Wednesday, August 27, 2014

We live not in a Democracy but in a Nepocracy!

One of the most defining narratives of present-day India is nepotism. Otherwise a simple term – a polite hark back to help out poor dear nephew(s) – that sounds and feels so innocuous, it is hard to believe how this cancer has metastasized and colonized every cell of Indian society. We see it everywhere in India today, even in places which proclaim to be the high priests of the rule of law, so much so that what we see is not democracy but nepocracy (or nepotcracy, if that’s easy on your tongue!) – the rule by nepotism.

Blame it on feudalism or the biradiri culture that pervades popular thinking and our collective unconscious, the damage nepotism – by its seeming legitimacy, by edging out and derecognizing merit – has wrought on a supposedly arm’s length system that bureaucracy pretends to be, is incalculable. It is heartening that the PM has accorded accountability and transparency the pride of place in governance. While the will is admirable, the biggest challenge lies in execution. So firmly entrenched nepotism is and so smug and comfortable most networked practitioners in high social/official perches are with this cuddly abstraction that it will take the most cosmic – even unconscionable and asinine – optimist to believe that this nepo-cart can indeed be upended. Nepotism, to be honest, is a part of the gene-DNA combo of our national character, and followed with such zeal and fervour that it is difficult to see the difference between this brand of fundamentalism and the one called religious – this the holy grail of Nepotistic Fundamentalism!

Nepotism is spawned when the arm’s length system supposedly in place via rules, codes and manuals is given a royal heave-ho and the questionable relationship system takes over, gains traction and trumps the former. While financial dishonesty in our popular template has been accorded legitimate censure and frowned upon as reprehensible, the insidious damages wrought by intellectual dishonesty is often glossed over and not granted its rightful due. We have experienced over the years, particularly in the last decade, how the Teflon-coat of unimpeachable financial honesty shrouded the wanton and relentless intellectual dishonesty, which is unfolding even today.

So inside, beneath, and wrapped around this innocuous nepotism there is the unmistakable touch of intellectual dishonesty. This kind of dishonesty makes a man with zero morality a potentate in an opaque atmosphere where the relationship system is firmly entrenched, duly aided by discretion, and abetted by the surety of no punitive action forthcoming. In cold calculus it can be represented thus: Nepotistic Relationship System (NRS) = Intellectual Dishonesty (ID) + Discretion (D) – No Punitive Action (NPA) – No Instant Transparency (NIT). Or simple put: NRS = ID + D – NPA – NIT.

See the formulaic elements. While instant transparency and quick punitive action, as also discretion, can be taken care of externally either by instituting a system in place as in the case of the first two or by removing or limiting the third, not so the other element –intellectual dishonesty – because it is one which can only be appropriated from within and not taught or imposed from without. In a way, intellectual dishonesty will put pay and decimate all trappings of instant transparency and quick punitive action – and foil foisting an Arm’s Length System (ALS), the ideal to approximate.

Man congenitally is an obsessively possessive epicurean – so aptly captured in the prime minister’s Independence Day speech, mera kya, mujhe kya – the reason why he is more kleptocratic even in a much touted democratic construct; his every behaviour either mimics or at best shrouds through unmistakable posturing such gross instincts. In ideal conditions, his behaviour is impeccable; but when no one is looking around, he does what his primitive instinct prompts him to – to steal and pillage, appropriate unto himself things not Caesar’s, and weave his way around to perpetuate every wrong for himself and his biradiri. It embraces the entire society, every profession and vocation – government, private, corporate – feeding and cross-nepotizing each other and one another as it flits across these divides. Though I would rather not speak to any particular case, it is only the obtuse who can miss out how this cross-fertilization of nepotism shows itself up in today’s world: public officials’ children punching much above their academic weight in bagging blue-chip jobs in the corporate world, postings in high perches and post-retirement sinecures given away as quid pro quo – past, present, and future – are but a few illustrations to emphasize the efficacy of nepotism. Given this scenario, the need is to checkmate this nepotistic man so that the relationship system – spawned in a value-free environ stemming from no scruples and morals – he is congenitally keen to give full rein to, is stymied.

How, then, is one to approximate this? And how likely such a system can be ushered in in an environment where public servants delude telling the world that they are public servants when they are nothing better than serious private servants forever pursuing personal interests, though, to be fair, once in a while – more as an accident than any else – they do something worthy that possibly can qualify as public work? This is when – and why – an arm’s length system that admits of no tinkering needs to be clamped. Inverse the Relationship System (RS) by snuffing out the self-regarding acts and you possibly can think of an Arms’ Length System (ALS) that translates to the following calculus: Arms’ Length System (ALS) = Quick Punitive Action (QPA) + Instant Transparency (IT) – Intellectual Dishonesty (ID) – Discretion (D). More simply put: ALS = QPA + IT – ID – D.

Introducing instant transparency though seemingly easy, isn’t exactly so. While in popular parlance, sunlight is said to be the best disinfectant, it is well to realize that most people are fiercely scared of sunlight. But it is possible, though people will demur at the completeness of wholesale and real-time transparency. Punitive action that is quick and time-bound too doesn’t appear very likely in a democracy where long-winded legal processes and procedures, coupled with legalese mouthed by motormouth lawyers, duly propped up with labyrinthine rules and procedures, can help drag and protect the corrupt for decades on end. It is any one’s guess if we are in a position to work through this maze and bonsai cast-iron punitive measures out of it. Similarly, given the feudal mentality of most networked public officials and the long years of practice they are used to, the issue of discretion that needs to be exercised in a bipartisan manner seems a far cry.

A resurgent media, a vigilant judiciary, and a growing bulge of an enlightened middle class aided by instant transparency seem the likely straws. Much unlike Cassandra, I hope the cold calculus holds and works – and upends our nepotistic modus vivendi!

Monday, August 18, 2014

On their own trip!

It is nobody’s case that foreign visits are not essential in a globalised economy. Negotiations and consultations are an intrinsic part of bilateral, multilateral and international ecosystems. But sundry inconsequential visits are a problem. The ministry of finance and the cabinet secretariat have put limits on the number and duration of visits. Since visits abroad entail spending precious foreign exchange, secretaries have been directed to be strict in sanctioning them and to use our permanent missions abroad to represent the country instead. Sadly, these directions are rarely heeded.

The urge to go on foreign trips is endemic. Proposals for deputation abroad are immaculately crafted and processed with such speed that it could easily give a lie to the putative snail-pace of the Indian bureaucracy. It admits  no restraint, no shame, no twinge of conscience —  indeed, the tenacity is admirable. The urge to go abroad is rather natural, flowing from an immutable human impulse —  obsessive hedonistic individualism.

Let’s accept reality. The standards of financial propriety enjoined on public servants —  to exercise the same vigilance with public money as a person of ordinary prudence would with his own —  are rarely met. It is disturbing when proponents of a junket suggest that the extant orders be rewritten so that no questions are asked about their trips. I have even known an officer to travel abroad 60-odd times in three years, against the prescribed 12 (four per annum), spending about two-thirds of his time, excluding travel time, abroad.

There are wheels within wheels in foreign junkets. For instance, when economising measures were taken for domestic travel (officers who were earlier eligible for executive class travel now had to travel economy), the measures for international travel were only symbolic. Those eligible to travel first class (secretaries and above) were downgraded to business class, while those eligible to travel business (joint and additional secretaries) and economy class remained unaffected. The one good economising measure was that the tickets had to be bought at the lowest fare in the class. This brought an end to the free companion ticket facility. I myself insisted on the lowest fare rule and was staggered by the stout resistance and fusillade of bad logic trotted out against it.

The impulse to travel using government money when sponsorship from international agencies is available has assumed alarming proportions. All because officials are allowed to travel business class. It matters little that such acts mean the wanton depletion of taxpayer money. So, officials should live by the following rules: Thou shalt not covet foreign visits except those that are most necessary, unavoidable, inescapable, thou shalt not manufacture foreign jaunts through specious logic or spend all thy office hours coveting such excursions; instead, thou shall devote all thy time and energy to the job at hand, which thou as public servant art solemnly sworn to perform and art being paid handsomely, with all attendant perks, to do.

Doing this is rather easy. All it needs is undoing the blatant wrong perpetrated by the Sixth Pay Commission. While for domestic travel, the daily allowance was done away with by the commission and replaced by the reimbursement of food bills, the same logic wasn’t invoked for foreign visits, which continue with the per diem allowance. Consequently, foreign jaunts are an easy way to earn non-taxable dollars. Rectifying this egregious error, say, through a travel card (with limits), shall demonetise and cap the urge to seek out foreign safaris. It’s likely that restless minds will be stilled (due to the lack of possibilities) and their extra time made available to their work in office. It shall verily amount to putting the internal moral compass (ever so artificially, though) in the right place.

Given the prime minister’s emphasis on minimum government and maximum governance, and his firm commitment to transparency, one would suggest that there is also a dire need to rid the system of nepotism, and establish an arm’s-length and merit-based system instead. It needs to be remembered that networkers are not-workers. Because at the end of a long, arduous, networked day, they are far too mentally fatigued and physically drained to perform their assigned tasks.

Though a tad off-centre, I would like to sign off with a bit of mirth to lift the spirit of unrelieved pessimism by recalling Eugene McCarthy’s wry words: “The only thing that saves us from the bureaucracy is inefficiency. An efficient bureaucracy is the greatest threat to liberty.” How ironic and predictable. And yet another cause, however small, for gratitude.

(Reproduced from The Indian Express, 20.06.2014)