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.

Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom

(After a nine month hiatus, the Gadfly Column resumes publication today. Blogs will be published on the first and fifteenth days of every month. The blogs will also be carried on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. Comments are welcome)

 

It is a reflection of the irony of our times that a blog on liberal democracy has, for its title, the words of Chairman Mao in 1957, when he said “Let a hundred flowers bloom; let a hundred schools of thought contend.” Over sixty years later, the jury is still out on whether this represented a genuine attempt to encourage inner party democracy or whether it was a shrewd move aimed at weeding out dissidents, followed as it was by a ruthless purge reminiscent of the Stalinist Soviet Union of the 1930s. And yet, the beauty of Indian liberal democracy since 1947 has been the space given for alternative views to flourish and for state policy to reflect the consensus arrived at after listening to opinions from all shades of the political spectrum.

Of course, there have been the occasional hiccups like the Emergency and the tendency of successive governments in India (both at the centre and in the states) to use draconian legislation to curb views interpreted by them as seditious or as a threat to public order. But Indian democracy has survived so far, despite the gloomy prognostications of many Western “Cassandras”, precisely because of its diverse population, drawn from a khichdi of languages, religions, castes and ethnicities.

I will stick out my neck by saying that caste divisions in the majority Hindu community and the formation of linguistic states postponed the slide into a unitarian state ruled by one community. Undoubtedly, there is much to be said for reforming Hindu society through the “annihilation” of caste as a marker of social privilege. But the assertion of specific caste groupings through the electoral process in different states ensured that political power did not remain with a monolith like the Congress. When the Janata party experiment failed in 1979, one of the reasons was the discomfort of various coalition partners with what they saw as the efforts of the then Jan Sangh to use the levers of powers to build up its sectarian political base. The fall of the V.P. Singh government, backed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), in 1990 was a foregone conclusion right from day one of that government. The Raja of Manda knew his survival as Prime Minister was contingent on withstanding the Ram Mandir Shilanyas programme and L.K. Advani’s Rath Yatra. His Mandal gambit was intended to check the possibility of the consolidation of the Hindu community on the emotive Ram Janmabhoomi issue. Unfortunately for him, not only was the Congress Party not willing to back him, the “Young Turk” Chandrashekhar was only too ready to assume the mantle of Prime Minister, even if only for a little over seven months. The 1990s rise of parties like the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), Samajwadi Party (SP) and Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), based on the support of specific castes and social groups, ensured that, for twenty five years after the Babri Masjid demolition, the party that stood to gain from its demolition was in power for just five years in Uttar Pradesh (UP).

Nehru and Rajaji were strongly opposed to the creation of linguistic states, worried as they were about the development of fissiparous tendencies in the new republic. It took the martyrdom of Potti Sriramulu to hasten the move towards linguistic states. Political developments in the 1960s seemed to vindicate their fears: the attempted imposition of Hindi provoked a backlash in Tamil Nadu (then Madras State) and the bifurcation of Punjab raised strong passions in the Punjabi Sikh population (to be unfortunately revived in the years after 1980). But the creation of linguistic states also had a positive spin off in the formation of strong regional parties, starting with the DMK in Tamil Nadu, followed by the star duo of MGR and NTR in the neighbouring states of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh and spreading like wildfire to states all across the country, from UP, Bihar, Maharashtra and Karnataka to Odisha, Assam and Bengal.

The clout of regional parties has diminished somewhat in recent years, thanks to a variety of reasons. Poor governance, especially in states like UP, has cost parties like the BSP and SP dear, while the influence of “Big Brother” BJP has reduced the scope for independent maneuvering by parties like the Biju Janata Dal and the Telugu Desam Party. With legislators apparently ready to desert the ship that won them the elections (for reasons that do not need to be explicitly spelt out here), India has entered a phase of fluid politics, where the results of an election do not guarantee which party or parties will govern a state for the next five years. “Aaya Rams” are back with a vengeance more than fifty years after 1967, though whether they will metamorphose into “Gaya Rams” over time is still a moot point.

It is in this context that the recent statement at a conference by the Prime Minister endorsing the idea of “One Nation, One Election” and stating that this is not “just an issue of deliberation, but also the need of the country” has set the cat among the pigeons. No report on his speech has clarified whether “one election” is restricted to just parliament and state elections, though that is the inference we can draw for the present. The issues of expenditures on conducting elections every now and then and the impact of frequent elections on development works can be debated. What is more crucial are the implications of such a move for the federal nature of the Indian state. A state government does not draw its legitimacy from the central government, given that India is a Union of States, affirmed by no less sanctified a document than the Constitution of India. Issues that are prominent in state elections do not often figure on the national agenda. More importantly, in the absence of any provision to recall legislators, elections offer people the only opportunity to hold their representatives accountable. There is also the issue of the lack of predictability of the tenure of a Vidhan Sabha (or, indeed, of the Lok Sabha). Loss of majority of the ruling party or dissolution of the House could trigger fresh elections well before the due date. It would be well-nigh impossible, without major constitutional changes, to manage such contingencies were simultaneous elections to become the norm. I am not holding the simplistic view that simultaneous elections necessarily lead to the same party winning at both the state and central levels. But in recent years, there has been a marked tendency to highlight issues of nationalism and patriotism, with even the armed forces being dragged into election speeches. Playing on people’s emotions could skew results in state elections, especially where large sections of the electorate, including the so-called “educated middle class” have no nuanced understanding of the issues at stake, falling prey to the barrage of fake news streamed at them by social and electronic media. There is also the very likely danger that, given the opacity of the Electoral Bonds system, one party could garner a very high proportion of the funds donated, something that recently available information seems to corroborate.

But, above all, I value the festival of democracy characterised by elections at regular intervals at different levels of government, from the gram panchayat level up to the Lok Sabha. Having conducted and supervised elections at the Lok Sabha, Vidhan Sabha and municipal levels, I have observed the coming to life of people who are otherwise immersed in the mundane chores of life, whether in Motihari, Muzaffarpur or Mumbai. The right to vote is an affirmation by the citizen of her dignity as an individual. She has the unfettered right to exercise her discriminating judgment each time there is an election, whether to the Lok Sabha, Vidhan Sabha or local bodies, and the full authority to question those who seek to represent her on issues, be they national, state or local. She may be, in daily life, a domestic worker, nurse or shop salesperson. But come election time, she is the power behind the throne, determining the future of those who seek to govern the country or state. It would certainly be churlish to deny her her place in the sun for brief periods at regular intervals in a five year period. Why reduce it to just one time in five years, when governments spend money on so many unnecessary items? Nor are elections the main reason why governments function so inefficiently in executing development works. The ability to handle transfers of power without bloodshed is the mark of a mature democracy, no matter what the cost is in terms of time, energy or money.

The Four Sins of the Delhi Police

One dislikes passing judgment on others, mindful of the Biblical saying “judge not lest ye be judged”. And yet a time comes when it is difficult to be dispassionate, particularly when there is organised violence aimed at creating fear and poisoning relations between India’s two largest religious communities. What makes the recent horror in North-East Delhi totally unforgivable, especially for those of us who have served in one of the two All India Services (IAS/IPS), is the complete abdication of its statutory duties by the Delhi Police. The events of the last week of February 2020 were the tragic denouement of a sequence of happenings over the past two months, as the Delhi Police slipped deeper and deeper into the mire of partisanship and extremely unprofessional functioning, when one was left wondering if the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) were applicable in the National Capital Region of Delhi. We can list the four instances, culminating in the recent violence, when the Delhi Police gave short shrift to the criminal laws of the land and, indeed, to the very Constitution they are sworn to uphold.

It all started with the entry of the police into the Jamia campus on 15 December 2019. Even presuming grave provocation from the students, the videos of the library assault (not denied or controverted officially) point to a mentality in the guardians of law and order of “teaching a lesson” to students. All the canons of law and order maintenance enshrined in India’s criminal laws do not permit the police to use force to an extent greater than is needed to restore normalcy. The videos show helmeted policemen using lathis on students sitting in the library, who were certainly not engaged in any violent act. Even if they were wanted for any previous transgressions of the law, they could have been arrested following the usual procedure. By this one irresponsible action, the Delhi Police set off a chain reaction that has since reverberated across University campuses throughout the country.

The second instance of police apathy was even more inexcusable. The JNU was invaded by gangs of armed thugs on the evening of 5 January 2020. The same police which raided the Jamia Campus without any request from the Jamia authorities decided to stay put at the JNU gate even when there was enough evidence (on social and electronic media) that cognizable offences involving danger to life and property were being committed within the campus. What makes the entire episode ludicrous is the fact that, two months after the incident, no FIRs have been registered against a single goon who indulged in violence and vandalism; instead, the only FIRs that have been lodged have been against the victims of the assault.

Act 3 of this sordid drama took place in late January/early February 2020 during the elections to the Delhi Assembly. Three violations of the Election Commission’s Model Code of Conduct, two by elected Members of Parliament (one of them a Minister in the Government of India) and one by a BJP candidate, merited action under the IPC. But even though all three of them were slapped with limited campaign bans by the Election Commission, the Delhi Police did not invoke Sections 153A/295A of the IPC, which would have served as a salutary reminder to politicians not to resort to incendiary campaigning to win votes. The failure of the Delhi Police to rein in the political class when they were presented with a golden opportunity laid the seeds for the bitter harvest that followed in the last week of February.

The final nail in the coffin was hammered in when Kapil Mishra, the same local politician indicted earlier by the Election Commission (and who lost the elections) decided to refurbish his standing by giving an ultimatum to the anti-CAA/NPR protesters in N-E Delhi to remove their blockage of public spaces, failing which the threat of direct action was given. The resultant outbreak of violence spiraled into full-fledged arson and murder. It is here that the conduct of the Delhi Police comes in for the most criticism. With protests across the city over the past two months, the police should have been alert to nip any violence in the bud. Preventive action against criminal elements, presumably taken during the elections, should have been continued with thereafter, given the ongoing protests. Delhi’s borders with neighbouring states, especially UP, should have been sealed to prevent infiltration of outsiders. But what was damningly on view over three days was the inaction (at best) and complicity (at worst) of the police. Given the fate of all postmortems into riots in India, one is doubtful whether the truth will emerge in the future. But intrepid young journalists have captured on camera roving gangs indulging in assault and arson. That the violence ceased once there was a show of force is a clear indication that it was a case of “too little, too late” as far as the Delhi Police was concerned.

Three basic lessons in law and order maintenance were ignored by the Delhi Police:

  • Making it clear from the outset that the police is in control: At no stage should politicians, their henchmen and anti-social elements get the feeling that they can operate in violation of the law. The JNU incident had already infused confidence in some groups that the police would not act against them, even when they indulged in violence. Strong preventive action under the CrPC and the local police laws, externment from Delhi of certain criminal elements and, where required, use of draconian laws like the National Security Act would have sent a clear message to those intent on disturbing the public peace.
  • Zero tolerance for offences posing a threat to person and property: From my own experience, I can aver that unless incidents of assault and arson are dealt with firmly and promptly, they tend to snowball into a free for all between members of different communities. Lathi charges are normally enough to cool down even impetuous hotheads; however, on occasions, stronger action, such as police firing, may be required to restore order in a short timeframe and reduce casualties.
  • Leading from the spot: By far the most crucial element in law and order policing is the quality of leadership. The leader must inspire confidence in his/her force by being on the street. DMs and SPs in the districts and Police Commissioners / Joint and Addl. Commissioners must be in the thick of the fray. It was inexcusable that senior police officers from the Police Commissioner downwards were not visible till Day 3 of the disturbances in even one of the many videos shot from the scenes of arson and assault. A leaderless police force then took the path of least resistance since there was no one in authority to spur it to action.

The Delhi Police has suffered serious damage to its image and self-esteem. A new Commissioner has taken charge. It is now time for the Delhi Police to assert its authority and make it clear that it will not tolerate violations of the law from any quarter. It is also time for all governments, including the central government, which supervises the Delhi Police, to act on the 2006 directions of the Supreme Court in the Prakash Singh case, aimed at professionalising the police and insulating them from political interference. Above all, it is time for my fellow colleagues in the two All-India Services charged with the maintenance of law and public order to reaffirm their complete faith in and loyalty to the Constitution of India and rise above all sectarian considerations in discharging their duties honestly and diligently.

(The edited version of this blog is carried in the 5 March 2020 edition of the Deccan Herald)