Archive for February, 2018

Delhi-rium on the Delhi-gation of Powers

Since my recent Facebook post (shared also on the IAS Association page) has stirred a hornet’s nest, with retired and serving civil servants as well as concerned citizens voicing their opinions, I am constrained to bring out this blog on the AAP vs. AP episode (for the uninitiated, AAP refers to the Aam Aadmi Party, currently governing Delhi and AP refers to Anshu Prakash, a member of my erstwhile service and currently at the centre of a tornado for which he is in no way responsible). The facts have been aired ad nauseam on print, electronic and social media, but they bear repetition because so many of the principal actors have given their own versions or sidestepped the fundamental issue altogether.

A Chief Secretary (CS), the highest civilian functionary on the bureaucratic side of the state government, attends a meeting called by the Chief Minister (CM) at midnight. The subject of the meeting is shrouded in doubt — while the CS has mentioned in his police complaint that the discussion was regarding the release of TV advertisements on the completion of three years in office of the AAP government, the AAP has, through a written statement and through the mouth of its Deputy CM, claimed that the meeting was about the non-release of food rations because of faulty implementation of the Aadhaar scheme. Aspersions are being cast on the contention of the CS that he was assaulted by two persons in the presence of the CM and Deputy CM. Even the written complaint of the CS to the police, the record of his medical examination the next morning and the statement before a magistrate by the CM’s Adviser are being discounted, though these are now the subject of police investigations.

In my Facebook post, I had raised certain fundamental questions, none of which have been answered to this day. Calling the CS alone for a meeting, which took place at midnight, without summoning the concerned departmental secretaries, with some (apparently) MLAs present, on a subject that did not require overnight resolution, is itself enough to raise eyebrows. The studied silence of the head of the government on a complaint of assault (in his presence) of his senior most civil servant, is even more perplexing. But what takes the cake is the blasé attempt to pretend nothing ever happened, even after all the documentary evidence that is now in the public domain. And now, we have an article in a leading national daily by a leading AAP spokesperson (Ashish Khetan: Indian Express, 24 February 2018) which is a litany of complaints about the asymmetric division of powers between the Governments of India and Delhi.

The Government of National Capital Territory of Delhi Act of India, 1991 (NCT Act) has inter alia laid down the procedure for elections to the Legislative Assembly and specified the duties and responsibilities of the Lieutenant Governor and Ministers (including the Chief Minister). It is clear that there is an ocean of difference between the provisions governing the functioning of the Delhi government and those relating to any other state government in India. Public order, police, land and services are subjects not under the control of the Delhi Government. This has been the ground-level position ever since elected governments came to power in Delhi since 1993. But even when the parties in power in the Delhi government and at the national level were of different political persuasions, business was conducted smoothly between the two governments and little friction was evident. The situation changed after the 2015 Delhi Assembly elections, when the BJP was steamrollered by the AAP, which came to power with a staggering majority.

It is obvious to anyone that there is no love lost between these two parties. But, unfortunately, the mutual acrimony has poisoned the very functioning of democratic governance in Delhi. “Give and take” has been replaced by “thrust and parry”, with the odds heavily loaded in favour of the central government. Gone are the days when a Congress CM could informally obtain her choice as CS from even the NDA government. The collateral fallout has been the grinding of the bureaucracy between the BJP and AAP wheels. But what has been most unfortunate has been the conviction in the AAP that civil servants deputed to the Delhi government are Greeks in Trojan Horses fulfilling the agenda of the central government and are hell-bent on sabotaging the honest efforts of the state government to improve the lot of its people (and thereby improve future re-election prospects). This has led to the current impasse, where the fourth CS seems to be on his way out within a span of three years.

Civil servants are bound to serve the government of the day, whatever its political hue. During my service days in Maharashtra, we moved seamlessly between BJP-Shiv Sena and Congress-NCP governments, with not even a ripple in the bureaucracy as the reins of power were handed over from one to the other. Colleagues from other states with more combative political formations were surprised that the Maharashtra CS and senior officers were not disturbed even after the transfer of power. At the end of the day, since the permanent bureaucracy (whether All-India or state services) are recruited through open competition, the only scope for politicians lies in juggling officers around.

What did occasion surprise was the volatile reaction across wide sections of the Delhi civil services to the incident involving the Delhi CS. It seems to indicate a simmering resentment about the way the bureaucracy has been perceived (and treated) by the political executive over the past three years. Anti-corruption pogroms reminiscent of the French Reign of Terror are great for popular consumption, but, when not accompanied by systemic reforms, occasion insecurity in the civil service. This angry response from the Delhi bureaucracy should serve as a warning signal to the AAP leadership. You may have an astounding mandate from the people and be riding the wave of public popularity, but governance ultimately has to be through the permanent bureaucracy. Appointment of any number of party commissars and Parliamentary Secretaries can never substitute for the cutting edge that services the aam aurat/aadmi. Debasing the value of the civil service and treating them with contempt will lower the motivation and morale of even the honest, sincere workers (of whom there are many) and lead to a fall in the quality of public service delivery.

Of course, there are issues that need to taken up with the central government and the judiciary, when the state government feels its legitimate powers are being whittled down or that not enough powers have been vested in the state government to enable it to carry out its duties and responsibilities. There are democratic avenues for resolving such matters, including, finally, the court of the people, which assembles once every five years to give its verdict. Good work will be recognised and (hopefully) rewarded at the appropriate time. But frustration with legal shackles should not be vented on the bureaucratic whipping boy (and, increasingly, girl). As AAP seeks to widen its all-India reach, it would be salutary to remember that Delhi is not Bharat and that solutions have always to be sought within the constitutional framework.

 

The Twenty-first Century Animal Farm

The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.” (George Orwell: Animal Farm)

कुछ तो ख़ासियत है इस प्रजातंत्र मे
वोट देता हूँ फकीरों को कंबख्त शहंशाह बन जाते हैं

(There is something special about this republic;

I vote for ascetics, the wretched fellows become emperors)

(Source: unknown)

December 2017 was a milestone in Indian jurisprudence. Three CBI courts, two in Delhi and one in Ranchi, delivered judgments in corruption cases that have exercised the public mind over the past many years. The verdicts were a mixed bag: while former bureaucrats were indicted in two of the cases, politicians got away fully in one case and partially in another case. The fodder scam related to a straightforward loot of the government treasury while the coal and 2G spectrum scams involved the questionable use of discretion at the highest levels of government in the allocation of natural resources, one below the ground and the other in the air. That discretion is still alive and kicking in the government is confirmed by the replies to a recent RTI query that stated that two successive Ministers of the Human Resource Development Ministry of the Government of India have, in the past three years, recommended, as against their annual quota of 450 cases, over 35,000 cases of students for admission to Kendriya Vidyalayas, of which nearly 20,000 have actually got admission.

Which begs the question: are governments, even those which swear by eradication of corruption, really different from one another? An answer to this is sought to be given by a book  The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics. The authors, Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith, have, based on years of research and field studies, concluded that leaders are only concerned about power: concepts like “national interest” and “welfare of the people” are relevant to them only insofar as they promote the perpetuation of their power. It is irrelevant whether the leaders are despots or democrats — what preoccupies them ultimately is how to secure power and, having occupied the hot seat, how to stay on there for as long as possible.

In this quest for power, three groups are relevant to the politician. These are the interchangeables, the influentials and the essentials. The interchangeables are those who choose their governments: in the case of India, the entire population above the age of eighteen. In the “first past the post principle” that governs Indian elections, it is enough if, say, in a three-cornered contest where 60% of the electorate votes, the winning candidate secures 21% of the vote. The size of the interchangeables that determines the outcome of the election is then barely a fifth of the voting population.

Given the social cleavages in India along ethnic and religious lines (more pronounced in rural areas and small towns), a candidate from a dominant ethnic or religious group needs to marshal the support of her group to emerge victorious at the hustings. It is here that the influentials matter: composed of those who can control “vote banks” through use of money and muscle power as well as through their command over ethnic-based patronage structures.

But, in the final analysis, the ability of the leader to acquire and retain power depends on her essentials, those in his inner circle who have access to funds and control the party bureaucracy. These essentials are a necessary evil: they help propel the leader to the top, but the leader is always uneasily aware that many among them harbour ambitions of replacing her.

The Indian political scene over the past seventy years has seen the evolution of three distinct cultures, two of which have risen and ebbed with the passage of time, while the third one is presently at its apogee. The first was the Congress culture, which was virtually unchallenged till 1967 but thereafter faced challenges from regional formations till its upset in the 1990s followed (after a ten-year second honeymoon) by its greatest electoral disaster in India’s electoral history. This culture relied on powerful caste leaders marshalling votes of their fellow caste-persons for the Congress, aided by the use of muscle and money. Post-1975, the leader always centralised power in a small coterie of essentials, with leadership of state governments and state party units being decided by the High Command, essentially composed of the leader and her trusted lieutenants. For unhesitatingly accepting the suzerainty of the leader, the state satraps (and their Delhi counterparts) were allowed to exercise patronage in a variety of government functions – procurement contracts, allocation of scarce resources (including even government housing) and postings and transfers of government servants. Post-1991, the patronage also extended to the allocation of natural resources, as the opening up of the economy led to the drying up of some traditional sources of patronage. Of course, an eagle eye was kept on all these functionaries to ensure that they delivered an adequate share of the unearned economic rent to the top, apart from checking any efforts to assert independence from the High Command.

As the middle castes started asserting their right to a share of the economic and political pie, the Subaltern culture developed from the 1970s onwards, slowly at first and, with the ossification of the Congress, more pronouncedly from the 1980s onwards. More and more states spun away from the Congress universe, through the coming to power of regional parties, mostly with pronounced family and caste ties. These parties also relied on the same formula of interchangeables-influentials-essentials. Inner-party democracy was a joke and the leader cult was propagated with renewed vigour right across India, from Kashmir to Kanyakumari and from Dibang to Dwaraka. The composition of interchangeables changed with the formation of new caste and religious alliances, with the promise of Utopia to groups which had suffered from disastrous governance and lack of access to basic human facilities. But the leader and her essentials still governed with the support of influentials. These influentials were virtually allotted jagirs which they could exploit like the zamindars of yore. The bahubali (strongman) phenomenon was aided by weak state capacity in public service delivery and the virtual absence of the rule of law. While the leader and her essentials milked the state coffers, the influentials resorted to extortion, kidnapping and murder to enforce their writ and extract economic rent.

We are now in the Treta Yuga of the BJP-Hindutva culture, epitomised by a strong leader and a fully subservient party structure. Retail corruption at the central level appears to have been phased out, though the same cannot necessarily be said for states under the control of the party. The power of the essentials at the centre has been curbed, at least for the time being, with decision-making centralised in the Prime Minister’s Office. Influentials have been accommodated with MP posts or with institutional sinecures. At lower levels of the district and small towns, influentials have been given latitude to demonise minority communities, employing the icons of pseudo-patriotism, the cow and women’s honour. This, it is hoped, will keep alive the influentials’ enthusiasm to mobilise the interchangeables to support a specific sectarian ideology.

With every new political party adopting one or more (or a mix) of the three cultures enumerated above, it is difficult to be optimistic about a new socio-political culture developing in the country. This is why, despite so much heat and light being generated on essential political and administrative reforms, my prognosis remains that:

  • effective Lokpal and Lokayukta systems will never see the light of day;
  • reforms in electoral funding will be half-hearted and opaque, designed to serve the interests of self-perpetuating politicians. In any case, corruption in the public space is related to basic human greed and not just high costs of contesting elections;
  • political functionaries will never give up their basic right to patronage, be it in procurement, transfers or resource allocation: the variation will only be in whether such discretion is exercised at a wholesale or retail level;
  • administrative (including police) reforms will receive only lip service since no political formation in India wishes to forego its royal prerogative to manipulate the official machinery to meet its partisan ends. The CBI (and also other investigative agencies like the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence and the Income Tax Department) will continue to be used to inconvenience political opponents and those with differing political views;
  • judicial reforms, especially in the criminal justice sphere, will be halting and piecemeal. No political outfit wishes to expose its essentials and influentials to rigorous scrutiny of the law and mutual back-scratching will allow “business as usual” to continue unchecked.

What does all this imply for the future of the inhabitants of India’s Animal Farm? The politician will continue her operations as always, untroubled by public opinion or by that inner voice that lesser mortals call “conscience”. The ordinary citizen will continue to trudge her way to the polling booth every five years, giving another chance to the incumbent or garlanding a new suitor in the fond hope that her lot will improve. And what of my former tribe of civil servants? They would be well-advised not to follow in the footsteps of Boxer, the faithful workhorse of Orwell’s Animal Farm, who was despatched to the slaughter-house as a reward for his unremitting and honest toil on the farm.