Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Power Brokers--1


The Power Brokers-1

Try writing ‘powerful’ without ‘power’ behind it. Similarly imagine two opposite kings unable to check-mate each other, on the chess board, without atleast a bishop, queen or pawn supporting them. Akbar needed atleast nine of them to be called Akbar the great. Chanakya helped Chandragupta to be king of Magadha. Arjun too was direction-less without Lord Krishana as his charioteer in the battle of Mahabharata. What are kings without the king-makers? In any kingdom or society there is just one king, but several king makers. Their need is eternal. Even Lord Rama needs a Hanuman on his side. You need atleast a zero to be added behind the No. 1 to make it 10 or 100. That’s the point…any leader is just an individual without supporters or followers. They are the alter-ego… the faceless shadows… the men and women who make things possible, without coming into the limelight...They are the power-brokers… the back-room boys and girls without whom nothing moves, nothing is complete. Like film directors they are the unseen actors, very much part of the drama on stage. They see everything from back-stage, yet speak only asked to do so. It’s part of their job to speak the truth and give the right advice at the right time to positions of authority… Some do it, some don’t. It takes all kinds to make the world. Everyone is not alike. If there is a loyal Hanuman there is always a Brutus ready to back-stab his boss… but that’s part of the game. In this series on the powerbrokers Neeraj Mahajan delves deep into their world to see what’s good, bad or ugly about them….

It’s just as difficult to detect an official’s dishonesty as it is to discover how much water is drunk by the swimming fish.” -- Chanakya

Vignette 1: 1947-1970: Then: Chief Minister Pratap Singh Kairon -- the father of modern Punjab, was a bold and dynamic leader who was instrumental in ushering the green revolution, construction of bhakra nangal dam and electrification of roads and villages. Kairon was a very difficult person to work with. He had very unconventional ways of getting things done, even at the cost of bending rules. But even then you had Chief Secretaries who could stand up to him and say: “Sir, you are elected, I am selected“.

Vignette 2: 1970-1990: Middle Phase: In the 80s, PM Rajiv Gandhi dropped a bomb-shell at a press conference when asked about something his foreign secretary AP Venkateswaran had said. “You will be speaking to a new foreign secretary soon,” Gandhi replied. This came as a surprise to Venkateswaran, who was sitting in the front row with close to 30 years in Foreign Service. Venkateswaran resigned immediately and from “distinguished foreign secretary” became the “extinguished foreign secretary”.

Vignette 2: 1990-Onwards: Now:  Annoyed with his secretary former Union Minister Kalp Nath Rai, went up to the extent of saying, “Bureaucrats are just like servants…chaprasis…who bring water, when you tell them to. They should not be allowed to act on their own.”

These incidents in short tell you the story of Indian bureaucracy. The most important lesson that these incidents tell us is that if you defy authority you are likely to be ignored, punished or humiliated. But then every profession has its extremes, bureaucracy too.

There was a time when the civil services were known for their honesty, integrity and probity. Everyone these days seems to be saying that the bureaucracy is corrupt and inefficient than it used to be before… There cannot be a smoke without fire. The word bureaucracy today conjures images of an emotionless, logic-less system where rules and procedures are the only thing. A system which promotes exploitation, hair-splitting dealings, delays, red-tapism and inefficiency—far removed from the needs of its consumers, the common man.

The common man’s perception of a bureaucrat is someone who is unhelpful and arrogant.  Many of them may tell you about their unhappy experiences in any public office. It is very rare that a simple phone call by an ordinary citizen to a government office got things done, unless there was a ‘source’ or 'contacts' in the office. Things have come to a pass where bribes have to be paid for getting right things done at right time.  
Good governance is not a favor or fringe benefit of democracy but the basic right of the consumer- the faceless common man. Interestingly about 8 years ago two of our senior most bureaucrats E.A.S. Sarma and Madhav GodboleI filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court to recognize good government as a fundamental right of every citizen as it is being guaranteed in many leading democracies in the world including Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, United States and United Kingdom. What came out of the proposal is not known and it is probably gathering dust in some nook or corner of some office.

As a head of the Canadian Public Service once asserted; one of the important functions of the civil service is to 'speak truth to power'.

We live in an age of Yes men where there is no place of ifs and buts and no is forbidden. Instead of ‘speaking their mind’, many of today’s bureaucrats are toothless paper tigers, willing to fall in line and lick the toes of their masters. A case in point is of a Dy SP who was seen wiping Chief Minister Mayawati’s shoe with his hanky. Yet another senior officer personally made it a point to hold the umbrella to shield the Chief Minister from rain. Many years ago the Sub Area Commander of Andhra, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka (AT&K Area) Brig Ashok Nagpal was caught on camera touching the feet of CM Deve Gowda– just to get him over to inaugurate a park next to the parade ground. This correspondent was an eye-witness.

What for... just to get a good ACR and a recommendation for promotion or posting? Whatever the case may be, these incidents highlight erosion and decay of standards and values among the civil servants. A number of civil servants today have been jailed by courts of law in India for dereliction of duty and possessing assets disproportionate to their income.

In his landmark speech on the occasion of the 7th Civil Services day Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s categorically accepted the fact that there is a growing perception that the moral fibre of today’s public servants, is not as strong as it used to be and that the present lot of civil servants are more likely to succumb to extraneous pressures.  “These perceptions might be exaggerated but I do think that there is a grain of truth in them,” the Prime Minister said.

But the moot issue really is – who is there to bell the cat? Honesty is not something that can be ordered. To be honest, truthful and upright – you have to price? Are you prepared for it? The unwritten code of bureaucratic conduct and how ministers and bureaucrats deal with each other today is summed up by: “You scratch my back, I will scratch yours.”

A classic example of bureaucratic steadfastness is that of P.S. Appu a dynamic 1951 batch IAS officer and former Chief Secretary of Bihar who introduced land reforms and rural development in the backward state. As Director of the IAS Academy in Mussoorie, he used to speak of political neutrality, independence of civil servants and used to ask his trainees to fearlessly perform their duties and offer honest advice, even at the cost of annoying the political leaders. It was nothing short of an agni-pariksha when he was called upon to practice what he preached and had to honorably quit the job. It so happened that during a study trip, a male IAS probationer whipped out a loaded revolver to threaten two ladies and other male probationers. Appu was convinced that such a person should not continue in IAS and recommended his discharge. But the probationer happened to be connected to the Home Minister and was let off with only a reprimand. The matter rocked Parliament but Prime Minister Indira Gandhi remained a silent. So Appu resigned and the country lost one of its most upright civil servants.

It’s not surprising that how politicians sometimes take the most absurd decisions and it is left to the bureaucrats to act like voltage stabilizers and get the political bosses to change course if possible and hence avoid a disaster. A classic example of what happens when you don’t have people around to offer you the best advice is what happened in the case of Rajiv Gandhi. As a young Prime Minister one of the decisions taken by Rajiv Gandhi was to permit senior officers to go on deputation to private companies for a period of up to five years. This became a big joke in North and South Block where officers were categorised as AB+ and AB- (Ambani positive or Ambani negative), or RH + (Reliance and Hinduja positive) and RH - (Reliance and Hinduja negative), and so on.  Though it’s common knowledge that large industrial houses exert pulls and pressures to get officer close or against them posted or transferred out but by creating vested interests you only end up making officers obliged to particular business houses. This is both hazardous and brings a bad name to civil services. Surprisingly no one told Rajiv so.

Many old civil servants love to cite the example of AP Venkateswaran to justify why no one dares to speak up before people in authority. When it comes to that it seems India is not the only country with this problem, even in neighboring Pakistan foreign secretary Riaz Ahmad Khan was abruptly shown the door for being forthright. It happened so that the Bhutto-Zardari family was convinced that outgoing President, Parvez Musharraf played a role in Bhutto’s assassination but convinced that it would be impossible to unearth the conspiracy without an independent probe. Hence the family asked for a UN probe into the assassination. Riaz Ahmad Khan opposed the move to approach the UN Security Council as this would bracket Pakistan with countries like Rwanda, Lebanon and former Yugoslavia where UN had set up similar commissions. Letting off his steam in a TV interview an irate Zardari said, “All these people are inflexible, lack thinking and if Pakistani bureaucracy and establishment had a vision, Pakistan would not be in the state as it is today.” Riaz Ahmad Khan quit the job and Salman Bashir the Pakistani Ambassador in Beijing was appointed Foreign Secretary of Pakistan.

As a culmination of all these systematic flaws honest civil servants have become extinct. Majority of them may not be corrupt but what to say when they prefer to look the other way and swim along with the tide. It becomes demoralizing for any self respecting civil servant to function effectively.

One of the person responsible for this was the former Information and Broadcasting  Minister, K.P. Singh Deo, who reportedly laid down certain ground rules for functioning of civil servants in his Ministry—”Servants should not speak till the master permits… You are not to apply your mind, you are just to do what you are told.”

Though himself a former civil servant, as Chief Election Commissioner T.N. Seshan, went ahead and described civil servants as “call girls” and “backboneless wonders”.

Another dimension to this story was added when Justice M.P. Thakkar observed, “Even when a person appoints a cook or a watchman he looks for a person in whom he has faith. How can the Government of India appoint any person as Secretary in whom it has no faith?”

The net result was that non-political, neutral and non-partisan civil service that Sardar Patel had envisioned was dead soon after it was born and what we have today is an ugly distortion.

This trend of ‘His-Master’s-Voice’ was aptly captured by a cartoon which had a civil servant talking to another, “I belong to the V.P. Singh batch. You must be of Rajiv’s.”

Pradeep Bhattacharya, former Additional Chief Secretary of West Bengal in his book “The Appu Papers” described how his mentor P.S. Appu used to classify IAS officers into three categories – first category being the able and confident people willing to share responsibility and take decisions. The second are people who follow the book, postpone decisions and prefer to take no decisions to avoid mistakes. The third are people who are unscrupulous and use power arbitrarily and abuse power. According to the author, the first group comprised 35 % of IAS officers in 1950s but it came down to 10% in the 1990s. The second group had 60 % that came down to 40 %. The third had 5% that rose to 50% in the 1990s.

Where things stand today is anybody’s guess.

A few years ago the IAS association in Utter Pradesh took a bold initiative to identify two most corrupt officers in their cadre by a secret ballot. It was expected that this would serve as a deterrent for the black-sheep’s in the department. But what happened was just the opposite – one of the two officers was appointed chief secretary. Equally telling is the scandal involving Arvind and Tinu Joshi- an IAS couple who amassed Rs 360 crores in 25 years. Such, incidents are symbolic of how deep the cancer of corruption has spread.

And there are such cases in all states. It’s not funny that over the years many such incidents have given rise to new terminology, new synonyms like scam, kickback, ghatala etc. Wait till you hear the parodies and the slogans like ‘Ba…ba…black sheep’, ‘Dishonesty Pays’, ‘Dishonesty is the best policy’, and “good boys get punished while bad boys have all the fun as the ministers blue-eyed boys”.

The question is where do we go from here? Is there a way out at all?

To say that the civil services are drawn from the society and hence bound to have all the weaknesses and drawbacks of the society is seems to be the most convenient excuse and certainly not what you expect of the cream of society, the most powerful and the best brains… We may not like it but IAS in Indian Administrative Service, today stands for “Inefficient, Arrogant, Self-centered.” There is also a connection between bureaucrats, politicians and criminals which we will discuss in the subsequent columns.

But what to do in a system where dowry is the first bribe that an IAS right at the beginning of his career. As a buy one get one free deal- the in laws get the IAS officers services free for the rest of his life besides gaining the social recognition and respectability that they lacked despite their wealth. The IAS officer too is obviously happy to be paid upfront in the deal. That’s what is called a win-win situation.