Beyond the collapse of the steel frame

DILIP CHERIAN

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FIFTY years after independence, we are still basically a rather young, fledgling democracy that happens to be currently (and I use the word advisedly) nestled within the bowels of an ancient civilization thatís more fundamental to us. For us as a civilization (yes, we once were that!), the inevitable consequences of leadership churn, multi-party coalitions and frequent electoral chaos are relatively new. Our elections are still best understood as a kind of proxy for a festival and we have tended to treat our elected leaders, temporal though they are, with the reverence once reserved for kings.

The sagacious wisdom of modern Indiaís founding fatherís recipe for governing within this inevitable chaos, was, I believe, substantially aided and abetted by their ability to adapt features that were already put in place by our then rulers from overseas. They did not abandon instantly, in a fit of pique, everything that they were inheriting, along with the mantle of freedom.

An ancient societyís ability to tolerate the inevitable depredations of democracy in its infancy needed to be substantially assisted. This was sought to be provided by the subconscious confidence that somewhere just below the newly elected masters there existed a steel frame that could be relied on to ensure that the more things change the more they remain the same. The more our elected masters changed, the more the system itself remained the comforting same. This steel frame was the basis of an almost civilization-wide confidence that substantive elements of comforting continuity would be ensured. This, despite the devastation that the implications of democratic choice could often visit on an unsuspecting people in an infant democracy.

This sounds terribly uncharitable. But it needs to be said once. Despite the belief that at first sight it may seem that we as Indians are quintessentially an anarchic people, as a race, actually most comfortable when we are ruled. Donít forget that over millennia we have, like many other civilizations, traditionally had kings, courts and courtiers as an integral part of our civilizational structure. Our religion and traditions have also allowed us to be dominated by the need to conform. Our scriptures have been specially designed to lay down social structures, hierarchies and entitlements.

All this makes us a nation that is particularly amenable to being ruled. And what better way to rule it than with a system that is independent of the ruler itself. This is what the Bri tish crafted for us. And this was the system that our founding fathers chose to espouse and then converted into a powerful local tradition. What worked for the rulers of one genre, they figured, would work with its democratic inheritors.

But change has a way of sneaking into the best of systems. It has come in many ways. Each variant has done its own kind of damage. Today what is left of the system, has little resemblance to where it was just a few brief years ago. It is shocking to see the speed at which the steel frame collapsed. Observers wonder why a framework which had the kind of inner strength that it was famed to have, and indeed had displayed quite often under duress, crumbled so suddenly.

 

 

There are those who trace the fault lines to the Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi. Severe damage may indeed have been inflicted at that time. But, there is no doubt that the powerful system had the resilience to once again reorganize itself quickly during Rajiv Gandhiís subsequent tenure. That was without a doubt a golden era and a last hurrah rolled into one. The arrogant air of superiority and complete self-confidence combined with the terror that a cabal is able to inflict on its members to ensure both submission and total loyalty has now, however, suddenly sunk without a trace. As a result, what is left is a pitiable stub that is not a patch on the glory days of the systemís heydays.

The question that is sometimes asked is whether the demise was triggered by external factors or internal contradictions. Or was there a bug that was planted within the system itself that caused it to crash. It is my belief that an internal bug was indeed just the start of the problem. This was subsequently aided by external factors and finally the system itself may have simply just run out of historical imperative. With democracy now over 50 years old, maybe the crutches had to just wither away. A self-limiting bug perhaps?

Bugs or not, the symptoms of collapse are clearly visible. The most obvious one is that the biggest boys in the system are now on the verge of senility. The number of top bureaucratic positions that are currently held by people who are well past their Ďsell by dateí is astounding. The rot begins at the very top. Now that the prime ministerís principal secretary, Brajesh Mishra is the target of vicious attacks by segments of the ruling party, it is further evidence that power has got increasingly concentrated in the hands of those who ought to have been put out to pasture.

Only part of the reason is the fact that the entire top political leadership is itself a crumbling gerontocracy with a Ďsore throatí. The PMO, the Planning Commission, the Security Council and a slew of top advisory positions are monopolized by those who have run out of steam. As the Chinese say, a dead fish rots from the head. And that to me epitomises the Indian bureaucracy today.

 

 

Corruption is today rampant and it is silly to expect that it will avoid the top bureaucracy. But it is astonishing to see the rapid decline in levels of honesty that in some senses had survived many earlier years of furious assault. The number of senior officers who have been investigated and publicly exposed in recent years is staggering. Police officers, revenue officers, officers on special duty, top administrators and regulators are today routinely amongst the accused. Itís a different matter that our justice system simply does not have the capability of arraigning enough of them and putting them away. They know the system so well that when they choose to subvert it, they display an enviable efficiency.

A brilliant example was available recently when a senior police officer was caught hosting a lavish farmhouse party and serving vast quantities of smuggled liquor. Police from the raiding party ensured that the case that was registered was only against the hapless farmhouse owner. They ensured the escape of the main culprit, one of their brethren, because the technical offender was the owner of the premises where the smuggled liquor was being served and not the host of the evening who procured the liquor in the first place.

 

 

Sheer incompetence and ineptitude are now at an all-time high. There are those who argue that Indiaís set-back at the WTO negotiations is one of the best examples of how incompetence has attained top ranking, in many departments, for several years now. Unquestioning and routine acceptance of World Bank and IMF norms is often pointed out as yet another example of how Indiaís economic decision-makers are no longer of the level that can stand up to even the slightest multi-lateral bullying.

This secular decline in the quality of top management is aided and abetted by the fact that critical jobs have increasingly shrinking tenure orders. Merry-go-round posting procedures and arbitrary transfer patterns have ensured that the little talent that exists is not allowed to stay static for long enough to deliver results. Incompetence is King, inefficiency is Queen, the Courtiers are the whimsical transfers and the poor subjects are the ones who are ruined.

The parts of the steel frame meant to take care of foreign affairs has bureaucrats who too have recently achieved some bizarre and scarily inefficient results. You have the unbecoming sight of a prime minister being insulted by the European Union. Apparently even this insult was the best that could be managed by a team after the end of several months of clearly inefficient wrangling by supposedly expert bureaucrats. You also have the public spectacle of the deputy prime minister being rebuffed in his attempt to visit Russia. In this case the grapevine has it that one contributing factor was the battle between two sets of babus of the diplomatic corps, one set that owes allegiance only to the top boss and the other intent on pushing for someone who they believe will soon be their future boss. The crosswires were shorted badly enough to ensure that the fuse blew in full public view.

 

 

Which brings me to another genre of collapse. Battling babus would have been unthinkable in just the recent past. Today they unhesitatingly take sides and with cheeky confidence that thereís no boss big enough or confident enough to rap their knuckles. A system of babudom where the chain of command is weak is like a rogue elephant thatís also lame. It can do damage, lurch unpredictably and definitely merits being put down. But nobody is in charge.

The biggest blow in recent times to the entire bureaucratic system has been the rise of caste factors. Strangely enough, the place where the original caste backlash started, Tamil Nadu, never actually saw this phenomenon affect the steel frame. But in the bad-lands of Uttar Pradesh this phenomenon has achieved epic proportions. Today as each new chief minister ascends to the throne at Lucknow, a tsunami of transfers is immediately triggered.

A vast number of senior officers are replaced overnight in an, usually midnight, orgy of purely caste-based mating rituals which ensure that only those of the appropriate caste are in positions for the ministers that matter and in the departments that count. It is your DNA grouping and testing that decides whether you get the dubious distinction of being finance secretary in that tainted state or remain confined to animal husbandry in a far off boon-docks district.

 

 

The big breakdown in bureaucracy can be seen by the recent happenings in Gujarat. Harsh Mandar, an IAS officer of the M.P. cadre working in Gujarat at the time, was so enraged by the role of IAS officers in the state and their total surrender to the political authorities that he did not think it fit to continue in such service and resigned in sheer disgust. Mandarís resignation merely provided an opportunity to Modi to fill up the bureaucracy with more babus who held the same beliefs and views as him, a groupie band who made it easier for him to indulge in his pro-Hindu propaganda. When a stateís bureaucracy is determined and dominated by the religious views of the individuals comprising it there is cause for worry.

It is others like Mandar who makes us realise that all is not lost. This brilliant display of a strong backbone and moral turpitude is rarely seen. But two examples must be mentioned. The disinvestment department has a secretary of such impeccable credentials that an entire process has been carried through with almost no accusation of any kind of corruption. The election commission is headed by a person of such outstanding integrity and conviction that the entire world applauds his success in carrying out free and fair elections in Kashmir. Outstanding achievers of this ilk and quality often help to restore some level of faith and confidence in the quality of humans within the system, who are still willing and able. The frightening thing of course is that with each passing generation there are fewer and fewer of them available.

Can this situation be repaired is the question that many people have begun to ask. Four separate tracks of change allow us to look at the problem in a fresh manner. The first is the fact that the Bharatiya Janata Party as a political party is actually less integrated with the bureaucratic system. In some sense, the genesis of the current crisis can easily be traced to this basic party drawback.

It is a well-known fact that the BJP as a party has always had extremely devoted supporters, but largely among the lowest rungs of the lower babudom. Aside from a few hand-picked top-level officials, many of whom are either relatives or have worked with some of the older party leaders when they were in power many decades ago, the party has very few seasoned bureaucrats who are well-known to them. This might be one of the main reasons for the lack of experienced and respected bureaucrats in positions of power today. And why the old and infirm are trotted out and hung onto.

 

 

This concept of partisan babus is of course a total aberration from the way the system is supposed to work. Bureaucrats are meant to be divorced from their connections with political parties and are not exactly expected to be aligned in a partisan manner. But in many ways this wonderful and pristine scheme of things has been destroyed over the years. The destruction at the central level today matches the kind of devastation that took place at the state level many years ago. The succession of coalition governments at the Centre with powerful partners from the states has actually ensured that the collapse of the independent bureaucracy at the state level has been transmitted dangerously to the Centre.

What is significant is that the party in power today does not have either an understanding of or connections with substantial numbers of top quality bureaucrats to be able to trust and rely on them. That appointments are made purely on the basis of personal equations and favours can be seen through the appointment of B.K. Agnihotri as Indiaís ambassador at large for persons of Indian origin and non resident Indians. A position like this has never existed before and hopefully will not after Agnihotri finishes his term, the tenure of which is also not specified. What is important to note is that such obvious manipulations in appointments in the bureaucracy carry on unchecked.

 

 

If indeed there is a moment in time or that can actually go through with a significant shrinking of the size of government, it is now. It is only now that despite the many setbacks on the disinvestment process, the government moved to withdraw from large segments of the economy, thereby ensuring that there is a secular contraction in the size of government. It helps that this is the one party that does not have any long-standing commitment to a bloated public sector and is, therefore, by implication a massive overload on bureaucracy. Today we have the opportunity and the least political anxiety about dismantling the existing system that ensures both control and ownership within the same structures of the government.

The third track of change that allows us to consider dramatically different options is the fact, now widely recognized, even within the stuffy and self-satisfied bureaucratic circles, that we are facing a major famine of talent at the top levels of the bureaucracy. We are paying the price for the fall in quality of inputs that has taken place continuously over the last 20 years. Positive discrimination in favour of the lower sections of society began to play its part at least 20 years ago. This was a trend that accelerated in the post-V.P. Singh years. It ensures today that the catchment area of talent which is available within the bureaucratic system is tragically poor. Add to these trends the fiscally delightful fact that most state governments no longer have the money to pay huge bloated bureaucracies any more. They, of course, blame this on the depredations that the Central Pay Commissions have visited on them, by multiplying at each stage the outgo on account of salaries and allowances alone.

This is of course a completely facile argument. In some states, like Himachal for instance, bureaucratic employment has ballooned with each soft-in-the-head government till it now accounts for 60% of all employment in the organized sector. Governments here have come and gone on account of how much they are able to please and pamper on a continuous basis the continuous growth of the local bureaucracy. Today, the little revenue that state governments are able to eke out of their systems is being rapidly eaten up by giant bureaucracies that simply have no place in this era. But, despite this procession of pay commissions, the top bureaucratic jobs are still not monetarily attractive, in the bare bones kind of monetary fashion. This is perhaps as good a time as any to consider new options that may be viable for the future.

 

 

The option of opting for a US-style spoils system of bureaucracy is tempting. Despite the fact that some variant of this kind of system has already been grafted on unthinkingly at the state level, one is not sure whether that kind of tinkering will succeed. Given the near collapse of both faith in and efficiency of the bureaucratic system, a dramatic change might be the only option. In each case the current kind of quasi-spoils system is far more dangerous than the old one, and it certainly must be replaced by one that is completely new.

 

 

Top politicians must in the future be allowed to choose the officials they want from anywhere rather than from within a cadre. This would allow them to pick and choose top quality talent from across the talent pool that is (supposed to be) available in India, and hopefully even from those who have fled overseas in the last several decades of domestic neglect. Once a politician is linked directly with the bureaucrat of his choice, then the line of responsibility is direct. Since electoral endorsement at the next round is also hopefully linked to this, it should be restraint enough on corruption and sufficient incentive to ensure delivery sans excuses.

Top managers (who would no longer be Ďbabusí) would then be entitled to choose their own teams upto a level. Then there would be a soft underbelly thatís supplied by the humanoids who are the remnants of the slavish lot left behind. An adequately generous VRS system, thatís allowed to be externally managed, would probably get rid of the best and brightest, as also those who think they are.

Once the good ones are on the outside, a spoils system would allow the best to be cherry-picked at market-friendly prices to come back. They would now drive Ďlean-mean-cleaní delivery machines that would also have direct political accountability. Yes, we would have lost out on cross-regional fertilization, promotional principles, independent reporting structures and the old guidelines of training and efficiency norms. But hey! Get real. All that had gone out of the window a long time ago. Welcome to the brave new world. The babu is dead. Long live the new age political manager!

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