When the President of India speaks

(March 21, 2017 marks the fortieth anniversary of the lifting of the Emergency in India)

We normally get to hear the President of India speak on three formal occasions: on the eve of Republic Day and Independence Day and at the joint session of both Houses of Parliament marking the start of the Budget session. Of course, the President of India also makes speeches on various other platforms over his/her tenure. But what marks all these speeches is their standardised nature – they are either listing the priorities and achievements of the government of the day or are exhortations to select audiences on specific subjects. Which is why the publication of the first of his three volume memoirs by President Pranab Mukherjee was interesting: it was the first by a President while still in office. More intriguingly, it dealt with his first fifteen years in Lutyens Delhi during the Indira Gandhi era.

Of particular interest to my generation, which received its political education from the Emergency years, is his analysis and understanding of the Emergency – the events that led to it, the rationale for the Emergency and the happenings during that period and the political resurrection of Indira Gandhi in the post-Emergency years. Even today, forty years on, I remember my feelings on the morning of 21 March 1977 – “Bliss was it that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven”- when a captive All-India Radio and Doordarshan had to admit that Indira Gandhi and her Congress Party had been decisively routed in the polls. At a juncture now in the country’s and world’s history when strong personalities bestride the political scene and when the tenets of liberal democracy are being seriously questioned by the inhabitants of such democracies, there is need to try and understand the social forces at work in a country like India and what these imply for a country which has defied its critics and sceptics by doggedly persisting with a democratic form of government, despite all its flaws and aberrations. A comparison of 1975/77 India and her offspring of 2017 bring out the bright and dark sides of present-day India and enable possible prognostications of what the future holds for us Indians.

  • The educated middle class expansion and its implications: Post-1991, the middle class population in India has grown significantly in numbers apart from being engaged in a variety of occupations. The 1975 Indian middle class was largely employed in government service and beholden to the rulers of the day. The present day middle class Indian could be an entrepreneur, one who works in the organised private sector or is self-employed, very often one with international footprints. She has had access to improved education opportunities, is far more aware of thought currents across the globe and has many more avenues to express herself openly. And yet, the educated middle class is today far more susceptible to the allurements of narrow nationalism, jingoistic pride and intolerance of the views of others, as evidenced by the vicious attacks on social media. The ideals which guided the framers of the Indian Constitution find little resonance with the millennial generation. The technocratic worldview has little patience for liberal, humanistic values. It is little wonder then that liberal democracy is facing an existential crisis today.
  • The explosion in mass media: Freedom of expression has been facilitated by the internet revolution and the humongous growth in electronic and social media. Those of us who had just All India Radio and Doordarshan for meeting our information needs during the Emergency find the current Babel Tower of the electronic media refreshing, even if somewhat irritating at times. Twitter trolls notwithstanding, there is opportunity for every Indian with digital access to put forth her views. And yet, the flip side can be disquieting. While print media in the past was privately owned, big business has now come to dominate both print and electronic media. Editors and news managers are under increasing pressure to conform to the business interests of their owners, unlike in the past. The dissemination of news is also coming to resemble a cricket Twenty-Twenty match, with inexperienced reporters (having little understanding of ground realities) excitedly putting forth garbled versions of the true picture. Even more dismaying is the tendency of news anchors (puffed up with self-importance) functioning as judge, jury and executioner, silencing all inconvenient voices and sending to the gallows those they consider lacking in patriotism and national pride.
  • The Big Brother syndrome – I am the State: We are now in the era of the strong man, whether in India, Russia, the USA, Turkey or the Philippines. Indira Gandhi in 1975 was strong in her own right but she did not have the wide, rapturous acceptance of her predominant position that a Narendra Modi enjoys today. The problem is that the person, party, state and nation are today all seen through the same prism. Criticism of any one of these is seen as opposition to the nation-state. An aura of invincibility is sought to be created around the superman, using the media and capitalising on an ineffectual political opposition. It is true that unlike 1975, when Tamil Nadu was probably the only prominent non-Congress state, today’s political scene is marked by a multiplicity of parties, especially regional formations, ruling in different states. Many of them are often hostile to the ruling party at the centre and lose no opportunity to oppose it on a variety of issues. However, with power and money rather than principles and convictions being the bases for political conduct, there is no certainty about the opposition either, as the recent events of manufacture of governments in Arunachal Pradesh, Goa and Manipur show.
  • Diversity – of language, customs and religion: Running a subcontinent of India’s size and heterogeneity is no easy business, more so for a centralised, authoritarian government, as Indira Gandhi found to her cost in 1977. The multiplicity of tongues, religious beliefs and customs, cultural and dietary patterns render the enforcement of a uniform, majoritarian worldview well-nigh impossible. But, in recent times, efforts are being made to impose straitjacketed versions of history, culture and ideas that are drawn from the Gangetic plains. Conformity with the majoritarian mindset is sought to be ensured through indoctrination, legislation and government action and, where these prove inadequate, through resort to vigilante action, whether to dictate what women can wear and do or what people can eat, see and talk.
  • Institutional capture: The first attempts by the government of the day to bend institutions of democracy to its whims and fancies started in 1975 with the supersession of judges of the Supreme Court and the enunciation of the concept of a committed bureaucracy, apart from very crude efforts to muzzle the media. History seems to be coming full circle once again, with steps being taken to exert the influence of the political executive on appointments to the higher judiciary and with no clear system being adopted for appointments to the elite bureaucracy at the level of the Government of India (the media has already been tamed to a great extent, as mentioned earlier). Institutions of higher learning and statutory bodies are being packed with appointees beholden to the reigning political order.

It is impossible (and highly risky) to hazard any definite conclusions about the likely direction of politics in India in the coming decades. Inferences can at best be drawn from the straws in the wind as revealed by the actions of the government and the averments of its spokespersons. In totting up the balance sheet for India’s political system, what gives cause for some comfort is the resilience of the Indian people and their refusal to tolerate incompetent, corrupt and authoritarian behaviour on the part of those elected to represent them. In the first volume of his memoirs, Pranab Mukherjee has glossed over the rationale behind the Emergency, apart from sticking to the usual Congress line of opposition indiscipline, unrest and the call for the resignation of the Prime Minister: having been a loyal Congressman for most of his life, it would be too much to expect him to frankly analyse the inner motivations of the primary actor in first imposing the Emergency and then calling for the elections that led to its end. What is important is whether, forty years hence, we as a people understand the significance of a functioning democracy and the rules and conventions by which it should operate. Sadly, we, the so called “thinking classes”, are ready to hand over our powers (and even our freedoms) in our quest for security and certainty, forgetting that democracy is eternally a story that is in the making. It is we, the citizens of India, who have to write that story, learning from past mistakes. Else, there will be need to revert to a perennially favourite quote of mine “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

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Lipstick in a man’s world

Indian politicians have this amazing propensity to put their feet in their mouths. I remember the then Deputy Chief Minister and Home Minister of Maharashtra lost his post because of his comment post the 26/11 Mumbai attack “Such minor incidents do take place from time to time.” The present Home Minister of Karnataka stirred up a hornet’s nest after the horrifying incident of “mass molestation” on Bengaluru’s Brigade Road on New Year’s Eve. He apparently said, according to newspaper reports, that the police force could not keep a watch on everyone and referred to the “western ways” of youngsters as a corrupting influence. More recently, he and his party men have tried to paint reports of the incident as a political conspiracy to tarnish Bengaluru’s image. However, he has been outdone by the Maharashtra Samajwadi Party chief, who has given a clear sexist angle to the episode by claiming that women should not draw attention to themselves through their attire. Not to be outdone in the misogyny stakes, the archaic Film Certification Board and its Chairman have gone one better: they have refused to certify for public screening a film titled “Lipstick Under My Burkha”, ostensibly on the grounds that the movie is ‘lady oriented’.

I strongly recommend that all these gentlemen (and the ladies on the Film Certification Board), and others of their ilk, read an incisive analysis by three women researchers on what it means to be a woman in Mumbai “Why Loiter?: Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets”. What this book brings out clearly is the attenuated access of women to public spaces even in that supposed haven of liberation, Aamchi Mumbai. Women are allowed to enter the public space on terms that  are decided by a patriarchal society. What is particularly significant is the classification of the woman when the public gaze falls on her. As long as she is in a bus, a local train or in a public park with a specific ‘respectable’ purpose, preferably with an accompanying male and with the necessary accoutrements of mangalsutra and vermilion mark (in case of Hindu women) as also ‘acceptable’ attire, in case of all women, she is deemed to be the property of another male and is not considered ‘easy game’. But let her venture forth in a public space on her own or in a group of female friends, dressed according to her own desire and seen at ‘inappropriate’ hours of the day in the vicinity of ‘undesirable’ locations and she becomes the object of unwanted male attention or moral policing, either by the custodians of law or by self-appointed moralists.

The nukkad or the street corner cutting chai shop will never be the haunt of women; you will always see apparently idle men engaging in desultory chatter, accompanied by puffs of cigarette/beedi smoke or vigorous mastication of tobacco. Obversely, look at the village ghat or the local water standpost/handpump and men will be conspicuous by their absence. The division of leisure and labour in a gender-unequal society is painfully clear. The gender discrimination is even more painfully obvious where issues like access to toilets and breastfeeding of infants are concerned. Public conveniences in cities, where they exist and are tolerably clean, are weighted in favour of male use. A vicious cycle operates here: since women are seen less in public places, urban planners skew such construction in favour of the male sex, thus discouraging women from venturing forth in public. Even such conveniences as are constructed for women do not take care of their specific biological needs. It was heartwarming to learn that specific rooms have been set aside in bus stations in Maharashtra to enable nursing mothers to breastfeed their children.

What is becoming painfully obvious is that, notwithstanding some progress in women’s access to social equality and opportunities, Indian women are still at a disadvantage compared to their sisters in many democracies of the world, including those of developing and emerging economies. Apart from the aspect of human rights (which is undoubtedly of paramount importance), India will also suffer economically if she does not harvest the benefits of what I would term the “gender dividend”. Significant movement in this direction will be possible when the following issues are focused on and tackled, at both the policy and societal levels:

Gender equality must begin at home

It was shocking to hear that 19 aborted female foetuses were recovered from a stream in Sangli district, one of the more economically advanced regions of Maharashtra state. This is of a pattern with the Indian scenario where prosperous states and the better off areas of India (especially urban concentrations) display dismayingly low female-male sex ratios. Prenatal sex determination tests are still in vogue, with the subsequent abortion of female foetuses or murder of female babies. With the lower status of women established even before birth, it follows that the girl child represents the unwanted component of the family. Not surprisingly, the girl child, who is often healthier than her male sibling at birth, comes out worse in health and nutrition status by the end of the first year of life. Nutrition, healthcare and education opportunities are lavished on the male heir, this notwithstanding enough evidence that girls outperform boys in scholastic abilities and in perseverance. Children also imbibe the ingrained discriminatory attitudes towards women in the home, which are reinforced by the latitude given to boys as compared to girls. Gender roles are also sought to be cemented in children’s impressionable minds to fix their future life trajectories. Unless a ‘Dangal’ is created in age-old attitudes and prejudices right at the family level, gender equality will remain a myth.

Equal opportunities and freedoms for children of both sexes at adolescence and beyond

Attitudes to girls harden as they enter the critical years of puberty and adolescence. The girl is now seen as a liability whose ownership must be transferred at the earliest to another patriarchal set up. Leave alone actualisation of the girl’s innate potential, even education at the secondary school or higher levels is considered an unnecessary luxury, given the fixed ideas about her destiny as wife and mother, mingled with fears about her discovery of her sexuality. To add fuel to the controversy over certain institutions of higher learning circumscribing freedom of access of girls to libraries (after certain hours of the day) and wifi facilities as also interaction with the other sex, we have no less a person than the Minister for Women and Child Development of the Government of India counselling girls that restrictions are essential to control their “hormonal outbursts”. Apparently, only girls, not boys, need to be protected from their hormones.

Equal workplace opportunities and home/childcare responsibilities for both sexes

Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, in her thought-provoking book, “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead”, talks of how, when a woman executive is planning a family, the discussion moves immediately to what she is contemplating about her career, a question that is never asked of a male in a similar position. Granted, the woman has to carry the child for nine months, deliver the child and undertake nursing in the succeeding period. Companies and governments have taken many steps to ease the pressure on women through longer periods of maternity leave and arrangements for working from home, apart from paternity leave, so that the father can share the child-rearing responsibilities. In Sandberg’s case, her husband left his job at Yahoo and set up his own company so that he could devote time to the children at home, enabling Sheryl to devote time to her career. While the modern Indian urban family is slowly moving towards joint gender management of domestic responsibilities, social and familial pressures still constrain women’s choices. Even when the woman and her partner work out arrangements which enable her to fulfil her aspirations, she still has nagging feelings of guilt, a reminder of a society which still operates in stereotypes.

Make cities/towns truly smart to enable women to utilize opportunities

The real killer for the aspirational Indian woman is the environment in which she has to function. Forget rural India, where gender equality is still a distant goal. The urban woman has to negotiate a nightmare of situations in her day to day life, occasioned by apprehensions about personal security (especially after dark), creaky transport systems, inadequate toilet facilities, poor lighting and the male-dominated perception that she has no right to be on her own at the wrong times in the wrong neighbourhoods. India is proudly touting its smart cities. But a city that does not cater to the needs of half its population is not smart at all. Urban planning in India is in a shambles, with outmoded management systems and failing infrastructure. Women will bear the brunt of these deficiencies till governments get their acts together. Till then, we have to continue to live with privatised solutions to public problems in the areas of security, transport and sanitation, to name just three.

Need for social movements to create in women awareness of their rights and entitlements

As Paulo Freire, the Latin American educationist, observed in a different context, the oppressed internalise the values of the oppressor, enabling subjugation by the powerful for long periods of time. Indian women are no exception to this generalisation. Adopting the patriarchal set of values, women are often hostile to members of their sex perceived as deviants and not conforming to prevailing social mores and traditions, as evidenced by the ubiquity of the saas-bahu syndrome. There is also the fear in women of confronting a male-dominated society, with few support systems for women who stand up for their rights. Social change will come about only when women support each other and assert their rights to participation as equals in all aspects of social, political and economic life.

As the International Women’s Day rolls around once again, one is overcome by feelings of déjà vu. Two years ago, I wrote on the issue of the status of women in India in the context of the furore over the telecast of the Nirbhaya documentary (Cry, the Beloved Country). Mindsets change slowly in the wonder that is India, whether they be of Film Certification (Censor?) Boards or Vice-Chancellors of Universities. The good news lies in the rapidly growing access of women to education and economic empowerment and the increasing readiness of educated women (and their not so fortunate sisters) to confront misogyny in all its perverted forms. Applying lipstick will then be a matter of free personal choice, without any need to resort to covert stratagems.







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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.






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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.

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The Perils of Power

In the news reports detailing the political battle in Uttar Pradesh, one small item caught my attention. It mentioned that the doughty warrior of many a battle, Mulayam Singh Yadav, was close to tears when witnessing on television the open rebellion of his chosen heir, Akhilesh Yadav. Part of his sorrow would, no doubt, have been caused by the absence of filial loyalty on the part of a family member he had personally raised to the pinnacle of power. But another significant contributor to his dejection would likely have been the realisation that he had reached the end of the road marking his political trajectory. The die was cast when the son mustered over two hundred legislators in support while the father barely managed twenty. Realism hit when the father was forced to postpone the National Convention of his party in the knowledge that there would be few attendees. This reminded one poignantly of that day in January 2003 when the then Chief Minister of Maharashtra, Vilasrao Deshmukh, landed up at Aurangabad, where I was working as Divisional Commissioner, to inaugurate the state-level sports meet of the Revenue Department. Rumours had started from early morning that the Congress High Command had decided to remove him from the Chief Minister’s post. Imagine my shock when I saw an almost empty Subhedari Guest House, with only a handful of supporters greeting him on arrival. Compare this with the hundreds of people vying for his attention on his earlier visits to Aurangabad, where he was a very popular figure. That day, the realisation dawned on me that support evaporates for a public figure the minute hangers-on and favour seekers scent that he/she is on his/her way out.

My thoughts went back to 1985, when the wife of a very senior Minister in the Maharashtra Cabinet voiced her fears over her husband surviving as Minister, following an imminent change of Chief Ministers. She was, very obviously, more concerned about the withdrawal of the facilities of नौकर-चाकर-बंगला-गाडी (servants, house and car) once they left the confines of Malabar Hill. She confessed that, after years of being used to these comforts, she was terrified at the prospect of going back to routine housework and travelling by auto rickshaw. Her husband was probably more terrified at the thought of losing the perks of office, which included a ceremonial reception at the Government Guest House, attendance of the District Collector and Superintendent of Police and the fawning audience of those seeking the crumbs of power.

More than anything else, it is the “desire for recognition” that impels the drive to cling to the trappings of power. What can explain the pitiable spectacle of an octogenarian, obviously infirm senior politician being virtually lifted onto the dais to take the oath of office? Or the phenomena of superannuating bureaucrats jostling for post-retirement sinecures and seeking to continue in public positions till well into their eighth decade of life. Not forgetting, of course, political leaders who seek to retain control of parties and governments till they are close to the century mark and an unsympathetic Providence carries them away from this world. (The Supreme Court should probably, as it has for office bearers of Cricket Associations in India, impose an age limit of seventy for holding political and bureaucratic offices as well).To all of them, I can only offer this stanza from Adi Shankaracharya’s Bhaja Govindam:

मा कुरु धनजनयौवनगर्वं

हरति निमेषात् कालः सर्वँ।

मायामयमिदमखिलं हित्वा

ब्रम्हपदं त्वं प्रविश विदित्वा।।

(Do not be proud of your friends, wealth or youth. Time destroys everything in a moment. Give up attachment to this illusory world and seek to know the Self)


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Oh! to be in Estonia

I wonder how many people in India would even be aware that there is a country on planet Earth called Estonia. Tucked away in the Baltic corner of Europe, Estonia was one of the republics constituting the former USSR. The dissolution of the Soviet Republic in 1991 saw Estonia, along with a clutch of other erstwhile republics, achieve her separate identity. But what is truly remarkable about this small country of barely 1. 3 million people with a geographical area straddling not even 50,000 square kilometres is the rapid strides she has made in the digital revolution sweeping the globe. Estonia has an e-police, e-schools and an e-cabinet: you can now even apply for e-residency in that country. Estonia is virtually the digital hub for Eastern Europe and hosts the NATO Centre for Cyber Excellence. Not that digital progress does not come without a price; Estonia was literally brought to her knees by a major cyber-attack by Russian hackers some eight years ago and, has since, tightened cyber security measures. Her logic for offering e-residence facilities to non-citizens is, among other reasons, aimed at facilitating access to the European market to foreign investors at minimal cost and with a minimum of tiresome legal formalities.

No, I am not planning a shift to Estonia. The weather there is too cold, one has to keep worrying about a possible Russian re-takeover of the country and I am too tied to the earth of Bharat Mata. But I do think wistfully of Estonia’s e-topia whenever I run into India’s bureaucratic conundrums. The latest one is something called the FATCA declaration. For the uninitiated, this acronym stands for “Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act”. India and United States of America have an agreement under which the governments of the two countries will exchange information on taxable transactions by residents in the respective countries. So far, so good…but what gets my goat is the declaration to be signed by every Bharatiya whenever she opens a demat account or commences mutual fund trading, specifying her country of citizenship and place of residence. I am all for unearthing stashing of black money in safe tax havens, but getting over 99% of Bharatiyas, many of whom have not even crossed the Palk Straits or the Wagah check post, to sign one more silly document is surely the height of bureaucratic stupidity. More so, because these Bharatiyas generally transact through banking channels, where details about their citizenship, place of residence, etc. are already available with the banks.

But even the meaninglessness of FATCA pales before that other abomination, inflicted on us by the mandarins of the Finance Ministry, infamously known as KYC. Used by banks, gas agencies, mobile companies and sundry others to harry the unsuspecting customer, KYC officially stands for Know Your Customer. To my mind, it stands for Keep You Confused. I suspect that each time there is a change of Finance Minister or Finance Secretary in the Government of India, 600 million bank customers are once again asked to confirm their place of residence. Why else has one had to go through this exercise three times in the past six years? It is not as though seeking address details leads to lesser tax evasion or concealment of ill-gotten gains. We read daily about the number of fake accounts being uncovered in reputed private and government-owned banks: the mind boggles at what may be going on in cooperative banks.

As a matter of fact, asking for residential details of a customer wanting to open a bank account is itself a source of harassment to a citizen who moves for employment to different parts of the country every couple of years. I have read horror stories of young professionals who had to run from pillar to post to open a bank account when they moved in to stay with their parents and had no independent proof of residence. If the customer retains her bank account at the branch near her earlier residence and largely transacts through internet banking, she still needs to update her address to receive new debit and credit cards or for other transactions like securing loans. The agency that provides a service will invariably insist on a document like the Aadhaar card, passport and driving license or ration card for proof of residence, although a recently relocated customer is unlikely to have the new address on any of these documents. Nor do banks follow a uniform procedure for accepting address changes. One private bank allows for change of address through phone banking, while others ask for scanned copies of address proof. What defies comprehension is why the individual who can transfer/withdraw lakhs of rupees through net banking transactions cannot be trusted to change her address through the same net banking channel, without further verification. This underlines government’s basic lack of trust of the citizen and its permanent suspicion about her motives.

I have also not understood why the Aadhaar card needs to have the address on it at all. As a pan-India identity symbol, it is enough if it testifies to the fact of Indian residency. Updating the address every few years is an avoidable irritant for the geographically and socially mobile Indian: the fate of her economically worse-off migrant sisters and brothers is much more difficult to envision. Equally meaningless is the police verification at the time of issue or renewal of a passport, when any police station would have the list of persons whose record does not entitle them to issue of a passport. The police constable visits the house of a passport-seeker just to verify if she does stay there, never mind if the person moves house a few days after that. All this exercise does is to give a few more rent-seeking opportunities to the official machinery. It has not prevented gangsters and underworld henchmen from acquiring multiple passports at the drop of a hat.

Actually, the concept of a permanent residential address is so antiquated and irrelevant for members of the post-independence Indian domestic diaspora, who (and whose parents) have travelled wherever their employment took them. Most of us today have virtual email addresses that have survived longer than our present residential addresses. So when will our beloved Bharat be rid of this medieval fetish for permanent addresses? Probably when we move in the course of the next few months and years to a cashless economy. Once every transaction of ours leaves an electronic trail, there will be no need for any officious Finance Ministry bureaucrat to insist on an address. Till then, may I request the powers that be to content themselves with a correspondence address and trust the individual citizen when she furnishes that address?

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Demonetization – Phase 2 – from cash to cashless

The first month of demonetization has been a trying one: long queues, frayed nerves, some panic and the usual meaningless political drama. Now that the genie has been let out of the bottle, it makes more sense to work out the future steps than to flog the dead horse. I chanced on a news item where a Pune-based not-for-profit outfit, Arthakranti, has claimed credit for planting the idea in the Prime Minister’s brain. Unfortunately, they have also pointed out that, of their recommendations, the government of India implemented only one. Since not many would have gone through their suggestions, I am detailing them below, along with my views on the way ahead, as well as two critical issues that will need a push from the government if the cashless economy is to become a reality in the not so distant future.

Withdrawal of high denomination notes (₹ 1000, 500 and 100) from circulation was the one recommendation that has largely been implemented. Arthakranti had, however, proposed a phased withdrawal programme starting with the ₹ 1000 note, then the ₹ 500 note and finally the ₹ 100 note, spread over three six-month periods, with an adequate supply of newly printed notes of the next lower denomination to substitute for the withdrawn currency note. Finally, the highest denomination note in circulation was to be the ₹ 50 note. Without trying to guess the compulsions of the government in rushing through such a monumental process in fifty days without ensuring adequate supply of currency of legal denominations, there is no denying that much pain has been caused to the general public, apart from the man-days lost in queues and the depression in economic activity just when the kharif crop has been harvested and the rabi sowing is due. Having done what it did, the government should now move towards a gradual phase out of the ₹ 2000 and ₹ 500 notes, probably over the next 12 to 18 months, with adequate provision of ₹ 100 notes to avoid the situation we went through in November. I would advocate continuing with the ₹ 100 note for at least another three to five years till cashless payment systems are firmly established as the preferred transactional mode.

A cap on legal cash transactions of ₹ 2000 has tentatively been proposed by Arthakranti. Given the large number of unbanked Indians and the gestation period that will be needed for cashless payment systems to be put in place, I would be more comfortable with a cap set at ₹ 10000 for the period when the ₹ 100 note continues to be legal tender, with the cap being reduced to ₹ 5000 once ₹ 50 is the highest currency note in circulation. Any transaction in cash above this cap should be made illegal and liable for punitive action.

The truly revolutionary recommendation of Arthakranti is the replacement of all domestic direct and indirect taxes (central, state and local) by a banking transaction tax (BTT), with only import and export duties continuing in respect of internationally traded goods and services. This is tantamount to killing many birds with one stone. Coupled with the cap on legal cash transactions, this brings every transacting citizen into the tax net. Any transaction through a bank account (with automatically attached Aadhar and PAN card details) attracts a BTT of 2 percent, as suggested by Arthakranti. The BTT is added to the transaction value and deducted from the amount realised by the payee. The BTT realised is shared between central, state and local governments and the banking intermediary. With the tax net covering all transactions over ₹ 10000 (ultimately ₹ 5000), the system can be revenue-neutral even at a rate which is barely 7% of the currently highest marginal income tax rate or 10% of the anticipated GST rate. The ordinary citizen will be spared the ordeal of filing direct and indirect tax returns, an exercise that today taxes even the most nimble-minded chartered accountant. Governments at all three levels can save money on the huge army of tax inspectors, assessors and enforcers in departments ranging from income tax and central excise to state excise, land revenue, stamp duty, registration fees, commercial taxes, road tax, entry tax and property tax. User charges paid online will not only accrue immediately to the concerned department/agency but revenue receipts to the concerned governments and banks will also be instantaneous. The BTT would also cover agriculturists, who are out of the income tax net for political reasons, despite the recommendations of the K. N. Raj Committee over four decades ago. Most importantly, black money generation through corruption and tax evasion, and its conversion from cash to other asset forms like real estate and jewelry, can be checked.

Reaching out to the huge unbanked portion of the Indian economy requires, as a prerequisite, a digital revolution: the cashless economy can be built only on the foundations of a digital economy. Efforts to promote cashless payments and cash transfers in MGNREGA and the PDS have foundered on the absence of virtual connectivity in large swathes of the country. With banking services not covering even the last ten miles, let alone the last mile, banking correspondents, armed with point-of-sale machines, and mobile wallets are probably the major means by which money can be accessed. This, however, requires microwave towers, with reliable electric supply. Where the terrain does not suit microwave tower connectivity and where electric supply is yet to reach (which are the areas where the most disadvantaged sections of Indian society live), there is need to rely on satellite connectivity coupled with towers powered by solar energy. A second concern is that of cyber security. With increasing criminal infiltration of cyberspace, development of secure, encrypted systems is the need of the hour to avoid economy-wide disruption of financial systems.

Demonetization was initially promoted as the solution to check tax evasion and corruption and deal with counterfeiters and terrorists. With growing public irritation and the downturn in business, the government has started trumpeting the virtues of a cashless economy. This requires a paradigm shift in technology and in individual mindsets. But above all, it requires certain crucial reforms in other sectors of our democracy and polity. I will deal with these in a future blog.

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