Archive for the ‘government’ Category

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.

 

 

 

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)

 

 

Jeenaa Yahaan Marnaa Yahaan

(The full forms of the acronyms used in this blog are given at the end for easy reference)

Like a pesky earworm, the words of songs from Raj Kapoor’s Mera Naam Joker keep reverberating in my ears nowadays when I sit down to pen my blogs. If it was Jaane Kahaan Gaye Voh Din that resonated with me when I wrote my last blog, the present blog brought to mind that priceless masterpiece Jeenaa Yahaan Marnaa Yahaan. Lest my reader think that I am engulfed in maudlin sentimentality, let me emphasise that there is a logic to the use of these titles. My last blog reflected my dismay at the state of affairs in India’s district/police administration. The present blog focuses on the issue uppermost in the minds of most, if not all, of India’s 1.3 plus billion inhabitants. Yes, I refer to the CAA-NPR-NRIC triad, which has occasioned intense but non-violent protests on a scale not seen for many years.

Thanks to the wisdom and humanity of the politicians at the helm of India’s governance in the years after her independence, India went in for a liberal interpretation of citizenship, based on the jus soli principle, i.e, birth in India after 26 January 1950 was deemed to qualify one for Indian citizenship. The first blow to this principle came in 1987 in the wake of the Assam Accord. From 1 July 1987, birth in India was not a sufficient condition for citizenship: one parent also had to be a citizen of India by birth. This meant a move towards the concept of jus sanguinis in defining citizenship, with descent, rather than birth alone, being the defining criterion for citizenship. The second, and far more telling, move towards a more constricted definition of citizenship came with the 2003 Act. Not only was one parent required to be a citizen of India, there was the additional stipulation that, at the time of birth, the other parent should not have been an “illegal migrant” (defined as a foreigner who entered India without valid documents or who, with valid documents, overstayed in India beyond the permitted period). It is instructive to note that the 1987 and 2003 changes in the definition of “citizenship by birth” in the 1955 Act, as well as the 2003 Rules seemed to enjoy a broad consensus across the political spectrum. Not only did the previous UPA government go along with all these provisions, it even toyed with the idea of the NPR followed by the NRIC before carrying out the NPR exercise in 2010 and then dropping the idea of the NRIC in favour of the Aadhaar exercise.

It is the third move in 2019 to amend the 1955 Act that has finally set the cat among the pigeons. Efforts since 2016 to amend the 1955 Act to provide fast track access to Indian citizenship to “persecuted” persons belonging to specific countries (Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan) had been stymied by the inability to get the legislation through the Rajya Sabha; support from non-BJP parties, which either did not understand the implications of the legislation or chose to support it out of their own political calculations saw it enacted within the space of three days in December 2019.

A reading of the CAA reveals nothing about granting fast track citizenship to “persecuted” minorities from the three countries in our neighbourhood. While this view may have been put forth in the Statement of Objects and Reasons of the CAB, its absence in the CAA is puzzling. Even if the word “persecuted” finds its way into the Rules to be enacted to give effect to the CAA, determining whether or not a claimant for Indian citizenship has indeed  been persecuted in his/her former country will be very difficult. There is also the issue of the claims of refugees from other countries in the neighbourhood – Shias/Ahmadiyyas from Pakistan, Tamils from Sri Lanka, Rohingyas from Myanmar – which will fall through the sieve. Not only, therefore, are there serious issues relating to the CAA violating the principles of equality and secularism (parts of the inviolable basic structure of the Constitution of India), there is also the moral indefensibility of a statute that seeks to pick and choose who among the residents of India’s neighbouring countries is eligible for Indian citizenship. In any case, the process had already commenced from 2015: in a set of four notifications issued quietly between September 2015 and September 2016 under the 1955 Act, illegal migrants from the religious communities from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan now covered under the CAA had already been exempted “from the adverse penal consequences of the Passport (Entry into India) Act, 1920 and the Foreigners Act, 1946 and rules or notifications made thereunder” (as stated in the same Statement of Objects and Reasons at the time of introduction of the CAB in Parliament). These notifications exempted such classes of “illegal immigrants” from prosecution and also provided for their obtaining long-term visas  to stay in India. A government that wanted to favour specific groups from certain countries could well have exercised its existing powers on a case by case basis without highlighting the exclusion of India’s largest minority religion.

It, therefore, appears that the BJP wanted to ensure that the NRC process in Assam does not affect the large number of Hindus who had been declared “illegal immigrants” under that exercise. In the process, the government and the party ruling at the centre ended up with a double whammy. The indigenous people of Assam have made it clear for over forty years that they are opposed to migration from across the international border, irrespective of the religion of the migrant. Even the exclusion of tribal and Inner Permit line areas in the North East from the ambit of CAA has not assuaged feelings, especially in Upper Assam. At the same time, the exclusion of Muslims from the CAA has occasioned a different sort of apprehension in India’s largest minority. This is linked to the feeling among Indian Muslims that they have been at the receiving end of many events over the past five years – the beef ban and consequent lynching of Muslim dairy farmers, the love jihad crusade of Hindu vigilante groups, the opposition to the performance of namaaz in public places and, in general, a vitiated level of public discourse which questions the loyalty to India of the Muslim community.

Brutus may have seen the tide in the affairs of men, taken at the flood, leading on to fortune. Unfortunately, for the central government, the tide has come in at a rather inopportune time. The CAB was on the anvil from 2016. Had it been passed at that time, when the NPR and NRIC were nowhere on the horizon, the three issues may not have been linked together. There are also various events since the middle of 2019 which have heightened the sense of insecurity in Indian Muslims. The abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution of India and the virtual shutdown of Kashmir since August 2019 followed by the Supreme Court decision in the Ayodhya matter had already caused deep unease in the community. The reports of human suffering occasioned by the Assam NRC as lakhs of people ran from pillar to post to establish their rights to Indian citizenship were compounded by the belligerent statements from those at the highest levels of the central government that the NRC would be extended to the entire country, coupled with accounts of detention centres coming up in different parts of the country. These developments, linked with the CAA’s specific exclusion of Muslims, raised fears that the CAA-NPR-NRIC combination could see substantial segments of the Muslim community losing their Indian citizenship.

While the central government has been reiterating that the CAA is intended only to enable those from the three neighbouring countries get fast track citizenship, the NPR-NRIC provisions (enunciated in the 2003 Rules), which allow for a government functionary at a fairly junior level to raise doubts about the citizenship status of a person, give cause for apprehensions. As of date, there is still no clarity as to what documents, if any, will be required to establish one’s citizenship. In a country where birth registration systems have been notoriously lax in the past (though improving now), proving the fact of one’s birth in India could prove well-nigh impossible, more so if the standard documents, such as passports and voter identity cards, are not acceptable as proof of citizenship.

This is not the place to raise all the issues relating to the difficulties in proving one’s citizenship. Suffice to say that, post-1991, the Indian populace was getting used to not having to stand in queues for every facility, a feature of the forty years prior to 1991 for getting access to milk, kerosene, landline telephones and LPG connections. This habit was revived in the post-demonetisation phase from November 2016, when every resident of India stood for hours in queues to be able to draw cash from banks. One certainly hopes and prays that the NPR-NRIC exercise, wherever implemented, does not lead to interminable queues in front of tahsil and municipal offices as people seek to prove their Indian citizenship. Political parties and governments have their own reasons for carrying through this onerous exercise. The aam aurat/aadmi just wants to carry on with the business of daily life and securing her/his roti, kapda and makaan. For her/him, what is relevant is this line sung by Mukesh:

 

जीना यहाँ मरना यहाँ इसके सिवा जाना कहाँ

 

1955 Act: Citizenship Act, 1955

2003 Act: Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2003

2003 Rules: Citizenship (Registration of Citizens and Issue of National Identity Cards) Rules, 2003

BJP: Bharatiya Janata Party

CAA: Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019

CAB: Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019

NRC: National Register of Citizens

NRIC: National Register of Indian Citizens

NPR: National Population Register

UPA: United Progressive Alliance

 

Jaane Kahaan Gaye Voh Din

What particularly disturbed me about the recent events linked to the anti-CAA protests in Uttar Pradesh and Delhi was the numerous reports of the high-handed behaviour of the police force with students and the public  as well as their studied inaction when armed goons were given a free run of the JNU in the heart of New Delhi. Even if they had indeed been subjected to assault and grave provocation in UP (as they claim), there was no case for the police to vandalise residential dwellings and intimidate family members of those who may have been protesting on the streets. It is a laid down maxim of law and order maintenance that only so much force should be used as is required to bring the situation under control. Nor was there any justification for the use of unchecked violence by the guardians of law and order within the precincts of two reputed institutions of higher learning. But the evidence on record seems to indicate a police force intent on “teaching a lesson” to anti-CAA protesters and instilling fear in students in India’s premier universities.

As someone who has often been on the streets in his district days handling crowds (and mobs), I often wonder how a district officer (executive magistrate or police) can so easily forget his/her relationship with the local people. An officer posted in a district (or city) is in a fiduciary position with respect to the entire population in his/her jurisdiction. That is to say, a relationship of trust must exist between the government functionary and those s(he) serves. Nothing can be more satisfying (and, indeed, gratifying) to go back to an area one has served in two or three decades ago and run into people who remember one affectionately. What this requires, above all, is a deep commitment to the people one serves. Even when some of them are angry and hell bent on destructive activities, the effort should always be to resolve the immediate situation as peacefully as possible (use of force being a last resort) and, thereafter, rebuild the citadel of trust and mutual existence.

Maintaining a peaceful atmosphere in an area requires the officer to abide by the glorious words enunciated in the Preamble to the Constitution of India which highlight the eternal principles of “justice, liberty, equality and fraternity” and the word “secular”, which has been debased in the present day. Contrary to what right-wing moralists think, “secular” means an equal respect for all religions and religious practices with the full right being given to all to follow whatever beliefs they held. The District Magistrate (DM) and the Superintendent of Police (SP) are present at occasions of all religions / sects / communities, not merely to maintain law and order but equally to share in the sentiments of the members of all communities. In my time as a DM, I participated in activities on the occasions of Ambedkar Jayanti, Shivaji Jayanti, Ganapati festival, Ramzan Id and Bakrid, apart from the Urs of local saints.

This close relationship with people of different communities had its dividends when external events threatened to derail amity between these communities. Apart from formal Peace Committee meetings at district and taluka headquarters, there was also an outreach by the district administration to leaders and opinion makers in various political outfits and religious denominations to gauge the mood in different sections of the public, as also to send across the message that a close watch was being kept on activities likely to be detrimental to the maintenance of law and order.

Which is where I am aghast at the turn of events over the past six weeks, in Delhi and even more so in UP. Independent reports seem to indicate that the police at the thana level were operating on the direct orders of their political overlords, with little control by district officers. Barring one or two instances, there was no interaction of senior district officers like the DM and SP with the media; in fact, there was little evidence of their presence at the scenes of action. Nor were the Police Commissioner (CP) of Delhi or his senior officers to be seen handling the situation at JNU: the absence of arrests after three weeks tells its own tale.

What is increasingly worrisome is the sluggish response of the law and order machinery to open challenges to its authority. In the case of the agitations against the CAA, the intelligence outfits ought to have been aware of the unease in sections of the public. Surely, additional force could have been mustered to deal with the developing situation. Were any efforts made by the district administration to engage with local leaders to work out a method for peaceful expression of the feelings of those aggrieved?

I also find it difficult to believe that the district administration cannot, through impartial but strict policing of a developing situation, control the negative fallout. Lists of history sheeters, rowdies and known troublemakers are available with every DM and SP. The standard practice before festivals and before likely outbreaks of violence is to take preventive action under the Criminal Procedure Code, local Police Acts and, where absolutely necessary, even invoke the National Security Act. Generally, even-handed action is initiated against such elements in different communities to ensure that vested political interests are not able to assemble armies of such elements.

The pernicious influence of tawdry politics on the police and executive magistracy was already visible to me two decades ago, when I returned to district governance after a ten-year hiatus. Transfers of even taluka officials were being managed from state headquarters (in a supposedly progressive state like Maharashtra) and district and sub-district officers had developed close relationships with Ministers and MLAs. But it has been an article of faith for me (and many of my colleagues in the IAS and IPS) that firm, principled leadership of the DM and SP (and, where applicable, the CP and police officers under him) can enable control of volatile situations even in troubled times like those we see today.

It is here that I note with dismay the almost total abdication of their duties by the magistracy and police in the unfortunate occurrences in UP, Delhi and Karnataka since mid-December 2019. Where the police and district administration should have tactfully handled inflamed public opinion and let it release steam, they adopted strong-arm tactics. That a tactful approach worked in all those states where the police were not under pressure from the government of the day only proves the point. Where the police should have stepped in firmly (in JNU) when cognizable offences under the Indian Penal Code were being committed, they chose to look the other way, so much so that not one attacker has been arrested so far. The brazen shooting incident in Jamia in the full presence of the Delhi Police on Mahatma Gandhi’s death anniversary stands mute testimony to the utter collapse of policing in Delhi.

A healthy democratic system is critically dependent on effective, impartial institutions that are committed to upholding the rule of law. Often, this requires officers to take actions that are not to the liking of those in power, even if the consequences for these officers are not pleasant. But the recent instances where the police have overreacted, in UP and Delhi (Jamia), and have been wilfully inactive (JNU) point to a deeper malaise where the administrative leadership is virtually non-existent. Such a situation is hardly likely to inspire citizen confidence in its police. It is not as though in riots in the past, the district administration and the police were not partisan or sectarian in their approach. But in comparison with the present day, we may well be left feeling nostalgic for even a flawed administration of the past, humming Raj Kapoor’s line “जाने कहाँ गए वह दिन”.

 

 

 

Model Code of Conduct for elections – the use of cards

After nearly thirty years of participating in the conduct and supervision of Indian elections and observing elections at national, state and local levels since 1971, I am struck by the abyss into which debate has descended in the 2019 general elections as well as the open challenge thrown to the authority of the Election Commission of India by all political parties and candidates, especially the ruling party at the centre. What is even more dismaying than the “in your face” behaviour of the political class has been the servile responses of sections of the bureaucracy, the latter constituting, in my view, a far more serious threat to democratic norms.

Standards of decent discourse have virtually vanished from the Indian political firmament and the present elections confirm this depressing phenomenon. Humans have been classified as termites and sections of them have been threatened with expulsion from the country. Blatant appeals have been made to divisive religious sentiments and politicians have gone so far as to warn voters of the consequences of not voting for them. The sacrifices made by security forces are being made to serve as election fodder. Vicious personal attacks are the order of the day and serial offenders from previous elections are displaying their dubious talents freely. Equally galling has been the brazen promotion of a single personality through multiple media modes without any hint of embarrassment or concern for conventions. We have also been treated to the disgusting spectacle of a self-styled Sadhvi denigrating the memory of a police officer who lost his life in the Mumbai 26/11 attacks.

2019 also marks, in pronounced fashion, the entry of the disease of political partisanship into the bureaucracy. In previous elections, it was the normal practice to transfer officers who had done adequate time in their current postings as well as those perceived as unduly close to those in power. But the need to move officers at the topmost levels of the police and civil services after the election process got under way points to the rot in the steel frame. Three top functionaries of the NITI Aayog, the central government’s top policy think tank, have, through electronic and social media, expressed views and displayed achievements which have the effect of supporting the government of the day and downplaying its opponents. The NITI Aayog is reported to have asked district collectors, who are the fulcrum of the election process, to furnish information on the achievements in different government programmes for use by the Prime Minister in his election speeches. A serving Air chief makes a public statement about the Balakot air strike and, for good measure, also drags in the controversial Rafale aircraft into his observations. In a first for India’s highest bureaucracy, the attitude of its central Department of Revenue in not keeping the Election Commission apprised in advance of income tax raids on political personalities has been castigated by the Election Commission as “insolent”. To cap it all, a junior functionary of the Union Home Ministry wakes up from slumber after many years to ask the leader of the opposition Indian National Congress to prove his nationality. It almost makes one wonder whether government departments have been awakened like Kumbhakarna only at the time of electoral battle.

Even though the Model Code of Conduct has a moral rather than punitive force, Article 324 of the Constitution of India, backed by various Supreme Court rulings, gives the Election Commission wide powers to enforce its writ in grey areas where the law is silent. Taking an analogy from the game of field hockey, it makes sense to enforce the three card rule: a green card for minor fouls, a yellow card for more serious infractions (with suspensions for repeat offences) and a summary send-off on being shown a red card. The Election Commission should devise its own sets of cards, one set for unruly politicians and another set for errant bureaucrats.

The green card rule for politicians would involve censure of the offensive act with or without fine. This will not deter the “thick-skinned” among the tribe but would serve as a warning that their conduct is under close watch. Another offence would have the effect of moving them to the yellow card category, which could see bans on campaigning by the concerned individual, ranging from a few days to a total ban for the entire election period, depending on the gravity of the offence. The red card would come into play when the candidate/politician commits a really serious offence, like open incitement to violence or indulging in major criminal offences. It would involve the cancellation of elections in that particular constituency, with these elections being held a couple of months after the completion of the election process under close supervision of the Election Commission and with heavy deployment of security forces.

The bureaucracy’s “three card” rule would more or less conform to the disciplinary proceedings which are presently initiated against government personnel. Officials who are green-carded would be censured, the censure being reflected in their annual confidential reports, with impact on future promotions. The yellow card would involve imposition of punishments like withholding of pay increments for a certain period or reduction to a lower time-scale of pay, grade, post or service for a specified period (without cumulative effect). Major penalties (the “red card”) would range from loss of seniority to compulsory retirement to dismissal from service. Such action by the Election Commission would be taken in consultation with the concerned government, with confirmation by the appropriate Public Service Commission.

Of course, judicious and strict enforcement of the “three card” rule would require a strong and impartial referee who does not hesitate to blow the whistle when needed and to flash the relevant card. Sanctions against erring politicians/bureaucrats need to be promptly enforced to serve as a warning to potential transgressors. Most importantly, the teams (political parties/governments) themselves need to introspect on whether they should retain such players (politicians/bureaucrats). If all concerned do not abide by the rules of the game, elections will descend into anarchy, with the danger of the eventual demise of democracy.

Lessons from an Indian Humphrey Appleby

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

Rule 1:  Avoid discretionary decisions like the plague

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

Rule 2: Record on file and keep copies

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

Rule 3: Prevaricate, obfuscate and procrastinate

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

Rule 4: Send the file into orbit

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

Rule 5: Make the file and yourself scarce

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

Rule 6: Parkalam (let us see)

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

Rule 7: A politician is…a politician!

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

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

We don’t need Chowkidars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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