Archive for the ‘irony’ Category

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.

The Importance of Being Irreverent

Irreverent:

A lack of respect for people or things that are generally taken seriously (Oxford English Dictionary)

Not showing the expected respect for official, important, or holy things (Cambridge Dictionary)

We live in truly dystopian times. Times when an M.F. Husain is exiled from his country for his art, a Wendy Doniger has her book pulped for apparently blasphemous content, a Perumal Murugan is hounded out of his town by outraged religious-caste groups and a Gauri Lankesh pays for her writings with her life. Apart from these, we have had valuable manuscripts in a research institute in Pune destroyed because of the apparently derogatory reference to a major historical figure and violent protests against a movie which depicted a queen who was only a figment of a poet’s imagination. That all this has happened in the past couple of decades is a sorry testimony to the depletion of a sense of proportion in a country where the population has thrived on a rich diet of multicultural jokes and where poking fun at communities and important public figures has been a staple component of Indian democracy.

These developments are hard to stomach for many of us who were reared on community jokes and developed a capacity to extract a good laugh out of any situation. We started young and at home: my father would keep us kids in splits with his imitations of office colleagues, relatives and prominent politicians. The school environment was equally refreshing: we played football with our principal, an Irish brother complete in his cassock, and revelled in his one-liners and his ability to wake up a somnolent noontime classroom by sweeping all our geometry boxes off our tables.

But our irreverence was well and truly honed by the atmosphere at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi University. Rags like Kooler Talk and Spice indulged in sly satire and societies like the Wodehouse Society exposed an entire generation to how humour could be gently used to expose the asininity and foibles of the nobs of British society. Direct action was also forthcoming, as when tomatoes were hurled in protest at the participants in a fashion show and when that parliamentarian par excellence, Piloo Mody, was pelted with pieces of chapati when he entered the college mess prior to a late evening session with college students. Our riotousness continued during our post-graduation phase in the Delhi School of Economics: the male members of the class turned up in lungis for a morning class in econometrics. Unfazed by this, the venerable Professor continued as if nothing had happened. Our PG class also started SPOSIDS (Society for the Preservation Of Sanity In Delhi School) to counter what we saw as a curriculum that was out of touch with the real world.

This refusal to take life seriously was maintained after entering the portals of the hallowed Indian Administrative Service (IAS). The targets were politicians and pompous senior officers who took themselves a bit too seriously. Peccadilloes of officers and politicians were the staple at gatherings of younger officers. Along with this there was a certain scepticism about the zeal shown by the powers that be for their pet programmes. It was recognised that politicians were in the game for continued access to power and the bureaucracy for the collateral benefits of glory, perks and prestige, and, increasingly, rentier income. Since flippant notings on musty files were frowned upon, gossip sessions over innumerable cups of canteen chai with one’s colleagues and bosses provided opportunities to laugh over the shenanigans of ministers and other politicians.

Having grown up in and been exposed to such an environment throughout one’s student and working life, I feel a deep sense of sadness today on seeing the barrage of hatred and abuse that accompanies any attempt at humour. Like Irish and Russian jokes, we had our existence enlivened by gentle barbs at Sardarjis, Bengalis, Parsis and Malayalis. Cut to the present and, if we are fortunate not to be lynched electronically or physically, we can look forward to a court summons from distant Guwahati or Bhubaneswar: if you don’t believe me, see what Abhijit Iyer-Mitra had to face for his admittedly silly comments on a particular state and its religious icons.

The quality of irreverence is a sine qua non for a healthy democracy. Go back to the middle ages and you have astronomers facing the threat of the stake for venturing to claim that the earth moved around the sun, refuting Ptolemaic wisdom. Christian Europe moved through the Reformation to the Enlightenment only because of a questioning attitude to life. Soviet Russia and its satellites were toppled by the growing irreverence of their citizens, who were heartily sick of the ideological diet that they had been fed for between forty to seventy years. And Indian democracy has been immeasurably enriched by the likes of Shankar, Laxman and Abu, who exposed the foibles and failings of politicians with their cartoons — Pandit Nehru invited Shankar to make fun of him. Contrast this with China or North Korea, where a hearty laugh has probably not been heard for decades.

So what has gone wrong in India? Why have we started taking ourselves so seriously? The demise of humour was heralded, ironically, at a time when the Indian economy seemed to have finally cast off its somnolence and started to acquire some dynamism. Growth was booming, the middle-class Indian had started to extend his/her reach to distant Silicon Valley and women were (at least in urban settings) increasingly asserting their independence. Patriarchal attitudes were, however, not going to accept defeat so easily. The threatened Indian male ego retreated into the world of religious chauvinism and misogyny to protect its position. Liberalism and gender equality were seen as threats to the existing traditional order. Established social norms were slow to adapt to the changed economic environment. The situation was exacerbated by a growing divide between groups — educational, digital and economic.

A moribund education system has seen a young population going through school and college without receiving “education” as such, if by education one means the ability to use reason and employ critical and analytical thinking to assess issues. A crucial reason for this has been the gradual demise of liberal education, grounded in the realities of society. Add to this the preponderance of technical and management courses with multiple-choice questions and you have a generation which cannot present cogent arguments in essay form. With most jobs not requiring analytical abilities and with the WhatsApp-Twitter era in full swing, pithy bytes are more popular than lengthy written discourses. It is easier to spew vituperative bile when one has only 260 characters to play around with.

While one may understand, even if not stomach, the growing expression of intolerance by India’s “educated” classes, what causes more dismay are the responses of institutions charged with protecting the right to freedom of expression. The highest court of the land refused to stay the arrest of a journalist by the Odisha government. Granted, this person shoots off his mouth intemperately, but forty days in the jug for a minor misdemeanour was rather harsh. As if that was not enough,  the Indian government (run by whichever party is in power in any state) tends to throw the rule book at any dissenter. If the charge of criminal defamation fails to stick, the government moves on to imposing the far graver charge of sedition. When even this accusation seems flimsy and liable to rejection by the courts, governments take recourse to the sledgehammer of the National Security Act, as experienced recently by a Manipuri journalist,  whose only crime was to refer disparagingly to the Chief Minister. Of course, as a last resort, governments can use the draconian provisions of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) which enables long periods of incarceration of the accused while the wheels of justice grind agonizingly slowly.

All these developments over the past two decades have seen censorship (both by the self and by others in authority) cast its ominous dark shadow over the democratic landscape. It takes threats from just a few crazed fanatics for an author to stop writing, a filmmaker to rewrite a script, a university to withdraw a teaching assignment to a reputed scholar or a journalist or a dissenter to face assault culminating in murder.

The attack on perceived “irreverence” has adverse implications for creativity, with deleterious consequences for the development of the economy and society. Newton, Darwin and Einstein would never have made their path breaking discoveries if they had been nervously looking over their shoulders all the time for potential assailants. More critically, it contributes to damaging the delicate framework of checks and balances that are the bulwark of a democratic society, leading to irreparable damage to institutions. If civil servants cannot freely give dissenting opinions, police officers cannot crack down on offenders, judges cannot give judgments unpalatable to the political bosses of the day and academics cannot critically examine the policies of the government, that day is not far when a sheep like, adoring population is persuaded to jettison democracy for the charms of an all-powerful leader. We must let that prescient lawmaker, B.R. Ambedkar, have the final words “in politics, Bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship”.

 

 

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.”

 

A sense of déjà vu

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose: The more things change, the more they stay the same.” I am rather fond of using this phrase, but only because the same patterns keep recurring like bad dreams in one’s life. The Karnataka state assembly elections have come and gone and we are back again to Ground Zero. The electorate has once more, in its wisdom, chosen not to anoint any one party as the clear victor, leaving the space open for fun and games. The ball is now in the court of the Governor of Karnataka to decide whom to invite to form the government. Sauce for the BJP goose is not going to be sauce for the Congress gander. No party is likely to emerge pristine white from this exercise over the next couple of weeks. The Congress missed the bus in Goa and Manipur in 2017, despite being the party which won the largest number of seats. It was not even invited by the respective Governors to form the government. Instead, the BJP was allowed to cobble together a motley assortment of partners and stake its claim to form the governments in these two states. At that time, the Congress went blue in the face screaming about the shenanigans in government formation and how its claims were ignored. Today, the same Congress is ready to go in for a shotgun marriage with the Janata Dal (Secular) (JD(S)) to hang on at least indirectly to power, even if it means ceding the king’s throne to its junior partner. Not that the BJP is any better. The same party which went hell for leather to seduce its partners last year is now sanctimoniously quoting the constitutional scriptures of the Governor being duty bound to invite the party which has won the largest number of seats.

As if this were not enough, we are left wondering how the numbers game will play out. Given the role that Governors have played in recent years, we need not be overly surprised if the Governor does indeed invite the largest party, the BJP, to have the first go at government formation. With 104 seats in the legislature, the BJP will need seven more legislators to support it when it has to prove its majority in the house in the near future. Partial support can come from three legislators, one of whom is an independent and two from smaller parties. But to win the trust vote, the BJP will still need to ensure that its 107 supporting legislators constitute 50 percent of the number of legislators present and voting. Presuming that the opposition parties issue a whip on the vote, the only way the BJP could win the trust vote would be for five or more opposition legislators to either absent themselves altogether or abstain from the voting process. To prevent such moral (and not so moral) suasion from occurring, the only way out for the Congress-JD(S) would be to sequester their flock at an appropriate location and produce them fresh and ready at the time of the trust vote.

Let us presume for a moment that the BJP loses the trust vote or that, wonder of wonders, the Governor actually invites the Congress-JD(S) to form the government and prove its majority. Even then, the Congress-JD(S) have to ensure that some of their legislators do not jump ship by resigning from legislatorship and introducing uncertainty regarding the future of their government. The memories of “Operation Kamala 2008” must still be touching a raw nerve in these two parties.

So, the resort to resorts will continue. As an old Maharashtra hand, I still remember vividly the coup attempted in 2002 by the BJP-Shiv Sena against the Congress-NCP Vilasrao Deshmukh government in Maharashtra. The Congress legislators (and some independents) had to be spirited away from Maharashtra to a resort on the outskirts of Bengaluru. That Bengaluru continues to be the favourite last resort of the Congress was proved yet again in 2017, when 44 Congress legislators from Gujarat had to be housed here prior to Rajya Sabha elections to prevent them succumbing to the insidious charms of the BJP. History is now set to repeat itself yet again: do you wonder now why I find this exercise repetitive and not a little nauseating?

Actually, the entire Karnataka election process followed the time-honoured pattern. All parties fell over each other nominating candidates with dubious track records, many having criminal cases pending against them. No candidate from the three major political parties campaigned on the specific plank of addressing issues germane to the electorate, whether these related to agriculture, law and order, food security or health care. In any case, the healthy yesteryear habit of house to house campaigning has long been abandoned; in the current elections, probably only the AAP and Swaraj India candidates adopted this approach. Cash, liquor and other freebies are rumoured to have been freely distributed to win votes.

I am not one of those who subscribe to the view that state funding of elections is going to cleanse the Augean stables of electoral corruption. With governance processes still hugely dependent on discretion, and distribution of scarce resources — land, housing, licences, contracts, etc. — centrally controlled by the politico-bureaucratic nexus, elections to political bodies, whether at central, state or local levels, represent the pathway to self-aggrandisement and enriching one’s clan. Making local area funds available to elected representatives has only enabled distribution of patronage to a larger group of cronies. Even moving to a system of proportional representation will not solve this problem: the same worthies will find place in the lists of all political parties.

A change for the better will be possible only when:

  • Elected representatives at the central and state levels confine themselves to enacting legislation and lobbying for public/private projects in their constituencies rather than having any direct role in disbursing patronage in the form of funds or other scarce resources;
  • The 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution are implemented in letter and spirit and financial and administrative powers are genuinely devolved to rural and urban local bodies;
  • Patronage at ministerial level, especially in the state secretariats, ceases;
  • Strong anti-corruption ombudsman structures at the centre and in the states, with powers of investigation and prosecution, are created;
  • Corruption cases are fast-tracked and completed within two years of institution so that the fear of early retribution exists, especially in the political class;
  • Inner-party democracy is made mandatory through legislation, so that political parties cease to be the fiefdom of individuals and families.

I am not sanguine about good sense prevailing on our political representatives to implement the above reforms. Till such time as these come about, we will continue to be “entertained” by political drama. To paraphrase Marie Antoinette “If they don’t have jobs, let them have circuses.” O Tempora! O Mores!

Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?

You may be wondering why I am resurrecting a schmaltzy 1967 American rom-com movie, fifty years after we saw it on screens in India. True, it played on the theme of interracial marriage, so relevant in these days of “love jihad”. But that is not why I dwell on the guest who is coming to dinner. I am intrigued, and not a little amused, by the recent directive from the Prime Minister, no less, to his party MPs and Ministers to dine with Dalit families. That, more than seventy years after independence and after the enactment of a progressive Constitution that enjoins the virtues, among others, of equality and fraternity, elected representatives who represent all citizens, including its disadvantaged poor, have to be issued a firman to break rotis with those traditionally beyond the pale of the caste system is a telling commentary on the deep cleavages that still fissure Indian society.

What strikes me as ludicrous is that those representing the people have to be told to interact with them. Recent months have seen stories of Chief Ministers, belonging to the dispensation ruling at the centre, eating at Dalit houses. We have been fed with salacious details of how plates, food and water were organised from outside so that the VIP could be captured on celluloid enjoying his victuals in the Dalit house. A very recent news report has detailed the elaborate exercise of a ruling party MP dining at a Dalit house. This former civil service colleague took to politics after a career in the civil services. I wondered whether he didn’t find this entire exercise unreal, given the interaction that civil servants get to have with all sections of society in the course of travels across villages and towns during their working years.

From personal experience, my extensive travels across Maharashtra have taken me to tribal habitations, Dalit vastis and urban slums. I have been privileged to be the guest of poor families, who have shared tea (often without milk), poha and any other food item in the house with the unexpected guest. Many politicians I have known have also accepted food and drink readily during their tours, without bothering about the caste, religion or social status of their hosts. Which is why I find it inexplicable that a national political party finds it necessary to impose a diktat on its party men (and women) to interdine with members of a particular social group. Does this imply that, over the past four years, these peoples’ representatives have given the cold shoulder to the poor and disadvantaged, to the extent of not even visiting their humble dwellings and sharing chai-biskut with them?

What I find more reprehensible are the accounts of apparently stage-managed dinners. There have been reports of meals at certain locations being organised from outside the Dalit vasti, although the actual consumption by the VIP took place in a Dalit home. More to the point, the visits to the Dalit habitations, whether by a Chief Minister, Minister, MP or MLA, do not often see any tangible improvement in the living conditions of local residents, partly because of the poor governance and infrastructure systems in place and more so because of the lack of opportunities for benefiting from economic growth processes.

That such publicised dinner visits reek of symbolism is one of the unfortunate spinoffs of such exercises, captured beautifully by the inimitable Hemant Morparia in a recent cartoon.

While there are many sincere politicians at different levels, there is no denying that, in the race for one upmanship that politics, in India and elsewhere, has descended to, photo opportunities are used to advance ones’ reputation in the eyes of those who matter, especially in these days of Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp. It would be extremely heartening if the visit by a Minister / MP / MLA was followed up with intensive efforts to address the shortcomings in delivery of public services that were observed during the visit. Unfortunately, such visits tend to be one-off instances, restricted to mentions in the press and reports to political superiors on one’s efforts, spectacle rather than substance.

The other issue of concern is the widening gulf between the elected representatives and their electorate. Sighting an MP/MLA in the constituency between two elections is akin to spotting a black swan. Why, even getting to see the local corporator on the streets is a rarer occurrence than seeing a blue moon. MPs/MLAs, many of whom do not even regularly stay in the constituencies that elected them, have no system of judging the extent to which they are meeting the specific requests of their constituents (with honourable exceptions like Shashi Tharoor and Jay Panda). The result is a growing disillusionment and cynicism in the electorate, which looks to extract short-term benefits near election time, a dangerous trend in a democracy.

Having reached the ranks of the senior citizenry some time back, I feel entitled to offer my two bits of advice to MPs and MLAs.  Firstly, do try to leave your constituency looking somewhat better than when you first got elected. Insist on certain standards of efficient public service delivery, especially in the areas of health care, education and food security. It is saddening to see the ramshackle state of the public health services, ICDS and public distribution systems in constituencies that have been the pocket boroughs of particular individuals or families for years on end. Use technology to monitor processes and outcomes and develop a cadre of local youth who can facilitate the reach of basic services to the public, particularly the poor and disadvantaged.

Secondly, please use your term(s) in elected office to meaningfully contribute to the passage of effective laws that improve the economic and social conditions of your fellow citizens. This will require less of rushing to the well of the legislature and disrupting business to drive home some inane political agenda. Let me assure you that the public is heartily sick of these shenanigans and, at the first availability of a suitable substitute, will boot you out of office.

Thirdly, make it a habit to spend at least two or three days a week travelling to every area of your constituency. You have over 1800 days in office, enough to cover most villages and towns in your area. Drop in unannounced into homes, preferably in the late evenings, when you can meet with families and groups and share their joys and sorrows, as well as understand their grievances. Forget the meals, sharing a cup of tea, where you pour half the sweet concoction from the cup into a saucer and offer the latter to your host, will create a bond between you. Will this guarantee your reelection? Sadly not, elections are won and lost on a host of other considerations — religion, caste, emotions and money power. But you will have the enduring satisfaction of having participated in the lives of your less fortunate fellow women and men, giving them the strength to live another day, month and year to fight the ongoing battles of their lives.

 

The Twenty-first Century Animal Farm

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

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

(There is something special about this republic;

I vote for ascetics, the wretched fellows become emperors)

(Source: unknown)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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