Sunday, December 25, 2011

Breaking Cartel in Government

A decade ago, I worked in Pune looking after a clutch of ordnance factories. Apart from payment and costing, my office was tasked with rendering financial advice to these factories putatively known as the Khadki Group of Factories. Material procurement in factories is a regular job to fulfill production line manufacture. That kept me busy.
One particular item for production involved huge procurement cost. Only two firms had tendered – daintily sharing the quantity in almost equal measure. It gave me an uncanny feel of a cartel; the rates appeared far from market-driven. The prices quoted were about 15% higher than the previous year’s rates.
I mulled over the issue – despairing as I went along. It was a given that most procurement in ordnance factories were essentially cases of monopsony, where one buyer faced many sellers (the opposite of monopoly); hence, in this imperfect competition it’s the buyer who must dictate price rather than the other way around.  Many of the firms who supplied to these ordnance factories had no other market share beyond the factory (ies) under the aegis of the Ordnance Factory Board. Hence, I told myself, I needed to dig deeper. Without much effort, I discerned a trend: the items were being shared by the two firms the past few years, with each year’s rates going up by 10-15% – and in no particular relation with inflation rates!
          But when I went to the meeting, I was confused. The factory needed it to keep going, the lead time was 5-6 months; and obviously I could not stall production. As I sat, my mind caught in cobwebs of procedures, it came to me in a flash. I remembered a conversation I had had during inspection of another factory where a new firm had been given a small order of the same item to establish itself as an “established source”. 
       Back in my office, I got the details. Yes, the firm had been successful. That made it a “semi-established source”. But then it wasn’t enough: it could only be deemed “established” on successful completion of “two” such orders. How was I to leverage this “semi-established source” to break the cartel? Source development orders should not “normally” exceed 20% of annual procurement. I looked at the word “normally” piercingly. Then came the Eureka moment for me.
          In the next meeting, I suggested we try the “new” firm. The General Manager hemmed and hawed, citing the firm’s “semi-established” status. Finally, after long deliberation he reluctantly agreed with me to place 20% on the new firm and the balance 80% on regular suppliers. I suggested we take advantage of the term “normally” and place 40% on the new source. After much persuasion, everyone agreed. We decided to invite tenders from the new source.
       When the rates quoted by the new firm reached us, we were ecstatic: they were unbelievably lower by 58-60% of the established firms’ rates! By now, word had gotten around and the two regular firms without any prompting announced their intention to whittle prices down by 20% from their last purchase rates – effectively down by 35%! Since I wasn’t sanguine about the timely supply by the new firm, I agreed to place 20% on these two.
         We placed 40% on the newly developed source with a tight delivery schedule. That made it 40%+20%=60%. What about the remainder 40%? I kept my counsel close to my chest, hoping things panned out the way I had hoped for and the new firms delivered on its promise – quality and timeline. The firm surprised us by supplying ahead of schedule. Now I suggested repeating the entire ordered quantity. This, too, they supplied on time.
            I was over the moon. We’d broken the cartel; it also meant huge savings; the new rates willy-nilly had become the benchmark for future procurement, thereby cascading savings that ran into crores of rupees. What still rings in my ears are the words of many Doubting Thomases, predicting this was only the penetration rate of the new firm and that it sure will join the ranks of the other two and form cartel at the soonest! The new firm did neither. Instead, the next year round, they further reduced their rates! Touché.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

When White Ants Ate Away Roadrollers!

When I read the news of a senior army officer in the rank of Lieutenant General court-marshaled in the Sukhna Land scam, my mind harked back to early-1980s when I had written a piece in The Statesman exposing corruption in the defence forces.
Fresh from training, I worked in Siliguri as Assistant Controller of Defence Accounts, when I came across improbable and grotesque cases of government loss getting readied for write-offs. One, I remember, concerned white ants (poor dears!) eating away road-rollers!
“How many geological eras it took the white ants to eat away the road-rollers?” I had asked an august officer, who came pleading to me – to settle the objection.
“Maybe, a few, just a few,” he had replied, coughing, the waving gall of his hands, conveying how asisine my question was. He didn’t bat an eyelid; his tone was glib and macho – missing the innuendo of my question.
Another related to cyclone menace – along the Himalayas. These were systematic losses, perpetrated quarter after quarter, with unremitting variance. I knew they were white lies, most disingenuously contrived. I didn’t wish to get into an argument. Instead, I referred the issue to the meteorological department of the Government of India for confirmation of the cyclone dates. Most naturally, the department confirmed what everyone knew: No cyclones. No cyclone ever strikes the trans-Himalayan belt! There.
I wrote all of this and more, in the piece. Woe betides me for committing the blasphemy, this singular unpardonable crime of a fifth columnist – for raising my voice against dishonesty and corruption! Understandably, there was a farrago of protest. How could a government servant, privy to official goings-on, write a piece in the national media ranting against pious official functioning? How could any one, and least a youngster, speak ill of the vaunted holy cows that the defence forces were? Did he seek permission for doing so? If he did, who granted him the permission? If not, why mustn’t he be proceeded against for violating the Conduct Rules government servants are bound to? As also the sacrament – the sacred Official Secrets Act of 1923?
The issue remained on the boil for two years in musty official files and the power-packed official corridors. My reply, spirited and unapologetic, was finally given an unlikely burial after a few of my seniors had vented their spleen, on paper or otherwise, and spent themselves expansively on my misadventure, and climaxed. But the monkey has stayed with me ever since.
But I needn’t bother now. The world has changed, is changing – fast – and the Right to Information (RTI) as a buzzword has, still is, gaining momentum. Civil society, then non-existent under the onslaught of relentless governance issues, has become eagle-eyed and scam after scams have come to light with indecent monotony. Things can no more be swept under the carpet.
Yet to suppose that the move towards transparency will play out without hiccups and roadblocks is asking for the moon. There will be intense pressure to water down punitive legislations to punish the corrupt. The signs are already out there in the open – with the parliamentary standing committee first including then excluding the Group C employees from the Lokpal’s oversight.
The nation has perhaps reached the tipping point. The general public today is incensed and livid. It is now or never for India to awake, phoenix-like. This isn’t a clarion call; this is a fervent appeal from one proud Indian to other proud citizens to live an honest and dignified life amid this encircling and unending vista of scams — and swindle of public money.
Am I a cosmic optimist to will the civil society to galvanize the nation in its quest for honesty? Or, am I malicious in my thinking to say that it will willy-nilly lead them the one way they know till now — to resigned exasperation, as in the past? Nothing, nothing perhaps, exemplifies our times better than a cartoon where a son tells his father: “Dad, I’m considering a career in organized crime.” Unfazed, the father asks, “Government or private sector?”
Isn’t it time to give the cartoon’s pun a decent burial! Like Greek tragedy, time is deliciously ripe for nemesis to catch up with these scamsters’ hubris. Yikes.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Participative Vigilance in Times of RTI Conundrum

           How ironical is it that while there is a talk about tinkering (read curbing – the reach and import) of the RTI Act, the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) has chosen Participative Vigilance as the theme to observe the Vigilance Awareness Week from October 31 to November 5, 2011?
       Participative Vigilance is nothing but a euphemism for transparency. The CVC enjoins that the fight against corruption can’t be pursued in isolation but with the active involvement of all stakeholders. “Corruption is a social evil and in addition to punitive and preventive steps, we need to work together as a team to sensitize and motivate public at large to make an impact in our progress towards zero tolerance for corruption,” says the CVC. “Systematic improvements need to be brought about to reduce administrative delays, simplify cumbersome rules and procedures, and promote transparency, fairness and equity in governance. The corrupt must be dealt with ruthlessly whereas the honest need to be protected.”
Today, we stand in the cusp of history. On one end, stands the leviathan called Power with its love for Opacity; on the other, the nuisance named Change with its focus on Transparency. And this battle is playing itself out before our eyes! The scams and mega-scams – CWG, 2G, Adarsh et al – have been the harbinger of this demand for change.
Be patient if you’re plumping for change. The Old Order will not yield without a fight. It can’t afford to. For one, a harsh future stares at it. For another, the sins of the past are sure to visit it. Either way, the path ahead is strewn with problems.
For all the horror of scams and mega-scams that have tumbled out with unremitting putrescence, let’s not undervalue RTI’s singular contribution: it has brought to light and catalyzed scams, granting the corrupt retributive justice. At least the ball has been set rolling. Let’s get real: Anna movement and fast did nothing more than create awareness among the citizens that corruption is the bane; it needs to be extirpated.
“You can’t stop this transparency revolution,” said the Defence Minister, a few months ago. He wasn’t off-mark. But his was a solitary voice. And how his prescient words have been drowned in the sea of cacophony? Far from accepting the reality and the groundswell of public ire, words and ideas have been sown maliciously and mischievously to modify the much-acclaimed RTI Act in the name of granting public servants the much-needed elbow room to tender frank and honest advice.
It is well to remember that as long as this long arm of RTI given to citizens stays with them, RTI will continue to be the ubiquitous ombudsman acting from within! It gives most public servants a creep, an unease – a compulsion to stay straitlaced. Power is heady; it gives a swollen head to the wearer of this scepter – the few chosen elites of the society. How can such headiness be questioned? No powers-that-be – used to absolute, sweeping powers – will countenance their unquestioned and unquestionable power to be questioned. It’s a heresy, a sacrilege to sit judgment on their decisions.
This would explain why the powers-that-be are toying with the idea of fiddling with the RTI Act. True RTI has, even is, being abused for narrow personal consideration, often to settle scores with one another. But amendment is not the answer; it is like throwing the baby with the bathwater. It will detract from transparency and put pay to CVC’s emphasis on participative vigilance. It is rather the disease is cured and given prophylactic shots through a cross-stitch and scaffold of simple rules and transparent processes than administration of palliatives through punitive actions. How else can you rein in human beings, who are forever on the look out to make hay when the sun is not shining on them? Sunlight, we know, is after all the best disinfectant.
Let us not delude ourselves with idealism. Human beings, to start with, came together, on purpose, voluntarily, to conjointly synergize their efforts and entered into a social compact. The gain was as much mental as physical. It granted them physical security. The division of labour and eventual skill-sets garnered over generations helped them to bounce along faster than as isolated wholes. Remember, the underlying philosophy was the creature comforts such social contract granted them. Deep down, this base instinct, though somnolent and bridling, remained the same: creature comforts and its appurtenant – material wealth that only rooted for more and more of the same thing: creature comfort.
If anything stopped them from transgressing the bounds of the compact, it were the laws and prescriptions they had given to themselves for the common weal. When the laws and prescriptions are shrouded and not open to all contract-signers but are manipulable by small governing elite, the first casualty is fair decision-making. It impacts everyone save the elite who, anyway, tweaks law for narrow, partisan gain. This gain is plain thievery, thereby reducing democratic governance to one of kleptocracy or the rule of the thieves.
That explains en passant why most from the governing classes don’t ever wish to retire but go on and on – much as no one wants to die, even the ones wishing to go to Heaven! Days, even months, before retirement, a pall of gloom attends not only the officer but also the entire family! Because, nowhere else in the civilized world, the post or perch held by a public servant is as much appropriated by the family as in India. “My car, my bungalow, my perks, my rights,” intones the wife; the children roundly echo their mother’s sentiment. The peons who do the domestic menial chore too belong to her! She owns them! So much for the terror of severance.
Abraham Lincoln was percipient when he once said, “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” Few will come out of this acid test unscathed if he were to wield power not visible to others. As history has shown, and we know so well Lord Acton’s putative words, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Mustn’t we admit that it is only a microscopic minority who has the internal moral compass to upend all things immoral – the rest trundle along, appropriating benefits strewn across the path? Look, the feudal order is crumbling fast! It, ultimately, will. Make no mistake. History is being made; we are its living witness.
          The way, then, to stop people from stealing other people’s money is through checks and balances and – or the antidote of thievery: transparency. The RTI Act must not be tinkered with, if anything, the governance processes must be built to approximate to this exacting goal. How can CVC’s aim of involving all stakeholders be achieved if this singular potent instrument of RTI that enables citizen participation is abridged?

Friday, October 7, 2011

Law and Sophistry: Relevance of Frederic Bastiat in Today's India

         Last weekend, I viewed with bemused puzzlement the Law Minister’s take on the recent 2G imbroglio. Later, I read the transcript of the interview to jog my short memory. Two things, entirely unrelated, came to my mind, unbidden: Dr. Dolittle’s Pushmi-Pullyu and Frederic Bastiat’s exposition on law.
Many, my age, will remember the 1960s creature that simultaneously went in two different directions. Today the Pushmi-Pullyu has stepped off fiction and taken residence in the 2G spectrum, even astral, world. Last week saw the denouement of Pushmi-Pullyu: the fracture duly band-aided, the cracks unduly and hastily papered over hoping to consign the creature into the footnotes and minutiae of history.
But I recalled Bastiat; my mind getting back time and time again to his touching faith on liberty I once read as a young man – wondering if what he spoke against, about 160 years ago, weren’t being played out in front of our eyes. For the uninitiated, Frederic Bastiat (1801-1850) was a French economist, statesman, and author who mostly wrote around the 1848 French Revolution when France was flirting with socialism. His treatise – The Law – critiques socialism. That though is not relevant here. It’s his forensic skill, de-obfuscating and deconstructing legalese off its innate tangles it is often wrapped in, that’s eminently and uncannily valid in today’s India.
First, Bastiatism. Like many others before and after him, Bastiat saw in government the greatest single threat to liberty: “See if the law takes from some persons what belongs to them, and gives it to other persons to whom it does not belong. See if the law benefits one citizen at the expense of another by doing what the citizen himself cannot do without committing a crime.
Eerily, often the law defends plunder, even participates in it. “The beneficiaries are spared the shame, danger, and scruple which their acts would otherwise involve. Sometimes the law places the whole apparatus of judges, police, prisons, and gendarmes at the service of the plunderers, and treats the victim — when he defends himself — as a criminal. In short, there is a legal plunder.” Strikes a chord, eh? Read Bastiat on.
“This legal plunder may be only an isolated stain among the legislative measures of the people. If so, it is best to wipe it out with a minimum of speeches and denunciations — and in spite of the uproar of the vested interests.”
How, then, to Identify Legal Plunder? “Abolish this law without delay, for it is not only an evil itself, but also it is a fertile source for further evils. If such a law is not abolished immediately, it will spread, multiply, and develop into a system.”
No, he is not done yet. “The person who profits from this law will complain bitterly, defending his acquired rights. He will claim that the state is obligated to protect and encourage his particular industry; that this procedure enriches the state because the protected industry is thus able to spend more and to pay higher wages to the poor workingmen.”
Pause and think – and look around you. You will realize these are the same time-tested ways of the world: After the crime cometh the belligerence; and the urge to fool everyone around – with miles and miles of arguments to weave a tapestry that essentially says nothing but tidbits of inane nonsense, yet seeks sanctification through mindless fluff of arcane legal logorrhoea. So there goes Bastiat again – wanting to knock such profundities and punditry off its high moral ground, delivered from the sanctimonious pulpit it has climbed up to. “Do not listen to this sophistry by vested interests. The acceptance of these arguments will build legal plunder into a whole system. It’s an attempt to enrich everyone at the expense of everyone else; to make plunder universal under the pretense of organizing it.”
Bastiat echoes democratic rights of man. “Life, faculties, production — in other words individuality, liberty, property — that is man. And in spite of the cunning of artful political leaders, these three gifts from God precede all human legislation, and are superior to it.” Pray then, who is supreme – the parliament or the people and/or the Constitution the people have deigned to give themselves, willingly?
When the politician sees inequality in society, he tends to deplore deprivation. “Perhaps the politician should ask himself whether this state of affairs has not been caused by old conquests and lootings, and by more recent legal plunder,” Bastiat says. “Perhaps he should consider this proposition: Since all persons seek well-being and perfection, would not a condition of justice be sufficient to cause the greatest efforts toward progress, and the greatest possible equality that is compatible with individual responsibility?”
Instead, the politician attempts “to remedy the evil by increasing and perpetuating the very thing that caused the evil in the first place: legal plunder. We have seen that justice is a negative concept. Is there even one of these positive legal actions that does not contain the principle of plunder?” Think of 2G and all the double- and multispeak we suffered unremittingly the past one year – to hoodwink and obfuscate us, we the poor naïve citizens. Ain’t it time such rude ferment of the past is cast aside?
Winding down, I perhaps can do no better than quote Bastiat again in the context of our elected representatives wanting to play God: “The relationship between persons and the legislator appears to be the same as the relationship between the clay and the potter.” Understandably, Bastiat lashes out at these public servants of mankind, perhaps the only time in The Law where he pours out his venom openly: “Ah, you miserable creatures! You who think that you are so great! You who judge humanity to be so small! You who wish to reform everything! Why don’t you reform yourselves? That task would be sufficient enough.”
Look, how much the same sentiment suffuses many of us today – past centuries, even continents adrift, and cultures away. There are some innate human qualities that are of eternal verities that refuse to change over time and space, and even across different political beliefs. 
         Notwithstanding that and despite the passing of more democratic liberal times the world over the past two centuries, many megalomaniacs – the many elected and electable representatives we have alas conspired to give life to – still live under their grand delusion of born-leaders and indefeasible game-changers conferred upon by divinity, of their bounden duty to lead us through the enveloping dark maze we are consigned to as our lives buckle out from under us – determined to gird us out of this corralling ignorance we poor dears are irrevocably, even irredeemably, condemned to. And this, despite that the world around us and beyond has changed irretrievably – webbing one another, connecting continents, and streaming new ideas upon the derelict old. Amen.

Friday, September 23, 2011

The New Tear - When Morality Trumps Legality

         Justice Shivaraj V. Patil’s resignation as Karnataka Lokayukta is significant in more ways than it meets the eye. Beyond the visible, the subtle unstated narrative of resignation has thrown up newly-hewed dialectics – not entirely familiar to post-independent India.
Less than a month ago, when Anna Hazare fasted at Ramlila, Justice Soumitra Sen paraded his spiel of honesty before the Rajya Sabha. Not long ago Justice Dinakaran assiduously held fast to his “honest” acts against allegations of land grab. The legality of rights and wrongs were sedulously tossed back and forth with quizzical regularity.
Alas, few days down the line after Anna ended his fast, the scenario has altogether changed. Not the narrative of corruption or dishonest acts, but (mercifully) the seeming triumph of morality over legality, of public perception over dogged clinging to power. It shows the triumph of integrity over technicality – where outside public validation has replaced the comfortable cozy old shoe of legality.
Anyone familiar with ways of governance will tell you that obfuscation is the gold standard that the dishonest leverage to their fullest advantage. Legal loopholes are always there, if only you’ve the will and ingenuity, to exploit. It’s there in the past, it’s there in the present, and given the complexity of law and arcane legalese it’s written on to encompass all possible contingencies, shall willy nilly remain even in future. There is no getting away from it.
In our bureaucratic diapers we were told a home truth: you must not only be honest but be seen to be one. Over time though this homily has not only been forgotten but also been given an honorable funeral. The burgeoning smart-alecs in a world peopled by upwardly socially mobile in a new possessive, acquisitive world, quickly made mincemeat of this naïve proposition.
As years merged into decades, the world of smart-alecs found generous patrons. Its number swelled and spilled out in every day lives. Legalese with its lacunae and desiderata continued to bail out desecrator after desecrator. Corruption became the way of life – a modus vivendi. The serial scams of 2010 – CWG, Adarsh, 2G et al – became the apogee of disrepute, the barometer of a corrupt, corrupt society with the powers-that-be rampaging natural resources in every which way.
An Anna who galvanized the nation through his two fasts only captured, restated and brought to fruition the extreme anguish and utter helplessness of the common man against the might of a government that had lost its moorings to serve the people and transmogrified itself into a leviathan. The systematic attempt to insulate the corrupt from public gaze and perpetuate dishonesty through implacable opposition to the well-reasoned Jan Lokpal Bill is so loud in its faux-arguments that it would shame the most shameless.
Mercifully, the Indian public was not taken in with this Goebbelsian propaganda by these vociferous, obnoxious loudmouths. Instead they shushed and tamed these outrageous voices of corrupt unreason. What the Anna fast has done to the Indian society is not the triumph of Jan Lokpal Bill over the Government Lokpal Bill. That would be too preposterous and much too premature a claim to be made now; there are miles and miles of uncertainties to be traversed yet.
What Anna’s August fast has doubtless done is to create an awareness of corruption among people and that it need not be tolerated and suffered any further. True, corruption hasn’t waned. Nor will the Lokpal extirpate and banish corruption and usher in an honest raj. But the ice has been broken. The corrupt has been put on guard; today, even if he indulges in corruption, he knows is on a sticky wicket. He knows things can blow up any time in his face. He’s nervous; the past may catch up. The fulcrum of protection that nothing can ever happen to him in foreseeable future is all too fast disappearing. It’s a tide that’s turning against him and there is no stopping this transparency juggernaut. The die’s been cast.
 Justice Patil’s resignation is a cachet of morality’s triumph over legality. One isn’t quibbling over the allegations made. What it indubitably conveys is this: it is indeed a new tear; where seeming malfeasance is enough rather than the pernickety endless legal battle of a terrible violation; where practice comes before preaching; and where legality crumbles before public perception of rights and wrongs. 

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Professor Altaf Hussain: Gravitas and Humour Unplugged

             I cannot put any plausible reason why, but as it panned out, I was not to see him again after my wedding reception. Quite often he has filled my mind, all these years since that muggy evening we met last, when he had blessed us, the newly-weds, and wished us luck in our life’s path. He lived a good twenty-odd years thereafter and, although I remembered him often in far-off places wherever I was posted – Siliguri, Meerut, Delhi, Pune and Bangalore – and retailed his brand of inimitable humour to many of my friends, sadly I never could make time to visit him in his home. It shall always remain a lasting regret for me.

        Professor Altaf Hussain was the head of the department of History at Ravenshaw College when we joined the B.A History honours course in 1972. Of the six history papers prescribed for us, Altaf Babu taught two: medieval Indian history, and European history from 1789 to 1919. 
For us, youngsters, in the 1970s, Ravenshaw was the college we longed to be in. It was a college of more than a hundred years old, and the grand red structure that sat squat in the heart of Cuttack was the go-to place for higher education. It was a symbol of pride to be a Ravenshavian; fronted by tennis courts and the massive multi-purpose field on the rear, and trimmed by the newest hostels springing up off the field’s semi-circular perimeter, it was a campus that, in the small world of our minds, epitomized the grandeur of the past and the surefire passport to future success. 
Apart from the impressive campus there was the freedom and independence we so fervently longed. There was no compulsion to be in the college – from morning till evening – as in school. Even if we stayed in college there was no compulsion to attend all the classes. We could choose attending lectures! 
Some lectures were of no consequence, though they provided ample entertainment. Some others though were invaluable. Professor Altaf Hussain, with his erudition, wit and quiet shy smile, stood on the other end of the spectrum. He veritably held us in thrall.
I must admit that the first few lectures on European History explaining the run up to the French Revolution of 1789 were very confounding. A string of thoughts that went into the making of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity tracing its root to distinguished political thinkers such as Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau were not only tantalizing but were rather intimidating for my small mind. Nor were the recommended books authored by Kettleby, Hazen and Riker, easy reads. The text containing the ideas appeared dense and the language not the kind one was used to yet.
After a few lectures when the dialectics of revolutionary ideas appeared well beyond me, I approached Altaf Babu. I bared my heart out and told him the difficulties I was confronting. He heard me out in his quiet way. “For a start, you’ll find it difficult to wade through the books,” he said, “but over time you’ll surely find them easy to understand. And after a few months you’ll be able to write as good as these authors.”
His words were music to my ears but his homily appeared a chimera. The disquiet stayed and refused to leave me. Not only when I took his leave but also when I tried to turn the dense pages of the fat history books. I thought I’ll never get over the bump.
But slowly I could grasp the import of his lectures and from the welter of ideas and events, I could discern a pattern. Professor Hussain never used any notes or even a slip of paper to serve as aide memoire. Words and events gushed out of his mouth in torrents as though he was reading out from a prepared script – trying to dissect historical ideas for our innocent minds. His command over the English language was exemplary as was his delivery of punch lines. We fell head over heels for his lectures. They turned out to be moments of epiphany for us.
A gold medalist from the Aligarh Muslim University, who had passed up his chances to pursue doctorate courses at London and Cambridge Universities where he had earned placements due to personal reasons, Altaf Babu was a fabulous teacher of medieval Indian and European History. His lectures were full of historical details not easily found in textbooks and almost always laced with humour. He was our professor non pareil.
Many incidents of his wit engulf my mind today but I’ll narrate one that is indelibly etched in my memory. A friend had fumbled through his speech during a debate competition where Altaf Babu was a judge and had wound down in three minutes instead of the assigned five. Next morning, first up in the class, he tickled our funny bones looking at our friend piercingly, and poker-faced, telling him: “Ashwin, you spoke well… real well. But you finished far too early. Why didn’t you speak the entire length.” He hemmed and hawed, looking distractedly at no one in particular, and then with a wisp of a smile gracing his face, said with a simper. “Must say, you’ve all the sonorous and dolorous voice of your father… (and after a long pause, fighting hard to smother the simper threatening to blow out of control and engulf his own face) and all the nervousness of your mother!” We were in splits.
His reputation as a humorist went beyond the bounds of the college; he still is remembered for having conferred the moniker on our Principal. It was ridiculously simple: the first syllables of his first, middle and last names (as spelt in Oriya) were hoicked and juxtaposed to form an acronym in a delicious and explosive mix! No, I will not give out the moniker here. But old-timers will know! Let me tell you, though, everyone without fail used this moniker every time they referred to the Principal – and which was often.
We never missed his lectures. Never. Apart from the nuggets of historical wisdom his lectures conveyed, we didn’t wish to miss out on his witticisms. It was like “There’s no replay!” if we missed one or, at times, many. Some times there were wisecracks inside wisecracks. I can vividly recall when he once walked into the class and gently berated us, students. “You know,” he began, his mischievous smile never too far out from his mobile face, “the Principal called me over to his room and told me ‘Altaf Babu, you’ve made me a laughing stock in the college. Everywhere I go to, someone or the other seems to be calling me out from a distance with the moniker you’ve given me. What’s this Ma….?’ as he gracefully mimicked the Principal’s stutter and stammer. I told the Principal that ‘your name is too long and doesn’t come easy on the tongue. I merely abbreviated it for everyone’s convenience’. Let me tell you he wasn’t happy with my explanation.” Then he continued with his advice, simulating a gravitas that attended his face when in full flight of a lecture, “Don’t use it aloud and very often. If you wish to, use it once a while and quietly, among yourself! So that the Principal is not offended.”
After a moment’s deafening pause and silence, the entire class erupted into peals of belly laughter. Altaf Babu too joined in the fun, now a beatific smile gracing his face.
When I returned to Ravenshaw in July 1978, this time as a lecturer after a short teaching stint at the PG Department of History of Utkal University during 1977-78, I was in cloud nine. Altaf Babu was still heading the department of History and for a Ravenshavian, nothing could be more soul-satisfying than returning to his alma mater – this time to teach. The students were full of vim, brilliant and inquisitive; and for a young lecturer it was blessed heaven. Despite the passage of more than three decades when one has bounced around the country working in different climes, I still covet the short stint of a year and a half that I spent in my college – teaching.
For me, teaching in Ravenshaw was a challenge. It wasn’t only because the best of students were here. Altaf Babu was amiable and unassuming, even undemanding. Yet, I knew his professional standards were exacting and he would brook no compromise. More important was the fact that his second daughter, Jaweda, was a History Honours student and it was natural that my performance or the lack of it would be an instant feed for Altaf Babu on their dinner table. I agonized that my joining Ravenshaw wasn’t such a bright idea.
I quailed inside though I put up a brave front every time I trudged into a classroom for a lecture – more, if was Jaweda’s. Every time, following a Jaweda class when I met Altaf Babu first up the next morning, my heart beat faster than ever – waiting for his response. If his looks were benign and his face showed no overt signs of tics and grimaces, I knew I had done my last job well. But soon I realized I needn’t have bothered. As it turned out, as days went over, he grew fonder of me by the day. I knew I had lived up to his expectation. In my career of over three decades in bureaucracy, they remain the years of my instant feedback and gratification of my performance. Thinking back, it amuses me no end.
It was during my teaching stint in Ravenshaw that I got to know Professor Altaf Hussain intimately. We had a small room on the perimeter atop the auditorium where we sat and discussed. It was Altaf Babu who invariably held centrestage with his unremitting fount of knowledge on history and contemporary politics. He was fond of “mixture”. Many a time all of us would walk over to the Gujarati namkeen shop and carry the “mixture” back and partake the same in our department room. Often he held forth in the Staff Common Room as it was then called, where faculty from all disciplines often wished him to expatiate his ideas on goings-on of the world. He never failed to impress them with his erudition and critical analysis of events happening around us.
After I left the college to join the civil service, every time I went home to Cuttack, visiting Altaf Babu was a kind of pilgrimage for me. I would chat with him late into the evening and partake the delicious biryani which he himself would have fondly prepared. I was then freelancing copiously for The Statesman and he would be always forthcoming with his words of encouragement. He invited me for a lecture in his department every time I went home. The last occasion I was there, it was in December 1982, to speak to the post-graduate and graduate honours students. A month before, I had written a fairly long piece titled The Changing Face of Clio in The Statesman Literary Supplement, and Altaf Hussain, then the Professor and Head of PG Department of History, invited me to speak on this subject of Indian historiography. It was a pleasant experience to meet up with my former colleagues and many of my ex-students and travel back in time and exchange ideas with them. Jaweda was there too, but, mercifully now, I was outside her scanner and radar!
       I haven’t gone back to the college after that. Notwithstanding this long absence, as I write this piece I’m filled with a sense of nostalgia. How times have gone over! Days have merged into weeks and months, years have merged with decades, and my memory casts back to well over three decades. I say this, my voice tinged with a quiet longing. Life is full of little ironies and tiny hubbubs to provide wings to introspect. Alas, the youthful college days have well rushed past, the world has grown older, and Altaf Babu is no more with us. When Jaweda called up one late evening about a month back, as I sat dozily in front of the television screen, requesting me to do a piece on her father and my favourite professor, my mind punched up fond memories of a time and of a person I deeply value and adore. 

Saturday, August 6, 2011

India Against Corruption (IAC) vs. India For Corruption (IFC)

It may sound rather puerile, but this is what it’s been reduced to: India against Corruption (IAC) vs. India for Corruption (IFC). The battle lines are firmly drawn, the big question is: Can IAC worst IFC; Can the new, emerged society beat back the entrenched, morally-derelict, value-free old; and will it, finally, be a triumph of transpacracy over kleptocracy?

Transpacracy is the flavour of our times, at least in emerged countries believing in the End-of-History ‘ism’. It is nothing but transparent democracy where the rule of law plays out in plucky openness, leveraging technology of a world-wide-web as harbinger of a just social order.

Much has been made out of the tyranny of the unelected and unelectable few over the elected and electable representatives. Also, the fact that the Constitution admits of law-making by the parliament is beyond question. But, paradoxically, it’s in the interstices of these two propositions that the solution to the present scourge of corruption lies.

First: the unelected and unelectable tyranny of the few. It is well to remember that these so-called few are the rightful citizens of this country conveying people’s angst and anguish. The support that Anna Hazare’s fast generated cannot be wished away. Were one to discount that too, the issues that this tyrannical group purveys cannot be overlooked. The issues are simple: Must we continue with this retinue of corruption that refuses to go away and raises its ugly head with monotonous regularity? Mustn’t we’ve a strong and autonomous institutionalized mechanism in place to curb such future desecrations?

The answer is simple: YES. For no social compact agreed upon by individuals coming off their free will to improve their lot enjoins a situation that their elected representatives loot their money in their selfish quest to fatten themselves at the cost of the very people for whose improvement they purportedly were elected. Further, must the vast majority allow the continuance of this desecration because they’ve committed the folly of voting them to power till their term gets over? The answer is a ringing NO.

The second issue – of parliament’s supremacy to legislate – flows from the former. While it’d be facetious to question the noble intent of members of the Constituent Assembly, it’s certain that they didn’t envisage situations when MPs and central ministers would be incarcerated for acts of gross commission. Nor could they have imagined that the people’s representative would make a career out of public service to lord the people over palm and pine. Remember, these members of the Constituent Assembly were people who had suffered incalculably to free the country, sacrificing comfort, profession and life, for a transcendental, national cause.

The arrogance and hauteur of most of these so-called people’s representatives must be seen to be believed. To call them public servants whose job it is to serve the public would be an offence to English language. To imagine that they’ll discharge their ministerial responsibilities to do good turn selflessly for public good would be asking for the moon. The impulse and the jockeying to occupy ministerial berths have been well documented in the infamous Niira Radiagate. Failing such ascendancy to ministerial high berths, those who are made to settle for lesser perches, try to make the most of the crumbs offered them. Their arrogance and hubris is legendary as is their impulse to high living – as though they are the lord and master who can brook no rule of the land and law.

Now take your pick. Whether we must allow the tyranny of the elected to continue ad nauseam or we must voice our opinion on public issues to straitlace public transactions. “Eternal vigil is the price of freedom,” Nehru, the quintessential democrat had once enjoined. His words ring true more than ever before. We need to banish the spectre of kleptocracy and an Orwellian raj.

Orwell though turns in his grave, smirking mischievously, unsure if his dictums are going to hold out in a world changing at cyberspeed and where untruths and hypocrisy are derided as unlovely relics of past opacity. He isn’t unhappy though, because he knows he’s won his fight – where war will be considered war, and not peace; ignorance condemned as ignorance, not knowledge; and freedom will be freedom, not slavery – where singlespeak trounces doublespeak and multispeak; and where human feelings find wings to take flight. 

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Indian Babu's Social Darwinism

I still recall being bemused when an English friend once asked, “What ‘ism’ suffuses your administrators?” Recovering from the cargo of confusion, my quirky reply was in solemn undertone: “Socialistic capitalism,” and my mind still seeking a lattice of support from my disembodied ideas, had said from the corralling chaos, “capitalistic society sans pitfalls of marketplace!” Today, amid encircling corruption eddying around us, I’m happy my reply, blurted years ago, wasn’t entirely off-centre.
The recent news that the Empowered Group of Ministers headed by Finance Minister is toying with the idea of instructing investigative agencies to probe the wealth and income of 150 retired babus who joined as consultants, advisors, members of various boards or opened their own consultancy companies or took up direct or indirect jobs with India Inc and multinationals operating in India is doubtless the first move in independent India to look at bureaucrats’ umbilicals that invariably go beyond the obvious.
The decision follows the CBI’s discovery that many retired civil servants like the former Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of India chairman, former Telecom secretary and other senior officials have been connected post-retirement with various companies dealing with the telecom sector. The probe will cover bureaucrats of all hues, ex-chairmen and directors of Public Sector Undertakings and a few ex-Cabinet and Finance secretaries on the board of over dozen-odd big companies.
Though, it appears, none of these personnel faced corruption charges while in service, the government seems to have decided that officers who retired from the Ministries like Finance, Civil Aviation, Surface Transport, External Affairs, Petroleum, Tele-Communications, Commerce, Defence, and Public Sector banks, will come under the scanner. The modalities are yet to be finalized, the report says, yet it appears that various agencies like the CBI, CVC, Enforcement Directorate, and the Income Tax Department will be asked to collect information on babus dealing with infrastructure, real estate, power, mining, steel and aviation, and forward it to the Special Investigation Team set up following the Supreme Court intervention on black money.
Without insinuating any of these august luminaries on the EGoM radar, may one ask a simple question: why were they offered lucrative jobs in companies on retirement from government perches? It would be facetious to believe that their expertise to value-add products was the clincher. Rather more aptly, the post-retirement sinecures in companies mostly are reparative gestures for past services rendered when the babu held sway. There is another reason that complements the first: they become the active public relation face of the company in its myriad interface with the government. Mind you, the reward in the form of cost-to-company for such services is humongous. After all, there is a cost for making a senior retired government official do the errands in ministries and calling on his erstwhile juniors for favours!
A cursory glance at pre-retirement impulses of government officials is very amusing. Long years of acculturation in a system that has provided a lifestyle uniquely stately is on the verge of expiry. It hurts. A true blue-blooded bureaucrat therefore doesn’t wish to retire; he rather reinvents himself and adds a new tread to his already flattened self: he re-tyres no sooner he’s pensioned off. So this is the propitious time to build future foundation, with the imminent withdrawal of the edifice of perks and props looming large in his mind.
This, frankly, is very Darwinian, or to be exact, Social Darwinian – for the “cunningest” to linger on over perks, power, pelf. And, that’s when even the honest loses his honesty veneer; the burnishing sheen takes a pounding, in furious jockeying to land post-retirement sinecures. The quest is two-fold: post-retirement government and India Inc sinecures. This is when most intellectual dishonesties are perpetrated. It is a pathetic sight.
Given accusations of pliability, isn’t it time such carrots are altogether eliminated? Let all posts held post-retirement be held during period of active service: membership of Commissions, Tribunals, Regulatory Bodies, International/UN bodies or any else. And in corporate sectors, let there be a complete ban on employ in sectors the babu worked in in the last five years of his service.
Like Cassandra I’m tempted to prophecy evil and not be believed. His prophecy came true. I fervently hope my ideas have legs long and strong enough – to run for a bit. I still hope to believe!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

India and Transparency Revolution

            The defence minister, A. K. Antony, said it all, very aptly and very succinctly. India is going through a transparency revolution, he said, but not everyone is ready. This is the most honest statement to have come out from any important public functionary. His squeaky clean image could only have granted him the courage of conviction to say what, one reckons, is not the blasé and stereotypical refrain of a person in high perch. It is a rare, if also a very prescient, statement.
“Our country is passing through a transparency revolution. Walls of secrecy are crumbling gradually. But politicians, bureaucracy, judiciary, business people, armed forces and journalists are still not ready for this transition to transparency,” he said. The present logjam in the drafting of the Lokpal Bill needs to be looked at against this backdrop. It is not so much a fight between the Civil Society and the Government, but a fight between the Old Order and the New Concept. The Old Order refuses to change, not because it, like everything else, resists change, but because it knows that this change (in particular) is like nothing else in our nation’s memory; it is fraught with incalculable and dire possibilities –past, present and future.
Roll your mind back to an email doing the rounds in cyber world. “Indians are poor but INDIA is not a poor country,” says one of the Swiss Bank directors. He says that “280 lakh crore” of Indian money is deposited in Swiss banks which can be used for “tax-less” budget for 30 yrs. It can offer jobs to 60 crore Indians. It can help build 4-lane roads from any village to Delhi; it can provide free power supply to more than 500 social projects. Every citizen can be paid a monthly sum of Rs. 2000/- for 60 years. There is no need of World Bank and IMF loan. And: “We’ve full right to this corrupt money stashed abroad.”
If this is the past, the present too is not too inspiring for the Old Order. The apparitions of Kalmadi, Raja, and Kanimozhi, not to speak of the lesser lights, as these big fishes fry in Tihar in the height of Delhi summer, continue to haunt, ravage, and stalk popular imagination. Nor does the future hold any promise. The RTI has already made a serious dent, limiting public servants’ freewheeling dalliance – and, especially now with the magnum scams making them aware of potential future threat – were they to stray off the strait path. Any punitive action professionally imparted, with the time-tested influence-peddling to stall and dissipate charges missing, isn’t very appetizing. Therein lies the rub.
Typically, this is vintage Hegelian dialectic – the process to reconcile contradictions, in this case of historical processes and transitional inevitability. Future historians would note that the Defence Minister was clairvoyant in providing an answer before the die had been cast in Anno Domini 2011. “They’ll have to follow the transition and I don’t think anybody can take any step in a different direction,” he says. “You cannot stop this transparency revolution. It is percolating to all walks of life in India. That is the beauty of Indian democracy…Nothing is permanent in a democracy. Change is a must.”
            The spirit of the time goes against the Old Order. Today all-round, endemic corruption has been topped off by mega scams. The ever-enlarging phalanx of educated Indians, swelling outside the government employ and granting this new middle class legitimacy, is bristling at the quotidian corruption that it confronts. With disposable income-in-hand and with multiple hedonistic avenues available in an emerging economy, they are short on patience, brooking no roadblocks on their path they perceive is otherwise laden with good life. True, they may not understand the nitty gritty and nuances of the Lokpal Bill, but one thing they know: the way to future betterment lies in a corruption-free India. And this can never happen unless they too participate and make themselves counted. That explains why the youth rallied behind Anna Hazare during his Jantar Mantar fast in April 2011 and made the nation sit up and take note. India’s demographic dividend where youth is the lynchpin cannot be wished away.
Let’s examine the two important sticking points: Must the Lokpal embrace the Prime Minister and the higher judiciary? The Old Order still tenuously holds on to its antediluvian ideas to insulate these two categories from the searching eyes of transparency. If a Prime Minister under investigation is rendered hors de combat in running the country, a Chief Minister too would similarly be in his own State when under a cloud. In effect: while all are same in the eyes of the law, one, yes, is a tad higher – almost a colonial parody of I am George Nathaniel Curzon/A very superior person! And our parliamentary democracy patterned after the British model has drifted off from the essence of first among equals, primus inter pares!
Judiciary, higher or lower, is constituted of men from the same stock who populate every other service. Their DNA, thereby, is no different from others. In an ideally configured social contract envisioned through transaction of business rules, every service provider must render corruption-free service and do the work of his station that carries its inherent occupational hazards and allurements. This is as much applicable to the judiciary as to others. If every job is a job to be performed professionally, the retributions too should and must be similar. By similar the allusion is to transparency, fair play and level playing field.
It is well to remember that as events unfold – as indeed they already have – in India and as the inexorability of human will surges ahead, there is no holding back of history. A citizen roused is worse than a woman spurned. The New Concept of supremacy of the ordinary citizen has taken root. Yet these new ideas are nothing new. During the special session of parliament to commemorate 50 years of India’s Independence (26th August-1st September, 1997), a National Agenda to eradicate corruption, criminalization, casteism and communalism was adopted. Also, passed unanimously by both Houses of Parliament, was a resolution of a Second Freedom Struggle to implement the National Agenda. Today’s movement is only a re-averment of our past national resolve. Isn’t it time we gracefully accepted the remorseless march of history rather than obfuscate the issue with ideas that even fifteen years ago were thirty years out of date?

Friday, May 27, 2011

Lokpal Must Remember the Axiom: Corruption = M + D - A

Anno Domini 2010-11 scams – CWG, Adarsh, 2G, Niira Radia(tion) – are every bit surreal and growing menacingly; each as unconscionable as the other – something modern India had never experienced before.
          By any facile definition, corruption is immoral, illegal, illicit, and illegitimate. Peel off the epidermis masking these semantics, and corruption surfaces as a crime of well-reasoned, well-conceived, cold immoral calculus. Individuals weigh the benefits and the costs of giving and taking bribes.
Shorn of attitudes, one can analyze systems in terms of their vulnerability to corruption. This is true both of the private and government sectors. Competition is less vulnerable to corruption than monopoly. Robert Klitgaard declaims, “Corruption is more pronounced in systems characterized by the formula C = M + D – A: corruption equals monopoly plus discretion minus accountability.”
Put the three magnum scams through this wringer. The CWG scam was due to the Organizing Committee doing what its high priest willed, giving the processes a slip. Discretion wasn’t spelt out, there was no accountability. It was banana republic at its worst.
The same with Adarsh: A criminal conspiracy where Discretion was the Dictator, and Accountability the Arch-Slave – hatched with breathless planning and flawless networking. The conspiracy threw up its own Monopoly. How else would one expect the high and mighty to hide behind the fig-leaf of Kargil martyrs! It was the greatest shame heaped on the armed forces whose chiefs and senior officers were caught in the buff.
The 2G Spectrum scam was indeed sui generis. With skeletons showing the unholy nexus between politicians-bureaucrats-corporate-media, it showed Monopoly and limitless Discretion with Accountability missing.
How may we begin? First, promote competition. But there would be monopolies that can’t be wished away: a nation’s natural and electromagnetic resources. When Monopoly is inevitable, Discretion must be circumscribed and made transparent, and Accountability must be total. In the case of 2G spectrum scam, Discretion far from being carefully delineated was given the freest run, and Accountability didn’t exist!
            It is importance that given human nature, there would be the impulse to improve one’s lot even when transactions are not legal. Consequently, officials will veer towards corruption when the ostensible gain from corruption far outstrips the penalty imposed times the probability of being caught and punished.
            How then must we limit corruption? It could be two-fold: Institutional mechanism and strong punitive action. Reduce monopoly to the limit possible, circumscribe discretion and temper it with transparency, and enhance accountability. Hong Kong’s Independent Commission Against Corruption is a super-body against corruption combining investigation, prevention, and popular participation.
            Then there is need for exemplary punitive action. Klitgaard suggests picking the low-hanging fruits and upsetting the applecart that promotes the reprehensible culture of impunity – to disabuse cynical citizen’s mind that is jaded and defeatist. Today, corruption is not only tolerated but has become a way of life.
The above suggestions presuppose heralding changes by simplifying laws, protocolizing procedures, and making processes transparent. What we have today is not lack of rules but surfeit of them; each caught up in woolly tangles making legal interpretations – and consequential adjudicatory processes endlessly long-winded – so infuriatingly exasperating that dares even to trivialize the constitutional office of the CAG.
The Big Three scams – CWG, Adarsh, 2G – of India Shaming have blessed us with material that makes for excellent case studies to educate ourselves. Given public outrage, they must form the cornerstone to cleanse the system from the cancer of corruption. Each scam could be analyzed threadbare with formulaic C = M + D - A to lay bare how the processes and systems were subverted, suborned and the nation deprived of its resources.
The Lokpal Panel must remember the above axiom while drawing up the Bill. With citizens demanding their right to corruption-free governance as their inalienable right, the public servants have to shore up their acts and perform. It is not merely financial honesty, but slowly as society casts its laser gaze on acts of omission and commission, this rarefied realm of moral and intellectual honesty would be placed under electron microscope. Silence, inaction, politeness, financial and sterile honesty wouldn’t do. The media – now bristling with righteous indignation – will tear into them. Hopefully, the dishonest and inept will run for cover much as the honest shall revel in their new-found luminance.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Civil Services: My Very Own Obituary

            How ironical is it that I write my own obituary today when others – notably my ardent practitioners, the civil servants – condescend to celebrate the Civil Services Day! I’m none too sure if it isn’t on purpose – to humiliate me when I am already in my terminal stage of life and afflicted with many illnesses. Without much ado, let me recount my tale of woes, which, in a manner of speaking, is my honest obituary no one else but me would dare write.
            I was spawned by the British in the mid-19th century when the Raj held unquestioned sway across the length and breadth of India. My job, to start with, was fairly simple: to collect revenue and to maintain law and order. Slowly, and little by little, my role changed, and the task of maintaining law and order became tricky and cumbersome in the wake of the national movement to free the country from the British yoke. Then came India’s independence in 1947. I looked forward to this new and, what I thought, exciting phase of my life.
But my outrageous optimism was completely misplaced. I was in for a rude shock. Far from the deliverance I thought independence would grant me, I quickly realized that the people who rode on my back were far from the jockeys I was used to up until then. They were known by the genteel term of civil servants but they were anything but that. They were neither civil nor servants. They joined the civil service not because they wanted to serve the nation and the people but to self-aggrandize and enrich themselves: wield power and abuse it, improve their lot (financial, positional or societal), gain visibility and generally make lives comfortable for their and their unborn (and unforeseeable) future generations.
I blanched at the upstarts and the parvenus riding high on their hobby horse of power and its multi-hued abuses. I was not used to such Johnny-come-latelies. This, I felt, mostly in the 1960s through to the 70s till about the 1990s. My plight began when a certain Czarina riding the crest of uber-glory in the early-197os wanted to change my DNA summarily. She wanted me to shed my time-worn and putative neutrality tag and exchange it for commitment to her cause. I wasn’t amused. But I was helpless, even distraught.
Events were moving ahead fast. Commitment had become the buzzword in the nation’s lexicon. Even the powerful and revered judiciary started feeling the pinch. The Supreme Court bowed to supersession of its three senior-most judges, though not without whimper and protest. So who was I to protest, particularly when my jockeys were mostly made of putty clay, and turncoats and time-servers themselves, had quickly jumped into the bandwagon of the season to make hay – in their mindless quest for quick upward social and material mobility.
Frankly, this was only the prelude to my demise. The rest, as they say, is history. If permit-quota-licence raj had put a cap on dishonesty, the liberalized era that was heralded with panache placed no such set limits. It was now a world of every (wo)man for (her)himself with even devil scared off to take the hindmost! How Mephistopheles had been suitably shushed!
The game-plan was different, so were the game-changers. Unbeknownst, insidiously and incipiently, natural resources attained a Midas touch. Who cares when an impersonal, insentient entity as a Nation-State can be bled to death with impunity! And protest it didn’t – this gloriously magnificent, magnanimous body! – as robbery, thievery and desecration laid waste to its every limb.
Unfortunately, Anno Domini 2010 trumped the ingenuities of all these game-planners and game-changers. The chutzpah and loot of national resources – earthly, heavenly, other-worldly – came about with quick-fire rapidity for the ordinary souls’ comfort. Every denizen of consequence helming these bodies (the honchos thought them starry!) went about on overdrive. The loot could no longer be ignored and glossed over. The world found the rape of CWG nothing but a daylight heist. A certain (in)sane institution the fathers of the Constitution had tamped down on the Indian democratic polity screamed and telecommunicated to the Indian nation through the 2-G medium, the humongous loot of its national resources. Around this time, unbidden, the Kargil war heroes had decided to sit up upright in mudra posture in their Adarsh graves by the Arabian Sea in a megalopolis called Mumbai. Like the Greek tragedy, nemesis had come calling on these limitless hubris!
The Supreme Court too had begun its share of bashing, making the defunct CBI and other vigilante outfits do its bit to earn their salary. The media – frenetically looking around to establish their credibility in 24 x 7 times – gloatingly latched on to these dollops of offering. The civil society, till the other day droopy, somnolent and complaisant, suddenly woke up with a start. The newest Mahatma, with his time-tested fast ceaselessly transmitted in the visual medium, didn’t help matters. The die had been cast.
Today, as I stand at the crossroad of history, I see nothing but the ghost of my own past. The Lokpal Bill, now under passionate drafting by the civil society, will surely write finis to my career. Who, tell me, in his senses, will like to embrace me and become a civil servant? He will not have wings to fly literally and metaphorically. No frivolous rubbernecking across the globe at tax-payers’ expense. No nightly pillage (forget the daylight swindle!) since the CCTV and electron microscopes will scan their every move and transaction.
In hindsight’s 20-20, if the Right to Information was the ultimate act of indecency, the Lokpal shall lamentably be the last fig-leaf in this striptease. As though that isn’t enough to write my dirge, there are still some shouting themselves hoarse from the housetop and simplifying a complex, nuanced issue into an easy algebraic equation: Corruption = Monopoly + Discretion – Accountability.
So that’s going to be my unsung end, my untimely death-knell. So please do me the honours simply enshrining as epitaph on my tombstone!

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Right to Corruption-Free Governance

The events of the past week are unprecedented in the annals of independent India. The civil society has forced itself in playing a role in the democratic polity. The Jan Lokpal Bill provided the trigger. And the groundswell of support Anna Hazare’s fast received across the country – from the inelectable couldn’t-care-less youth to the unelected nonchalant non-voting middle class – was the proverbial last straw on the nation’s back.
Unarguably never in 64 years of independent India has any single year witnessed this fusillade and testosterone of scams big time that we have borne in the uber-ignoble year 2010 Anno Domini. It was a year like no other. It was a year riddled with scams that poured forth with mind-boggling regularity. CWG, Adarshgate, 2-G, Sukhna Defence land scam, ISRO-Devas deal, Prasar Bharati scam, Karnataka land scam, the CVC imbroglio, Nira Radia teletape revelations were way too gratuitous for civil society to give it a go-by. We should be eternally grateful to the Rajas and Kalmadis to have woken up the civil society from its deep slumber and united it as never before!
It is about time the civil society asked for Right to Corruption-free Governance as a part of its fundamental right to be enshrined in the Constitution. It is as important and as fundamental as the right to equality or right to freedom of expression or right to religious practices or right to constitutional remedies. It is as basic as right to live and breathe. And to think that this fundamental right has not only been given a short shrift but been torn to shreds with imperious impunity!
How vital the Lokpal Bill is will be clear if we start from the scratch. In a compact that forms society or nation, the basic unit is man. A nation exists for its people, who have decided to come together to form a state or nation through a covenant that is binding on all to govern itself and to benefit all its stakeholders uniformly. There are the necessary checks and balances to preempt malfeasance and misfeasance on those saddled with governance. Let’s start with human instinct. This, since time immemorial, is as kleptocratic as the oldest profession on earth.
So given human beings are epicures, there would forever be the impulse to improve one’s lot in a society that values hedonism – even when transactions are not always licit. So checkmate illicit impulses: by law that are not long-drawn; by transparency that makes even RTI redundant; by e-governance that posits, postulates, and posts transactions that are tamper-proof. And this is why there is a need for a feisty oversight mechanism.
There are many demands in the Jan Lokpal Bill that should be beyond reproach for all honest, right-thinking people. Take for instance the need to merge the CBI with the Lokpal. This would provide necessary independence to CBI from the clutches of governing unit. Similarly there is nothing Mephistophelean about it. The suggestion for minimum punishment of five years and maximum of life imprisonment can’t be flawed.
Nor can one fault the suggestion that there must be deterrence against frivolous complaints in the form of financial penalties. Or to provide protection against physical and professional victimization of whistleblowers. Likewise, loss caused to the government due to corruption must be recovered from all accused. The issue of Lokpal institution embracing everyone – bureaucrats, politicians, judiciary including the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court – should be welcomed by all honest denizens occupying such exalted offices, though it must be ensured that the Lokpal doesn’t become another Frankenstein.
Much as an oversight body with teeth sends a shudder down the criminal’s spine, it, paradoxically, grants spine and vim to the honest public servant to go that extra mile and outshine himself. Why must then one baulk at the thought of empowering the Lokpal to initiate suo motu investigation in any case without reference or permission from anyone? This is, of course, predicated upon the fact that the Lokpal won’t just be an advisory body but would have powers to register FIR, proceed with criminal investigations and launch prosecution. Hong Kong’s Independent Commission Against Corruption is a kind of super-body against corruption. It combines investigation, prevention, and popular participation – all rolled in one.
In effect, we are left with just three issues that can be bickered. These are fairly trivial and one would hope, given the maturity, intent, and experience of both sides it shouldn’t pose problem to arrive at unanimity. One relates to the constitution of the Lokpal. The civil society activists want this to consist of one chairperson and ten members, of which four with legal background. The other relates to investigations and trial that must be quick and should be completed within one year. Though it would be hard to lay a timeframe, the fact that investigation should be completed in quick time is indubitable.
            We must force a splash: Catching Big Fish and frying them – deep, long, hard, and crisp. Big Fish have high visibility and the more the frying the more the message roundly conveyed. The public tends to weigh effectiveness by status! Nothing kills public confidence more than the belief that the anti-corruption effort is directed only at the small fishes. It needs remembering that Italy’s unprecedented success in its fight against corruption was largely due to frying a top Mafia official, many top business executives, and several major politicians from the ruling party. This told citizens that if they denounced crime and corruption, they certainly could make a difference.  Yikes.
Today, civil society is livid – beyond words. The media has played its part with pox-on-your-face rebuke to unearth crimes notwithstanding the luminaries, caught in crosshairs, spewing venom on them for being the judge, jury, and the executioner. Let the detritus and scums of earth spend themselves out with their spiels of curses worn on their Teflon-coated shirt-fronts. It’s time for India to awake, phoenix-like, from the ashes that public servants have reduced it to. This is not a clarion call; this is a fervent appeal from one proud Indian to fellow proud citizens who would wish to live an honest and dignified life amid this encircling and unending vista of scams – and swindle of public money.
Am I a cosmic optimist to will the Lokpal Bill to galvanize the nation in its quest for honesty? Or, is it malicious to say it will willy-nilly lead one way – to resigned exasperation, as in the past?