Delhi-rium on the Delhi-gation of Powers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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The Twenty-first Century Animal Farm

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

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

(There is something special about this republic;

I vote for ascetics, the wretched fellows become emperors)

(Source: unknown)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Of bullshit…and suchlike matters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lutyens’ Class Wars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Rushing In Where Angels Fear To Tread

News reports stated that an eleven years old girl from Simdega district in Jharkhand died apparently because her family could not get their food grain entitlement as their ration card was not Aadhaar-linked. I say “apparently” because, in this post-truth age, one never knows how to separate fact and fiction in media reports. There will also be the usual controversy over whether health or nutrition factors were primarily responsible for her mortality, with all commentators blissfully unaware of the close linkages between the two. But, knowing how things work in India that is Bharat, I am certain that the failure to link their Aadhaar numbers to their ration cards must have cost many families access to subsidised food grains. This view is bolstered by reports that seem to confirm that the ration card of the family in question was not linked to the Aadhaar card.

I am not going into the merits of Aadhaar linkage to beneficiary schemes, on which enough heat and sound has been generated without any light. But I am concerned about the haste in rushing in to implement policy measures without adequate backup systems. This has a lot to do with the current obsession in governments to show results immediately. In the Jharkhand case, time could have been taken to ensure that most of the population had obtained Aadhaar cards and efforts could have been made over some months to ensure Aadhaar linkage with ration cards. But the childish enthusiasm of the political and administrative executive of Jharkhand to score brownie points with the higher-ups in Delhi probably led to their claiming that they had managed almost full linkage of ration cards with Aadhaar numbers.

The same issue bedevils MGNREGA payments in Jharkhand as well, with documented evidence that the system of online bank account transfers has resulted in inordinate delays in wage payments. If you think such poorly planned policies have troubled only the really poor, think again. Major financial decisions taken over the past year have played havoc with large segments of society, not because of lack of intrinsic merit, but because of the desire to impress the public that this is a “government that works”.

Demonetisation was intended to be the sledgehammer that would eliminate black money, check counterfeit currency and improve tax compliance through reliance on digital transactions. A year down the road, even after all the travails borne by the long-suffering public, it is evident that the black money scourge refuses to die, the introduction of more and more currency notes in different denominations will be a boon to counterfeiters and that tax compliance will become a reality only when simplified tax structures are in place and when sound legal systems exist to penalise defaulters quickly and effectively. Which begs the question of whether demonetisation could not have been handled in a more graduated fashion, with new currency notes going into circulation before the withdrawal of old currency notes.

The same thought haunts one when observing the hasty digitisation of the GST. Considering that it took thirteen years for this baby to be born, the infancy phase could have been handled better. The “tryst with destiny” has certainly altered the destiny of small retailers and merchants, many of whom find the process of filing returns excessively cumbersome. In its fourth month of implementation, technical glitches still thwart the filing of returns: GSTR1 filing for July has just been completed, with filings for subsequent months pushed to November. Despite the promises of the Union Finance Minister to process refunds expeditiously, CAs are of the view that refunds could take six months or more, affecting cash flows of businesses. Gradual phasing in of GST online systems with continuation of the service tax regime for some more months would probably have ensured less transitional pain.

Ramming Aadhaar compliance down the throats of income tax payers and bank account holders will, I suspect, unleash another Pandora’s Box in the months to come. Again, I am not questioning the rationale but the speed of expected compliance, consequences be damned. Filing income tax returns for FY 2016-17 required all those not having Aadhaar cards as of April 2017 to get them by July 2017. Pensioners and the elderly were particularly inconvenienced. Linking Aadhaar numbers to bank accounts has its own technical problems. Most banks have no robust online mechanism to enable the account holder to verify that her bank account is indeed Aadhaar-linked. Come February 2018, citizens may well be faced with the nightmare (actually, it should be called daymare) of their accounts being frozen, leading them to beg on the streets. The insistence on linking mobile numbers to Aadhaar numbers, apparently mandated by the Supreme Court, is yet another nuisance around the corner.

Make haste slowly” is a salutary motto for good governance. This tendency of the civil service is viewed unfavourably by professional politicians, obsessed with the five-year election itch: why, even an ex-bureaucrat like Arvind Kejriwal has commented unfavourably on IAS officers sitting on files. Many of us were roasted by Ministers and Chief Ministers when we insisted on listing on file the pros and cons of any decision, probably a reason for at least some of us being overlooked for prize postings. Pointing out all the possible implications of a decision ensures at least that, if Plan A goes wrong, Plans B and C can be put into operation. It is the current fashion to run down the 1991 economic reforms as being rather halting and piecemeal. As one who was in Delhi at that stage, I am happy that even those reforms that did take place at that time went through, given the attachment of establishment politicians to “crony socialism” and the hostility of an established elite to the whittling down of its gravy train.

The rush to push through major decisions has, no doubt, been influenced by the relatively narrow window before the 2019 general elections. If the favourable results take time to mature, the government may well have to reap the whirlwind of short-term resentment. In the present climate of harking back to our glorious past, I take the liberty of recounting the story of Bhasmasura. Blessed by Siva with the boon of turning whatever he touched to ashes, Bhasmasura sought to test the boon on his benefactor. It took the wiles of the damsel Mohini to persuade Bhasmasura (in the hope of acquiring her) to place his hand on his own head and be turned to ashes. Governments would do well to heed this parable. Chasing the electorate (Siva) to test its powers, the government (Bhasmasura) is finally enticed by Mohini (the election process) to destroy its continuance in power through unwise, ill thought out steps. Yet again I resort, ad nauseam ad infinitum, to my favourite quote:

Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

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 Strong Man Cometh

(*: Man refers in this article to the species homo sapiens and has no gender connotations)

Après nous le déluge(Madame de Pompadour)

Surely the Second Coming is at hand.(The Second Coming: William Butler Yeats)

“If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.(Voltaire)

The apocryphal quote attributed to the mistress of Louis XV of France sums up the attitude of sections of the population to the demise (and the removal from the earth) of a strong, autocratic personality from their midst. One saw it in Uzbekistan, where one despot was replaced by another; why, even in a state like Tamil Nadu, which is part of the noisy, fractious democracy that is India, it was difficult for people to come to terms with Amma’s Anno Domini. The Pandava Yudhishthira was spot on in his reply to the Yaksha’s question “Day after day countless people die. Yet the living wish to live forever. What can be a greater wonder?” This futile desire of the masses to immortalise their icons is reflected in the conviction of those worshipped that they are destined to live, if not forever, at least into the distant future. This is possibly one of the reasons why there is no attempt at succession planning, though the fear of a far more competent successor may well weigh on the mind as well. Be that as it may, what is more worrisome is that more and more societies, especially those with a tradition of liberal democracy, are turning towards perceived “supermen” and “superwomen” to tackle the vexing problems of the twenty first century.

It is not as though there have been no dominant ruling personalities in history – just think of Henry VIII, Ivan the Terrible, Catherine the Great and Napoleon. What distinguished the despots of the twentieth century from their predecessors was the access to technology that enabled them to so totally dominate the minds and actions of their subjects. Stalin, Hitler and Mao, and an assortment of lower-scale tyrants, could impose their will on every citizen, using the reach of communication technology to create an atmosphere of unpredictable terror and herding together citizens into camps and communes (for reeducation, ethnic cleansing and indoctrination) in numbers never contemplated in earlier centuries. Superior weapons, instruments of terror and ideology-brainwashed bureaucracies eliminated millions in the name of future utopias. The inevitable end of the controlling autocrats led to the unravelling of their tyrannical systems. But Tiananmen Square and the fall of the Berlin Wall have not quite led to the expected explosion of democracy. In fact, China continues to combine a liberalised economy with a highly restrictive political system and Russia, after flirting with democracy for a few years, is headed for a one-man, one-party dictatorship for the foreseeable future. Authoritarian regimes are thriving in many countries in Asia, and Africa and Latin America swing between democracy and absolute rule.

What, however, gives greatest cause for concern is the growing tendency for citizens of liberal democracies to readily jettison the basic tenets of democracy – pluralism, tolerance, free expression – in a world where they perceive themselves as insecure, in the economic, political and social senses. It started with the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, led to the political earthquake of last year in the USA and is now spreading slowly but surely across Italy, France, Holland and Germany (although the citizens of France have thwarted it for the time being). A figure from the right end of the political spectrum is emerging in every democracy who promises heaven on earth to his leaderless flock. So what traits characterise such men (and women) and which environments provide the best soil for their growth and entrenchment in a society? I can think of six such elements:

Megalothymia

Megalothymia is defined by Francis Fukuyama (The End of History and the Last Man) as “the desire to be recognised as superior to other people”. This desire for recognition typically aims at dominating others and bending them to one’s will. Mostly observed in the political class, but equally recognisable in corporate chieftains, top bureaucrats and orchestra conductors, this trait manifests itself in the conviction of the megalothymic person that he has a unique mission to fulfil during his tenure on earth. Fukuyama argues that even a person like Socrates stressed the need for a class of courageous and public-spirited guardians who would sacrifice their material desires and comforts for the common good. But Socrates was also clear that the megalothymic tendency needed to be curbed if the political order was to be preserved. Liberal modern democracies attempt this discipline through the existence of countervailing centres of political power and the second, third and fourth estates (the legislature, judiciary and press respectively) and what could be termed the fifth estate (viz. civil society).

Social engineering:

The unique mission of the megalothymic leader has, since the early twentieth century, taken the form of engaging with the transformation of the very structure of society. Communism and National Socialism represented ideologies that had their own visions of the future course history should take. Forced collectivisation and gulags in the Soviet Union, the solution of the Jewish question in Nazi Germany and its wartime acquisitions and the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution in Communist China were efforts to direct societies in specific directions envisioned by the Great Leader, with the terrible consequences being borne by millions of people in the half century from 1925 onwards. Recent actions or intentions, like extra-judicial executions in the Philippines, demonetization in India, promoting the Islamic way of life in Turkey and the proposals of the new President of the USA to reduce immigration and restrict individual choice in personal matters like abortion and same sex marriage also bear the imprint of social engineering imposed from above.

Infallibility:

In the effort to impose his vision on society, the Leader has, always, to be steadfast in the certainty of his convictions. George Orwell’s “Big Brother” is always right. No opposition or dissent is tolerated, with likely competitors being dealt with through purges (Bukharin), assassination (Trotsky) or reeducation (Deng Xiao Ping). We can observe this trend in political life in India, both in national and state-level parties, where heresy (opposition to the Leader) is punished by banishment from the party and political exile. Democracies have this cardinal virtue: as the philosopher Karl Popper put it, governments can be replaced in a bloodless way, acting as a salutary check on the hubris and vaingloriousness of potential autocrats.

Authoritarian predisposition:

The megalothymic personality is quite likely to display authoritarian tendencies. What encourages this trait in him is the display of an authoritarian predisposition in the population he rules over. Karen Stenner (The Authoritarian Dynamic) has pointed out that, in times of perceived normative threats, this authoritarian disposition is activated and leads to support for the authoritarian who promises a return to a secure, glorious past. Support of the majority of the population is not required; it is enough if a vocal, aggressive section of the population backs the autocrat, with the rest of the population either too divided or disinterested in offering any meaningful opposition. The minority then employs extra-constitutional, vigilante methods to terrify the general population through its unpredictable responses, as Hitler’s Storm Troopers did in the early years of his rise to power.

Exclusivist ideology

The regime of the strong man requires the development of an insular approach, with the ‘other’ identified as the source of threat. Policies are tweaked to restrict the freedoms available to specific groups, related to association, livelihood, movement and expression. Media outlets are encouraged to spread an atmosphere of fear and insecurity. The results are already visible in the world’s two largest democracies, where vigilante groups and individuals are dispensing “street justice” to the victims of their ire, innocent citizens who are merely going about their daily lives.

Institutional capture

Institutional capture begins with the electoral process. Adverse domestic economic conditions, an insecure external environment, joblessness, inflation and (increasingly in many countries) a harkening back to past glories, religious dogma and perceived historical injustices bring electoral majorities to the strong man. With the legislature under control, other institutions are subtly subverted. The media, which is already overwhelmingly under business control, is slowly moulded to conform to the vision of the strong man and to hail the utopia he is bringing about. Packing the senior judiciary with persons whose ideological stances mirror those of the ruling dispensation enables dilution of the one check on executive power. The civil service is kept in line through side-lining independent professionals and promoting those committed to the ruling ideology. Above all, the control over pedagogic content is ensured through staffing educational institutions with loyal apparatchiks and rewriting history to mould the minds of the coming generation to accept a worldview vastly different from that of their preceding generation.

The emergence of the strong man in society after society comes at a time when liberal democracies are coming under increasing threat. Those who have benefited economically and socially from the efforts of past governments readily run down the achievements of these previous governments and place the blame for all ills on the inertia and corruption of the past. With a largely technocratic approach to life, and discounting the liberalism and pluralism that have been the fundamental bedrocks of prosperity, the citizens of the “Brave New World” yearn for certainty and security, forgetting that it is they who have the power to make or unmake their future. In this environment of disenchantment and hopelessness steps in the strong man fulfilling the dire prediction of Yeats “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

 

 

 

 

 

The commercialisation of nutrition – Maharashtra comes full circle

The flip-flops in India’s child nutrition policies are nowhere better exemplified than in the recent decision of the Maharashtra government to issue a tender for the supply of fortified ready-to-cook pre-mixes for feeding children, aged three to six years, in rural anganwadis.

Maharashtra has, for many years now, outsourced the supply of take home rations (THR) for mothers and children below the age of three years to so-called Mahila Sansthas that in turn have subcontracted this work to private manufacturers in the state and outside.

With the tendering for ready to cook pre-mixes, Maharashtra is turning the clock back on the important Supreme Court (SC) decision of 2004 that mandated state governments to serve hot cooked meals prepared by women self-help groups, or similar locally based women’s organisations, to children attending anganwadis.

What does this imply for the ICDS* supplementary nutrition programme and what are its likely ramifications?

Quality of food supply is the first and most important concern.
It is difficult to take at face value the tender stipulations that quality checks will be carried out by the supplier organisation at in-house laboratories. Nor can one take comfort from the provision for quality checks at independent laboratories ordered by the ICDS Commissioner. Public laboratories in India are notorious for delays in furnishing reports, enabling defaulters to get away.

The 2012 report of the SC Right to Food Commissioners to the SC highlighted the poor quality of THR supplies in Maharashtra. However, despite complaints about poor THR quality, no action has ever been taken in the past against politically powerful suppliers, either in Maharashtra or other states. In any case, public laboratories in India are notorious for delays in furnishing reports, enabling defaulters to get away.

There is also the issue of whether pre-mixes supplied to children will be as nutritious as hot cooked meals, apart from the question of palatability. Even adults who use pre-mixes to quickly rustle up upmaor sheera at home will testify that the pre-mixes’ taste is nowhere close to that of items prepared from fresh natural ingredients.

With a provision of only INR 6 per child per day, there is also the very real apprehension that the suppliers will be tempted to compromise on quality to maintain their profit margins.

Quantities of pre-mixes supplied to anganwadis, and used for meal preparation, will be the next issue.
At one time, probably about four decades ago, states such as Maharashtra and Gujarat set the standard for efficient, responsive administration. Unfortunately, these states too have degenerated in administrative efficiency and probity to the levels of their counterparts in northern and eastern India. The travesty that represents ICDS nutrition supplies in Uttar Pradesh has been well documented.

When the then Minister for Women & Child Development, Government of India pushed for commercial supply of food items in the ICDS in 2008, it did not meet with the approval of the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs (because it would open the doors to large-scale corruption).

The apprehensions of poor programme delivery are amplified by the top-down approach adopted in this tendering system. There is no mention anywhere in the tender document of social accountability through monitoring of supplies and service delivery by village level institutions like the gram panchayats, their health and nutrition committees and mothers’ groups, let alone their involvement in the process of meal preparation.

As one who was involved with the ICDS in Maharashtra through the first decade of this millennium, I can vouchsafe for the beneficial multiplier effects of involving local bodies from the Zilla Parishad to the Gram Panchayat, as well as local communities, in the management of child nutrition. In the present scenario, the pre-mix will be distributed from the project to the anganwadi, with no check on whether the right quantities are reaching the anganwadi.

Stipulations within the tender raise questions around corruption and the concentration of production among a handful of large players.
What is disturbing about the tender are the numerous conditions which straight away disqualify smaller groups from participating in the supply of nutrition to children. Although the tender document specifies that only women self-help groups, Mahila Mandals, Mahila Sansthas and village communities are eligible to bid, the requirements to be fulfilled by the successful bidder rule out the possibility of the tender being awarded to any small group.

There are onerous conditions regarding the high annual turnover needed to qualify, the need for a functional and operative licensed manufacturing unit and an in-house testing facility to test the quality of the premix. The three Mahila Sansthas that were awarded the THR contract had leased facilities for THR production from private agro-companies; ownership and operational control of the Sansthas as well as the companies were vested in the same family.

With the present tender also permitting the participation of Mahila Sansthas, there is ample scope for the same stratagem being employed to circumvent the SC rulings on contractors and private suppliers.

From an equity viewpoint too, the concentration of production in a few organisations denies economic benefits to a very large number of rural women’s groups, which earn their daily bread through the preparation of meals for children.

Ultimately, the issue boils down to whether government programme funds of about INR 2,500 crores should be channelled to a few organisations with, if previous experience is any guide, links to private producers.

Other states are adopting more equitable and empowering solutions
The move of Maharashtra to premix supplies comes at a time when other states are innovatively experimenting with public systems to improve nutrition supplies to mothers and children.

Karnataka has introduced eggs and milk in the daily diet for 3-6 years children, Orissa is promoting the cultivation of local millets and Chhattisgarh has improved its public distribution system to ensure regular food grain supplies to families.

As the foregoing discussion brings out, this policy serves neither the ends of efficiency (given the scope for possible quality and quantity aberrations), nor those of equity (concentration of supply in a few hands) or empowerment (with no role for participation of local governments and communities). Whether such a policy behoves a land that is the karmabhumi of Shahu Maharaj, Jyotiba Phule and Babasaheb Ambedkar is the question that ought to concern us today.

*ICDS (Integrated Child Development Services) is the largest programme in the world devoted to the care of pregnant and nursing mothers and children under six years of age.

This article was originally published on India Development Review (IDR), the country’s first independent online media platform for leaders in the development community. You can access the article here