Archive for the ‘public affairs’ Category

The many nuances of ‘Ji Mantriji’

India’s Minister for Road Transport & Highways Nitin Gadkari is a person I admire for his huge contributions to improving and augmenting road communications in Maharashtra and India. But his statement in Nagpur in August this year that bureaucrats must always say “Yes, Minister” to every order of the Minister made me do a double take. It revived memories of the BBC Yes Minister series, which I viewed four decades ago, shortly after joining the civil service. Doordarshan followed suit two decades later with the “Ji Mantriji” serial, adapted from the Yes Minister series. In these serials, the Minister is effectively house trained by the civil service.

Now, although I am a former member of the often criticised IAS, I hold no brief for the civil servant who obstructs sensible policy implementation mainly to preserve her/his turf. This has led to an unfortunate perception in the public mind that the civil service is lazy, conservative and opposed to reforms. At the same time, we would do well to keep in mind that Ministers often come to power without knowledge of the processes and procedures of administration. This is even more so in the last two decades: in the first half-century of political administration in independent India, a fairly large number of politicians, in both the centre and the states, had come up from the grassroots and had reasonably detailed understanding of how the government worked.

Ministerial desires fall in two categories. Category 1 cases are those where the Minister wishes to implement pre-poll promises made by her/his party to woo the electorate (Minister here can include the PM/CM and the Council of Ministers). The bureaucrat’s role here is to work out the nuts and bolts of the programme, point out the possible difficulties in implementation and, most crucially, assess the financial implications, given the competing budget priorities of different departments. The bureaucracy can offer its dissenting opinion on the proposed policy, but once this policy has been approved at the highest political level, it is her/his responsibility to give effect to the policy.

It is the Category 2 cases that can land a bureaucrat in the soup. These include allotment of land, award of contracts and providing jobs to those recommended by the Minister’s supporters. Such cases can be particularly dangerous when elections are around the corner, since favours have to be dispensed quickly to gain access to funds. Based on my thirty years as an insider in the system, I have worked out the possible stratagems for the bureaucrat to wriggle out of this ministerial chakravyuha:

  1. The K. Kamaraj/G.K. Moopanar approach: Kamaraj had this magic word ‘parkalam‘ in his repertoire. This Tamil word can be translated in English as ‘Let us see’. By the time I was old enough to follow politics, Kamaraj was a distant memory. However, I have heard Moopanar use the English equivalent on numerous occasions. In Maharashtra, we employed the Marathi equivalent ‘baghto‘. This is a time-honoured tactic to buy time and engage with the Minister in a battle of attrition.
  2. The “locating the file” excuse: The bureaucrat informs the Minister that the file is not immediately traceable but that all efforts are being made to unearth its whereabouts. Not too great an excuse, this can lead to a volley of abuses and a threat of transfer, these definitely preferable to a future suspension from service.
  3. Sending the file into orbit: This mechanism is specially recommended when there is a time-limit for decision making. It can be used to great profit on the last couple of days of the financial year or just before the Model Code of Conduct for elections kicks in. Select the most obstinate of your colleagues in other departments, justify why the file needs to be referred to their department and dispatch the missile (sorry, file) in that direction. Once April the first dawns or the election process starts, the beleaguered bureaucrat can heave a deep sigh of relief.
  4. Making the file and yourself scarce: Lock the file in a steel almirah in some corner of the office and ensure that you and your co-workers leave the office for the day. This trick works best near closing time and I can testify to its utility, particularly if you stay 30 kms. away and keep your mobile shut.

But whether the case falls in Category 1 or 2, the cautious civil servant is well advised to adopt certain precautions to stay out of Tihar or Arthur Road jails in her/his advanced years:

  1. Dodge discretionary cases: Even if the time-honoured practice in government is to go by past precedents, stay away from decisions that lack transparency and a rational basis. Job appointments and selection of institutions for government grants are best done through competitive examinations and laid-down guidelines respectively, where subsequent audits can show a clear pattern of decision-making free of fear or favour.
  2. Record on file and keep copies: If you don’t want some decision you signed off on 15 years earlier coming back to haunt you in your retirement years, ensure you put your views on file and keep copies of crucial pages (never rule out subsequent alterations or missing files).
  3. You are known by the company you keep/kept: Your political bosses in the departments you headed can determine your future unease. Bureaucrats have gone through the wringer even in Category 1 cases (think coal, spectrum, etc.), where they merely executed extant government policy. Totally unconscionable are those instances where the bureaucrat plays along with the decisions of her/his political boss or (what is worse) willingly participates in a division of the spoils, whether in terms of wealth or power. There are enough news headlines today pointing out the many consequences of such collusion.

In the ultimate analysis, a smart bureaucrat ought to combine the characteristics of an experienced sanitary inspector and an uncanny bomb expert to know which file/decision stinks and which is a ticking time bomb. Negotiating one’s way safely through these sewage traps and minefields will ensure a comfortable home and hearth in her/his later years.

This blog was published in the Free Press Journal on 12 September 2022 (here)

 

Bilkis Bano case – the interface of law and ethics

If 2012 saw the conscience of a nation shaken by the Nirbhaya rape incident, 2022 has witnessed an equal nightmare in the wholesale release of eleven men convicted of gangrape and mass murder in 2002 in Gujarat, that too on the very day that India was celebrating the 75th anniversary of its independence. The Government of Gujarat utilised its good fortune in being declared the “appropriate government” by the Supreme Court decision of May 2022 (which overrode Section 432(7) of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC)) to arrive at the facile reasoning that the 1992 remission policy provided for remission of life sentence (even in cases involving rape and murder) after 14 years in prison. The subsequent tightened guidelines on remission by the Government of Gujarat (2014) are apparently not applicable since the 11 men were convicted in 2008, when the 1992 remission policy was in place.

The decision of the Government of Gujarat begs many answers. Let us accept the argument that, as per the 1992 remission guidelines, these 11 men were eligible for release from prison. Some other nagging questions of law still remain. The case was prosecuted by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), an agency created under the Delhi Special Police Establishment Act, 1946. Section 435 of the CrPC makes it mandatory for the state government to consult the Union Government in cases prosecuted by the CBI (note well that consultation here means concurrence of the Union Government). If such permission was not taken, the remission of sentence is ab initio void in law. If concurrence was taken, the Union Government is a willing party to this decision. Since, as in many other decisions of the Government of India today, no clarification is provided on this issue, the public is left guessing. Even if concurrence of the Union Government under Section 435 of the CrPC was taken, there is still the matter of taking the opinion of the presiding Judge of the court which passed the original order of conviction, regarding grant of remission of sentence under Section 432(2) of the CrPC: this has been mandated by the Supreme Court as well. This process has definitely not been gone through in the appropriate special CBI court in Mumbai.

These are the legal issues on which no clear answers are forthcoming as of now. But even more troubling is the process of decision making at the level of the committee on remission headed by the District Magistrate, Godhra, and the Home Department, Government of Gujarat. Even granting that the 1992 remission guidelines allowed for remission of sentence to those convicted of murder and rape, there are still other considerations that have to be kept in mind when granting remission. The Supreme Court has, as far back as 2000, laid down guidelines for remission of sentence which include, inter alia, whether the crime affects society at large and whether recurrence of commission of crime is possible. In the Bilkis Bano case, there can be no doubt that the nature of the crimes committed — gangrape and mass murders — definitely affected society at large. On the issue of possible recurrence of criminal acts by the convicts subsequent to their release, newspaper reports indicate that witnesses were threatened when the convicts were released on parole during their incarceration. Whether these factors were taken into consideration while granting remission is a matter of speculation — there is no clarification from the state government.

However, as much as these legal issues, what ought to concern us all as citizens of a humane, compassionate society are the ethical dimensions of this entire episode. Photographs have been shown of the distribution of sweets to the released convicts; even more appalling are reports of the felicitation of the convicts by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, this in a criminal case monitored by the Supreme Court and where verdicts of conviction were confirmed by the Bombay High Court. Common decency dictated that the release, even if in accordance with the procedure laid down by law, be kept low-key in deference to the sentiments of the survivors of the crimes. A member of the remission committee and a sitting ruling party legislator went so far as to suggest that the convicts were of high caste, had good upbringing and that charges were framed against them because of ill intentions of some persons. It was incumbent on the administration of the Government of Gujarat to take steps to prevent the organisation of such events and to discourage such statements which could cause unease in the minds of the victims and the minority community.

In fact, the Government of Gujarat should have taken the initiative to organise a reconciliation meeting between the victims and the perpetrators of crimes. The effort should have been to bring a sense of closure to the tragic incidents of 2002 and promote a spirit of harmony in the village where both sides would be residing henceforth. Nelson Mandela adopted this approach with his Truth and Reconciliation Commission, following the end of apartheid in South Africa, to build an atmosphere of trust and cooperation between the coloured and white communities. Our own Bapu, Mahatma Gandhi, spent the first Independence Day wiping the tears of the victims of communal fury in Bengal.

It is this spirit of fraternity (bandhutva) that is sorely lacking in the India of today. We can debate till eternity whether the 11 persons should have been released or should have continued in prison, depending on our ideological predilections. But unless those who committed these crimes are fully aware of the damage they have caused to the psyches of their victims and are truly remorseful for their past misdeeds, there can be no meeting of minds between the different communities. Immense damage is caused to the social fabric, when vested interests dabble in spreading hatred and misunderstanding among communities. Let us, in this 76th year of India’s independence, move from untruth to truth and from darkness to light: only then will we truly be free.

The Idea of India – at 75

As India celebrates the 75th anniversary of her existence as an independent nation, it is time to reflect on what ‘India’ truly represents. What has given this country the resilience to meet multiple challenges on the economic, political and social fronts over three-quarters of a century and retain her status as the largest democracy in the world (even if there is still a gap between the actual and the potential)?

India has been fortunate that eminent personalities oversaw the transition from imperial to democratic rule, developing a robust Constitution of India (‘the Constitution’) that has, in spite of many amendments, stood the test of time. At this juncture in our history, it would be appropriate to identify the core principles that have enabled India to chart her course of nationhood. The strength of India rests on three fundamental principles embedded in her Constitution: the primacy accorded to the individual, the emphasis on pluralism and the operation of the federal structure of the nation.

India has, over the ages, taken into her fold people from diverse races, cultures and religions. The country displays a heterogeneous collection of languages and traditions. Pluralism is not confined to religion: it is the trait which welcomes and embraces different ethnicities, linguistic groups and those from diverse cultural backgrounds. The Constitution’s greatest boon has been its focus on bringing together in one nation-state people who were earlier subjects of British India and nearly 600 princely states. It has located a number of pluralist measures in the Part on Fundamental Rights (‘Part III’). These include the freedom to profess, practice and propagate any religion as well as the protection of cultural and educational rights of minorities. Discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth is specifically prohibited.

What is equally noteworthy is the primacy accorded to the individual in Part III. Article 14 guarantees equality before the law to all persons, irrespective of whether they are citizens or not. The subsequent Articles lay down clearly the rights of citizens — of life and liberty, freedom of speech and association, public employment, etc. This marks a sea change in a social milieu where the collective, in the shape of the family, clan or community, was, in centuries past, the arbiter of the rights and duties of the individual. The Constitution gives the individual a dignity of her own, not linked to any entity other than the nation of which she is a citizen.

It is significant that the very first Article of the Constitution defines India as a ‘Union of States’. The territories administered by the British and the princely states which signed the Instrument of Accession to the Indian Union were amalgamated into different states. Article 1 of the Constitution was a recognition of the reality that it was these states that constituted the nation.  There is a clear division of responsibilities between the Union and the States in the matter of governance. The Seventh Schedule delineates the subjects which are the exclusive domain respectively of the Union and of the States (as well as those where there is concurrent jurisdiction of both). The Constitution provides for a Finance Commission to propose, at regular intervals, the allocation of financial resources between the Union and the States; it also created All India Services that serve both the Union and the States. These provisions are intended to ensure a collaborative and synergistic relationship between the two, often governed by different political parties. Recognising that federalism has to strike roots below the state level, the Constitution (73rd and 74th) Amendments provided for substantive devolution of powers to rural and urban local bodies.

However, there are areas where closer attention from the Union and state governments, the judiciary and civil society is necessary if India is to serve as an example of a healthy democracy. Powers of arrest are still exercised by law enforcement agencies in a routine fashion and subordinate courts treat bail applications with a negative frame of mind, so much so that the Supreme Court was constrained to recently observe that India should not become a “police state”. Special acts have severely circumscribed the granting of bail in certain cases. These lead not only to the “process becoming the punishment” (as observed recently by the Chief Justice of India), but also to the burgeoning number of undertrials in jails in India. The 2006 directives of the Supreme Court to insulate the police forces from political pressures need to be implemented by all governments in letter and spirit if the sanctity of individual liberties is to be maintained.

The pluralist ethos has come under strain in recent years, through a combination of executive actions (and inaction) and the emergence of vigilante groups that seek to deliver ‘justice’ in a summary manner. Increasing intolerance for the views of others, especially with the explosive growth of electronic and social media, has contributed to the growing incidence of hate speech, which sows the seeds of bigotry and hatred in large segments of society. It is time governments impartially administer the laws which check such actions (and courts take a severe view of infractions of laws causing social unrest). The media and civil society also need to call out those elements that seek to sow dissensions among different sections of society.

There is an urgent need to tone down the adversarial relations between the Union and state governments. A spirit of mutual goodwill, respect and consensus between the Union and state governments, especially those governed by parties other than that governing the Union, is crucial in furthering the economic development of the country and improving the lot of the common citizen.

The promise in the Preamble of the Constitution to secure to all citizens of India justice, equality, liberty and fraternity will be realised in ample (if not full) measure when all the stakeholders in the country actively promote the values enshrined in the Constitution. Only then will India’s tryst with destiny truly be fulfilled.

This blog was published in the Free Press Journal (15 August 2022) (here)

The loaves and fishes of office

The recent brouhaha over the extension of tenures for specific officers of the Government of India even when they are well past the normal age of retirement has brought into focus again the issues of the sanctity of the retirement age and the possible interference by government in the independent functioning of officers handling crucial organisations, especially those endowed with enormous powers to investigate offences, both economic and otherwise. However, this is no recent development: fixed tenures for the Cabinet Secretary, Home, Foreign and Defence Secretaries, and Directors of the Intelligence Bureau and Research & Analysis Wing, extending beyond the normal age of superannuation, have been in vogue for a number of years now.

What has occasioned concern in recent days has been the Government of India’s decision to give five-year tenures to the heads of two Central Government investigative agencies that have often been caught in the crosshairs of political wars. The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) is no stranger to controversy: no less a body than the Supreme Court termed it a “caged parrot”. To the CBI has been added the Enforcement Directorate (ED) which has come into the public eye only in recent years. These two agencies, along with their country cousins, the Income Tax department, the National Investigation Agency and the Narcotics Control Bureau, have developed into falcons from parrots, with their deployment by the Central Government in a wide range of cases, amidst concerns as to whether these serve merely political ends or the ends of justice (the Sushant Singh Rajput and Aryan Khan cases serve as examples). Of even greater concern are the cases of raids, and selective disclosures, that surface whenever election time surfaces. Karnataka in 2018, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu in 2021 are states where politicians of parties opposed to the BJP received special attention from central investigative agencies.

It is significant (and glaringly obvious) that officers were being given tenure posts or extensions in service just days before their date of superannuation (as witnessed in the appointment of the Police Commissioner of Delhi and the last-minute extension of tenure of the Director, ED). The recent amendments in Fundamental Rules and the changes in the Acts governing the CBI and ED aim to legalise extensions and attempt to put them beyond the pale of judicial challenge.

What is equally notable is the plethora of appointments to post-retirement posts, from the ranks of both the higher judiciary and the top echelons of the civil services. That this practice has the sanction of precedent is no cause for comfort. There have been far too many cases in the past three decades where the appointments to crucial posts of retired judges and bureaucrats have raised uncomfortable questions about possible quid pro quos for decisions favourable to the government of the day taken by the beneficiaries while in positions of power. While some of the pre- and post-retirement appointments go through a committee which has, apart from the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court as its members, other crucial appointments, as for example, the Election Commissioners, are made purely at the discretion of the executive.

At a juncture in our democratic existence when many executive decisions are viewed with some measure of suspicion, there is need to evolve norms for appointments to the highest positions in the civil services that ease such suspicions as also mitigate the rising apprehension that serving civil servants are being induced through the carrot of continued service to shed their independence and impartiality in decision making. I venture to make some suggestions below to address this vexing issue.

Superannuation from public service should be mandatory on attaining the age of 60 for all members of the civil services. On attaining the specified age, civil servants should follow the shining example of RCVP Noronha, former Chief Secretary of Madhya Pradesh, who refused any extension and rode away happily from the Secretariat on his Luna moped on the day he superannuated.

For all senior positions in constitutional/statutory bodies, like Members/Chairpersons of Commissions and Tribunals, where judicial/administrative experience is required, selection should be through a process of application. This should also apply to the heads of major investigation agencies, which enjoy powers of. search, seizure and confiscation. The final selection should be done by a Committee which comprises representatives of the concerned government, the judiciary or the Union Public Service Commission and representatives of opposition parties (for specific constitutional/executive posts, as is the case at present).

Most importantly, the selection of civil servants for all higher posts (administrative and quasi-judicial) should be structured such that the person superannuates from the post at the age of 60 years. This would imply that a person would be selected for such a post around the age of 55 years (for those in government), so that (s)he would cease to hold office, after a tenure of five years, at or just before her/his normal superannuation date. This has certain implications, both for these functionaries and for those in the organisations they have left in order to hold these select posts. For one, those who move to posts outside the government structure will create openings for their juniors to move into senior positions in their departments/organisations. There may also be cases where, in full knowledge of the fact that (s)he is not likely to be in the running for the top job in the executive, a person may choose to move laterally to these posts. It would certainly enable governments, both at the centre and in the states, to dispense with many posts at apex levels, which (especially in state governments) seem to be virtually dished out with the rations.

As for the contention that officers’ talents will not be used beyond their age of superannuation, these talents and competencies can well be displayed in a variety of other fields — media, business, academics, social service and politics being obvious avenues. Rephrasing the recent utterance of a noted senior advocate, “the heavens will not fall if a worthy replacement takes on the responsibility of the retiring incumbent.” Nor does it preclude the truly ambitious from aspiring to governorships/ambassadorships/Rajya Sabha memberships, depending on their equations with the central government of the day.

In the final analysis, such a change would spare us the unseemly spectacle of persons jockeying in their final days of service with the powers that be to ensure their continued access to naukar-chakar-bangla-gaadi, apart from the heady access to power and prestige that continued occupation of prestigious posts brings. Civil servants, indeed all humans, would do well to heed the words of Adi Sankaracharya in the Bhaja Govindam:

दिनयामिन्यौ सायं प्रातः, शिशिरवसन्तौ पुनरायातः।

कालः क्रीडति गच्छत्यायुस्तदपि न मुन्च्त्याशावायुः ॥१२॥

Day and night, dusk and dawn, winter and spring come and go again.

Time sports and life ebbs away, and yet the gust of desire never leaves us.

The Road to Authoritarianism

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity…” (Charles Dickens: The Tale of Two Cities)

The opening words of Dickens’ novel capture the situation today rather forcefully. Liberal democracy, which has seen many ups and downs since 1688, through 1776, 1789, the 1940s-50s and 1989, is facing an existential crisis circa 2021. Human society is no stranger to authoritarian domination but its creeping engulfment of liberal democracies one after another in the absence of major wars or other crises (barring possibly the COVID pandemic) threatens the values that inspired the numerous movements for self-determination over the last few centuries. An analysis of authoritarian trends, whether in religion, society or the polity, shows that four A’s (Abnegation, Ambition, Apprehension, Apathy) nourish the growth of the fifth A (Authoritarianism).

Abnegation

Whether in social groups, religious denominations, ‘godmen’ cults or nation states, surrender of the members is the first step towards the development of an authoritarian environment. Tribal and caste loyalties and the divinity ascribed to an omniscient being, ruler or ecclesiastical organisations were prominent in pre-industrial societies. Norms and rules ostensibly handed down by prophets served to keep the masses in thrall to those in authority, with no challenge to the established order. The ferment engendered in societies worldwide over the past two and a half centuries for the establishment of the values of justice, liberty, equality and fraternity seemed to have ensconced the idea of liberal democracy as the guiding principle for nation states since the 1990s. The 2008 economic crisis and the failure of most liberal democracies to tackle growing economic inequalities in their societies, coupled with a growing disillusionment with the governing elites in most countries, have deepened insecurities and led to a desperate desire for a strong man (no woman currently in sight) in countries across different continents, ranging from Trump and Bolsonaro in the Americas to Erdogan in Turkey, Modi in India and Duterte in the Philippines. “The leader can do no wrong” is the mantra chanted by the glitterati and the chatterati, with enough support from sections of the electorate to see the leader and his party safely home.

This phenomenon of surrender of one’s critical faculties is rooted to some extent in the authoritarian environment that obtains to a significant extent in families, the education system, religions and the workplace. But it is equally, if not more, a reflection of the deep insecurities that confront humans as they struggle to come to terms with their lives and the desperate need to entrust their ‘souls’ to a comforting, omniscient being or organisation. The terrifying prospect of a lonely contemplation of one’s existential dilemmas is mitigated, and even removed altogether, by participation in a group with a larger purpose. A messiah with whom one can lodge all one’s worries and anxieties is the path that most such souls crave for.

However, this Faustian bargain of complete surrender of one’s soul comes with the tag of unquestioned obedience and willingness to act according to the commands of the messiah and his organisation. We have been witness over the past century to millions of humans blindly obeying the diktats of autocrats, even if it meant the extermination of countless of their fellow humans. That this was seen in supposedly “rational” societies was bizarre; that we observe its continuance today in countries with a long history of liberal democratic practices indicates that basic human traits have undergone little change despite education and exposure to liberal, humanistic values.

Ambition

Sections of society feel that they never got their just due in a liberal environment. These could range from academics with a pronounced right-wing orientation (as in India) to disgruntled politicians in opposition parties to those in the permanent employment of government who are of the view that their talents were not recognised. However, there are also many other individuals, from sectors ranging from the media, entertainment, academics and the bureaucracy, who smell the coffee in hitching their stars to an ideology that loathes liberal democratic ideals and places emphasis on adherence to nationalism, in its narrowest, exclusivist sense. Expediency rules the day: echoing the mantras of the ruling dispensation and providing unquestioning (and unthinking) “intellectual” and administrative support to the ideas propounded by the ruling dispensation enable these individuals to rise to and continue in positions of power and influence in the ruling order of the day. But ambition, to be really successful, must be accompanied by a willingness, indeed a fanatical urge, to outdo other potential competitors in anticipating the wishes of the leader (what, in Nazi parlance, was termed working towards the Fuhrer). This includes blindly implementing hairbrained schemes of the leader, unquestioningly harassing dissenters and opponents of the regime and indulging, repeatedly, in nauseous and fulsome praise of the thoughts and actions of the leader.

Apprehension

In this third category fall those who, though not really sold on the vision of the leader and his party or not ambitious by nature, fear the adverse consequences of not being seen as loyal to the ruling regime. These could include bureaucrats who fear being sidelined or media tycoons who fear that action may be taken against their empires. This group includes many political leaders who, apprehending executive action against them, find it more convenient to join hands with the ruling party. It may also cover those who participate in activities approved by the regime to avoid being perceived as not sympathetic to the ruling ideology.

Apathy

By far the largest segment of societies moving towards authoritarianism comprises those who choose to distance themselves from taking any ideological position. Their horizon comprises themselves and their immediate families and they are unwilling to, in any way, be seen as supporting or approving actions that may be perceived as inimical to the interests of the ruling group. Their attitude manifests itself most starkly at election time, when they vote for the leader’s party without any real conviction or understanding as regards its programmes and ideas. They will parrot the WhatsApp views of their neighbours, family members and friends, who are enthusiastic votaries of the ruling ideology, though they themselves would be hard pressed to explain what it is about the ruling dogmas that attracts them. The Eichmanns of the world arise from this category: even when sending Jews to the gas chambers, he was not moved by any emotion but merely saw himself as efficiently executing his job.

When the above four categories of individuals predominate in a society (generally with a combination of more than one of the four traits), the descent down the abyss of authoritarianism can be fairly rapid, even though the warning signs were probably there for decades prior to the actual denouement. The consequences for liberal democracy can be disastrous. Institutions charged with maintaining checks and balances on unbridled executive power are the first victims, as the regime sets about stripping them of their powers and packs them with its apparatchiks. Civil society is the next target: a combination of saam-daam-dand-bheda is employed to persuade / purchase / dissuade / divide people in this sphere to ensure that no effective dissent remains to question the actions of the government of the day. The stage is then set for the executive to fashion laws and rules to meet its ends: the rule of law, as understood in a liberal democracy, ceases to operate.

The real tragedy lies in the ratchet effect of the change brought about in society. Societies that go through these traumatic transitions to authoritarianism find it much harder to reestablish a liberal democracy years later. Institutions, once destroyed, are not so easily established again. The psyche of a people that has undergone a metamorphosis from a liberal underpinning to an authoritarian grip will take years, if not generations, to change. After all, it has taken not even seventy years after the trauma of the Second World War (and thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall) for serious crises to develop in liberal democracies. How people endowed with wisdom and foresight handle this existential threat to liberal democracy will determine its trajectory for the rest of this century and probably future centuries.

The Seven Pillars of Authoritarianism

  • “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime” – Sir Edward Grey, Foreign Secretary, United Kingdom, August 1914
  • “I have often felt a bitter sorrow at the thought of the German people, which is so estimable in the individual and so wretched in the generality…” – Goethe
  • “The river of fire flowed past the French Embassy whence, with heavy heart and filled with foreboding, I watched its luminous wake.” – Andre Francois-Poncet, Ambassador of France to Germany, quoted in William Shirer: The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich

The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, an autobiographical account of the exploits of British army man T.E. Lawrence (played by Peter O’Toole in the 1962 David Lean starrer Lawrence of Arabia) draws its title from the Book of Proverbs. In todays’ world, the growth of authoritarianism in liberal democracies across America, Europe and Asia bring to mind the fateful words of the British Foreign Secretary, except that what we are increasingly witnessing is the feeble flickering and extinction of liberal democracy across the globe. This is by no means a Black Swan event; rather it reminds one of the frog getting roasted in increasingly hotter waters till it is too late to avoid the scalding. The path to authoritarianism is paved with the cobblestones of the veneer of democracy. What explains the inability of significant sections of the population in many liberal democracies to learn from past history? The answers lie in the seven modern pillars that support authoritarian structures.

  1. The need for an authority figure

Voltaire’s famous statement “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him” can be paraphrased into its twenty-first century version “If a strong man does not exist, it is necessary to create one”. Human beings are exposed to authoritarian tendencies right from infancy – the family, education system, job hierarchies, religious dogma, fear of the police, etc. Independent thinking is punished at different stages of life, sometimes severely. Repeated chastisements, perceived or real, at the hands of an authority – father, teacher, boss at work, policeman, God – convince a very large section of humanity that it is better off submitting to a “superior” force. The myth of the need for a “strong” leader is built on the gradual erosion of religion as an institutional authority over the past four hundred years. With no traditional belief to cling to, the modern human has shifted his/her allegiance in the past few decades to either the different versions of Marxism or to those claiming to provide alternative spiritual paths.  The greater danger arises when this unquestioned submission to an authority figure transmutes into blind reverence, more so when the authority figure is a political leader. Dr. Ambedkar’s prescient warning of the dangers of going down this path find resonance in what goes on in a number of democracies around the world today: “Bhakti in religion may be a road to the salvation of the soul. But in politics, Bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship.”

  1. Narrative based on a mythical past and a glorious future

The majority group which brings the leader to power needs to have a point of reference in the past when it was a dominant force and exercised firm control over society. Centuries when other groups exercised political and economic power have created bitterness in the minds and hearts of this group. Hence the hearkening back to a past that was perfect, one where milk and honey flowed in the land of one’s birth. The invader is blamed for all the infirmities that apparently hobble the majority community and prevent the nation from attaining its true pedestal in the world. This emphasis on the perfect past is buttressed by the contention that a glorious future awaits citizens of a culture who are proud of their superior heritage.

  1. Cashing in on insecurity and fear of the “other”

The failure of the neoliberal framework to address the problems of inequality and joblessness has led to disenchantment with existing governing elites and the yearning for a messiah who can lead the flock to the Promised Land. The messiah paints a picture of the rosy future s/he will bring about. Since the objective conditions that obtain in the economy and society are unlikely to bring about any appreciable improvement in the economic conditions of the populace, recourse is taken from the outset to identify an entity which is the ‘enemy’ of the dominant group that the messiah claims to represent. This ‘enemy’ could be one outside the country’s border, such as a hostile neighbour. But history and current events point to many instances where this ‘enemy’ is a group within the country’s borders, which aligns with the perceived ‘enemy’. This group is often a minority population, based on race, religion or ethnicity, which is accused of having received favoured treatment from political dispensations of the past. To these are added other sections of the ‘discredited’ elite, often liberals, intellectuals and academics.

  1. Working towards the leader

The task of the leader to achieve complete control is facilitated by factotums who anticipate every wish of their leader. The system operates on a logic where the leader does not have to spell out his/her wishes. Very often, the leader may not even be aware of the undemocratic excesses that are executed in his/her name. With the media being muzzled or playing to the tunes of the ruling regime and its leader, the ‘truth’ is often hidden from view. The political and administrative machinery strains its sinews to project the image of the leader as omniscient and omnipotent, even without any compulsion being exercised on it. Such ‘‘workers’’ fall in three categories. The first comprises those who blindly revere the leader. Nothing s/he does can ever be wrong. In this grouping are often those who have the intrinsic need for domination by a strong authority figure. It is not surprising that many who started their lives as ardent Marxist followers reach the extreme right wing recesses of the polity in their later years, as their need for authority trumps the use of reason and skepticism. The second group are the rank opportunists, who have perfected the art of switching masters during their tenures in politics, the bureaucracy, mass media or other civil society institutions. In the third category fall those who fear the adverse consequences of opposing the diktats of the state or voicing their opposition to patently illegal acts by organs of the state or non-state actors. When these three attitudes permeate those in the ruling elite, a situation develops where the decisions of a small coterie at the apex will be blindly obeyed without the rationale being questioned. This may well see repeated flip-flops in decision making, as inadequately thought out policies are first rushed through, then rolled back and finally implemented in a revised, piecemeal manner.

  1. Only doing my job, not aware of the larger picture

The Eichmann syndrome is very much visible in sections of the bureaucracy, including the police, which reassure themselves that they are only following orders. What they conveniently overlook is that these orders often violate not only existing laws but also constitutional principles, as well as eternal human values, which are the bedrock of a democracy. The political theorist Hannah Arendt has termed this phenomenon the “banality of evil”. Adolf Eichmann helped organise the deportation and mass murder of six million Jews by the Nazi regime. As I have brought out in an earlier blog (The Evil That Men Do Lives In Them), “…Eichmann was no more than a mediocre bureaucrat executing as efficiently as possible the orders he received from above. It is chilling to contemplate that the Holocaust was the product of the thoughtless actions of numerous individuals: there was never any reflection by them on the consequences of their actions, no stirring of what we term as “the voice of conscience”. The Magistrate who blindly signs a proforma detention order or the police officer who registers a case on directions from others without ascertaining the true facts are symptoms of this malaise. The history of the forced sterilisations carried out by the bureaucracy and police in different parts of India during the 1975-77 Emergency period is still fresh in memory.

  1. Looking the other way

In the words of Martin Luther King Jr. “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.” A democracy unravels through the indifference and inaction of the bulk of its citizens who rationalise their failure to protest or stand up for the truth by pointing to their insignificance and their inability to make any difference to the current state of affairs. This preoccupation with the future of oneself and one’s near and dear leads to a situation where the violation of the democratic rights of others and the emasculation of independent institutions charged with safeguarding democracy do not raise even a whimper. Such silence is seen as tacit support by those who seek to alter the democratic framework of society and emboldens them to pursue their goal of absolute control. It is reflective of modern societies that their educated, “intellectual” elites have little acquaintance with the Constitutions of their respective countries, leave alone having heard of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is as though overweening consumerism has consumed all the finer elements that comprise human existence.

  1. Destruction of the system of checks and balances                                             

            A major fallacy in many liberal democracies today is the mistaken perception that elections equal democracy. In actual fact, a democracy is better defined by the events that occur in the interregnum between two elections. Chief among the characteristics that constitute a democracy is the independence of institutions that act as a check on the arbitrary exercise of executive power — the judiciary, media and other statutory bodies that conduct elections and monitor the actions of the executive in different spheres. What marks out present day authoritarian regimes from those of the twentieth century, notably Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia and Communist China, is their ability to control and manipulate independent institutions within the facade of a seemingly functional democracy. Elections are held regularly, there is a judicial system in place and the executive appears to function within the four corners of a constitutional structure. Institutional capture by the state (what some authors have termed as colonisation of the state) is revealed in the insidious manner in which independent institutions function. Whether motivated by adulation (for the ideology of the ruling dispensation), fear (of possible reprisal by the state) or anticipatory collaboration (in the expectation of future rewards), institutions hitherto deemed to be independent comply with the wishes of the government of the day. Ultimately, it is individuals who determine the strength of institutions and their ability to withstand the pressures of the executive. When individuals are compromised, either through blind belief, fear or prospects for self-advancement, institutional health suffers. Such a development during the tenure of a particular regime has its deleterious effects, which continue into the future and imperil the continuance of liberal democracy in a country.

Epitaph for liberal democracy?

            It is significant that the written Constitutions of the two largest democracies in the world — the United States of America and India — start with the words “We, the people”. Implicit in this is the clear assertion that it is the people of the country who have resolved to govern themselves in accordance with the provisions laid out in their Constitution. Both Constitutions stress the liberty of the Individual. In fact, the cornerstone of both the Constitutions is the centrality of the Individual, as against the age-old practice of giving the privileges of the social order primacy over individual rights. Securing these rights requires a vigilant citizenry, aware of and watchful over any transgression on these hard-earned rights. As the foregoing paragraphs bring out, it is the individual who will determine the character of democracy. When the individual chooses to forego this privilege, won after centuries of arduous struggle, it can truly be said that the death knell of twentieth century liberal democracy has been sounded.

Opposition In Residence

(James Hacker, Minister in Her Majesty’s Government: “The Opposition aren’t the opposition…They’re only the opposition in exile. The Civil Service is the opposition in residence.” – Yes Minister, Antony Jay & Jonathan Lynn)

Politicians in India, at least from Indira Gandhi onwards, have, notwithstanding their pious public utterances, always veered in favour of a “committed bureaucracy”, faithfully executing the dictates of the party in power. The general public, therefore, has this mistaken impression that civil servants mindlessly toe the line of their political masters (I don’t dare use the feminine equivalent). This is not quite the whole truth, at least in the three decades when I was in service from 1980 onwards. Not that we did not have our share of those who were ready to oblige the political executive for a mess of pottage. But there were sections of the civil service that did their utmost to ensure that their political bosses did not get their way in issues that reeked of impropriety or financial wrongdoing.

I have written earlier on the tactics that can be employed to forestall patently illegal requests from the political class (see here). These include (a) let us see, “Parkalam” in Tamil and “Baghoon sangto” in Marathi; (b) making oneself scarce; (c) sending the file into orbit; (d) setting up a committee; (e) recording one’s views on file; (f) asking for written orders; and (g) asking/getting  ready for a transfer. These distracting tactics are not necessarily a reflection of bureaucratic ego or of an innate desire to take no decisions. Mostly, they are intended to give time for reflection on the proposed course of action or to make the vexed issue irrelevant with the passage of time.

Apart from the bureaucratic bulwark against impetuous, risky decision making, there are even more crucial checks and balances in a functioning democracy which are intended to check autocratic tendencies in the political executive. Brute majorities in the Lok Sabha (think India 1971/1984/2019) tend to invest a sense of infallibility in the minds of the majority party leaders. It is easily forgotten that democracy is not just the exercise of their electoral rights by citizens at five year intervals but also the giving of voice to their hopes and aspirations in the interregnum between elections. Four institutions play major roles in this theatre of democracy: legislatures, the judiciary, media and civil society.

Central and state legislatures are the first check on arbitrary executive actions. Even where the opposition is in truncated numbers, its voice can be powerful when its representatives speak fearlessly on issues of public importance. In the Nehru-Indira heyday, politicians like Minoo Masani, Piloo Mody, Nath Pai, Madhu Dandavate, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Jyotirmoy Basu commanded respect with their scathing denunciations of ruling party actions, couched always in parliamentary language. House committees were dreaded by bureaucrats for their interrogation of executive actions. Parliamentary debates, reported fully by the print media, gave citizens an idea of what their leaders were up to. Bills went through discussions in select committees before they were put to vote. Ordinances were resorted to as a last, emergency option only when the House was unlikely to convene in a reasonable time period. That these vital functions of the legislature have been given the go-by in recent months and years is a cause for concern. Important bills are either subject to inadequate legislative scrutiny or are rushed through as money bills, obviating the need for passage by the Upper House – abrogation of Article 370, passage of the CCA and farm bills are prime examples of legislative bulldozing. Ordinances are now the new flavour, with the COVID pandemic providing a ready excuse to bypass legislatures.

The courts are the main support of citizens against arbitrary executive actions backed by pliant legislatures. While the seal of approval given by the highest court of the land in the early years of our democracy to preventive detention and sedition laws caused unease in liberal minds, the court did qualify the exercise of such sweeping powers by the state in a number of landmark judgments. The enunciation of the principle of “basic structure of the Constitution” in the 1973 Kesavananda Bharati case had reassured the public that the judiciary would safeguard the Constitution against executive encroachment. That the Supreme Court went against this principle in the 1976 ADM Jabalpur case was a setback to personal freedoms, though the court corrected its position in this case forty years later. With the Supreme Court entertaining public interest litigations (PILs) and taking suo motu cognisance of issues of vital public importance, the next few decades saw a phase of judicial activism that seemed to bode well for a healthy democracy where the judiciary kept the executive in check. This trend has, unfortunately, gone into reverse gear in recent times with a number of executive and legislative actions yet to go on the anvil of judicial scrutiny. Prominent among these are the electoral bonds issue, demonetisation, the abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution, the CAA law and the three farm laws. More worryingly, the Supreme Court (and many High Courts) are yet to pronounce on executive actions that have impinged on basic freedoms of citizens: the large number of pending habeas corpus petitions, the internet restrictions in Jammu & Kashmir and the incarceration and denial of bail in many cases involving civil society activists, journalists and intellectuals.

The media, both print and electronic, has largely abdicated its role as guardian of the qui vive. During the 1975-77 Emergency, it crawled when merely asked to bend: now it is, with notable exceptions, ready to lend its services for dissemination of inaccurate, sensational news and take partisan positions on issues of public importance. The spread of digital and social media has mitigated this one-sided view somewhat but, with the likely introduction of curbs on such independent media, the prospects for free and frank expression of points of view appear dim.

Finally then, it is left to civil society, especially those in its ranks who cherish the values enshrined in the Constitution, to raise the flag for the fundamental rights listed in Part III of the Constitution. When all other avenues to secure timely justice and redress of grievances seem to be foreclosed, sections of civil society have resorted to the satyagraha route propounded by Mahatma Gandhi during the freedom struggle. This was vividly illustrated in the two mass movements — the anti-CAA and the farmers’ protests — over the past year. As the Mahatma was to emphasise in his experiments with satyagraha, it is based on an inviolable relationship between the means and ends, with its essence in the purity of means, totally non-violent in nature, adopted by a pure person, as also in the constant quest of this person to purify her/himself through self-examination. The satyagraha effort can be undermined and brought to a close because of external “Chauri Chaura” events, such as civil disturbances (riots/violence) or natural occurrences (COVID), as witnessed in recent times.

Mutual tolerance and respect for institutions are the hallmarks of true democrats. A democrat at heart is aware that (s)he holds the position of power for only as long as the people wish and that there has to be space for opposing viewpoints in a functioning democracy. Equally, other political formations have to be given due regard and the space to function freely. But even more important is the recognition of the inviolability of institutions meant to safeguard democracy. It is these institutions that, as the checks and balances in a democratic society, act as the real “opposition” in keeping the executive under control. As in the case of charity, democracy too begins at home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Congress Needs A New Raga

As an IAS probationer in the Foundation Course at the Mussoorie Academy, I participated in a debate on the topic “This house awaits the coming of another Gandhi”. Most of the speakers, including yours truly, bored the audience with references to the need for another Mahatma Gandhi. Till an intelligent batchmate from the Foreign Service electrified the audience by asserting that the time had come for Rajiv Gandhi to don the mantle of leader of the Indian National Congress (Congress). This was just after Sanjay Gandhi’s unexpected demise, at a time when Indira Gandhi, having demolished a fractious post-Emergency opposition, looked set to rule for another fifteen years at least. All of us probationers were unanimous in our opinion that he deserved to win. Alas, the hoary eminences comprising the judges (drawn from the faculty) took a dim view of his brilliant exposition, probably because of his biting satire on dynastic politics and how the Congress party could not survive without it.

The above incident came to mind after the bombshell of the 2019 election results which swept the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to power. Since then, we have been witness to the Grand Old Party of India’s independence, the Congress, going through agonising paroxysms of introspection on its dismal performance. As expected, Rahul Gandhi (RaGa to friend and foe) decided to quit as party president. After the tamasha of weeping courtiers asking him to stay put and wild speculation on possible successors, the garland fell once again around the neck of his mother, Sonia Gandhi, an affine if not an agnate of the Nehru-Gandhi lineage. Meanwhile, the Congress is hemorrhaging rapidly, aided by a liberal supply of anticoagulants from the BJP. Its performance in the Maharashtra and Bihar Vidhan Sabha elections and the recent Hyderabad municipal elections indicate a party in terminal decline. The revolt that is yet to be of 23 prominent party functionaries is a pointer to the agonies of many loyal Congressis of a directionless drift of the party and the complete absence of a charismatic leader. Clearly, a new Raga has to be added to the Congress’ repertoire to replace the old RaGa. I venture to offer certain suggestions for ensuring India does not become a single national party polity.

  • Go back a century and enroll committed party members

It is interesting to note that the Congress, a party of the elite, propertied and professional class, broad based its membership in the early 1920s, thanks to that master organiser, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. A party which had an almost nonexistent mass base was, in the course of a few years, able to draw a large mass of women and men into the freedom struggle. I am not aware of any concerted effort by the Congress party of today to actively draw citizens, especially youth, into its fold. The 1920s Congress encouraged two types of members: (a) persons over 18 years of age who accepted the objects and methods of the party; (b) those who, in addition, paid an annual subscription of four annas. The paid-up members alone could become members of primary organisations controlled by the Provincial Congress Committees. A similar strategy could be envisaged in the present day, rendered simpler and far more wide-ranging through use of modern technology. Those wishing to play a role in the organisations functioning under the Congress may pay an annual fee of, say, ₹500. The aim should be to build up a cadre of committed party workers, both paid-up members and otherwise, wedded to the party ethos and culture.

  • Develop a strong organisational structure

The Constitution adopted by the Congress in 1920 had provisions for Committees right from the All India Congress Committee at the apex level to Town and Village Committees at the cutting edge of interface with the populace. Given today’s electoral politics, party cadres need to be involved right from the polling booth level, during elections, of course, but, more importantly, in the interregnum between elections. Party workers must interact with the public to understand and redress their problems, especially with the local bureaucracy. The ideology and values of the party must be conveyed to voters to win their support. An area where party workers can play a significant role is in checking voter lists and ensuring that all eligible voters are included in the electoral rolls: there have been innumerable complaints of names missing from electoral rolls.

  • Build inner party democracy and create stakes in the party

            The flight of talented political workers from the Congress party has been occasioned in no small measure by the widespread feeling that “dynasts” have an edge in getting nominated for elections and that merit has little role to play in candidate selection and in important organisational posts. The 1920s Congress had elections at every level to organisation posts: thus, town and taluka Committee members elected the Provincial Congress Committee members, who, in turn, elected members of the All India Congress Committee. Care was also taken to maintain a balance between provinces. While local economic and caste/religion considerations will still influence elections to organisational bodies, there should at least be a feeling that a level playing field is available to all contestants, giving them full scope to exercise their powers to sway their electors on the basis of their personalities and programmes.

  • Empower regional leaders

            Ever since the Indira Gandhi years, powerful state leaders have repeatedly been cut to size and hounded out of the party. The recent legislative assembly elections in states like Punjab, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan show that giving a free hand to powerful local leaders pays handsome dividends. Leadership changes during the five year tenure of a government should be eschewed, save exceptional reasons. In states where the Congress plays a secondary role to regional parties, strong ties should be sought to be built up with these parties, with the Congress willing to accept the role of junior partner till such time as it strengthens its political base in those states. Maharashtra is an example of the Congress playing third fiddle, a role it has to accept with grace, given its limited options.

  • Keep Aaya Rams-Gaya Rams and cynical power brokers at arm’s length

            Rajiv Gandhi had this objective in mind in 1985, but failed because he surrounded himself with a coterie completely out of touch with the mood of the masses. The recent example of Madhya Pradesh is a sobering reminder to the Congress of how vaulting personal ambitions of a single, disaffected party man can bring down an elected government. Given the “saam-daam-dand-bheda” tactics in Indian politics today, it would be the height of naivety to hope for undying loyalty to a party. A beginning can, however, be made to cleanse the Augean stables by investing the party with a new sense of purpose linked firmly to the principles enunciated in the Constitution of India and forswearing the use of money and muscle power to achieve narrow, short-sighted political ends. Eschewing the use of power brokers could render the party less liable to arm-twisting of its finance gatherers by an opponent who has no qualms about the opportunistic use of investigative agencies to hound political rivals. A rule should also be enforced that no recently admitted former Congressperson-turned-defector-turned Congressperson or her/his near relatives will be eligible for tickets at any level of elections, both party and legislative, for a period of ten years after readmission to the Congress.

  • Convey to the people the priorities of the party and keep the incumbent government(s) on its/their toes all the time

            Elections are now being viewed by all political parties as a mere instrumentality for them to gain power, with no further engagement with the people in the intervening five year period between elections. The recent ramming through of ordinances and legislation without any public consultation or debate, whether it be the CAA, triple talaq, labour laws or farm bills, is indicative of a mindset that treats the people as sheep, faithfully moving wherever the shepherd takes them. It is here that a party like the Congress must clearly state its position on various issues related to the economy, polity and society and enunciate its vision of where it sees the country in twenty years’ time and what it seeks to offer different groups in society. Above all, the party needs to combat the spread of hatred, bigotry and divisiveness that is strangling increasingly larger sections of the Hindu community through exposing the falsehoods conveyed to them to feed on their sense of victimhood. As a responsible opposition, the Congress has to take up the cause of those who face the brunt of misuse and abuse of legislation and arbitrary state actions, through continued political and judicial interventions and through a vigorous media campaign. It should also not shy away from espousing the causes of groups which have legitimate grievances about the adverse impact of government policies and legislation on their livelihoods and the fundamental rights guaranteed to them under the Constitution.

            For initiating the steps indicated above, the Congress needs, above all, a leadership imbued with a sense of purpose and a determination to come to power in the next general elections. The current scenario for the party is, to say the least, pessimistic. Its not so young leader, RaGa, was apparently away from India at a time when thousands of agitated farmers were braving the bitter cold to voice their opposition to the recently passed farm legislation. The Congress or, for that matter, all opposition parties are conspicuous by their absence at the Singhu and Tikri borders with Delhi. The party has not taken a resolute stand on matters like the “love jihad” ordinances in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh or the misuse of draconian legislation like the UAPA and sedition provisions to stifle legitimate dissent.

            Most noticeably, the Congress does not seem to have any strategy in place to contest the crucial polls in West Bengal, due in a few months. When all political pundits are forecasting a grim tussle between the incumbent Trinamool Congress (TMC) and an aggressive BJP, the Congress seems bent on hara kiri by allying in West Bengal with a vanishing left front, when common sense dictates that it tie up with the TMC to keep its principal national opponent from grabbing power. The same Congress seems to develop cold feet in contemplating an alliance with the left in Kerala, a state that is on the BJP’s radar in the near future, if not immediately.

            All these developments indicate a party with no sense of direction. The Congress needs to find a new leader: the Gandhi magic has outlived its utility. A new Raga (definitely not the toady (Todi?) raga in vogue so far) is needed to reinvigorate the party. State units need to be revamped, not through nominated office-bearers, but through elected politicians. A new national front needs to be contemplated, where the Congress takes the lead in roping in strong regional parties. The Congress needs to realise that, for the foreseeable future, it needs to play second fiddle in many states, keeping its sights on attaining power at the centre and leaving its regional allies to come to power in the states. Federal democracy, which has been buffeted in recent years, will thereby receive a fillip. The hour needs to find the (wo)man now.

 

 

 

Farm Laws: Good Economics, Bad Politics

The road to hell is paved with good intentions”. This saying sprang to my mind once the three Farm Bills were rammed through Parliament, with the opposition not even being given the parliamentary freedom to have its say in the Rajya Sabha. The absence of collegial decision making seems to be the signature tune of the present central government, as I have had occasion to bring out in an earlier blog (see here). Starting with the enactment of anti-beef laws in different states and moving on through demonetization, triple talaq, Kashmir, CAA, COVID lockdown, labour laws, farm laws and now ‘love jihad’ laws, the governments of the ruling party at the centre and in states ruled by them have relied on legislative majority, Prime Ministerial 8 PM pronouncements and the Ordinance Factory route to push policy down the throats of the citizenry.

The three bills focus on (a) freeing private entities from the oversight and jurisdiction of the Agriculture Produce Marketing Committee (APMC) in respect of transactions outside the APMC market yard area, with no licences being required from and no fees being payable to the APMC; (b) easing up the Essential Commodities Act to allow for far greater price variation in commodities before state restrictions on prices kick in; (c) providing for direct contractual arrangements between farmers and private entities. On the face of it, these measures seem to be exactly what are required to free the agricultural sector from the clutches of exploitative middlemen, ensure a fairer deal for the farmer in terms of better prices for his produce and encourage the growth of entrepreneurship to promote innovation and investment in the farm sector. Why then have these “reforms” attracted so much ire from the farming community, leading to a virtual blockade of the national capital?

It would be easy (and the lazy option) to dismiss the present turmoil as a political gimmick, sponsored by vested interests who stand to lose from the reforms process. Deeper reflection would, however, reveal the inadequate homework done by the authors of these three bills on critical issues, with the lack of clarity sowing major doubts in the minds of farmers. Though it might appear on the face of it that the agitation is largely driven by the interests of the better-off farmers, the issues that remain unresolved need to be squarely faced as they will raise their heads in the years to come and continue to act as flash points for farmers’ discontent.

The future of Minimum Support Price (MSP)

The first issue that has reverberated over the past couple of months has been the future of the MSP. While this has largely been operative only in respect of the two major cereals, paddy and wheat (and, to a far lesser extent, in respect of some other crops), the farmer is apprehensive that the move to a “free trade area” outside the APMC and the entry of contract farming on a large scale in the days to come will sound the death knell of the MSP. While the Government of India has been at pains to stress its commitment to retain the MSP in the future, it has not spelt out its strategy in respect of the MSP in an environment where there is extensive private entity-farmer trade, with prices being determined by direct negotiations between the farmer and the private party. This issue assumes importance especially in a set up where there is an unequal relationship between the farmer and the purchaser of his produce. If there are just two or three big oligopsonistic buyers, there would be grounds for apprehension that, sooner or later, the few buyers could start dictating prices to the farmers. In the absence of a trading licence system and the lack of institutional oversight by the APMC or any other regulatory body, the field would be open for the entry of any oligopsonistic private entity to attempt to dominate the market on its terms. The dilution of the stocking limits in the Essential Commodities Act can also justifiably give rise to fears in the farmers’ minds that end-buyers (read large corporates) will build up stocks to drive down agricultural product prices. At that point, the farmer would expect the government to step in and guarantee purchase of his produce at the APMC at a price that meets the cost of production plus a markup for profit. The legislation, as it stands at present, is silent on this eventuality.

The MSP system needs to be remodelled over time to achieve a much greater diversity in the crops procured, from millets and maize to pulses, oilseeds, horticulture and cash crops. This is essential if the huge surplus stocks of rice and wheat in Food Corporation of India (FCI) godowns are to be reduced. Not only does this increase the financial burden on the Government of India of paying the FCI for these stocks, it also increases wastage percentages. Reducing the incentive to grow water-guzzling, input intensive paddy in states like Punjab and Haryana is also crucial to checking environmental degradation, reflected in the deteriorating soil quality and depleting groundwater levels in these states. It should also not be forgotten that the MSP will have an important role to play as long as government has to guarantee the supply of foodgrains through the public distribution system (PDS), with the FCI as the prime supplier to the PDS.

Marketing issues (including price discovery)

Mandi/APMC related prices play an important role today in fixation of the price at which trade takes place outside mandi/APMC areas between farmers and traders. There is little clarity on how price discovery will take place in future in direct contracts between traders/sponsors and farmers, where there may be few buyers and a vast body of sellers. Realisation of a price that is fair to the farmer presupposes availability of price information and the ability to source the buyer who can offer the most favourable price. This requires the presence of a well-developed electronic marketing network, as envisaged by the announcement of the e-National Agricultural Market (e-NAM) system in the Budget of 2016-17. The e-NAM drew on the Rashtriya e-Market Services Private Limited (ReMS) initiative launched in Karnataka in 2014, which has been analysed in a November 2016 paper by researchers of the Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research, Mumbai. Their study reveals three major areas where reforms are essential if a thriving national e-market for agricultural products is to flourish: (a) a legal framework which supports a platform for agricultural transactions across the country; (b) incentives to all stakeholders — farmers, traders, commission agents, mandi/APMC officials and others who are part of the agricultural marketing ecosystem — to participate in the new electronic platform at locations across the country; and (c) development of physical and financial payments infrastructure to facilitate seamless real-time trading across multiple locations.

Unless APMCs/mandis act as countervailing centres to forestall efforts to dictate prices of agricultural commodities through the more powerful bargaining position of a few buyers, farmers would be placed in a position where they are compelled to accept not so favourable prices. But this requires vibrant APMC/mandi centres fully linked to e-NAM, so that farmers have a ready alternative site to sell their produce in the event they are not happy with the terms offered by private buyers. Governments, especially at the state level, will need to invest in physical and financial infrastructure in terms of many more APMCs/mandis, facilities to grade produce, accurate weighing, quick delivery and easy online payment to attract farmers to the APMCs/mandis. Winding up APMCs does not promote a flourishing trade in agricultural products, as the experience of Bihar, which abolished APMCs in 2006, amply shows. Opposition from traders and commission agents, who stand to benefit from opaque transaction systems, will need to be effectively countered by assimilating them into the new marketing process.

Regulation and dispute resolution

The provisions for regulation and dispute resolution in the new laws are woefully inadequate. Conciliation and adjudication of disputes between seller-farmers and buyers have been brought solely within the jurisdiction of the executive magistracy. As one who has functioned as an Executive Magistrate during his career in the civil service, I can safely assert that the Executive Magistracy does not have the requisite knowledge skills to adjudicate on commercial disputes. More disturbingly, this responsibility comes on top of multifarious responsibilities already cast on the executive magistracy. Even with the best of intentions, cases are going to pile up in their courts. The absence of alternative avenues to redress grievances through the judicial system will not only adversely impact the rights of farmers but is also, in my view, a violation of the fundamental rights guaranteed to every citizen under part III of the Constitution of India.

The absence of a regulatory framework to oversee the proper conduct of transactions between buyer and seller will also, without doubt, affect the weaker side, clearly, in this case, the farmer. The uncertainty caused by prolonged litigation will have its deleterious impact on agricultural investments and will contribute to significantly weakening the bargaining position of the farmer.

What should the Government of India do to restore farmer confidence?

The quotation with which I began this blog in effect means“…promises and plans must be put into action, otherwise they are useless”. The Government of India (GoI) needs to:

first, repeal the two Farm Acts and the amendments to the Essential Commodities Act;

second, come out with a White Paper listing the issues that are crucial to the success of farm reforms, especially the backward and forward linkages that will enable the farmer to access the marketplace as an equal. These include availability of credit and insurance, easy access to efficient markets and a legal framework that honours contracts promptly;

third, give a guarantee that the APMC/mandi system will continue on the same basis as before the enactment of the Farm Laws;

fourth, involve all stakeholders in discussions on the future directions that the MSP and procurement should take, especially in relation to changing cropping patterns to both meet nutrition needs of the population as well as to tackle the growing ecological degradation caused by rampant overuse of fertilisers, water and power, with its attendant implications for high-cost agriculture;

fifth, while meeting the food requirements of the population, notably its vulnerable sections, through the PDS, work out mechanisms to ensure a fair deal for the farmer as well, without taxing the government budget to breaking point;

sixth, consult with state governments on a subject that falls squarely within the State List in Schedule VII of the Constitution of India. The GoI could possibly incentivise the adoption of these reforms in different states, starting with those states where its party is in power. The demonstration effect of successful reforms can then percolate to other states.

In the final analysis, I have to come back to where I started this blog. The present government at the centre has, in the recent past, pushed through too many measures without adequately consulting stakeholders or taking the advice of those who have the benefit of years of experience of working in those areas. The damaging effects of such unitary approaches not only sow distrust about the intentions of the central government in the states ruled by opposition parties and in the population at large, they also adversely affect the lives of millions of people. It may be good politics in the short run (from the viewpoint of the ruling party) but it leads to disastrous economic, political and social consequences, in the short, medium and long term, for the country. The government at the centre now needs to talk the walk (i.e., discuss before framing policy) since its approach hitherto has been to walk through without talking.

Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom

(After a nine month hiatus, the Gadfly Column resumes publication today. Blogs will be published on the first and fifteenth days of every month. The blogs will also be carried on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. Comments are welcome)

 

It is a reflection of the irony of our times that a blog on liberal democracy has, for its title, the words of Chairman Mao in 1957, when he said “Let a hundred flowers bloom; let a hundred schools of thought contend.” Over sixty years later, the jury is still out on whether this represented a genuine attempt to encourage inner party democracy or whether it was a shrewd move aimed at weeding out dissidents, followed as it was by a ruthless purge reminiscent of the Stalinist Soviet Union of the 1930s. And yet, the beauty of Indian liberal democracy since 1947 has been the space given for alternative views to flourish and for state policy to reflect the consensus arrived at after listening to opinions from all shades of the political spectrum.

Of course, there have been the occasional hiccups like the Emergency and the tendency of successive governments in India (both at the centre and in the states) to use draconian legislation to curb views interpreted by them as seditious or as a threat to public order. But Indian democracy has survived so far, despite the gloomy prognostications of many Western “Cassandras”, precisely because of its diverse population, drawn from a khichdi of languages, religions, castes and ethnicities.

I will stick out my neck by saying that caste divisions in the majority Hindu community and the formation of linguistic states postponed the slide into a unitarian state ruled by one community. Undoubtedly, there is much to be said for reforming Hindu society through the “annihilation” of caste as a marker of social privilege. But the assertion of specific caste groupings through the electoral process in different states ensured that political power did not remain with a monolith like the Congress. When the Janata party experiment failed in 1979, one of the reasons was the discomfort of various coalition partners with what they saw as the efforts of the then Jan Sangh to use the levers of powers to build up its sectarian political base. The fall of the V.P. Singh government, backed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), in 1990 was a foregone conclusion right from day one of that government. The Raja of Manda knew his survival as Prime Minister was contingent on withstanding the Ram Mandir Shilanyas programme and L.K. Advani’s Rath Yatra. His Mandal gambit was intended to check the possibility of the consolidation of the Hindu community on the emotive Ram Janmabhoomi issue. Unfortunately for him, not only was the Congress Party not willing to back him, the “Young Turk” Chandrashekhar was only too ready to assume the mantle of Prime Minister, even if only for a little over seven months. The 1990s rise of parties like the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), Samajwadi Party (SP) and Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), based on the support of specific castes and social groups, ensured that, for twenty five years after the Babri Masjid demolition, the party that stood to gain from its demolition was in power for just five years in Uttar Pradesh (UP).

Nehru and Rajaji were strongly opposed to the creation of linguistic states, worried as they were about the development of fissiparous tendencies in the new republic. It took the martyrdom of Potti Sriramulu to hasten the move towards linguistic states. Political developments in the 1960s seemed to vindicate their fears: the attempted imposition of Hindi provoked a backlash in Tamil Nadu (then Madras State) and the bifurcation of Punjab raised strong passions in the Punjabi Sikh population (to be unfortunately revived in the years after 1980). But the creation of linguistic states also had a positive spin off in the formation of strong regional parties, starting with the DMK in Tamil Nadu, followed by the star duo of MGR and NTR in the neighbouring states of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh and spreading like wildfire to states all across the country, from UP, Bihar, Maharashtra and Karnataka to Odisha, Assam and Bengal.

The clout of regional parties has diminished somewhat in recent years, thanks to a variety of reasons. Poor governance, especially in states like UP, has cost parties like the BSP and SP dear, while the influence of “Big Brother” BJP has reduced the scope for independent maneuvering by parties like the Biju Janata Dal and the Telugu Desam Party. With legislators apparently ready to desert the ship that won them the elections (for reasons that do not need to be explicitly spelt out here), India has entered a phase of fluid politics, where the results of an election do not guarantee which party or parties will govern a state for the next five years. “Aaya Rams” are back with a vengeance more than fifty years after 1967, though whether they will metamorphose into “Gaya Rams” over time is still a moot point.

It is in this context that the recent statement at a conference by the Prime Minister endorsing the idea of “One Nation, One Election” and stating that this is not “just an issue of deliberation, but also the need of the country” has set the cat among the pigeons. No report on his speech has clarified whether “one election” is restricted to just parliament and state elections, though that is the inference we can draw for the present. The issues of expenditures on conducting elections every now and then and the impact of frequent elections on development works can be debated. What is more crucial are the implications of such a move for the federal nature of the Indian state. A state government does not draw its legitimacy from the central government, given that India is a Union of States, affirmed by no less sanctified a document than the Constitution of India. Issues that are prominent in state elections do not often figure on the national agenda. More importantly, in the absence of any provision to recall legislators, elections offer people the only opportunity to hold their representatives accountable. There is also the issue of the lack of predictability of the tenure of a Vidhan Sabha (or, indeed, of the Lok Sabha). Loss of majority of the ruling party or dissolution of the House could trigger fresh elections well before the due date. It would be well-nigh impossible, without major constitutional changes, to manage such contingencies were simultaneous elections to become the norm. I am not holding the simplistic view that simultaneous elections necessarily lead to the same party winning at both the state and central levels. But in recent years, there has been a marked tendency to highlight issues of nationalism and patriotism, with even the armed forces being dragged into election speeches. Playing on people’s emotions could skew results in state elections, especially where large sections of the electorate, including the so-called “educated middle class” have no nuanced understanding of the issues at stake, falling prey to the barrage of fake news streamed at them by social and electronic media. There is also the very likely danger that, given the opacity of the Electoral Bonds system, one party could garner a very high proportion of the funds donated, something that recently available information seems to corroborate.

But, above all, I value the festival of democracy characterised by elections at regular intervals at different levels of government, from the gram panchayat level up to the Lok Sabha. Having conducted and supervised elections at the Lok Sabha, Vidhan Sabha and municipal levels, I have observed the coming to life of people who are otherwise immersed in the mundane chores of life, whether in Motihari, Muzaffarpur or Mumbai. The right to vote is an affirmation by the citizen of her dignity as an individual. She has the unfettered right to exercise her discriminating judgment each time there is an election, whether to the Lok Sabha, Vidhan Sabha or local bodies, and the full authority to question those who seek to represent her on issues, be they national, state or local. She may be, in daily life, a domestic worker, nurse or shop salesperson. But come election time, she is the power behind the throne, determining the future of those who seek to govern the country or state. It would certainly be churlish to deny her her place in the sun for brief periods at regular intervals in a five year period. Why reduce it to just one time in five years, when governments spend money on so many unnecessary items? Nor are elections the main reason why governments function so inefficiently in executing development works. The ability to handle transfers of power without bloodshed is the mark of a mature democracy, no matter what the cost is in terms of time, energy or money.