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?