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.

 

 

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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.

 

The Indian Political League

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 at https://indusdictum.com/2017/08/10/the-indian-political-league/

The match went down to the wire… ultimately, the winner was decided by the third umpire. No, I am not referring to a close finish in a cricket T20 match, but to the results of the Rajya Sabha polls in Gujarat. Like its acronymic twin, the Indian Premier League (IPL), the Indian Political League (IPoL) is today’s greatest spectator sport for the ten months of the year that the cricket IPL is not in operation. Indians have an abiding interest in these two spectator sports: cricket and politics. Spectator, because most have never played the game and because both circuses (like the Roman ones) provide titillation on an almost continuous basis, given the ubiquity of cricketing and political contests in the subcontinent.

I thought we Bharatvasis had had more than our fill of political spills and thrills after the Yadav father-son battle in Uttar Pradesh, the coronation of a religious head as Chief Minister in the same UP, the internecine struggle for power in Tamil Nadu after Amma’s departure and the “about-turn” change of government in Bihar. I was wrong: we are now in a perpetual silly season, where political shenanigans in different states dominate the public consciousness, titillated by the blow-by-blow descriptions given on a round-the-clock basis by screeching reps of the electronic media. As Gujarat has shown, we need our daily dose of Bollywood-style drama, replete with Bengaluru resorts, income tax raids and exciting polling processes coupled with hysterical scenes outside the Election Commission in New Delhi.

The IPL is, of course, still in its childhood (nine years and counting) as compared to its hoary grandfather, the IPoL, which has entered its sixty-sixth year of life. The IPoL, in the first fifteen years of life, was somewhat staid in appearance, resembling Indian cricket of that time, when test matches were the only source of entertainment for the masses. Things became far more exciting when legislators started defecting en masse on an almost daily basis after 1967, giving rise to the popular Aaya Ram Gaya Ram phenomenon. Elections also ceased to be once-in-five-year affairs and, with the delinking of Parliament and State Assembly elections, were held year in and year out. Things have become far more exciting in the past four decades, ever since the Congress Party’s dominance in the political hustings was successfully challenged, much in the same way that Bombay’s stranglehold over the Ranji Trophy was loosened by upstarts like Delhi and Karnataka.

But it is the similarities in the IPL and IPoL that command our interest and attention. An examination of these highlight both the features that the two have in common as well as the ways in which, with its infinitely superior financial resources and experience, the IPoL has managed to straddle universes that are outside the reach of a modest IPL.


ipl auction watermark


Everything starts with the auction of players. However, unlike the annual or biennial auctions in the IPL, the IPoL auctions are continuous in nature. These auctions are conducted by the team managements themselves and are held on camera. Unlike the IPL, there is no way to know the cost of each player to the team. In earlier days, especially after anti-defection laws were passed, auctions took place only at specified intervals, when elections or by-elections were due. Nowadays, the trend is towards mass auctions of large portions of a team, rather than individuals. After a match (read election) is over, even an entire competing team can be merged with the existing team (think Goa and Manipur).

What keeps the players in the IPoL engaged continuously are the opportunities given to them to twist the rules of the game to keep adding to the moolah already given to them at auction time. Even before the match starts, there are chances available to seduce the ground staff to prepare a pitch conducive to one’s strengths. These could include freebies distributed recklessly prior to the election or illegally transferred just prior to the start of the match. The players would not be averse to nobbling the on-field umpires as well: to their eternal regret, the umpires (the Election Commission and its paraphernalia) have proved immune to blandishments.

But nothing stops the players of one team from influencing the opposing team members, given that the open auction system is in place. The match can then be suitably fixed, with all the 22 players going through the motions of a keenly contested match. Even measures like shepherding all the players of one team to a hidden sanctuary prior to the match and producing them only at match time are often futile, given the ubiquity of mobile phones. Where phones are confiscated, there is nothing to prevent signals being given on field to compromised players, as was the case in IPL matches (and as was so wonderfully demonstrated during the Gujarat Rajya Sabha elections). The unsuspecting public is generally unaware of the charade, though it does wonder sometimes why its favourite batsmen are throwing their wickets away. The match-fixers — the management, the players and their backers and financiers — are reaping the rewards of the crowd attendance, through revenues from crowd payments (taxes, etc.) as well as from the extra-legal earnings through inflated infrastructure and supply contracts.


ipl stadium watermark


The only flies in the ointment for the players in the IPoL are the oversight authorities in the form of the Election Commission and the courts of the land. The players have a code of omertà between themselves, known more commonly as “honour among thieves”. Knowing that matches can go either way, depending on the quality of manipulation by both parties, the best option is to keep silent on the transgressions of one’s opponents, in the hope (and trust) that the favour will be reciprocated at the opportune moment. When nemesis does catch up in the form of a whistle-blower, an enthusiastic judge or a conscientious civil servant, the indicted players rely on the lumbering judicial system and the loopholes of the law to stay out of prison as long as possible.

This then is the “saam-daam-dand-bheda” approach, attributed to the astute Chanakya, that is the governing philosophy of the IPoL. It starts with friendly advice to opponents to join the current popular dispensation while the going is good. Where moral suasion is insufficient, the lubrication of lucre is added to sweeten the deal, either in the form of upfront payments or deferred gratifications in terms of dabbling in patronage and sharing in the spoils. The unmoving opponent is then subjected to the travails of the legal system, through innuendoes and insinuations leading to registration of cases and protracted litigation that could go on for decades, punctuated possibly by stretches in prison. It helps that most players in the IPoL have a past that renders them vulnerable to such pressures.

The final tool is the “divide and rule” strategy that has been perfected over the centuries by our colonial masters. The IPoL players are masters at winning the support of important segments of the crowd by exploiting differences in language, religion, caste and ethnicity. And so, the game goes on “to the last syllable of recorded time” as lamented by Macbeth. It is apposite that his soliloquy ends with the statement “It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” His ruminations would find favour with our ancient sages, who saw this life on earth as maya. And yet, we go through the illusive make-believe, the political dramas that characterise our petty lives.

The Ten Commandments – A Survival Kit for the IAS Officer

O Thou who seest all things below

Grant that Thy servants may go slow,

That they may study to comply

With regulations till they die.

Teach us, O Lord, to reverence

Committees more than common sense;

To train our minds to make no plan

And pass the baby when we can.

So when the tempter seeks to give

Us feelings of initiative,

Or when alone we go too far,

Chastise us with a circular.

Mid war and tumult, fire and storms,

Give strength O Lord, to deal out forms.

Thus may Thy servants ever be

A flock of perfect sheep for Thee.

(Hymn and Prayer for Civil Servants, published anonymously in the Daily Telegraph)

Like speeches, there are three careers an IAS officer will have: the one she visualises (often with a rosy tint) when she ascends the mountains to Mussoorie, the actual path over the next thirty-five years and the retrospective glance (post-retirement) at the career (and life while in service) she wishes she could have had. Being at the third stage of this cycle, I feel justified in offering a survival kit to the aspiring officer – “survival” because, in the light of recent events like the Harish Gupta, et al, conviction episode, just going through a controversy-free career and enjoying retired life themselves seem like unattainable goals. My homilies are addressed to only that category of officers who seek to do their job honestly and conscientiously, not to those who seek extra monetary returns from public service (kimbalam, as the Tamils call it) or those who are permanently gaming the system to occupy “plum” postings. So here goes:

  • Downplay your achievement:

You did get through what, when I qualified for the IAS, was called the “national lottery”. Notwithstanding all the coaching classes advertising the number of hours of study put in by their diligent students, let us be honest enough to admit that several factors, including Lady Luck, play a role in the process. So, with humility, accept the fact that you are now the member of a premier service, which brings with it a few privileges and don’t advertise your superiority (even if it brings you down a few notches in the marriage market). Above all, do not add the three magic initials to your nameplate and your letterhead and, please, do not rub in the fact of your success at the sweepstakes to others, especially from sister services.

  • Develop your human qualities:

It is very easy to become arrogant when surrounded by the trappings of power. Remember always the fleeting nature of things and stay focused on the essentials. Be a friend and guide to your colleagues, especially in field postings, and a source of support to every member of the public who you meet day in and day out. You can never satisfy everyone but you can certainly cultivate the habit of lending a willing ear to the grievances of the common man/woman and trying to help to the maximum extent possible. Your satisfaction should come not from the achievement of (often meaningless) targets set by your superiors but from the number of people who come to meet you when you return to your former haunts in later years.

  • In any job, insist on thorough process:

Caveat emptor” should be your motto, especially where you are the emptor (i.e., the buyer). Never buy in to arguments from bosses and subordinates that business was always done this way. We live in times where trust in the civil service has evaporated: what would have been accepted in 1975 as a good faith decision with no ulterior motives will no longer wash. Any decision on allocation of scarce resources (schools, orphanages, coal blocks, etc., etc.) should, like Caesar’s wife, be above suspicion. The allocation process should be accessible to all members of the public, have clear cut-off dates and have clear guidelines for selection. Where selection through a bidding process is not feasible, e.g., multiple applicants for an ashramshala or an old age home, selection from the bidders meeting pre-specified criteria could even be based on draw of lots at a public location. Of course, it would be best to aim at reducing discretion to the maximum extent by eliminating the need for licensing as far as possible and ensuring that ministerial approval is not required. If your Minister, or the Chief Minister or Prime Minister (for that matter) promise you full support for following time-worn processes, politely ask for a transfer to another post. Prime Ministers have ad nauseam promised, in every Civil Service Day speech in recent years, to protect honest decision making. We have seen the consequences today, when honest bureaucrats have gone to jail.

  • Keep track of the paper trail:

Even Albert Einstein would not remember the details of every decision he took in past years, and you are certainly no Einstein. Be rigorous in your paper work. The coal block allocation imbroglio arose, in part, because there were apparently no papers bringing out the rationale of allocation decisions in certain cases. I offer my grateful thanks to the hard-nosed Secretary of my Ministry who drilled into me the need to keep my paperwork up to date. After every negotiation, my first task was to prepare a gist of the viewpoints of all participating parties and the decisions taken or actions required and circulate these to all concerned. Keeping all the cards on the table helped in later years at the time of audit (though it did not spare me from bothersome investigations). But, a quarter of a century later, I am leading a quiet, retired life without any blemish on my career. As a matter of abundant caution, keep copies of important notings and papers in your personal custody. You never know when someone interposes in a file (on a subsequent date) some comment contrary to your view or when the next fire or flood hits the record room.

  • Travel light:

A popular baggage manufacturer used to advertise its products as “travel light”. Bureaucrats would do well to adopt this dictum. You will need to attune your spouse to your philosophy since, if you insist on process, you are unlikely to survive in “lucrative” posts. If the move is only from the fourth to the first floor of the State Secretariat, or within the same city, this is not a matter of great concern. But there will be this vindictive politician or bureaucrat who delights in moving you from, say, Nashik to Nagpur or from Lucknow to Gonda. Ensure you can move at short notice and set up your establishment in a jiffy at the new place. It helps particularly if you and your spouse/family possess a sense of adventure and can improvise even where creature comforts are lacking.

  • Get a life beyond work:

If I kick myself for any stupidity, it is for not following this maxim. Staying in office beyond 6 PM is more damaging to one’s personal life than any other vice. If your political or bureaucratic boss is determined to sit in office till 10 PM, you do not need to keep them company, especially in this electronically advanced age. Just sweetly tell them you are going home and they can call you on mobile or email you any document with a critical time-frame. I have had murderous thoughts about Ministers whose rank inefficiency in clearing files forced me to stay in office till midnight, photocopying notes for the next day’s cabinet meeting. Resist weekend office attendance like the plague: if you are forced to go, make it clear to your boss that you are doing her a big favour and expect compensatory time off in the future.

  • Make personal excellence, not the rat race, your goal:

In the middle phase of my career, I watched with envy (and not a little heart-burning) as colleagues and friends moved to the green pastures of international institutions and foreign universities. One of my seniors added fuel to the fire by mentioning that proximity to the top was the key to such lateral movements. It took me more years down the line to realise that I gained immense experience and knowledge from working in different challenging assignments at home. Set yourself goals in any job, no matter how lowly or insignificant it is considered in the bureaucratic pecking order. If you are Director of Archives, develop one of the finest repositories of historical information in the country. If you land the post of Officer on Special Duty (Revenue Appeals), set a time frame within which appeals will be disposed of and justice given to litigants. Very often, while participating in the rat race, we forget that the cheese is right there in the room where we are working.

  • Watch the company you keep:

As you move up the ladder, you will be gratified by the “Rockstar” reputation you seem to have. Leading businessmen, builders and even film stars flock to your office and invite you to lavish parties. Remember, none of these come without strings attached. Your subordinates draw conclusions from your apparent proximity to the high and mighty as does the public. “Owners’ pride” being “neighbours’ envy”, it won’t be long before the first complaint about a decision taken by you (which may be perfectly bona fide) favouring a particular person/group makes its way to the tables of the Chief Minister and the Chief Secretary. In a district, do not be seen at card tables in the evening or develop a fondness for the bottle that cheers. News travels fast and you find that the value of your currency with the public has diminished rather rapidly.

  • Develop competencies/interests for the future:

I am lucky I got bitten by the technology bug early in my professional life. A laptop computer was my partner over the last two decades of my career. Equipping myself with the basic skills necessary for individual entrepreneurship, I could move seamlessly from the protected confines of service to survival on my own. Your education does not need to end on the day you join service. It is noteworthy that many officers acquire additional qualifications while in service. A law degree or a diploma in finance enables you to branch out into areas you never dreamt of while in service. Apart from mundane professional attainments, you can aspire to develop your interests in music, horticulture, vintage car repair and redesign, spirituality, astrology or any one of a million pursuits that add richness to your post-IAS life.

  • C’est la vie:

Finally, develop a devil-may-care attitude to your life in the bureaucracy. You will have your share of troublesome bosses and recalcitrant subordinates. Learn to take all issues stoically: nothing is life-threatening (generally) and, in hindsight, quite often somewhat ridiculous. You are passed over for a coveted posting or even (horrors of horrors) are superseded for promotion. The day after, the sun still rises in the east, birds are chirping in the trees and you are still in good health. Consider that, after taking all possible precautions and keeping your nose clean, you are still arraigned for a felony you did not commit, consequent on the efforts of over-enthusiastic (though inaccurate) auditors and investigation agencies, responding to the public demand for blood. Face it calmly, put your case forward to the best of your ability and prepare to avail of state hospitality in case the chips do not fall on your side. Fortify yourself with the thought “This too shall pass”. If you have faithfully adhered to these ten commandments, you will still enjoy life even in Tihar or Yeravada Jail.

 

No discussion, no debate, no consensus

The government came up with forty amendments to central statutes as part of the Finance Bill, 2017. Nothing unusual, you might say, except that some of these amendments affected certain basic rights of the individual. By presenting these amendments in a Money Bill, the government managed to push them through without much debate in the Lok Sabha, where it enjoys a comfortable majority, and bypass the Rajya Sabha (where it is in a minority) altogether. This stratagem is becoming popular with the present government. They used it in 2016 to push through the Aadhaar Bill with a number of provisions that sought to virtually make obtaining an Aadhaar number mandatory for the citizen. This, despite litigation pending in the Supreme Court on what could be the scope of Aadhaar and the Supreme Court’s repeated directions to the government that it (the Supreme Court) would be the final arbiter on what the Aadhaar scheme could cover. Now, in one stroke, the government has gone beyond the provisions of even its own Aadhaar legislation to compel the honest taxpayer to register for Aadhaar. Come July 1, 2017 and the Kafkaesque situation could well arise where, after paying her income tax for the financial year 2016-17, the taxpayer finds that her income tax PAN has been invalidated and she cannot file her tax return, rendering her liable for financial penalties and incarceration.

The Finance Bill 2017 has also incorporated other amendments which merited taking the considered advice of the House of Elders, the Rajya Sabha. Certain tribunals have been abolished, their functions being taken over by other tribunals, without any clear rationale being spelt out. Not only that, the central government has armed itself with extensive rule-making powers to determine inter alia the qualifications, manner of appointment and removal of tribunal members and their emoluments. Given that the government is itself a litigant in a number of cases coming up before these tribunals, public confidence in the impartiality of these tribunals is likely to be severely shaken. Existing financial limits on contributions by companies to political parties have been removed and there is no need to disclose the party to which contributions are being made. Draconian powers of search and seizure have been given to officials of the income tax department: welcome back, inspector raj!

If these facets of unilateral exercise of executive power, unchecked by legislative oversight, were confined to just the Finance Bill, one could have ascribed it to overzealousness of the Finance Minister and his mandarins. Alas, the unbridled exercise of power has contaminated many other areas of government and society. Don’t like books that run contrary to your worldview? Just drag the publishers to court and let them stew in their own juice till they capitulate (Dina Nath Batra vs. Penguin/Wendy Doniger). Take offence at comments about a historical figure in a book? No problems, go ransack the venerable institution that worked with the author and destroy priceless, age-old artefacts and manuscripts, as goons of a ruling political party in Maharashtra did in 2004 (Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Pune). The availability of alternative methods of civilised expression is apparently foreign to most citizens of the world’s largest democracy.

Mahatma Gandhi observed in 1947 “In India, no law can be made to ban cow-slaughter…It will mean coercion against those Indians who are not Hindus.” Like many of Gandhi’s sage views, this one too has been consigned to the dustbin, with states vying with one another to ban the sale of beef. In 2017, one state, Gujarat, has legislated to punish cow-slaughter with imprisonment for life. Not to be outdone, the Chief Minister (CM) of Chhattisgarh has declared his intention to hang those guilty of cow-slaughter. A non-binding Directive Principle of state policy has been converted into laws that infringe the right to liberty of the citizen (and even the right to life, if the honourable Chhattisgarh CM were to have his way). Meanwhile, summary justice (or, rather, injustice) is meted out by vigilante groups to those suspected of involvement in alleged cow-slaughter.

The newly-installed theocrat CM of Uttar Pradesh has trained his sights on Romeos through his anti-Romeo squads (William Shakespeare is turning in his grave, four hundred years after his death, at the ignominy being heaped on one of his most romantic characters). I shudder at the unlimited latitude given to the police force of Uttar Pradesh, not known, even at the best of times, to exercise moderation in its interpretation and implementation of the law. Dating in UP will soon be a dated concept, with no Juliet worth her salt daring to be seen publicly with, you guessed it, a Romeo.

Actually, Juliets in India are having a tough time even completing their education. School and college managements from Varanasi to Vellore have decided that information will enter the craniums of their female students only if they are suitably attired (suitability being decided by the management). Not only that, women students must keep their distance from male students (apparently to keep hormonal outbursts at bay), eschew library work after 6 PM and forego the privileges of wifi (to keep corrupting internet influences away).

And then, to top it all, we have that abomination called the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC). It was bad enough when the CBFC puritans arbitrarily decided what was viewable only by adults. But now we have situations where certification is refused altogether for “lady-oriented” films. The latest news is that a film dealing with the demonetization episode is being referred by the CBFC Kolkata office to Delhi, so apparently terrified is the local officer of taking a decision on merits.

So, seventy years after India’s tryst with destiny, the Aadhaar-enabled, celibate, vegetarian, male Indian enters a Brave New World where he apes Gandhi’s three monkeys – “See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.” One does not necessarily dispute every decision taken by the government of the day. It is only that in a country with multiple sub-nationalities, religions, languages and traditions, a culture of debate and discussion ensures wide acceptability of laws and regulations, so essential for a functioning democracy. Jawaharlal Nehru, that inbred democrat, whose name is anathema to many of those in power today, wrote fortnightly letters to Chief Ministers uninterruptedly for over sixteen years from late 1947 to the end of 1963. Despite enjoying an unrivalled political status, Nehru was keen to justify his policies and explain their rationale and the motivations underlying them. Even in today’s rather vitiated political atmosphere, it would be statesmanlike for leaders to explain their actions to others, especially those opposed to their policies, and seek a broad consensus on the way forward. We would hardly want a scenario where people, on whom decisions have been thrust, echo the words of the disillusioned poet, penned by the inimitable Sahir Ludhianvi, in the film Pyaasa:

तुम्हारी है तुम ही संभालो यह दुनिया

यह दुनिया अगर मिल भी जाए तो क्या है

 

 

 

Hamam Mein Sab Nange Hain!

Judge not, that ye be not judged.                                                                                                        2For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.
3 And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?

(Matthew 7:1-3, The Bible, King James Version)

Something is rotten in the State of Denmark”                                                                                       (Hamlet, Prince of Denmark: William Shakespeare)

It was extremely depressing to read the 60 page note purportedly penned by Kalikho Pul, former Chief Minister of Arunachal Pradesh, before he committed suicide in August 2016. The note, which virtually amounts to a dying declaration under Section 32(11) of the Indian Evidence Act (though there may be some legal quibbles about this) is a searing indictment of the Indian system of governance and leaves no institution with even a fig leaf of credibility. This is not the place to go into the details of the note and one hopes that there will be at least some anguished introspection about the incident which saw a new, rather ignominious first for the Indian republic: a public representative taking his life out of despair at the prevailing state of affairs.

Recent years have been ones of deep disenchantment for the people of India. Illusions about politicians died many years ago: most of them are seen as representative of the corrupt, venal strain of society. The socialist economy of the 1960s and 1970s established political corruption as part of the “command” economy, a legacy of the Nehruvian era. Political life has continued to touch newer and newer lows over time, as criminals realised that they could be direct participants rather than sponsors of the political drama-farce. 1991 was only a minor hiccup for the politician; by 1994, it was business as usual again. In any case, state governments continued to blithely operate by their own rules, with the new breed of politicians unconcerned about probity in public life.

The less said about my own tribe, the bureaucracy, the better. Till the mid-1970s, the uppermost echelons, the IAS, IPS and the Central Services had relatively few black sheep in their midst. Over the 1980s, shamelessness started to pervade even the elite services. The middle and lower bureaucracy in the states were infected with the twin evils of corruption and politicisation to an extent where, returning to field level administration in 2000 in the same area I had served in ten years earlier, I could hardly believe the extent to which the rot had set in. Things have only worsened in the new millennium and the ugly politician-bureaucrat nexus is now caught in a fatal embrace (fatal for democracy, that is).

Faith in the judiciary was the one reassurance one sought in an increasingly darkening scenario. Unfortunately, the judiciary never used whatever independence it had to set its own house in order. The backlog of cases piled up at a dizzying rate; measures that might have made a difference, like written arguments (in appeals), summary disposal procedures and specified, limited recourse to legal remedies were never pursued. Lawyers who, as officers of the courts, are expected to assist in the speedy provision of justice have often resorted to tactics aimed at deflecting rather than delivering justice, with judges remaining silent spectators. We now have an unseemly conflict between the highest levels of the judiciary and the executive on the manner of selection of judges to the upper echelons of the judicial system. That India has a woeful per capita judicial officer quota is beyond doubt. But neither have serious efforts been made by the government to rectify it nor has the judiciary tried to at least make the best of a bad situation and enforce accountability in performance and propriety.

The press started to crawl in 1975, when shown the whip by the government of the day. Print media at district levels had always had its share of doubtful characters, who lived off the largesse of government advertisements and downright blackmail. But the print media at national and state capitals was still peopled by stellar characters. The downward slide started with the domination of electronic media and the larger than life image of well-known media personalities. Given the incestuous ties of journalists with North-South Block and Dalal Street, it was only a matter of time before something like the Radia tapes exposed the seamy side of journalistic wheeling dealing. Today, it has become common to associate any media group with a specific political party or business house (in terms of ownership and/or ideological slant).

The biggest casualty in the morality stakes has been civil society. Corruption was endemic in Indian society, but, till the 1970s, at least attracted some opprobrium. It has now gained respectability; the honest officer faces the ire of her superiors, peers and even family members. Systemic reforms face hurdles at every level, with the Indian propensity for jugaad at its inventive best when devising methods for circumventing the law. Post demonetization, a fair amount of government energy has been expended on plugging loopholes in implementation.

Poor Mr. Pul was trying to draw attention to these national drawbacks in his impassioned letter. The meaninglessness of his heartrending wail lies in our hardened attitudes to lawbreaking and looting public money. As a nation, we have also developed the habit of blaming every institution except that one of which we are a member. The politician seeks alibis in the intransigence of the judiciary, the non-performance of the bureaucracy and the hostility of the media. The bureaucracy, when it is not cosying up to the politician, either blames the political executive/judiciary or outdated procedures and rules. The media relishes hauling the executive over the coals without seeking to understand the complexities of policy making and implementation. And, of course, the judiciary has extended its reach to virtually telling governments and other agencies how to run their businesses. No one seeks to set their own house in order. How many Ministers at Central or State level have foregone their discretionary powers in dispensing patronage or finalising contracts? None, barring the Union Railway Minister. How many officers have resisted the temptation to bend rules in their last years in service to secure post-retirement appointments? Probably a handful. How many journalists do not seek their mess of pottage in terms of house allotments and foreign junkets? The fingers of one hand may suffice for this. Members of the judiciary are yet to raise the bar of accountability to deliver speedy justice, enforce norms of integrity in their ranks and restore waning public faith in the effectiveness of the judiciary. And the general public has let institutions of governance get away with sub-optimal service delivery levels, adopting the prevailing motto of “each man for himself and the devil take the hindmost.”

In his book on the Mahabharata, the author Gurcharan Das had talked about the impossibility of being good. Our human failings make it impossible for us to stay on the straight and narrow path during the course of our tumultuous lives; even Yudhisthira had to utter a falsehood to get rid of Dronacharya. And yet, the beauty of human existence lies in our attempts to surmount our weaknesses and struggle to attain the noblest expressions of our humanity. Else, we will all be like the citizens of Mohenjo Daro in their open air baths, our nakedness visible for the entire world to see.

 

 

 

 

 

The Governor – His Master’s Voice?

The ongoing political drama in Tamil Nadu once again focuses the spotlight on the role of the Governor of a state. The Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu sent in his resignation letter to the Governor on the first Sunday of February, 2017. The Governor, who was holding additional charge of the state of Tamil Nadu, was, on that day, ensconced in the salubrious climes of Tamil Nadu’s premier hill station, Ooty. What he did subsequently defies comprehension. Instead of moving immediately to Chennai to ascertain who in the ruling party enjoyed the confidence of its legislators, he chose to decamp from the state, apparently reaching Mumbai via Delhi a day later. Meanwhile, the outgoing Chief Minister, after communing with the spirit of his mentor, decided that he would rather continue as Chief Minister. The subsequent Mahabharata saw the s**t hit the ceiling, with the current Chief Minister and his likely successor, a long-time confidant of the deceased Chief Minister, trading ugly charges of conspiracy that would have done credit to a William Shakespeare play.

More to the point, what ought to concern us is not the Tamil Nadu drama, which has all the makings of a successful Tamil movie, but the way in which, once again, the institution of the Governor has taken a beating. Governors have come (and gone) in all shapes, sizes and political hues, contributing more than their share of controversy to the wonder that is India. We have seen Governors pressurising administrations of Universities to alter marks of politically influential students, indulging in unbecoming behaviour in Raj Bhavans and, recently, leaving after allegations of sexual harassment. More par for the course have been the efforts of Governors to interfere with the constitutional process for government formation in the states (especially opposition ruled ones), generally at the behest of the political masters who appointed them. Arunachal Pradesh is still fresh in our memory, with the death of one Chief Minister and the overthrow of another following gubernatorial actions; ditto for Uttarakhand, where it needed the Supreme Court to reestablish constitutional norms. Any government coming to power in Delhi exercises its divine right to sack existing incumbents and appoint its chosen favourites as Governors. Out of work or inconvenient politicians are generally the first choices, though the list often extends to bureaucrats, police officers and army officers who have established good equations with the ruling dispensation. There being nothing like a free lunch, especially in statecraft, favours have to be returned by the appointees, mostly through political meddling and (in case of opposition ruled states) making life difficult for the government of the day. Rare, or nonexistent, would be the Governor who takes any decision of consequence without the prior nod of the political bosses in Delhi. A more recent bad habit of the central government has been its propensity to not appoint a full-time Governor for a state but to give additional charge to another Governor. A major state like Tamil Nadu, which has had more than its share of political turmoil and natural calamities in recent months, has been among the victims of this cavalier approach of the Delhi Sultanate.

It would, of course, be unfair to tar all Governors with the same brush. There have been outstanding personalities like Surjit Singh Barnala and Gopalkrishna Gandhi, who have not only displayed qualities of independence from the Delhi Darbar but have also rendered sage counsel to their state governments. In my own karmabhumi of Maharashtra, I remember the quiet dignity of C. Subramaniam, the political father of India’s green revolution and the dedication of P. C. Alexander to removing the developmental backlog of the Vidarbha, Marathwada and Konkan regions of the state. Despite being close to both Indira and Rajiv Gandhi and being appointed Governor by a Congress government in 1993, Dr. Alexander enjoyed a close rapport with the Shiv Sena-BJP government in Maharashtra and, paradoxically, was supported by these parties for elevation to the post of President of India, though not by the Congress Party, proving that a Governor can endear himself to all shades of political opinion through a professional, nonpartisan approach.

However, since such Governors are the exception rather than the rule, there is need, in a situation where, increasingly, the centre and states are ruled by parties with different ideologies and political beliefs, for the Governors of states to be selected by an independent process. I suggest that Governors should be selected by a collegium comprising the Vice President of India, the Prime Minister, the Chief Justices of the Supreme Court and the concerned State High Court and the Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha. This would ensure that a totally incompetent political apparatchik is not foisted on an unwilling state government. It also gives scope for a reasoned choice where a state faces major challenges like insurgency, political instability or law and order breakdown.

Nonpartisan choices of competent public figures for the post of Governor are the need of the hour in a scenario where the professional politician in power in the states is increasingly pandering to the urges of the lowest common multiple in the electorate and is concerned only with hanging on to power at all costs, consequences be damned. More disturbingly, political flunkies who, as Governors, act neither as per convention nor in accordance with the Constitution damage the credibility of the democratic process. A misstep in a state like Tamil Nadu with a history of strong local sentiment could well have consequences that endanger the federal consensus that is the bulwark of a republican democracy. The sooner the political elite of Lutyens’ Delhi realise this, the better it will be for the health of the Indian polity.