Archive for March, 2014

Not Quite, Commissar…


At the outset of this blog, let me put in two disclaimers — the initial reference to a political figure is only to acknowledge his title and authorship of the blog post quoted here and his mention in no way represents a departure from the policy of this blog site to defer from discussing (or dissecting) personalities but to analyse only trends and tendencies in social, economic and political behaviour. Having got this mea culpa out of the way, let me jump into the discussion in right earnest.

The BJP leader Arun Jaitley’s blog of 23 March 2014 on his website states “Membership of political party is a privilege. It is also an act of self-oppression where personal views and ambitions are subjected to the collective wisdom of the party. At times, the party may flood leaders with privileges and positions. On other occasions, the leader may have to take “no” as an answer to his desires. How does a politician or a leader react to such “no”? He must accept the decision with a smile. This becomes a test of his loyalty and discipline.” The use of the term “self-oppression” which reeks of repression (even if by one’s own self) makes one wince given that one always thought that human endeavour in all areas (including political activity) seeks to give fullest expression to human individuality and creativity. There is also the term “collective wisdom of the party” which echoes the sentiments of a Stalinist-era Commissar. In fact, words like “collective wisdom”, “the party”, “loyalty” and “discipline” fit in far better with the vocabulary of the former Soviet or the Chinese Communist Party rather than of a party functioning in a noisy, vibrant democracy like India.

But although Indian political parties function in a democracy, they are not democratic in their inner functioning and processes. Even the venerable Indian National Congress was not immune to this charge right from pre-independence days. The basic cause lies in the readiness of political workers to rally behind the vote-getting charisma of a leader and to be willing accomplices in the centralisation of party power so long as their interests (and those of their kith and kin) are looked after. The recent murmurings in many parties and the bed-hopping that has started in real earnest are reflections of thwarted desires and ambitions, as Jaitley has rightly observed. The problem, however, lies in the lack of institutionalisation of democratic processes in party functioning.

Take the issue of candidate selection for any poll in India, from village panchayat to Parliament. The United States has its primaries (however flawed) and the United Kingdom has its local constituency committees, which select party candidates, either themselves or from a centrally approved list. In India, there is little or no transparency in the method of selection of candidates. In most cases, names of candidates handed down by the party high command have to be accepted at the local level with little or no dissent being tolerated. While there are cases of locally popular candidates making it to the final list,  there are also many instances of wards of powerful party functionaries, crony business associates and financiers and musclemen making it as the official candidates. This has not only promoted nepotism in and criminalisation of party politics but has also created a vast underclass of embittered, disgruntled political workers, who are vulnerable to the appeal of any sectarian, authoritarian outfit that can hold out a promise to them of their day in the sun. Established national political parties in India have suffered on this count at the hands of regional parties, which today hold the power of life and death over their survival in office, almost always at the cost of good economics and politics.

The awareness of their charismatic hold on the electorate, at least in the short-run, has bred a class of highly authoritarian leaders in India. They feel no sense of accountability to institutions of democracy. Indeed, leaders arraigned on charges of corruption in recent years have held themselves accountable to the “court of the people” rather than to the judicial process, as though victory in elections can cleanse them of all sins committed while holding public office. Such leaders, like Louis XIV of France, can claim “I am the state.” What is even more noticeable over the years is the tendency of subordinates of these leaders to turn a blind eye to every transgression of public ethics on the part of their leader and resort to abject submission even when they know in their heart of hearts that a policy inimical to public interest or which violates the norms of good, sensible governance is being followed…the days of a Rajaji or a Feroze Gandhi seem very far away indeed!

This sycophancy has led to a serious erosion of legislative responsibility. By definition, legislators are law makers. However, since the only motivating force is the display of loyalty to the party (and by inference, the leader), there is little incentive for the legislator to make a mark through excellence in debate or contributing to framing of effective laws. The Anti-Defection Law has only worsened the problem with legislators having little or no room to question policies of their party, leave alone voting against the party on issues where their convictions clash with the official party position. Little wonder then that anarchy prevails with uproarious scenes in the state legislatures and Parliament being the rule rather than the exception.

The inherent assumption in the Jaitley blog quoted above is that it is the party that has the right to thrust a candidate on the electorate, never mind their wishes or aspirations. When all major political parties adopt this principle, the voter is left with a Hobson’s choice. Low voter turnouts at elections are a natural corollary. Even the introduction of NOTA (None Of The Above) as an optional choice to voters does not solve the basic problem; when candidates are not thrown up from the people, TINA (There Is No Alternative) will always triumph over NOTA. The casualty here is democracy: when my representative from the village panchayat to Parliament is not of my choice and, knowing she is not beholden to me, can largely ignore me for five years, why will I show any interest in taking an active interest in public issues? The urban anger manifested in the last three years is a reflection of the perception of the Aam Aadmi that no party cares for her interests and no elected representative truly wants to help resolve her problems of day to day existence. It needs to be clearly understood: the candidate exists not for the party, but for her electorate; the political party is only a medium for the right person to sincerely and strongly represent her constituency in whichever political forum she is elected to.

PPP and the Indian political class

We are all familiar with the acronym PPP, which has been touted as a solution to raising resources and bringing in operational efficiency in various infrastructure sectors. Alas, in the Indian context, PPP (or public private partnership), has an altogether different connotation. It represents the use of public money for private gains – a partnership that benefits just a few and condemns the many to indifferent public services. PPP, as it has evolved over the past six decades of independent India, stands for something else altogether – Patronage, Procurement and Postings. The fascinating story of this PPP is woven closely into the common man’s social, economic and political life.

The tale begins, as always, in the 1950s with the introduction of the “socialist pattern of society”. Large areas of economic activity were reserved for the public sector; where the private sector was tolerated, it had to beg for scarce licenses. Controls on movement of goods and services, both within and outside the country, were imposed. It was not long before those exercising political power saw the benefits of these arrangements. The public sector became the vehicle for political patronage of various sorts – people from your constituency could be employed in different undertakings without considerations of merit and efficiency coming into the picture and procurement contracts could be awarded to your supporters or to those offering the highest “economic rent” (ER). It was even easier with the private sector: the quid pro quo for granting production licenses could be in direct cash. Controls on scarce items like foreign exchange and consumer goods raised the premiums payable on acquisition of these scarce commodities and the development of thriving black markets.

Forty years passed and the Indian economy developed a severe illness. The treatment involved freeing economic activity of some controls and allowing the entry of the private sector, both Indian and foreign, into sectors hitherto inaccessible to them. This posed new threats and challenges to the Indian political class and others who had benefited from the earlier dispensation. The reduced role of the public sector meant that procurement contracts in certain sectors no longer yielded the sort of ER they had earlier. At the same time, natural resource allocation became a new source of ER, especially since no norms for auctioning these resources in a transparent bidding process were evolved. We are still grappling with the aftermath of this phenomenon in sectors as diverse as coal mining and telecom spectrum allocation. The growing disposable income with a rising middle class and the trend towards rapid urbanization saw land becoming a major source of revenue for politicians and builders. Since decisions on land use are largely vested in state governments, its allocation gave ER access to state-level politicians. But there are also a variety of permissions on use of land that require clearances at the national level, notably on environmental grounds. Land use and land allocation are areas where there has been a long tradition of unwarranted state interference in what ought to have been independent urban planning decisions. It is common knowledge that this sector has contributed in no small measure to the funding of election campaigns.

However, natural resource allocations are still concentrated in a relatively small number of ministries at the national level. Procurements again are much larger in major infrastructure sectors and in areas like defence. The solution worked out around this problem by the political class has been to squarely put its finger into the “procurement pie”. In many ministries and departments at the national and state levels, the tendency has been to centralize purchases at the secretariat level. While the reason ostensibly given has been that these reduce costs through discounts on bulk purchases, actual experience shows that the ER factor kicks in here as well. The problem is compounded by bunching together purchases near the financial year end (March 31) so that there is inadequate financial scrutiny of proposals; a number of purchase decisions also escape audit scrutiny because of the sheer volume of transactions in the last couple of days of the financial year.

A third area of increasing political interference has been in postings and transfers of officers and staff. At the recruitment stage itself, there is substantial evidence of extra-legal considerations playing a role in selection, as witnessed in the number of state public service commission scams that have come to light in recent years. About twenty five years ago, most decisions on transfers of subordinate staff were handled by the head of the department, or District Collectors (and Divisional Commissioners, where they existed). Between 1990 (when I was a District Collector) and 2000 (when I became a Divisional Commissioner) in a state like Maharashtra, the situation saw a sea change. I found I had not even a fraction of the transfer powers I had ten years before, thanks to administrative orders issued in the mid-1990s. This not only led to a breakdown in the chain of command (since employees did not have to meet performance expectations of their superiors to continue in a post), but also led to the extremely damaging phenomena of political proximity of the bureaucracy as well as the pernicious practice of a thriving “black market” transfer industry. While some efforts have been made in a state like Maharashtra to rectify this situation through legislation, there are still enough loopholes for officers and staff to secure postings of their choice. The recent disquiet in the Indian Police Service cadre in Maharashtra is an indication that there is something rotten in the State of Denmark. There is no reason to suspect that the position is better in other states; if anything, it would be far worse.

What is dismaying to any observer is the nonchalant attitude of nearly all political parties to this vicious PPP cycle, which can only result in continued poor public service delivery to the Aam Aadmi. Because of judicial intervention and sustained media pressure, some reform in natural resource allocation processes is slowly taking place. There is still no clear policy on procurements in government. In particular, there are still no clear directives on moving procurement decision-making out of secretariats to independent institutional set ups. The highly belated passing of the Lokpal legislation will hopefully instil some accountability in decision-making processes, though the Lokpal is still to become active. There is also no guarantee that different states will pass the Lok Ayukta legislation in the prescribed time frame – it will probably require further judicial intervention and vigilant public opinion to ensure that effective anti-corruption bodies start functioning at the national and state levels. Finally, the establishment of independent Civil Service Boards, free of political interference, is a must if responsible and accountable governance is to have any meaning.  

Public (and political) discourse needs to move from the short-term “freebie” culture to promoting the institutionalization of responsive, transparent governance systems. Till we realize that our own inaction contributes to our plight and take steps to move our elected representatives in the desired direction, there will be no meaningful growth or development in the country.

The Illusion of Leadership

Some years ago, a film called “Nayak” made its appearance on the silver screen. The well-known star, Anil Kapoor, essayed the role of an intrepid journalist who was made the Chief Minister of the state for a day. Through his hands-on approach to the job, Anil Kapoor not only endeared himself to one and all, but also brought all the baddies in society, the administrative and political hierarchies to book for the various misdemeanours committed by them.
This film comes to mind today at a time when the Indian public appears to be obsessed with a vigilante approach to solving its problems. The popular feeling seems to be that an all-powerful Jan Lokpal with sweeping powers will solve all the ills associated with corruption and usher in an era of Ram Rajya. On top of this, a tendency has developed to look to the top person for solutions to every issue. When quick fixes to longstanding problems are not forthcoming, the public (including the media) is more than ready to heap calumny on the top leadership.
It is no one’s case that the political elite is not responsible for many of the evils associated with the ubiquitous existence of corruption in Indian society. But it also needs to be recognised that a mere change of guard at the top is not going to improve matters. And yet, whenever there is a change in government at the state or central level, one would think that utopia has been achieved, the way the media and popular opinion immediately repose touching faith in the new occupant of the top post. This honeymoon usually lasts for six months to a year till the acts of omission and commission of the new incumbent occasion deep disillusionment in the same sections that were so enthusiastic some months earlier.
It would help to remember that leaders in India are just as human as the rest of us and as much a prisoner of circumstances as the Aam Aadmi. Leaders come to power bowed down by the weight of expectations. The acquisition of power, often after many years in the political battlefield, opens up vistas of opportunities for those who are tied to them by blood or association. The selection of competent, reasonably honest ministers is often the first casualty in the jostling for pelf and power. There is the issue of meeting sectarian demands, promises for which have been made in the heat and dust of the electoral battle. There is also the unwieldy, considerably compromised administrative machinery handed down to them by their predecessors. The politician always lives with the uneasy knowledge that she has only a five year claim on his job, in contrast to the guaranteed tenure of the permanent bureaucracy. The attitudes and the functioning of this gigantic government machine are reflective of the larger social milieu in which they operate, an environment which has steadily worsened in terms of ethical values over the past forty years. And finally, there are the purely external factors, which our leader cannot even anticipate – these can range from terrorist attacks and natural calamities to unexpected local flare-ups.
Allied to these external factors are the aspects internal to the leader. Every individual has her own worldview and her prejudices, built up over the years through the environment she has been exposed to, her understanding of economic and social issues and her own insecurities and private fears. Politicians, and especially their Indian variety, display certain traits without which they would probably not be in that field. An analysis of these would be instructive and interesting:
a) A lack of understanding of basic economics and a refusal to apply basic commercial sense to matters in the public sphere. Indian politicians remain mired in an antiquated socialist mind-set, inherited from the Nehru era. They have convinced themselves that that is what their voters want. In part, this reflects their obsession with public opinion, largely a product of the intelligentsia chatterati and the media. The latter are part of the upper middle class which is more often concerned with its own well-being and is often as ignorant (or even more) of economics and commerce than the average politician. This explains the half-baked reforms of 1991 and the failure of parties of almost every ideology over the past twenty years to deepen reforms at the national and the state level.
b) An obsession with state participation in every activity. This springs out of two motivations. The charitable explanation is that the politician has convinced herself that the private sector cannot be trusted with the non-exploitative, efficient delivery of goods and services, which in a deeper sense reflects a “socialist” unease with the operation of markets. Rather than look at creating the conditions for the effective functioning of markets, creating unwieldy state organisations for service and product delivery is the favourite pastime of Indian politicians (and bureaucrats). The rather more uncharitable reason for this state proliferation is the patronage powers it bestows on the politician. In the pre-1991 era, it was largely centred around employment (in the public sector) and awarding contracts for public sector procurements. In the post-1991 era, it has expanded to allocation of scarce natural resources and favourable financial treatment to segments of the private sector, with growing allegations of crony capitalism.
c) The failure to reform public service delivery mechanisms. Even if the Indian politician wanted to use the state machinery to deliver essential public goods and services to the citizen, she ought to have been aware of its major failings and sought to rectify these to ensure greater consumer satisfaction. What we see instead is a steadfast stonewalling of all reports on administrative, judicial and police reforms over the past twenty years, with cosmetic changes being made instead of deep-rooted institutional reforms.
d) A deliberate refusal to understand the consequences of the “business as usual” approach. It is here that the Indian politician is most culpable. Enough ink has been shed and words wasted in trying to educate them on the factors inhibiting equitable growth and improvement in the life of the Aam Aadmi. And yet, approaches to macro-policy continue on the same time-worn lines. Employment creation is sought to be tackled through a rural job guarantee rather than through innovative labour market reforms that will lead to growth in manufacturing jobs. Food security is mooted without tackling a corrupt, outdated food distribution mechanism. A right to education slogan is promoted which does not go into the causes for the dismal state of public education and the measures needed to ensure that all children complete education at least upto the secondary level and acquire the skills and competencies needed to function in a globalised economy. Agricultural market reforms are deliberately stalled when these could act as engines of rapid agricultural growth. The less said about FDI in retail, the better! No politician has been bold enough to call a spade a spade. Either she is still caught up in the dreams of socialism or (more likely) is cynically aware that thorough-going reforms in the economic, political and administrative domains will spell the end of her monopoly over resource distribution. It is even more disheartening when politicians one would normally associate with common sense and a vision for the future peddle the same obsolete shibboleths of their respective parties.

It is hardly surprising, then, to observe the repeated disenchantment of the voter with every political formation that comes to power at the national and state level riding the elephant of grand promises. But as has been presciently said “A people get the government they deserve.” The Indian intelligentsia, including but not limited to its media, academia, bureaucracy and civil society, has displayed the same myopic tendencies listed above about Indian politicians. Until the middle class sheds its illusions about a painless transformation to Utopia and is willing to support hard but unsettling decisions, foregoing short-term benefits, the current tamasha will continue. As George Santayana has remarked “Those who do not remember history are condemned to repeat it.”