Archive for the ‘government’ Category

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.

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

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

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

  • The legacy of the old guard: Congress politicians who entered politics in the times of Indira Gandhi carry outdated socialist baggage with them.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

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

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

Revisiting Old Favourites

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Checks and Balances – A Must for a Democracy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Towards a Headless Bureaucracy

When I joined the IAS in 1980, the Chief Secretary (CS) of the State was a figure inspiring awe and reverence. Summons to the great man’s (it was never a woman) presence inspired the same dread as a visit to the office of the headmaster of an English public school for receiving six of the best on one’s tender backside for some transgression. Fortunately, being so far down the pecking order, there was little occasion to meet (or even see) him, save at some annual gathering of the IAS Association or at some meeting where one could safely wallow in one’s anonymity. A combination of circumstances catapulted me to serve as Staff Officer to the CS of Maharashtra in the mid-1980s. I was fortunate to serve under two stalwarts, Mr. B.G. Deshmukh and Mr. K.G. Paranjape, with hugely contrasting styles of functioning. Mr. Deshmukh was a stickler for propriety. He was keenly conscious of the critical role of the CS in ensuring a smooth administration. More to the point, he was watchful in ensuring that the position of the CS was never devalued by the political executive. When called by the CM for a discussion, he expected to sail into the CM’s inner office like a breeze, without loitering about the corridors, as many unfortunate successors of his from the 1990s onwards were wont to do. At times, I was sent to verify from the CM’s office the exact moment when the CM was free so that the CS could directly enter the inner chambers. On one occasion, when the Minister for Tribal Development called the CS for a meeting (an unheard of occurrence in those days), yours truly was despatched to attend the meeting as the CS’s representative. I survived the meeting under the baleful glare of the Minister and the inscrutable looks of the Finance, Planning and other Secretaries, who were aware of the reasons for the absence of their boss. Mr. Paranjape was more informal in his approach but was equally conscious about preserving the dignity of the post of the CS. He was forthright in his written and oral communications and never hesitated to frankly express himself.

Cut to 1996, when I returned to Maharashtra after a stint in the Government of India, and the situation had undergone a sea change. A change in government had taken place and CSs were no longer secure about their position at the top of the hierarchy. As I moved up the ladder to Secretary-level posts, I was privy to the pressures brought on the top bureaucrat by Ministers, more so because the seat of power had moved outside the Secretariat. The CS was also no longer the arbiter of bureaucratic postings — the Principal Secretary to the CM had developed as the new power centre. If I thought the position of the CS had worsened in Maharashtra, my realpolitik education was vastly enhanced when Uttar Pradesh (UP) introduced the innovation of the Cabinet Secretary, a sort of super CS, during the Mayawati regime (2007-2012). Apparently starting his working life as a helicopter pilot, this worthy had held various civil service posts without having to bother about going through a Public Service Commission recruitment process. That the UP bureaucracy tolerated this direct assault on its independence should not occasion any surprise, given the depths that the bureaucracy in UP (and elsewhere) has plumbed in the years after the Emergency.

The same fate that befell the bureaucracies in the states was also to confront the bureaucracy at the central level. The P.N. Haksar era saw the Cabinet Secretary being gradually sidelined by the powerful Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister (PM). With occasional exceptions, the subsequent decades saw the dominance of the PM’s Office (PMO) and its numero uno, the Principal Secretary. During my Delhi days, I could see the power exercised by the Principal Secretary to the PM, with even Ministers ensuring they stayed on his right side. The culmination was the role played by Brajesh Mishra as Principal Secretary to the PM and National Security Adviser during the Vajpayee era.

All this time, the importance of the Cabinet Secretary fluctuated depending on the influence of the Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister. No doubt, he still chaired the meetings of Committees of Secretaries and was part of the appointments process. But it was becoming increasingly clear to resourceful bureaucrats that the path to career advancement passed through the PMO. Postings in important Ministries and to international assignments depended on who one knew in the PMO and on one’s proximity to the Principal Secretary.

The undesirable practice of granting extensions to the Cabinet Secretary has been in vogue from the UPA-I era. From 2004 to date, only four persons have occupied the post, all well past their retirement ages. Not only did this foreclose the progression of their juniors to the top civilian post, it also raises the uneasy issue of the motivations of the government. While we may well be past the era when a retired CS of Madhya Pradesh could cheerfully refuse an offer of extension before zooming off on his motorcycle, bureaucrats, especially those at the top, would do well to be suspicious of too many compliments from the political class about their competence and indispensability. In one Yes Minister serial, the Political Adviser to the British PM rebukes the Minister, James Hacker, saying that his bureaucrats find him “a pleasure to work with”. In India’s Yes, Secretary setting, a bureaucrat who seems to fit in too well with her/his political bosses must reflect on whether (s)he is giving them the right advice, which may often need to be unpalatable.

What has occasioned all the above reflections has been a rather innocuous news item titled Major Revamp of India’s National Security Architecture. While one may have no bones to pick with strengthening India’s National Security apparatus, given a rather fluid environment around India’s borders, what gave pause for thought was the Cabinet Secretary being downgraded from the position of Chairman (a position held by him since 1999) to a member of the Strategic Policy Group (SPG), which is now to be chaired by the National Security Adviser (NSA). The media has witnessed meaningless wrangles about who is senior to whom in the Warrant of Precedence and whether this is another IAS vs. IPS battle. What has been lost sight of is the unique position of the Cabinet Secretary as the head of the Civil Services. If it was genuinely felt that the SPG required an expert, who commanded the confidence of the PM, to be its head, nothing would have been lost by keeping the Cabinet Secretary out of the SPG and by the NSA liaising with the Cabinet Secretary whenever departmental coordination issues needed to be sorted out.

The Cabinet Secretary is the Secretary to the Union Cabinet and is their Adviser on all policy issues. As such, (s)he needs to be free of association with any particular Committee chaired by a Minister (or a person of equivalent rank). Making the Cabinet Secretary a member of Ministerial Committees would dilute her/his ability to give an independent, frank opinion on major national issues to the PM and the Cabinet.

What give rise to unnecessary controversy and speculation are the sudden changes in time-honoured conventions, without apparently enough thought being given to their implications for an independent, professional civil service. Norms for a time-bound tenure for the top post and a selection process that affirms the selection of the most competent (and generally senior most) bureaucrat for that post would reassure the civil service (and the public) that only considerations of merit and competence have played a role in the selection. Discipline in a hierarchical organisation like the Indian civil services is possible only when the top bureaucrat is seen to have the moral and administrative authority to govern. Trends developing over the past couple of decades seem to indicate a fondness of the political class for departing from established conventions and procedures. The casualties in such a process will be the bureaucracy and, ultimately, the public, which can access their rights and entitlements only through an efficiently managed bureaucracy.

Cutting to the chase

ये दाग़ दाग़ उजाला, ये शब-गज़ीदा सहर

वो इन्तज़ार था जिस का, ये वो सहर तो नहीं  “

This feeble blemished light, this dawn mangled by night,

This is not the morning we had all so longed for” (Faiz Ahmed Faiz)

 

Three incontrovertible facts emerge from the latest bovine related lynching in India’s lynch district of Alwar:

  • Rakbar Khan was in the dairy profession
  • Rakbar Khan was murdered on the night of 20/21 July 2018 within the boundaries of Alwar district
  • Rakbar Khan leaves behind a large family with no visible means of support.

I find it necessary to state the above facts because I am never sure nowadays when fiction will rear its Hydra-like head, especially with Twitter trolls on the prowl. There is a numbing sensation of déjà vu, as yet another bovine-related lynching enters the statistics. Notwithstanding the Supreme Court admonitions, the pious statements of union government ministers and the incessant analysis on TV and in print media, we, as a people, seem to be asserting that lynching is our birthright.

Why am I less than sanguine that things will change for the better? Six reasons inform my pessimism:

  • The role of the police is getting more and more questionable, especially in states like Rajasthan. One Gagandeep Singh in Uttarakhand does not a summer make. Sometime before the latest lynching, we were informed that the Rajasthan police have found no evidence against six of the alleged perpetrators of the Pehlu Khan lynching, although they were named by him before his death. It is also puzzling why the statement of the dying person was not recorded before a Magistrate under Section 164 of the Criminal Procedure Code. If no evidence of actual commission of the offence is made out against the accused, there is every likelihood that they may be acquitted. Final result: one murder, zero conviction.
  • Apologists for the accused, in states from Rajasthan to Jharkhand, claim that those accused/convicted were not actually part of the lynch mob but were innocent bystanders. If the police discount both dying statements of the deceased and video evidence, there is no way anyone can be convicted. Even where the local police, as in the Kathua (Jammu) and Ramgarh (Jharkhand) cases, carries out a thorough investigation, justice is sought to be delayed by the demand for the investigation to be handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation.
  • A mindset has been encouraged in the general public that any apprehension in their minds about the commission of an unlawful act, especially related to cattle, justifies lynching. This has been exacerbated by the mindless enactment of laws in state after state outlawing the sale of beef. Regulations on cattle trade were also sought to be stupidly enforced but withdrawn once there was public outcry and judicial intervention. My friend Harsh Mander has pointed out that the Meo Muslim community in the Mewat region of Haryana have traditionally been in the dairy trade. The virtual pogrom against members of this community when they seek to acquire and transport cattle would seem to be a vicious campaign to deny them their livelihood. Add a potent mixture of love jihad to this and murderous mobs can acquire nationwide licence to kill.
  • Any effort to painstakingly put together data on lynching incidents, relating to causes, community background of the victims and actual convictions, is immediately dismissed by apologists of the ruling establishment as partisan. The latest to face this ire has been the IndiaSpend site for its documentation of the frequency of lynchings since 2010.
  • Well-meaning advice to the government on tackling this menace suffers from the same attribution of motives. Former civil servants are allegedly supporters of the previous ruling dispensation (never mind that they suffered under them) or are peeved because they were denied the loaves and fishes of office after retirement (never mind that no evidence of any such link is given in even one individual case). The feeling is that a lie, if repeated often enough, will be deemed to be the truth by the public.
  • Finally, the actions and statements of prominent members of the ruling party over the past four years have emboldened those who feel their actions are beyond the pale of law. Bland statements by the Prime Minister and Union Ministers on the law taking its course have cut no ice with the rank and file, who continue to issue irresponsible statements without being reined in by their leaders. The latest culprits are a Minister in the Jharkhand government and a senior ruling party functionary in the same state (in the Swami Agnivesh assault case) and a Union Minister (after the latest Alwar lynching).

I am not (as yet) a subscriber to conspiracy theories or to deep, hidden motives behind the actions of politicians who are not thinking beyond the next elections. But, as a citizen of the great Indian experiment in democracy and as an active participant in public service for over three decades, I feel I must stand up for the basic values and ideals that motivated me and my colleagues in the civil services to give of our best to the people of India during our careers. After seeing how things have evolved over the recent past and how justice has more often than not been denied to those at the receiving end of violence and injustice, I am firmly of the view that we must now come to the point. Justice must not only be done but must be seen to be done. With this objective, I offer my own two bits on what needs to be done to restore faith of the families of lynch victims in the rule of law:

  • Lynching, that is mob violence directed against a person or persons, needs to be codified in the Indian Penal Code (IPC). The issue is too grave and urgent to leave it to states to pass their own legislations. It needs to be specified that all persons comprising the crowd at a lynching site will be deemed to have acted with a common intention (as defined in Section 34 of the IPC) and will, as abettors, be liable for the same punishment as the actual perpetrators (presuming that culpability of the latter can be established in a mob situation). All such persons should be liable for the same punishment as prescribed in the IPC for causing death, grievous hurt, etc.
  • Sections 217 to 223 of the IPC must be rigorously invoked against police personnel who try to save perpetrators of lynching offences by doctoring/falsifying First Information Reports, deliberately destroying evidence, etc. Needless to say, police personnel who are present at the site of a lynching and do not use all the resources at their disposal for prevention of the lynching (which they are authorised to by law) should, in addition to the punishment for public servants mentioned above, also be culpable for the offence committed and punished accordingly. Removal of such elements from the police force would also send out a very strong message.
  • Section 51 of the Bombay Police Act, 1951 empowers the District Magistrate to fix compensation payable to affected parties in cases where unlawful assemblies result in death/serious injuries to persons. The compensation amount can be recovered from all inhabitants in a particular area or from specific classes of persons. Forcible recovery methods, as in case of land revenue arrears, can be employed to realise this compensation amount. Such a measure will not only discourage public participation in such offences but may also help in advance intimation being given to the police by parties who do not wish to be held liable. In the present case in Alwar, such compensation would provide much needed succour to a poor family which has lost its breadwinner.
  • Administrative responsibility must be fixed for such acts, especially where they recur in a particular area. In the present case, there are good grounds for seeking the resignation of the Rajasthan Home Minister under whose watch a series of incidents, which have shocked the conscience of all right-thinking citizens, have taken place over the past couple of years and whose police have not been able to convincingly bring to a final conclusion even one case of lynching thus far. More than just administrative responsibility, a case is also made out for the ruling party to take action against its Union Minister who has tried to draw a parallel between the spate of lynchings and attempts to defame the Prime Minister. The utterances of the Jharkhand Minister, who sought to deflect the seriousness of the assault on Swami Agnivesh by commenting on his character and antecedents, are equally reprehensible. Such statements by responsible state functionaries, who have sworn to function in accordance with the Constitution of India, reduce the sanctity of the rule of law.

Democracy is always a tender plant that needs to be nurtured carefully. The responsibility for its nurture falls most on those entrusted by the people of this country with ensuring their safety and security. The time is past for delivering homilies. Justice, in accordance with the rule of law, has to be delivered speedily and efficiently. Let not the present ruling dispensation go down in history as one which destroyed the people’s faith in democracy and the rule of law.

 

Promote Unity, Not Divisiveness

India, the world’s largest democracy, is fast imitating the century-old experience of the world’s oldest democracy, the USA, where lynchings are concerned. The spokesmen and apologists of the political party which is in power at the centre and in most of the states (‘the ruling party’) where these reprehensible, horrifying incidents have taken place in the past few years, will no doubt insist that this phenomenon predates their accession to power, notwithstanding the growing frequency of these incidents since the accession to power of the ruling party, as clearly brought out in the IndiaSpend Report. They will blame social media for the spreading of rumours and disown responsibility of any group patronised by them. What gives the lie to such protestations of innocence are the statements made by members of the ruling party in the electronic and social media when such incidents take place. The most recent case of vigilante extralegal violence involves the assault on Swami Agnivesh, the social crusader, at Pakur in Jharkhand, a state known for its peaceable residents but now bidding for top place in Lynchistan’s Hall of Shame. Who can foretell what unfortunate consequences could have arisen from one or two more ill-directed blows at a man in his eighth decade of life? And yet, two members of the ruling party had the gall to openly comment on how the Swami had it coming to him, apart from trotting out false reasons for his visit to Jharkhand. But then, consistency in speech and action has never been the forte of the ruling party.

Nor have the ruling party spokespersons distinguished themselves in panel discussions on national television programmes. After fifty former civil servants (including yours truly) issued a public statement condemning the felicitation by a Union Minister of convicts out on bail in a lynching-murder case, his party apologist (an advocate to boot) sought to justify the act by harping on the need to honour public sentiments, however vile they might be. After the Swami Agnivesh episode, another advocate-apologist for the ruling party sought to highlight “provocation” as an extenuating circumstance. Even in the surreal atmosphere we exist in today, their arguments strain the bounds of one’s credulity. As a law graduate and a former civil servant who has decided innumerable quasi-judicial cases, I have to take recourse to the self-defence provisions in the Indian Penal Code (IPC) to rebut their fatuous contentions.

Since they are not claiming (hopefully) that the lynchers are under twelve years of age, of unsound mind or have been intoxicated against their will, the only protection from punishment for causing death or serious injury under the IPC arises where the right of self-defence is exercised against offences aimed at causing harm to body (one’s own or others) or property. Even here, Section 100 of the IPC qualifies the use of force in self-defence, restricting it to instances where death, grievous hurt, rape, kidnapping, etc. are reasonably apprehended by the one who exercises the right of self-defence. In no case of lynching reported over the past four years have any of these provisions of the IPC been satisfied. Even if there has been any violation of any other law of the land, no legal provision allows one human to cause death/injury to another, except in the very limited instances mentioned above.

Which is why the Supreme Court came down heavily on the union and state governments for their failure to curb the growing incidents of lynching, ironically on the very day Swami Agnivesh was attacked. But the problem is that, in this case, it requires three (not two) hands to clap. The Supreme Court has clapped, but there are two more hands which must join in if any sound is to be heard. Parliament has to find time, aside from its internecine wranglings, to pass legislation that effectively tackles the menace of lynching, whether by adding sections to the IPC or by enacting a separate Act. But it is the third hand that will determine if the clap is heard loud and clear. This is the thoroughgoing implementation of anti-lynching provisions by the criminal justice system in the various states of India. Notwithstanding the confidence being exuded by our Union Law Minister, only one lynch case seems to have concluded so far (in Jharkhand) but other cases like the Dadri and Alwar cases are still going on. That cases have been lodged against the victims is testimony to the perversity of state action and to its lack of will in checking murderous mobs. Given shoddy police investigations, interminable trial processes and innumerable appeals, there is every reason to apprehend that future lynchers are unlikely to be deterred, more so when they see the support they are likely to get from the state and political formations.

The saddest consequence of state apathy, if not connivance, in condoning lynching incidents is the licence it gives to any group to resort to assault and murder. The recipients of this vigilante “justice” are innocent persons, often from minority and disadvantaged groups. The mob has been brainwashed to see their victims as the dreaded “other”, fed by the poison of irresponsible media reporting and cynical political manipulation. It started with alleged beef-eaters/cow-smugglers (Dadri, Alwar, etc.), moved on to alleged child-lifters (Dhule, Bidar, etc.) and now extends to critics of the present dispensation (Pakur). That there exists a poisonous streak in Indian society is borne out by the reports of the Karwan-e-Mohabbat, spearheaded by that tireless crusader, Harsh Mander. This poison has been fanned and spread by the intemperate, deliberate use of language to deepen public insecurity. When politics ceases to be a mission (as it was for the first generation of independent India’s politicians) and becomes an amoral business, power and pelf dictate all actions and the devil take the hindmost.

Drawing on American experience of nearly a century ago, three responses are crucial if India is to stop its descent down the slippery path of private vengeance. Firstly, the moral authority of the state (which has suffered grievously in recent decades) needs to be reasserted. As a former district magistrate, I can safely assert that where the District Magistrate and Superintendent of Police (or Commissioner of Police in metropolitan areas) were determined not to let anyone take the law into their hands and where they enjoyed public respect because of their honest, impartial conduct, riots rarely happened, or, if they did, were promptly nipped in the bud. I have personally observed how the no-nonsense conduct of a Chief Minister like Vasantdada Patil in Maharashtra ensured almost no violence against the sizeable population of Sikhs in Maharashtra in the aftermath of the Indira Gandhi assassination, even while Delhi burnt. The pogroms in 1984 (Delhi), 1993 (Mumbai) and 2002 (Ahmedabad) are illustrative of what happens when the state is complicit, covertly or overtly, in the commission of violence by one section of society against another. Firm administrative actions, followed by quick convictions of the guilty, reassure the victims that justice has been done while sending a message to hate-filled groups that extralegal violence will not be tolerated.

The second effort has to focus on the expression of revulsion at such acts in a way that discourages those who encourage, silently or openly, their commission, while pontificating on their commitment to the rule of law. The mass media has an important role to play, by highlighting the violation of law by lynch mobs rather than indulging in whataboutery or “victim fault finding”. Opinion makers and, indeed, civil society has a role to play as well. Channels and publications that seek to justify or whitewash such horrendous incidents should be exposed and patronage to them should be withdrawn. Society should clearly indicate to certain of its influential members that their condonation of such illegitimate violence will lead to their exclusion from public fora and social gatherings. Election campaigns should highlight the track record of prospective candidates with regard to their encouragement of criminality in sections of society.

But the final, and most important, step lies in the change in attitudes in those who govern. The phrase यथा राजा तथा प्रजा has never had a greater resonance than today. Unless those chosen to govern model their thoughts, words and actions on the Constitution they have sworn by, they will never be able to set an example to society. Let us not forget that the Preamble to the Constitution seeks to secure justice, liberty, equality and fraternity for all citizens aimed at assuring individual dignity and the unity and integrity of the nation. At every step, those in power must measure their actions against the touchstone of the values enshrined in the Preamble. They must take their cue from the Vedas and Upanishads which stress the oneness of the universe and the priceless verse of Sant Kabir:

 

कस्तूरी कुंडल बसे, मृग ढूँढत बन माहि |

ज्यो घट घट राम है, दुनिया देखे नाही |

(The musk is in the deer, but it seeks it not within itself; it runs through the forest in its quest. Similarly, God (humanity) is everywhere but the world is not able to see this)

Ten country chickens amongst hundreds of broilers

One of my civil service colleagues coined the above phrase on our WhatsApp group site. The context was the advertisement by the Department of Personnel and Training, Government of India inviting applications for contractual appointment as Joint Secretary (JS) in the Government of India through lateral entry. Just when the Indian bureaucracy thought it was done and dusted with the debate over the service-state allocation post-entry into the civil service rather than pre-entry, the union government set off another Diwali rocket under its nether regions. Ten JS posts in coveted Ministries ranging from Revenue and Economic Affairs to Road Transport and Commerce are up for grabs.

I have long been a votary for lateral entry into the civil services. My views have been reinforced by the complacency that grips the permanent civil servant once s(he) is assured of a career path that leads to the apex scale. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in the IAS where, if you are ensconced in your state cadre, you are guaranteed an almost automatic rise to the apex scale of Chief Secretary unless death, conviction on criminal charges or lunacy parts you from that cherished goal. I am not restating my positions here, having outlined them in detail in an earlier blog (Reshaping India’s bureaucracy – a blueprint for action). But I do have certain words of caution for the union government as it steps into this minefield.

  • Never underestimate the permanent civil service: James Hacker was neither the first nor the last Minister who failed in his efforts to reform the civil service. The Humphrey Applebys in the IAS (both former and current) are aghast at the proposed lateral entry. Rest assured that all efforts will be made to stymie the initiative. In the past, even when the lateral entrant was at the level of Secretary to the Ministry, the IAS had its mechanisms to constrain him. A popular ruse was to induct a Special Secretary or Additional Secretary from the hallowed service who would, in a sense, keep a watch on the activities of the Secretary. The argument generally used was that the incumbent lateral entrant was new to administrative practices and needed support to guide him through the byzantine maze of the bureaucracy, never mind that there was a plethora of experienced JSs in the Ministry who could have done the same job, if required. Imagine the fate of a single lateral entrant in a Ministry! If her Secretary decides to allot her, say, the Administration desk in the Ministry, her specialised talents will come to naught. So, if the government is serious, it should decide, in consultation with the Minister of the concerned department, which crucial responsibility, appropriate to her skill set, will be assigned her. The Minister and, probably, the Prime Minister’s Office, may have to monitor how she is allowed to work to ensure her effective functioning.
  • Go in for more radical restructuring: This is why I advocate more radical surgery in the short to medium-term. Governments should remember that their tenure is not permanent and that their successor governments often seek to undo all their honest efforts. Given the statist mindset of the Congress and most opposition parties, I have little doubt that they will easily be swayed by the advice of the permanent bureaucracy, as their rumblings in the media already testify. If this limited move is a precursor to deep rooted change, well and good – else, the lateral entrants will be neutralised over time.
  • Insist on changes in the states: Most programmes, especially in the social sector, falter where implementation is fully or largely at the state level. Take education, health or nutrition: the southern and western states are in a different league compared to some of the states in northern and eastern India. That this is not a given is borne out by the improved statistics in some social sectors in states like Odisha and Chhattisgarh, pointing to the importance of political leadership committed to economic development. However, it is also distressing to observe that states with a very high reputation for sound administration in the past seem to be following in the footsteps of their more backward partners, especially in the area of individual (especially women) security and law and order. This is because the deteriorating administrative mechanisms in these states, coupled with countrywide weaknesses in the legal system, have led to reduced respect for the rule of law among increasingly cynical citizens. That we will continue to be governed by parties of a variety of ideological predispositions and structures is a fact of life; that all these parties, and the governments they form, need to promote strong, responsive governance mechanisms, at the state and local government levels, is equally crucial for a healthy democracy. Incentivising good governance measures, possibly through financial flows, needs serious consideration.
  • Resist the temptation of listening to party ideologues: The present union government is pilloried whenever it initiates any such measure, largely because it has been perceived as appointing persons (with particular ideological leanings), of no great public or professional standing, to head key institutions, some of whom have exposed themselves (and the government) to ridicule by the quality of their statements in public fora as well as by their performance. Granted, it may not have wanted the same set of academics and other individuals who were the favourites of the previous regime and who enjoyed positions due to the synchronisation of their worldviews with those of the then ruling dispensation. But a rigorous selection process would have seen the appointment of persons who commanded respect in the public for their erudition and scholarship and lent more credibility to the government’s decisions. I would strongly urge that an impartial, fair selection process is put in place, involving the Union Public Service Commission, so that the public (and the civil services) are assured that standards are not going to be diluted and that lateral entrants are not seen as being favourably disposed to any ideology, other than that of constitutional democracy, as enshrined in the Constitution of India.

I revert again to the title of this blog. I am told that country chickens taste better than broilers. However, ten country chicken served up amongst many broilers will occasion no culinary delight, except among the very discerning. If the chickens are jointly slaughtered, cooked and served to patrons, it would, in any case, be impossible to testify to the quality of a particular chicken. Which is why I am a supporter of thoroughgoing reforms, even if these are carried out in stages. There should be no doubt about the final objectives or of the resolve of the government to carry through its programme. The government, for its part, should look for a place in history rather than for attaining limited political goals. When our fellow Commonwealth countries like the UK, Australia and New Zealand have undertaken extensive civil service reform, there is no reason for the biggest of them all, India, to refrain from biting the bullet.

 

The Emperor’s New Clothes

“But he hasn’t got anything on” a little child said (Hans Christian Andersen)

 Three measures taken by the central government in recent years do not seem to be yielding dividends, at least in the short term. Demonetisation started off with the promise of unearthing black money, moved on to promising a cashless nirvana and has finally only succeeded in damaging growth prospects. The Goods and Services Tax (GST), after so many years in the making, was rushed through in a matter of months with inadequate software readiness and with poor education of the masses of small retailers and traders who, willy nilly, had to move overnight to online systems for which they were totally unprepared. The informal sector has been particularly hard hit by the speed of GST imposition. Implementation of Aadhaar was pushed through as a money bill. It is still facing civil society resistance in the Supreme Court, especially because of the stubborn bureaucratic insistence on treating it as a panacea for all of India’s ills, including tax leakages and terrorism, instead of first focusing on streamlining the process of beneficiary entitlements.

What has marked all these three “initiatives” has been the attempt by the political executive to display its so-called dynamism, consequences be damned. What has been even more noteworthy is the failure of the civil service, especially at the highest levels, to caution its political masters in rushing through with measures that affect the lives of large masses of people. Like the courtiers in Andersen’s fable, they are effusive in rushing to extol these policies, without sparing a thought for harsh realities. The same could be said for the inordinate haste of BJP state governments in pushing through legislation banning the sale and consumption of beef, which has jeopardised the livelihoods of large numbers, especially from the Muslim and Dalit communities, apart from rendering them vulnerable to vicious attacks by vigilante groups.

And now, the government has dropped a bombshell — it seems to want to tinker in a major way with the manner in which senior civil servants are allotted services after selection and the states to be allotted to those selected for the All-India Services. The only document available in the public domain is a letter from a Joint Secretary in the central government’s Department of Personnel to the Deputy Director General in the Department of Telecommunications. Ordinarily, such a letter would not even be deemed worthy of notice. What has set the cat among the pigeons is the mention in the letter that the measure is sought to be implemented from later this year, which means that the batch just selected (2019 batch) will serve as the guinea pigs. As a member of the 1980 civil service batch which served as guinea pigs for the last effort at civil service recruitment process reform, courtesy the Kothari Committee report, I am bemused that views of departments are being sought without any background paper or report serving as the basis for the thought process. It almost seems as though (à la demonetisation) the decision has already been taken and a perfunctory consultation process is being gone through before orders are issued.

Many of my colleagues in the civil services (all retired) have expressed themselves forcefully on this issue. While we are almost unanimous in our view that the civil service recruitment system is in need of reform, our apprehensions stem from the rather flimsy methodology suggested for the service/state cadre allocation, which would strike at the very roots of the concept of a competent, impartial civil service. The faculty at the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration, Mussoorie and at other institutes, where foundation courses are conducted, are hardly equipped to critically assess the capabilities of officers for deciding their suitability for different services. There are likely to be three deleterious implications if the proposed course of action is gone through in haste, without addressing fundamental issues of evolving a sound selection process.

Cronyism is the probable first evil that has to be factored in. India is still a country where regional, language and caste factors exercise a strong pull. Without disparaging my erstwhile colleagues from the northern states, it is a fact that, barring the Rajiv Gandhi era, there was a predominance of three or four states, especially Uttar Pradesh, in the senior echelons of administrative decision making at the centre, in the first fifty years after independence. While this phenomenon may be partly attributed to the reluctance of officers from the southern and western states to go on central deputation, it is also a fact that positions in key economic ministries were occupied by officers from the northern states or those who kept in close touch with the levers of power in Delhi. That the fulcrum has now moved to Gujarat is no cause for comfort: it only proves that bureaucrats most in sync with the political dispensation of the day at the centre rule the roost. But, at least, central deputation has finite time limits, till repatriation or retirement ends the bureaucrat’s tenure. The mind boggles, however, at the thought that a protégé can be given a lifetime job guarantee by a favourably disposed godparent at the time of service selection.

Corruption will inevitably follow any such non-transparent process, following Lord Acton’s dictum that “…absolute power corrupts absolutely”. In an ocean of corrupt State Public Service Commissions, the Union Public Service Commission maintained its reputation for integrity in the selection process for over six decades. While one may quibble over the manner of selection — bookish, elitist, etc. — there has never been a question of individuals (or coaching classes) using the lure of lucre to manipulate the selection process. I shudder at the prospect of the future of the country’s administration being subject to the possibility of temptations being dangled before faculty in training academies, who are called on to adjudicate between the relative merits of different candidates who qualify for the civil services, especially when one witnesses the debasement of so many institutions by the pernicious influence of money power.

Politicisation of the civil services will be the obvious corollary of any post-selection evaluation mechanism. The candidate who is smart enough to qualify for the foundation course will also be smart enough to realise that s(he) can use political strings to swing the desired service/state in his/her direction. The reign of different political dispensations every five years will only add masala to the selection process. And, heavens forbid, if the same party continues to rule at the centre for two or three decades, nothing stops it from packing the civil services with officers loyal to its ideology, fulfilling the Emergency dream of a “committed bureaucracy”. In a federal set up, where parties opposed to each other may be in power at the centre and in the states, nothing short of anarchy will reign when civil servants of the All-India Services assigned to different states are looked at with suspicion by state governments. We have already had a foretaste of this in Delhi because of no love lost between the Delhi government and the central government.

Merit is likely to be a casualty of the proposed changes. But the issue of choice also rises. Young Indians spend the best part of their productive years attempting to seize the holy grail of the civil services. Now, when the grail seems to be within reach, it could be snatched away by the whims of a few instructors or the machinations of colleagues, aided and abetted by unscrupulous elements. When certain services continue to exercise an allurement for prospective civil servants similar to that of the songs of the Sirens for sailors in Greek mythology, introducing an element of uncertainty for a further period of six months to one year after selection could lead to one of two consequences: (a) it could discourage bright young women and men from seeking to join the civil services, or (b) more damagingly, it could encourage the entry of elements who seek to obtain their desired service/state through any means, mostly foul. If you doubt me, just see the type of candidates who are standing for elections to legislatures and Parliament. Gresham’s law of the civil services will then operate with a vengeance.

Let me hasten to add that I, and most of my retired friends in the civil services, are strongly in favour of reforms in the processes of selection to the civil services as well as subsequent career advancement. We recognise that there has been considerable heartburning over the fact that a single examination decides the future life trajectory of an individual. You could argue that so does an IIT or IIM selection process, but then these are not lifetime guarantees. The IIT/IIM graduate still has to compete with others for entry into a particular line of employment. At the same time, given that there is so much hype to get a “prestigious” civil service job, the selection process has to be insulated from pressures and influences. In an earlier blog (Reshaping India’s bureaucracy – a blueprint for action), I had proposed wide ranging changes in the structure of the civil services, including the abolition of the All-India Services and making all appointments contractual, to meet the administrative challenges of the coming decades. While I am sure that there will be plenty of views on (and criticism of) my suggestions, I strongly feel that cosmetic changes are no solution to a bureaucratic system that is perceived by the mass of the people of India as unresponsive, lethargic and tyrannical. It is possible that some variant of what I have proposed could be devised, with implementation in stages. But unless the issue is addressed at all levels of government — central, state and local — and efficiency and accountability are introduced in governance, the Indian public will continue to be shortchanged in service delivery and India’s long-term growth and development prospects will be affected.

The need of the hour is a close, hard look at what is wrong with our governance systems and how to improve these. Merely toying with service allotment or state allocation is no solution: if anything, these will worsen the situation and lay the government of the day open to the charge of changing the system to suit its political requirements. It would indeed be ironical if a government that swears by Sardar Patel were to demolish the edifice of the civil services built up by him, without developing a viable long-term alternative. Were this to occur, we can only take refuge in the words of the late Jayaprakash Narayan “विनाशकालेविपरीतबुद्धि”(when one’s doom approaches, one’s intelligence works perversely).