A few fatal flaws

When does a flawed system of government become a threat to the security of the state and the wellbeing of the people? This is a question that must now concern all citizens witnessing the country’s dangerous decline in certain salient aspects, even as those at the helm, far from taking corrective measures such as the Lokpal Bill with teeth, are worsening the situation.

The Constitution Review Commission headed by former Chief Justice M.N.Venkatcheliah, established in February 2000, to suggest amendments to the Constitution in light of five decades of experience, submitted its report to the NDA Government two years later. Among other things, it recommended the scrapping of the “first past the post” election system — the source of the biggest ills afflicting the country, including the proliferation of regional and caste-based parties, and perpetual political indiscipline and instability at the centre and in the states. The near anarchy that eventuates as a result can be obviated by a system of a runoff between the two highest vote-getters. The need to secure 50 percent plus one vote, will compel all parties to moderate their election planks and messages to attract majority of voters and, once in government, to eschew policies favouring their vote-bloc, and prevent the kind of absolute paralysis we see in UPA-II today.

Were the Constitution to be rectified in the above manner, the problem of a bureaucratically stifled state would still remain. It is the root cause of rampant corruption, maladministration, opacity in government, and viscousy decision-making processes. Bureaucrats actually make policies and Ministers are content with this arrangement so long as they are alerted to the possibility of loot. In this respect, the bureaucrats — as diviners of incomprehensible rules and regulations and as guardians, moreover, of the discretionary power – are the prime facilitators, mentors to politicians intent on diverting public monies into private bank accounts here and abroad, and in writing up vendor contracts with inbuilt channels to siphon off government funds. The best evidence for this are the thousands of lakhs of crores of rupees routinely allocated to infrastructure development and meeting the social welfare needs of the people: Do the people at the grassroots remotely enjoy the scale of benefits worth this much expenditure, and where exactly is the quality infrastructure promised by the humungous levels of public investment in it over the years?

A system manned by those single-mindedly keyed to self-aggrandizement, specialises in protecting its own through institutional means. So, the Central Bureau of Investigation, controlled by the government, is tasked with investigating ministers and government officials and, in the era of slim and unstable majorities, to keep troublesome coalition partners in check with threat of unleashing corruption cases. How convenient is that? It is too great a risk to put an independent Lokpal in-charge of such an agency, leave alone permit it genuine autonomy. The Central Board of Direct Taxes, for the same reasons, shields the more egregiously erring officers of the Indian Revenue Service, known for its extortionist ways. The Administrative Tribunal, on its part, safeguards the interests of even jailbirds, recently restoring the pension of the convicted child molester, the former Director-General of Police, Haryana, SPS Rathore. There’s greater sensitivity where political heavyweights are involved. Human Resources Minister Kapil Sibal is prepared to sacrifice the Constitutional Right of Freedom of Speech just so Sonia Gandhi is not called names on the internet, and Manmohan Singh is convinced of P. Chidambaram’s innocence in the case of the Delhi hotelier because, he said, the Home Minister claimed so. Using this standard there will be no wrong doers and, hence, no need for judges, judicial process, and jails. Corrupt judges are not hauled up as their peers render verdict. Unaccountable government, legislature and judiciary are the hallmarks of an authoritarian state, and also, it turns out, of Indian democracy.

The extraordinarily venal and inefficient Soviet-style leviathan state is the most enduring legacy of socialism, and a millstone around the Indian people’s neck. Hoping to fast-forward economic development, Jawaharlal Nehru oversaw the growth and spread of the public sector in the economic sphere until now when, cancer-like, it threatens the private sector-fuelled economic progress – the last best bet for the country to realize its promise and potential. Meanwhile, the government run enterprises — the Ashoka Hotel chain, Air India, etc., staffed by a mind-bogglingly inefficient labour force, are a massive financial drain and, compared with their commercial competitors, an embarrassment. The pillars-cum-beneficiaries of the extant system, moreover, seem in no doubt about the business they are in. When a lowly municipal office peon in Indore is apprehended for unaccounted wealth to the tune of Rs 10 crores, and a clerk is caught with Rs 40 crores worth of property, imagine the opportunities for limitless plunder available to higher ups in the hierarchy. The occasional senior bureaucrat or politician, such as former telecommunications minister, A. Raja, found with his hand in the cookie jar of contracts worth thousands of millions of dollars could well plead, as Lord Clive of Plassey did at Westminster, that he was “amazed” at his own “modesty” considering that “the wealth of Hindoostan” lay for his taking.

The most damaging consequence of the statist ideology, however, is that it has reinforced the debilitating habit of mind of the Indian people, something the British colonial overlords, for obvious reasons, reinforced – looking to, and relying on, the state as mai-baap to provide them sustenance. With the Nanny state as provider of food and employer of first and last resort, the politics of competitive populism and quotas, on the one hand and of identity politics and patronage, on the other hand, reign. It has reduced even the proud Jat community, for instance, to seeking “backward caste” status.

When a system promises so much to so many but is essentially geared to serving the politician and the state functionary, what eventuates is a government that can easily be commandeered by a few beholden to crony capitalists, foreign interests, and extra-territorial powers. There is no graver threat to national security.

[Published in Asian Age and Deccan Chronicle on Dec 22, 2011 and available at www.asianage.com/columnists/few-fatal-flaws-932 and at www.deccanchronicle.com/columnists/bharat-karnad/few-fatal-flaws ]

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One Response to A few fatal flaws

  1. Jagdish says:

    For a few seconds there, I thought I was reading Arun Shourie :)

    There is a three point mantra, I have adopted over the years to gauge the level of commitment of a political party to serious reforms of the Indian state.

    1. Get the government (central and state) out of the business of business (translation: serious disinvestment. )
    2. Reduce the size and scope of government measured through fiscal balances and a serious curtailment of subsidy programs
    3. Decentralization of governance through strengthening governance at local levels (fiscal responsibility and authorities to local governments). Strengthen the 73/74th amendments and scrap article 200 of our constitution.

    I would like a lot more but the above would be a great start.

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