Archive for the ‘political economy’ Category

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.

 

No Shades Of Grey for India

I am not, as you might think, advocating the banning of the erotic book and film which have titles similar to the headline of this blog. But I am getting increasingly convinced that operating in grey areas is something Indians revel in. The new millennium has offered adequate proof that Indians abhor convention and thrive on discretion. While departing from the former allows for abominable behaviour even in the temples of Indian democracy, adhering like blood-sucking leeches to the latter enables the growth of the rent-seeking economy and polity. Where laws exist, bend them to suit oneself and one’s clan (even if discreetly) and, where they are silent, may the devil take the hindmost, decencies be damned.

Let us start with the legislatures, the roots of democracy in India. Over the last decade, we have seen the top two legislative organs of the country, the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha, apart from a number of state assemblies, being held hostage by elected representatives. Rushing to the well of the House, disrupting legislative business, indulging in fisticuffs and even grabbing the Speaker’s mace have been par for the course. A very far cry from the conventions in the British Houses of Parliament, where the Speaker’s word is law and where, once the Speaker has risen from her chair, all members on their feet must resume their seats. Of course, the farce commences even before the assembly commences its first sitting. Karnataka 2018 is its latest and most dramatic example. After a rather dubious decision by the Governor, the Supreme Court (SC) stepped in to order an immediate trust vote on the floor of the House. Flouting established convention, the Governor departed from the established procedure of appointing as pro tem Speaker the senior most elected member, generally from the opposition, to conduct the proceedings prior to election of the regular Speaker. This was obviously done to smoothen somewhat the winning of the trust vote by the newly sworn in Chief Minister (CM). Unfortunately, for the BJP, the SC fettered the discretion of the pro tem Speaker such that the CM had to resign within thirty-six hours of being sworn in.

But conventions have died a painful death in India over the years, assisted by constitutional functionaries. At the behest of whichever party is ruling at the centre, Governors of states have twisted the provisions of the Constitution of India, notably Article 356A, to help dismiss elected governments of a political hue different from the centre. As India steps squarely into the era of hung Parliaments/Assemblies and coalition governments, Karnataka and, before it, Goa, Manipur and many other instances represent the जिसकी लाठी उसकी भैंस (he who holds the stick controls the buffalo) mentality that dominates the Indian psyche. “Show me the Governor and I’ll show you the government” seems to be the prevailing motto. This blog does not have the space to go into the Sarkaria Commission recommendations on government formation in the states or the SC rulings in the SR Bommai and Rameshwar Prasad cases. But common sense would dictate that, after a tiring, costly election process, that government is sworn in which has the best chance of lasting the next five years. When the largest party falls well short of a majority and there are not enough independents and members of other small parties to help it cross the half-way mark, the logical course of action would be to invite post-poll coalitions of other parties, which have affirmed their joint intention of government formation, and give them a chance to prove their majority on the floor of the House. The Governor does have discretion but, as a functionary who has sworn to uphold the Constitution, (s)he is duty bound to act in a manner which does not reek of political partisanship.

Governments of all political persuasions have never been respecters of conventions. Recently, the Income Tax (IT) department raided the Badami (Karnataka) resort owned by an MLA-hopeful of the Congress during the election process. Nothing wrong in this, except the timing! Did the raids by the IT department and the subsequent attention supposedly lavished on him by the Enforcement Directorate have anything to do with his recent switch of loyalties from the BJP to the Congress? This worthy, after many twists and turns in the saga, appears to be as yet with the Congress, but who knows what the morrow brings? There were also disquieting media reports that loyalty of some MLAs was sought to be bought by promising leniency in investigation of economic offences in which they were allegedly involved. With the reputation of central investigative agencies already at an all-time low, efforts at their subornation are a cause for worry.

In the prevailing gloom over the functioning of the legislature and the executive, the performances of the Election Commission of India (ECI) and the SC give cause for cheer. In what was a bruising election, the ECI ensured the free exercise of franchise, though the role of muscle and money power in influencing voters is still a disease that requires remedy. The SC moved swiftly to check efforts to influence legislators and its eagle eye ensured that no attempts were made to monkey around with the trust vote process.

In the final analysis, however, it is the moral fibre of individuals that will determine the development of healthy practices in a democracy. We had the newly sworn in BJP CM of Karnataka announcing a farm loan waiver, transferring key police officials and seeking to augment his party’s strength in the trial of strength by nominating a legislator from the Anglo-Indian community (until restrained by the SC). We had the top legal functionary of the Central Government, the Attorney-General, foregoing his beauty sleep to appear in the predawn SC hearing and advancing ludicrous arguments that effectively encouraged horse-trading (man-trading??). We had the newly-elected MLAs apparently so vulnerable to inducements and threats that they had to be shepherded like preschool children, with no guarantee that they will not play truant in the coming months. To this date, government formation by the JD(S)-Congress combine has been bedeviled by the chase after lucrative portfolios. We had electronic media representatives treating this entire episode as a chess game and speculating on who will bring money and muscle to bear on government formation. And, finally, there is the ordinary citizen, inured to the reality that, to get ahead in life, you need to jump the red signal, help your wards cheat in examinations and part with mamool to grease your way through government. Where is the sense of shame and probity in all these individuals, and countless others? One senses no sadness or weariness in witnessing the repeated drama, just another Roman circus for the masses.

At least for the near future, we seem to be in a situation where it may be necessary to codify important conventions to get over the Indian aversion to following commonly accepted norms. There is already a code of conduct for elections. Similar codes need to be evolved for, among other things, procedures of government formation at the centre and in the states, conduct of legislative business, appointment of governors, powers of investigative agencies once elections have been announced and conduct of private activities of legislators that conflict with their public roles. These codes need to be implemented rigorously with salutary penalties for their infringement which could range from public shaming to loss of office.

However, nothing will really change until the educated thinking classes assume the responsibility for setting our derailed democracy back on the rails. Let us not forget that a diverse group of thinking Indians, seventy years ago, drafted one of the most glorious modern-day Constitutions. Keeping it alive, and enriching it further, is, alas, a task our present generation has failed in miserably. Karnataka is the latest manifestation of the terminal disease afflicting our democracy, which needs skilful doctors, not butchers. We ignore this at our own peril.

 

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!

Delhi-rium on the Delhi-gation of Powers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Twenty-first Century Animal Farm

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

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

(There is something special about this republic;

I vote for ascetics, the wretched fellows become emperors)

(Source: unknown)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Of bullshit…and suchlike matters

A recent article in the Hindu interested me deeply. The author dealt with the complete disinterest in facts in our time, especially among leading political figures. Of special interest to me was his reference to the 1986 essay of the American philosopher Harry Frankfurt. Titled “On Bullshit”, the essay distinguishes between lying and bullshitting. The liar is aware that what he is seeking to convey is false, that the listener will be led away “from a correct apprehension of reality”. Thus, Yudhishthira, during the Mahabharata war, had to utter the fateful words “Ashwatthama is dead” to destroy Dronacharya’s will to fight (indeed to live), though he added thereafter, inaudible to Drona, “Narova kunjarova” (I am not sure whether it is man or elephant). He was throughout fully aware that his lie was the trigger for an event that would influence the outcome of the war. The bullshitter, on the contrary, is unconcerned with the truth or the facts as they actually are; as Frankfurt puts it “his intention is neither to report the truth nor to conceal it.”

Bullshitting is probably reaching an all-time high now, far higher than estimated by Frankfurt in 1986. Those of us in the civil services were quite familiar with this syndrome. As the year-end neared, the boss would question us district officers about achievement of targets in different government programmes, whether of sterilisation cases, small savings or hut construction. It was stupefying to see officer after officer confidently affirm that he/she would achieve the annual targets, never mind that the achievement after nine months of the year was not even remotely close to the 75% mark. But these replies satisfied the boss; he probably displayed the same sang froid when attending the Chief Secretary’s review meeting.

Bullshitting can, however, enter into far more dangerous, uncharted terrain when it becomes the social norm. The spread of mass media, especially the electronic media, has intensified this disease. With 24*7 studio appearances, there is an almost unlimited demand for “experts” who can hold forth on any topic under the sun, with each news channel having its own mafia of experts, never mind that they have very little hands-on experience of the subject matter. Public memory of these half-hour sessions is short and, unlike the print media, where opinions are sealed in black and white on paper, a commentator can offer contrary views the next week, without anyone remembering what he said the week before. Equity analysts are beneficiaries of this system: they can advocate investing in a particular stock on a particular day, without accountability to all those poor sods who lose their life savings in some unwise investment recommended by the analyst. But seasoned political commentators are no exception to the rule. During the last Bihar assembly elections, I remember the chief anchor of a prominent news channel and a very well-known political commentator predicting the victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party at 9 in the morning, based on the leads available till then. Now, as any seasoned administrator can tell you, by 9 AM, postal votes have just about been counted. These are a miniscule fraction of the total votes polled and largely represent the votes of servicemen and election staff on duty. Needless to say, there were red faces all around in the studio and abject apologies from the experts when, a couple of hours later, the trends showed a clear victory for the Janata Dal (United)-Rashtriya Janata Dal coalition.

Things have become worse with the rapid advent of social media in the past few years. Now, every Tukaram, Damodar and Hari is an expert who can weigh in on a range of topics from pollution in Delhi to Rohit Sharma’s loss of form and the prospects of the AIADMK in the next general elections. Twitter and WhatsApp sites are flooded with opinions, often ill-formed and downright vicious, accompanied by a flood of invective designed to cow the opposition. A recent, appalling forward on WhatsApp asks Hindus to unite, else the Muslim population will overtake the Hindu population in India in the next two decades. Ignoring the official statistics that show the Muslim population in India grew from 9.8% of the population in 1951 to 14.2% in 2011, the message estimates increases in the percentage of Muslim population to 38.1% in 2031 and 84.5% in 2041. That such a possibility is neither mathematically nor humanly possible seems to have escaped the attention of the bullshitters spreading these canards.

It is in this context that thinking people in India, who value the principles that have held this country together for the last seventy years, are concerned about the rapidly falling standards of public discourse, including the jettisoning of truth, especially during election campaigns. There have been regrettable attempts at community profiling and portraying opponents as “anti-national”. These efforts seem to have reached their zenith in recent days in the run up to the Gujarat state elections. For the first time, a serving Prime Minister has cast aspersions on the patriotism of not only a former Prime Minister and Vice President but also of retired civil and military officials. A normal dinner meeting with a former dignitary from Pakistan has been labelled a “secret meeting”. The reference in an unverified tweet to the preference of a retired army officer from across the border for a Chief Minister from a particular community has been made the basis for inferring interference in the election process.

What is unfortunate is that all these statements over the past four years lead one to infer that loose, unrelated conclusions are drawn on the basis of unsubstantiated information and dubious statistics. The consequences can be hazardous for the country on two counts. First, it panders to the deep insecurities that people already nurture within themselves and poisons the social environment. We just need to reflect on the recent brutal murder in Rajsamand, Rajasthan to understand how deep this sickness has taken root in the Indian (Hindu) ethos. The second consequence has a historical precedent. In 1962, the country was led to military defeat by the bullshit doled out to an impressionable Prime Minister and Defence Minister by a Corps Commander with overweening confidence. Failure to pay attention to truth at the top echelons of government will inevitably lead to bullshitting at lower levels, with disastrous results in various sectors of governance. The wise old adage “Yatha raja tatha praja” (as is the ruler, so are the ruled) continues to have relevance even today.

This article was originally published on Indus Dictum, a site where thought leaders from diverse fields, spanning business and technology to politics and modern law, contribute unique insights and experiences. You can access the article here

The Lutyens’ Class Wars

Ever since the time of the Mahabharata, the area around Lutyens’ Delhi has been the epicentre of intra-class warfare. What began with the Kauravas and Pandavas has wound its way through the dreary course of the Sultanate and Mughal periods (soon to be erased from historical memory if the present dispensation has its way) down to their present-day successors in the Dilli Durbar. The similarity hit me strongly as I witnessed the verbal fisticuffs in the national electronic media over everything from demonetisation to Kashmir, triple talaq and the recent murder of a journalist. To be fair to the media, the class war in the City of Djinns has a schism running far deeper down into society, which provides an interesting sociological analysis of our lives and times over the past seventy years of our raucous democracy.

As a latter-day renegade from the Lutyens’ class, I must confess my ties to this class over a period of a quarter century, a score of them as a student in school and college and five more years as a sarkari factotum. The Lutyens’ class can be categorised into two groups — the first, the Lutyens’ Class of 1947 (LC-47) dominating the first half century after independence and the second, the Lutyens’ Class of 1992 (LC-92) developing its strength gradually but surely after the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992.

LC-47 comprises segments of those who were educated in the schools and colleges of Delhi and imbibed the liberal political philosophy of the Nehruvian era. The economic philosophy of LC-47 adherents generally started off left of centre, with a distinguishing characteristic being their secure belief in the socialist state and its “benevolent” guiding hand. Patronised extensively by the ruling elite, which needed the LC-47 intellectuals to validate their “progressive” credentials, the LC-47 occupied the commanding heights of the bureaucracy and academia, commerce being left to the vulgar business class. They were equally at home in the rarefied environs of the India International Centre and the more plebeian atmosphere of university coffee houses. 1989-1991 dealt the first blow to this insulated existence, with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Bloc putting a virtual end to their leftist pretensions. The economic liberalisation post-1991 and the growing opportunities for academic tenures and private employment in the West saw many LC-47 members veer sharply to the right in their economic worldview, although their faith in the pluralism and inclusiveness of the post-independence Indian polity remained undimmed.

The tumultuous years of the Mandal-Mandir imbroglio culminating in the demolition of the Babri Masjid spelt the final demise of the Nehruvian consensus on economic, social and political issues, with the end of largely one-party rule at the centre and single party hegemony in the states. LC-47 now faced the emergence of the fledgling LC-92, the latter having a marked preference for an ideology that stressed the supremacy of the majority religion, highlighted its past glories and lamented the “short-sighted” minority-oriented policies that had apparently, over the past fifty years, impaired the full flowering of majoritarian-based nationhood.

As the Grand Old Party of India’s independence withered, the Indian people started experimenting with political alternatives. The electoral successes of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) at the national level and in various states around the turn of the century boosted the fortunes of LC-92. However, their joy was short-lived as India Shining suddenly came a cropper in 2004. The UPA interregnum was put to good use by LC-92 in developing its ideology and putting together a cadre of “intellectuals” who could spread their message to the middle class and prepare for the day when the political formation they supported came to power. Ten years of vanvas later, LC-92 came into its own with the electoral victory of 2014.

The last three years have seen the systematic infiltration of the LC-92 into the hitherto impregnable bastions of the left-liberal LC-47. Physical and social science bodies and academic institutions have been taken over, academic curricula are being reshaped and student conformity is stressed as the desirable norm. More importantly, public platforms (symposia, seminars, etc.) are now abundantly available for dissemination of the new weltanschauung. Media channels, where they have not been completely subordinated to the LC-92 viewpoint, are voluntarily incorporating liberal doses of LC-92 sermonising. It could well be argued that the boot is now on the other foot: after years of monopolizing the print media and the air waves, LC-47 is now making way for its right-conservative successor, LC-92. Of course, where social media is concerned, LC-92 is the hands-down winner, having used it in a successful election campaign and building a cadre of “no holds barred” followers who are ready to tarnish any reputation.

LC-47 has, over the years, made its own Faustian compromises. It swore by socialism even as favoured private companies tapped into the economic rent. It settled for the “Hindu” rate of growth, overlooking important drivers of growth like primary education and public health, which drove the growth story in the country’s East Asian contemporaries. Above all, it countenanced the development of a highly venal political and bureaucratic class, a natural outcome of the “inspector-license-permit” Raj. Its commitment to genuinely democratic values was also suspect, whether in supporting the Emergency, tolerating the anti-Sikh pogroms of its political patrons or ignoring the major warts in a highly undemocratic, inefficient ruling regime in West Bengal. Nor can one forget the glowing encomiums paid by leading LC-47 intellectuals to highly oppressive, totalitarian regimes in the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China, responsible for genocides that outdid the Nazi excesses. It is truly reflective of the irony of our times that the self-same LC-47 intelligentsia point fingers at the supposed lack of adherence to democratic values of the formations supported ideologically by LC-92 acolytes.

What is most intriguing is the narrow gap between the economic worldviews of the two warring clans. Both are, at heart, votaries of big government, though ostensibly for different reasons. LC-47 is convinced that government must have its fingers (all ten of them) in the economic pie to usher in the utopia of equality. Evidence to the contrary is stubbornly rejected: monstrous, inefficient public-sector enterprises, an exploitative, rent-seeking bureaucracy and the failure of India on most social sector fronts. The obsession with planning and the planned economy led, since the mid-1950s, to the downgrading, if not elimination, of almost all economic philosophy that sought to promote the market in at least certain activities and certain sectors: Mahalanobis all but banished Brahmananda from economics textbooks.

But anyone who labours under the illusion that LC-92 comprises free market enthusiasts is in for a rude shock. The economic outlook of this class is probably closer to the tenets of National Socialism rather than unabashed capitalism. LC-92 followers are admirers of a strong, masculine state in both the economic and political spheres. The state is expected to have a political philosophy that emphasizes national pride, projected through the prisms of a glorious past, military might and specific symbols of national identity, like religion, customs and traditions. The economic approach relies on a close synergy between the state and corporate interests, on the lines of the Prussian-German model of the nineteenth century and the first few decades of the twentieth century.

What truly links the LC-47 and LC-92 schools is the irrelevance of their outpourings to the mass of the people of India. Controversies over playing of national anthems in cinema halls, rewriting of history books and the merits and demerits of demonetisation leave the aam aurat/aadmi out of their calculations altogether. The Lutyens’ Class of either vintage has not engaged in issues which constitute life and death for the common man, be they unemployment, unviable farming, substandard schooling and health systems or the difficulties in starting and doing honest business in India. As one observes the political class, the bureaucracy, the media and academia lodged in and around Lutyens’ Delhi, one is struck by the lack of imagination and commitment in coming up with truly innovative solutions to meet the aspirations of India’s millions. It is almost as if they are forever engaged in Herman Hesse’s Glass Bead Game, theoretical exercises in policy making that take no account of the realities of India.

This article was originally published on Indus Dictum, a site where thought leaders from diverse fields, spanning business and technology to politics and modern law, contribute unique insights and experiences. You can access the article here.