant for digging into every official deal and the tendency for any prosecution to drag on for eternity, civil servants are left wondering whether they will be able to enjoy their pensions in peace. This is a particularly appropriate time to be penning this blog in the interregnum between two political regimes. Mark Antony’s words “The evil that men do lives after them…” will be giving innumerable civil servants sleepless nights as they agonise over whether a change of government may mean facing charges of wrongful decisions made during the tenure of the previous regime. Although one cannot alter the past, here are some thumb rules for civil servants to avoid the treacherous trap of hasty, ill-thought out decision making that can boomerang on them in the months and years to come. I humbly dedicate these rules to that master of bureaucratic aphorisms, Sir Humphrey Appleby.

Rule 1:  Avoid discretionary decisions like the plague

Whenever scarce resources – spectrum, coal/oil blocks, private universities, primary schools – are to be allocated, go in for a transparent bidding process, with clear technical specifications and financial parameters. The same applies to procurement of any product ranging from foodstuffs to aircraft.

Rule 2: Record on file and keep copies

When Rule 1 is departed from, record your views/objections clearly on file for posterity. Point out the risks inherent in a discretionary policy and insist on transparent norms. If these are not forthcoming, ask for a transfer from that department. Where decisions are taken, even on a rational, transparent basis, keep a scanned copy of the relevant notings with you even after you leave that post: nemesis normally takes anywhere from three to ten years to catch up, given the ponderous ways of the three Cs (CAG, CVC and CBI).

Rule 3: Prevaricate, obfuscate and procrastinate

This Rule, and Rules 4 to 6, are meant for those who are not keen to follow in the footsteps of Ashok Khemka, with the number of transfers far outstripping the number of years of service. Start off by recommending the setting up of an inter-departmental committee with extensive terms of reference. This should buy you time either till the end of your tenure in the department or till your Mantri gets moved in a cabinet reshuffle.

Rule 4: Send the file into orbit

This tactic is especially recommended in the last few days of the financial year and just before the model code of conduct for elections kicks in. To get that annoying Mantri off your back, record some innocuous opinion and seek the views of your bureaucratic counterparts in other departments. Select those of your colleagues who have mountains of files pending with them or mark the file to the Finance Department, which is guaranteed to be swamped with files. Once April 1 dawns or elections are announced, you can regretfully plead lack of funds or falling afoul of the model code of conduct for your continued inaction.

Rule 5: Make the file and yourself scarce

Mantris are especially prone to pressure you when the hour for announcement of elections is well-nigh or even in the short interregnum between the change of governments (the latter may seem unusual but has happened to me). Ensconce yourself in some colleague’s room with firm instructions to your PA to stonewall all queries about your whereabouts even under pain of torture. If the bloodhounds are set to sniff you out, abandon ship, shut your mobile and flee homewards. No one can expect you to attend office at 10 PM, especially if you can swear that the keys to the locked steel almirah in your office are with your colleague who lives at the other end of the city.

Rule 6: Parkalam (let us see)

Civil servants must imbibe that seasoned politician, K. Kamaraj’s phrase “Parkalam” from their early days in service. The Marathi variant of this is “Baghoon sangto”, drilled into me by innumerable senior civil servants and (surprise! surprise!) politicians. Its English version would be “let me see and then tell you”. Having committed to no time frame, who can say when the telling will come? After two or three rounds of this ruse, the pestering politician will give up, knowing that this civil servant has no intention of doing his/her work. At the same time, since no offence has been given, the politician finds it difficult to complain to the powers that be.

Rule 7: A politician is…a politician!

Caveat emptor is the best course of action when a politician assures you that s(he) will stand by you on the decision you have taken. At the end of the day, the civil servant stands alone: even his/her civil service colleagues, while offering lip sympathy, can and will do little to rescue him/her when the chips are down. The politician has the resources to withstand a long drawn out legal process, something which will break any honest civil servant. More importantly, the politician can avail of the services of the best lawyers to stay out of prison (at least in 99 percent of the cases). Don’t believe me? Who spent time in the jug in the Mumbai Adarsh housing case, the politician or the civil servant? Who is currently serving time in the coal “scam” cases? Certainly not the former Coal Minister but rather the former Coal Secretary and his bureaucratic deputies. Also, a civil servant should never forget that a politician thrives on legal tangles: a legacy from British times, when most Indian politicians spent considerable time in courts (and jails). A spell in prison acts as a magic potion for a politician and enhances his/her political appeal, a reason why politicians keep referring to the “will of the people” rather than to the “rule of law”. Nor has one yet come across an instance where the family of a politician has actually starved because of the incarceration of that politician. Contrast this with the lot of the honest civil servant: his/her family is reduced to penury if his/her pension is withheld. Unlike politicians, the honest civil servant also stands the risk of being shunned in social circles. So, the golden rule when dealing with politicians is: smile politely and then apply Rules 1 to 6 above to stay out of trouble.

Good luck to all my fellow civil servants and may we never have to meet in any Central Jail!!

We don’t need Chowkidars

On my innumerable trips from Pune to Aurangabad and vice versa, I have sometimes taken a detour off the highway to the village of Shani Shinganapur. Located in the district of Ahmednagar, this village is home to a highly venerated temple of Shani, the planet-god who evokes immense fear in devout Hindus and whose propitiation is considered essential to progress in life. But what marks out this village, apart from the recent decision to admit women to the shrine, is the fact that there are no doors to houses in the village. This is based on a popular myth that anyone committing theft in the village is visited with the direst of consequences by Shani Maharaj.

Unfortunately, those committing theft/dacoity elsewhere in the country do not seem to fear adverse results for their actions, which is why the institution of chowkidars (guards) is a well-established one in every rural and urban habitation, right from the days of the British Raj. This hallowed heritage is now sought to be appropriated by the members of the political party ruling the country. Visit the Twitter website and you will see that ruling party functionaries, from the Prime Minister downwards, have prefixed “Chowkidar” to their names. Not content with this gesture, the Prime Minister has invited all fellow citizens of India to take the following pledge and join the Chowkidari movement: “As a citizen who loves India, I shall do my best to defeat corruption, dirt, poverty and terrorism and help create a new India which is strong, secure and prosperous.”

While dirt, poverty and terrorism have deep-rooted causes which are beyond the competencies of a chowkidar, the chord that is sought to be struck with the common citizen relates presumably to that old bugbear: corruption. Fair enough, except that here we are dealing with white-collar crime, not its blue-collar or no-collar versions, which would cover, say, a factory worker stealing some goods from the workplace or a petty burglar forcing his entry into a house, both of which the chowkidar is eminently equipped to handle. “Corruption” in its modern Indian avatar relates to the propensity of the dispenser of a scarce commodity (whether a good or service) to extract economic rent for making available the commodity at a price higher than its stated official or market price. If the followers of the Chowkidar movement really mean to remove corruption, they must eschew the noxious habits of mamool or lanjam, those lubricants which grease the wheels of public service delivery. Since it would be highly optimistic to predict a dramatic sea-change in attitudes in a public inured to years of petty (and mighty) corruption, maybe we should see what those in power have done over the past many years to cut corruption at its roots. The results, sadly, are dismal.

Let us start with the Lokpal and Lokayuktas Act. Enacted on the first day of 2014, the Lokpal is just now being appointed after five years, that too after the Government of India received a rap on the knuckles from the Supreme Court. To date, most states have not appointed Lokayuktas; in those which have, there is no news of any major effort to prosecute wrongdoing by those in power, barring Karnataka, which has, in the past, seen a sitting Chief Minister being unseated based on a Lokayukta indictment. Given the past record, the provisions in the 2013 Act for Inquiry Wings and Special Courts do not give much cause for cheer, being a case of more old wine in recycled bottles. The list of failed or partial prosecutions over the past decade give no reason for sudden optimism, be it the CWG scam, the Adarsh imbroglio, the 2G prosecution or even the coal scam. In the last-named case, the only ones to go behind bars on a technicality in the Prevention of Corruption Act (which has since been repealed but which, alas, could not help them) are hapless officers who were manning the Coal Ministry in Delhi at the relevant time. Whether telecom or coal, the judicial verdict seems to have been that the politicians in charge were innocent. Having spent thirty years in government, including in a key economic ministry in the Government of India, I find this conclusion very difficult to swallow. My pessimistic forecast is that we will continue to see years of inconclusive investigations, interminable court proceedings and unsatisfactory convictions.

Changes in rules and procedures governing the allocation of scarce resources, including natural resources, are again conspicuous by their absence. If governments at the centre and the states were serious about checking corruption, especially at the highest political levels, what is needed is the removal of all decision-making powers on procurements and allocations (ranging from coal/oil-gas blocks, defence equipment and spectrum to schools, private universities and food supplies) from the Ministries at the centre and the states and a grim determination to clamp down on political interference in such decisions. State governments are even more prone to this evil. The February 2019 decision of the Supreme Court striking down the award of tenders in 2016 by the Government of Maharashtra for Take Home rations for supplementary nutrition to pregnant/nursing mothers and children under three years of age is a glaring instance where the same firms/entities continue to be favoured regardless of the regime in power.

The present ruling dispensation, despite its protestations about curbing corruption, has taken no steps in this direction. Merely keeping power brokers away from the corridors of North/South Block and Shastri Bhavan is not enough; there are enough meeting places elsewhere in the world. The electoral bonds scheme introduced in 2018 provides a fertile breeding ground for corruption, with identities of both donors and donees (political parties) remaining anonymous. Rupee-laden suitcases or even bank transfers are no longer required; a transfer from an offshore account, with anonymity guaranteed, for favours rendered will do the trick.

Ease of doing business rolls glibly off the tongues of politicians and policy-makers in the India of 2019. Visit a Regional Transport Office (RTO) in any state for a driving licence or a municipality for a building permission and you will be struck by the ease with which business is done in these offices. Portia’s famous speech in The Merchant of Venice on the quality of mercy could apply just as well to corruption as to the quality of mercy: “…It is twice blest; It blesseth him that gives and him that takes…”  Amendments in 2018 to the Prevention of Corruption Act provide for complaints by a person, who is compelled to give “undue advantage”, within seven days of giving such undue advantage. While we are yet to see how this provision works in practice, it is debatable if this will induce bribe-givers to come forward to report bribes, given that they will have to go through the subsequent legal chakravyuha of proving that they were indeed compelled to offer the bribe. In any case, unless processes for licences and permits are time bound with limited areas for discretion and with clearly stated reasons for refusal, removal of petty corruption will remain a pipe dream.

I am not condoning the present state of affairs. All I wish to aver is that unless there is utmost respect for the rule of law and the fear of prompt retribution, corruption is not going to wither away. Doing away with corruption does not require chowkidars, it requires honest thanedars and conscientious nyaya-devatas who will prosecute offenders and deliver timely justice. Till that day dawns, the citizen should use the most effective weapon available to her: she should remorselessly vote out the corrupt politician and hold the government of the day to account. The conventional saying “यथा राजा तथा प्रजा” has to be stood on its head in India of 2019. It should now read “यथा प्रजा तथा राजा”: as are the citizens, so will be the rulers. People get the governments they deserve: if they want a straightforward, corruption-free existence, they must put their political representatives on notice.

The Importance of Being Irreverent

Irreverent:

A lack of respect for people or things that are generally taken seriously (Oxford English Dictionary)

Not showing the expected respect for official, important, or holy things (Cambridge Dictionary)

We live in truly dystopian times. Times when an M.F. Husain is exiled from his country for his art, a Wendy Doniger has her book pulped for apparently blasphemous content, a Perumal Murugan is hounded out of his town by outraged religious-caste groups and a Gauri Lankesh pays for her writings with her life. Apart from these, we have had valuable manuscripts in a research institute in Pune destroyed because of the apparently derogatory reference to a major historical figure and violent protests against a movie which depicted a queen who was only a figment of a poet’s imagination. That all this has happened in the past couple of decades is a sorry testimony to the depletion of a sense of proportion in a country where the population has thrived on a rich diet of multicultural jokes and where poking fun at communities and important public figures has been a staple component of Indian democracy.

These developments are hard to stomach for many of us who were reared on community jokes and developed a capacity to extract a good laugh out of any situation. We started young and at home: my father would keep us kids in splits with his imitations of office colleagues, relatives and prominent politicians. The school environment was equally refreshing: we played football with our principal, an Irish brother complete in his cassock, and revelled in his one-liners and his ability to wake up a somnolent noontime classroom by sweeping all our geometry boxes off our tables.

But our irreverence was well and truly honed by the atmosphere at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi University. Rags like Kooler Talk and Spice indulged in sly satire and societies like the Wodehouse Society exposed an entire generation to how humour could be gently used to expose the asininity and foibles of the nobs of British society. Direct action was also forthcoming, as when tomatoes were hurled in protest at the participants in a fashion show and when that parliamentarian par excellence, Piloo Mody, was pelted with pieces of chapati when he entered the college mess prior to a late evening session with college students. Our riotousness continued during our post-graduation phase in the Delhi School of Economics: the male members of the class turned up in lungis for a morning class in econometrics. Unfazed by this, the venerable Professor continued as if nothing had happened. Our PG class also started SPOSIDS (Society for the Preservation Of Sanity In Delhi School) to counter what we saw as a curriculum that was out of touch with the real world.

This refusal to take life seriously was maintained after entering the portals of the hallowed Indian Administrative Service (IAS). The targets were politicians and pompous senior officers who took themselves a bit too seriously. Peccadilloes of officers and politicians were the staple at gatherings of younger officers. Along with this there was a certain scepticism about the zeal shown by the powers that be for their pet programmes. It was recognised that politicians were in the game for continued access to power and the bureaucracy for the collateral benefits of glory, perks and prestige, and, increasingly, rentier income. Since flippant notings on musty files were frowned upon, gossip sessions over innumerable cups of canteen chai with one’s colleagues and bosses provided opportunities to laugh over the shenanigans of ministers and other politicians.

Having grown up in and been exposed to such an environment throughout one’s student and working life, I feel a deep sense of sadness today on seeing the barrage of hatred and abuse that accompanies any attempt at humour. Like Irish and Russian jokes, we had our existence enlivened by gentle barbs at Sardarjis, Bengalis, Parsis and Malayalis. Cut to the present and, if we are fortunate not to be lynched electronically or physically, we can look forward to a court summons from distant Guwahati or Bhubaneswar: if you don’t believe me, see what Abhijit Iyer-Mitra had to face for his admittedly silly comments on a particular state and its religious icons.

The quality of irreverence is a sine qua non for a healthy democracy. Go back to the middle ages and you have astronomers facing the threat of the stake for venturing to claim that the earth moved around the sun, refuting Ptolemaic wisdom. Christian Europe moved through the Reformation to the Enlightenment only because of a questioning attitude to life. Soviet Russia and its satellites were toppled by the growing irreverence of their citizens, who were heartily sick of the ideological diet that they had been fed for between forty to seventy years. And Indian democracy has been immeasurably enriched by the likes of Shankar, Laxman and Abu, who exposed the foibles and failings of politicians with their cartoons — Pandit Nehru invited Shankar to make fun of him. Contrast this with China or North Korea, where a hearty laugh has probably not been heard for decades.

So what has gone wrong in India? Why have we started taking ourselves so seriously? The demise of humour was heralded, ironically, at a time when the Indian economy seemed to have finally cast off its somnolence and started to acquire some dynamism. Growth was booming, the middle-class Indian had started to extend his/her reach to distant Silicon Valley and women were (at least in urban settings) increasingly asserting their independence. Patriarchal attitudes were, however, not going to accept defeat so easily. The threatened Indian male ego retreated into the world of religious chauvinism and misogyny to protect its position. Liberalism and gender equality were seen as threats to the existing traditional order. Established social norms were slow to adapt to the changed economic environment. The situation was exacerbated by a growing divide between groups — educational, digital and economic.

A moribund education system has seen a young population going through school and college without receiving “education” as such, if by education one means the ability to use reason and employ critical and analytical thinking to assess issues. A crucial reason for this has been the gradual demise of liberal education, grounded in the realities of society. Add to this the preponderance of technical and management courses with multiple-choice questions and you have a generation which cannot present cogent arguments in essay form. With most jobs not requiring analytical abilities and with the WhatsApp-Twitter era in full swing, pithy bytes are more popular than lengthy written discourses. It is easier to spew vituperative bile when one has only 260 characters to play around with.

While one may understand, even if not stomach, the growing expression of intolerance by India’s “educated” classes, what causes more dismay are the responses of institutions charged with protecting the right to freedom of expression. The highest court of the land refused to stay the arrest of a journalist by the Odisha government. Granted, this person shoots off his mouth intemperately, but forty days in the jug for a minor misdemeanour was rather harsh. As if that was not enough,  the Indian government (run by whichever party is in power in any state) tends to throw the rule book at any dissenter. If the charge of criminal defamation fails to stick, the government moves on to imposing the far graver charge of sedition. When even this accusation seems flimsy and liable to rejection by the courts, governments take recourse to the sledgehammer of the National Security Act, as experienced recently by a Manipuri journalist,  whose only crime was to refer disparagingly to the Chief Minister. Of course, as a last resort, governments can use the draconian provisions of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) which enables long periods of incarceration of the accused while the wheels of justice grind agonizingly slowly.

All these developments over the past two decades have seen censorship (both by the self and by others in authority) cast its ominous dark shadow over the democratic landscape. It takes threats from just a few crazed fanatics for an author to stop writing, a filmmaker to rewrite a script, a university to withdraw a teaching assignment to a reputed scholar or a journalist or a dissenter to face assault culminating in murder.

The attack on perceived “irreverence” has adverse implications for creativity, with deleterious consequences for the development of the economy and society. Newton, Darwin and Einstein would never have made their path breaking discoveries if they had been nervously looking over their shoulders all the time for potential assailants. More critically, it contributes to damaging the delicate framework of checks and balances that are the bulwark of a democratic society, leading to irreparable damage to institutions. If civil servants cannot freely give dissenting opinions, police officers cannot crack down on offenders, judges cannot give judgments unpalatable to the political bosses of the day and academics cannot critically examine the policies of the government, that day is not far when a sheep like, adoring population is persuaded to jettison democracy for the charms of an all-powerful leader. We must let that prescient lawmaker, B.R. Ambedkar, have the final words “in politics, Bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship”.

 

 

Running with the Hares, Hunting with the Hounds – A Dangerous Game

I know it has become a pastime, especially among those sympathetic to or following the present ruling dispensation, to lay the blame for all India’s ills at the door of the Indian National Congress and its presiding deities, the Nehru-Gandhi family. We may pass over the apparent errors of India’s first Prime Minister, including his neglect of primary education and agriculture and his obsession with the public sector, not to mention his disastrous tryst with the Chinese, relying on incompetent advisers. But what, even for true-blue liberals, is not so forgettable are the errors of commission and omission over the last forty years, which have landed the country in crisis after crisis. In trying to be all things to all people, the Congress has been withering away, in the best traditions of Marx’s Communist state.

Let us start with its missteps in Punjab in the late 1970s/early 1980s, followed by the Shah Bano-Ram Janmabhoomi fiascos of the 1980s. Catering to what it thought were specific constituencies, the Congress played with fire and, as expected, sustained severe burns. It forfeited the support of the Sikhs after the storming of the Golden Temple and the pogrom of Sikhs in Delhi in 1984 and alienated moderate Muslims with its anti-woman stance in the Shah Bano case. It then provided oxygen to a weakened BJP by opening the locks of the Ram Temple, followed by a spell of masterly inaction when the Babri Masjid was being demolished. The electorate rightly banished it to the boondocks for eight years, till its return in 2004.

But this blog is not about the past; it is about how the Congress party refuses to learn from its past mistakes. Four recent incidents highlight its continued bumbling and raise serious doubts in the mind of the swing voter about the capabilities of this party to govern the country for the next five years. After managing to secure power in three Hindi heartland states, one would have hoped that the new broom would sweep clean. But there seems to be no effort (at least not in public view) or intention to implement the rule of law in dealing with vigilante rowdyism. Following up on the prosecution of lynchers would have sent a clear message to those who indulged in murder under previous ruling regimes. Not only was this not done, there was the recent incident of film personality Naseeruddin Shah being prevented from participating in the Ajmer Literature Festival. The Chief Minister tweeted weakly about his commitment to the rule of law. But there was no firm police action to make it clear to the protesting hoodlums that their nonsense would not be tolerated. Added to this is the continued ambivalence of the new Congress governments on the “beef ban”. The Rajasthan government seems to have gone further. Newspaper reports speak of its efforts to felicitate those who shelter cows; there is no discussion on reviving the cattle industry and restoring the livelihoods of millions from the minority and disadvantaged communities, while guaranteeing protection to the cow, if the intention was to assuage majority community feelings as well.

The approach to the Sabarimala issue highlights a similar lack of conviction. The party of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru is not able to come out with unequivocal support for the right of women to worship at the shrine even after a Supreme Court judgement. Nor is it able to provide a public forum for a reasoned discussion on possible solutions. Caught between the Scylla of belief and the Charybdis of the rule of law, the party has surrendered its moral authority to regressive religious forces. In the process, it has ensured that it will gain the support of neither the pro-changers (especially its women segments) or the conservative no-changers.

A strong enunciation of its belief in the right to equality of all humans by the Congress would have gone down well with the liberal intelligentsia and India’s largest minority community as regards the hasty attempts by the present central government to introduce the Citizenship Amendment Bill. This travesty of a legislation which seeks to confer inferior status on a particular community should have been roundly condemned and public opinion should have been built up against it. Instead, the Congress Party chose to boycott the vote in the Lok Sabha instead of voting against it: yet another opportunity lost to reiterate its clear support for minorities.

Most laughable has been the denunciation of the sedition provisions in India’s criminal laws by a spokesperson of the Congress party, who has also been Law Minister in the previous UPA government. Congress governments of the past have never been chary of using this execrable provision. Sedition cases are now being lodged against students, intellectuals and journalists. Congress governments never tried to do away with this colonial anachronism. In fact, they introduced even more draconian legislation that hit at the liberty of the individual. The Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967 (UAPA) was first passed during Congress rule and most amendments stiffening its provisions have been enacted by Congress governments. It has been used against social activists rather than terrorists and seems designed more to stifle freedom of expression and association rather than tackle terrorism. For the Congress party to shed crocodile tears when these laws are misused by police under the present ruling dispensation represents the height of hypocrisy.

Nor has there been any real commitment to administrative, judicial or police reforms on the part of the Congress party. The Reports of the Second Administrative Reforms Commission were ignored by the very Congress government that set it up. India’s governance systems are hamstrung by outmoded management structures and criminal justice (and police) reforms are not even on the horizon. No party, including the Congress, has shown any enthusiasm for the institutions of the Lokpal and Lokayukta, raising serious questions about their commitment to eradicate corruption.

There appears to be no realisation that a political party needs a base of committed voters. This requires the articulation of a clear ideology and adherence to a set of specific principles. These ideological positions also attract an adequate mass of swing voters who are not committed to any specific party but vote on the basis of the programmes that a particular party espouses. Given its past mistakes and the absence of committed cadres, it is little wonder that the Congress party has had a virtual no-show in a number of states in the last general elections. Subsequent disenchantment with the BJP may have yielded seats to the Congress in a number of states, but it should not be forgotten that it could not retain power in the state of Karnataka on its own strength. Even today, the loyalty of its legislators in Karnataka remains suspect, compelling its party managers to resort to resorts to keep the flock together.

Cobbling together a mirage of coalitions is not the route to political power for the Congress. Too many of the players in the political parties that make a great show of unity today have gone through the experiences of unhappy (and uneasy) past cohabitations. Nor have any of these parties inspired confidence in the public regarding the values they stand for. The animals in India’s Animal Farm may then decide to continue with Farmer Jones rather than opt for Napoleon if, the more things change, the more they remain the same.

Why the Congress needs younger legs (and minds) — if it wants to make a fight of 2019

Just when I thought that I could give two cheers for the victory of the Congress Party in the recent general elections to the state assemblies in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh (MP) and Rajasthan came the blow to my solar plexus. Two cheers because, frankly, the Congress Party has done very little to enthuse me (and many other middle class voters) in the last ten years. But the very fact that there was some challenge to a monolithic party which is yet to deliver on its promises, and the infusion of some variety between the centre and the states, was a welcome change. And then, the GOP of India’s independence committed its usual error — it picked the oldest man for the top job in two of the three states (MP and Rajasthan) where it barely scraped home past the halfway mark, with some help from others. It did not draw a lesson from the ambiguous mandate it got from the electorate, which probably reflected their scepticism about the same old wine being recycled in new bottles, given that the CM favourites in these two states had made no bones of their keenness to secure the numero uno post.

Why am I not particularly thrilled that the younger men in these two states (Jyotiraditya Scindia and Sachin Pilot) were not picked as CMs, especially when both of them have done stints in UPA-II as Central Ministers and have clean reputations? Four reasons come to mind:

  • The legacy of the old guard: Congress politicians who entered politics in the times of Indira Gandhi carry outdated socialist baggage with them. The pre-1991 Congress politician belonged to the “crony socialism” era, when the government micro-managed public enterprises while maintaining a cosy relationship with favoured private sector businessmen. The MP CM also carries with him his past association with the Emergency caucus and the alleged association (not so far conclusively proved) with the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in Delhi.
  • A statist mindset of Nehruvian vintage: Almost no Congressman (or woman) has shed their fondness for the tight economic embrace of the state. This was patently visible to me during my days in a key economic Ministry in Delhi in the early 1990s, when the Minister had to be cajoled to sign any file that contemplated opening up the sector to competition. It almost always took calls from either the Finance Ministry or the PMO to get him to sign on the dotted line. Once the liberalisation glasnost eased up after 1993-94, it was back to pre-1991 business as usual. The only difference was that new avenues for extraction of economic rent were explored and developed, especially in the natural resource and infrastructure sectors. Although it has to be said that the NDA interregnum (1998-2004) saw more positive measures being taken on the infrastructure front, the attractiveness of the “economic rent extraction” method never diminished. The coal sector is a prime example of this approach, with former bureaucrats even today paying the price for implementing the absurd policies of their days. Aided by a suspicious public that looked askance at every government decision in the chaotic days of UPA-II, economic reforms were virtually doomed. Add to this the decisions to guarantee the rights to food, rural employment and education, all of which had to be implemented by the same moribund government machinery in the states, with no clear idea of where the money was to come from and it is little wonder that the government wrote its own epitaph in the days leading up to 2014.
  • The absence of fresh thinking: Nothing characterises an antediluvian mindset more than the recourse to the same tired shibboleths of the past when confronted with problems. Governments of today (centre and states) are falling over themselves to waive farm loans. Apart from the cruel reality that no one has carefully computed the budget implications, such ‘band-aid’ solutions do not really go to the heart of the farmer’s distress. There is no talk of major investments in rural infrastructure, whether irrigation, storage, farm-to-consumer chains or comprehensive crop insurance, nor does one see major policy thrusts aimed at these. Lack of employment opportunities, especially for the teeming millions of the under-30s, imperils future economic and social stability. Education (both school and post-school) and health care are in a shambles in a number of states, with two of the three states referred to above sharing a seat with countries from sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean.
  • Lack of commitment to thoroughgoing reforms: Along with all other political formations, the Congress has no firm ideas on or commitment to crucial reforms in the realm of institutions — electoral reforms, judicial (including especially criminal justice) reforms, reforms in the administrative structure and, most crucially, in devolution of financial and administrative powers to elected urban and rural local bodies. The result has been increasing criminalisation of politics and society, continuing poor public service delivery and growing public disenchantment with the idea of liberal democracy itself.

I do not discount the fact that you can be old in age but young in mind (disclosure: I am past sixty years myself). As a good example, I can refer to that gentle bureaucrat-turned-politician, Dr. Manmohan Singh who, at almost sixty, reinvented himself from a Nehruvian socialist to a liberaliser and carried on with his new avatar when he was past seventy. But then we have only a few philosopher-kings: dyed-in-the-wool politicians are hardly going to reinvent themselves in the later stages of their lives. More crucially, I feel they stifle whatever talent exists in their political parties: this talent then either resigns itself, like Prince Charles, to a very late accession to the throne or makes a beeline for other parties. The real losers are the people of India: they are denied the benefits that innovative thinking and dynamic action could bring to their lives.

Where the Congress party is concerned, I see few options before it. Either it bloods its younger elements and places them in positions of leadership or it faces irrelevance in the near future. Younger leaders should forcefully stake their claims to responsible leadership and, if denied, should examine the possibilities of striking out on coalitions of their own. My generation of school and college-going cricket lovers venerated the likes of Pataudi, Borde, Viswanath and Gavaskar. But we would hardly ask them to face the Australian quicks of today: we leave that to the current generation of cricketers — Kohli, Pujara, Rahane, et al. Politicians, like bureaucrats, should gracefully bow out at the ripe age of 65. The law of diminishing returns sets in with a vengeance thereafter, with geriatric politicians completely out of tune with the needs and aspirations of their constituents, whether farmers, students or young professionals. Unfortunately, these vain efforts to secure political immortality come at a huge cost to the nation.

Revisiting Old Favourites

In the summer of 1975, I was a typical middle-class college student: apolitical, though not unaware of political events, immersed in college activities and casting fleeting glances at the road ahead in life. The Emergency was a turning point for me and many others. After the initial shock, we witnessed the arrests of many activists, including prominent members of the current ruling elite, on the Delhi University campus, and got used to boring fare in the daily newspapers. Slowly, frustration started setting in — fear of speaking out because of rumours of police informers prowling around the campus, being incessantly subjected to glowing accounts of the achievements of the government, including the heir-apparent, and the reports, as 1976 wearily dragged on, of demolitions in Old Delhi and forced sterilisations, most markedly in the Hindi belt. The announcement of elections in January 1977 came as a relief, followed by joy when Congress party stalwarts deserted an obviously  sinking ship and euphoria on the morning of 20 March 1977 when Indira Gandhi’s party was given marching orders by the people of India.

I am not, though, soliloquising on those momentous days, but rather on three books that strongly attracted me during the Emergency and its aftermath: George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm, and Arthur Koestler’s Darkness At Noon. The Emergency era, with its midnight arrests, glorification of the leader and breathless media  accounts of remarkable economic achievements, was drawn straight from the scripts of  these three classics. Post-1980, although India went through its multiple convulsions, these books, while occupying pride of place on my bookshelf, gathered dust as the Fukuyama liberal democracy era seemed to indicate that we were moving to more hopeful times.

Not any more, though. 1984 has been replicated in the scenario of recent years. Big Brother, in the shape of the Great Leader, beams at us from giant-size hoardings, full-page newspaper advertisements and from television screens, in country after country. Media reports are full of government’s achievements in the financial, economic, social and foreign policy spheres. The television screens scream shrilly at us when exposing dastardly “anti-national” conspiracies, with news anchors frothing at the mouth and their coiffured hair popping up a la Kishore Kumar in the Hindi film Padosan. And with the daily cacophony of alleged attacks by disaffected elements, including migrants, minorities and liberals, that day is not far when we will be treated to public displays of captured enemy soldiers.

Darkness At Noon has its echoes in the recent midnight drama at the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) headquarters in New Delhi. That the government saw fit to undertake a coup against a senior police functionary under cover of darkness is alarming; that it posted ham-handed, heavy-footed sleuths to snoop on him the next day betrays a paranoia that would have done Stalin proud. The pattern is the same elsewhere in the world: a senior Interpol representative vanishes in China, a journalist is strangled and dismembered in the Saudi Arabian embassy in Istanbul and journalists and liberal thinkers are summarily despatched in countries like Russia and India. Concentration camps and Gulags may have become passé but detention camps have come to stay in the world’s largest democracies, India and the USA, all set to house “migrants” from neighbouring countries.

Animal Farm is, of course, a perennial favourite in describing politics of any hue. Every politician promising change morphs into the image of his/her predecessor: the “oppressed” imitate their oppressors in every single case. Even more telling is the popularity of fake news, reminiscent of “Four legs good, two legs bad” metamorphosing into “Four legs good, two legs better”. History is rewritten so that the dumb animals can no longer remember their initial revolt against the tyrannical Farmer Jones.

Where then does it look as though humanity is collectively headed to? Hopefully not the terrifying society envisioned in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, in which the United States of America becomes an authoritarian theocracy, with the regulation of thought and speech at every step and selected women serving as reproductive vessels for a fast-vanishing elite. For me, the mind-numbing moment in the novel came when the central character, June, is suddenly informed at a shopping counter that she can no longer draw money from her bank accounts. Flashback to 8 PM on 8 November 2016 when over one billion citizens were summarily informed that in four hours’ time, currency of particular large denominations held by them would become worthless and they would have to approach their bank branches as beggars to release even limited amounts of their own money. Even though the Supreme Court has not accepted the mandatory linking of bank accounts to Aadhaar numbers, the fact remains that 99 percent of Indians have been compelled to link their bank accounts with their Aadhaar numbers. I shudder at the thought of a future dictator arbitrarily and unilaterally deciding at the stroke of the midnight hour to freeze all bank accounts and gain complete control over the finances, and other actions, of his/her country’s inhabitants. Should that ever occur, our venerated poet-philosopher Rabindranath Tagore’s famous line in Gitanjali will have to be modified to “Into that hell of unfreedom, my Father, let my country  not awake.”

 

Checks and Balances – A Must for a Democracy

Recently, I had a brief skirmish with the Indian Army: on Twitter. I happened to view a 15 second video of a Commanding Officer (CO) of an army unit in Arunachal Pradesh issuing a warning to those messing with his troops, after these troops had vandalised public property. In the context of reports that some of his men had allegedly been thrashed by the local police, who was being threatened by whom was quite clear. I merely pointed out that this was not behaviour expected of a commissioned officer. For the next twenty four hours and more, I was subjected to a barrage of criticism. What was a little unexpected was that two retired generals seemed to find nothing objectionable in the CO’s conduct. Possibly, the involvement of the Indian Civil & Administrative Services (IC&AS) Association in this issue rankled with them. The incident has also been viewed by military veterans as “arrogant bureaucracy and a sulking army”. I finally clarified that, in my view, while the guilty must be punished, the rule of law must be respected at all times, even under grave provocation.

What is a matter of growing concern is the erosion in India of the system of checks and balances that make for a healthy democracy, where there is respect for the rule of law. The much-maligned IAS has been engaged in a forty-year tug of war with the uniformed forces for primacy in the decision-making hierarchy. Whether it was the DGP vs. the Home Secretary or the DM vs. SP controversies, a lot of bad blood spilled out, even as law and order situations became increasingly challenging. Recent years have also seen a gradual watering down of the position of the Defence Secretary vis-a-vis the service chiefs, starting with their relative pay scales (the usual comparison of hierarchy in a status-conscious society). I am not here going into the issue of civilian-uniformed force relationships, except to reiterate that each service has its role to play in the governance structure. Weakening one at the expense of the other (or casting unnecessary aspersions) can be inimical to our democracy.

Where the problem arises is when any institution (or individuals in that institution) fail(s) to exercise a voluntary check on its/their exercise of power, mindful of the provisions of law and the Constitution of India. Just as the Constitution separates the respective roles of the executive, legislature and judiciary, the functions of different wings of the executive are also clearly defined. When differences arise among them, the political executive is tasked with the duty of resolving them and ensuring harmonious functioning of the executive machinery.

The Parliamentary system of governance diffuses power among those elected to its legislatures to prevent the concentration of powers in any one person. The leader of the ruling party (PM/CM) has to command the confidence of a majority of legislators. The existence of a Council of Ministers, elected by the people, implies the presence of alternative centres of countervailing power. Till the early 1970s, this was the pattern, which was overturned by the centralisation of powers in the Indira Gandhi years. Over the years, CMs became supplicants and Ministers were gradually reduced to decorative roles, a process that has become pronounced in recent years.

The trend towards centralisation of power has been accentuated by the growing importance of non-elected officials in decision-making processes and the bypassing of established systems of accountability. The emergence of the PMO and the CMO (in states) as alternative power centres beholden only to the Numero Uno has severely curtailed the scope for reasoned deliberation on matters of public importance. Which is why one had reservations about the reconstitution of the Strategic Policy Group (SPG) under the NSA, a non-elected official, with no indication as to whether its recommendations/decisions would be reviewed by a group of elected officials such as the Cabinet Committee on Security.

Five momentous events in independent India indicate the adverse consequences of the absence of collegial decision-making: the Indo-China War (1962), the Emergency (1975), the Shah Bano-Ram Mandir episodes (1986), the Babri Masjid demolition (1992) and the demonetisation bombshell (2016). Not for nothing have Cabinet Committees been set up at the centre for important subjects like security, economic affairs and political affairs. Given that the members of these Committees are answerable to the people, the expectation is that they will take reasoned decisions after discussion, utilising the expertise available in their respective Ministries.

Former RBI Governor Raghuram Rajan likened the role of the RBI to a seat belt in a car. When the political executive sets off on a course of action without the seat belt, a caution is sounded. To this, I would add the analogy of a pressure cooker: the colleagues of a PM/CM in the Council of Ministers are the safety valves telling the boss when the cooker is in danger of exploding, when a policy is likely to be harmful to the common man.

This is why conflicting opinions ought to be welcomed in a democratic system of governance. Since no one person or group of persons is blessed with divine perspicacity, it always helps to know whether one has worked out all the potential pitfalls in the execution of a policy, however good it may sound in theory. Packing institutions with yes men and treating contrarian views with hostility or disdain are likely to yield suboptimal outcomes. Any democratic government needs that child which innocently says “But he isn’t wearing anything at all.”