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Thursday, November 27, 2014

Moditva versus Hindutva

Those waiting for Narendra Modi to show his true khaki/saffron colours must be hugely disappointed. Instead of articulating muscular Hindutva, he sounds like a Congressman making noises about ‘inclusive’ vikas, democracy, pluralism, non-violence and Swaccha Bharat. He showers praise on Indian Muslims for their commitment to the idea of India.
The Sangh Parivar icons — Savarkar, Hedgewar and Golwalkar — are replaced by Gandhi, Patel and Nehru. He junks his oldest partner in Project Hindutva, the Shiv Sena and allows Sharad Pawar to cosy up to him! So, what the hell is going on?
It is generally believed that anyone who has ever been through the ideological mills of the Sangh Parivar is committed to the Hindu Rashtra agenda unflinchingly and that once the initial liberal antics are over, the remote control from Nagpur will ensure that the ‘real’ agenda comes back into focus.
Modi critics currently offer two explanations for the apparent paradox that he is turning out to be. One is that playing the good cop/bad cop routine has always been a part of the RSS/BJP repertoire and with Modi playing the development and good governance part and Amit Shah et al keeping the communal pot boiling, the resultant confusion is intended to clear the way for the insidious advance of Hindutva.
The other, a variation, credits Modi with Machiavellian duplicity and cunning by which he has successfully fooled aspirational middle India into accepting his ‘spin’ and his demonic self is bound to emerge sooner than we can imagine. The holocaust, according to these doomsayers, is not far behind.
Wrong assumptions
One of the cardinal mistakes of the left-leaning liberal intelligentsia is to invest the RSS with superhuman indoctrination capabilities — by virtue of which its members and sympathisers get fired by hyper-nationalist, ideological fervour and they become immune to the social, political and cultural trends impacting the rest of Indian society.
This is questionable. There is no empirical evidence to indicate that the Sangh Parivar members remain untouched by forces of modernity, cultural globalisation and ‘aspirational’ economic growth. Organisationally, too, RSS is as prone to the pulls and pressures of competing beliefs and value systems, internal power struggles, bureaucratic turf wars, petty intrigues, scandals as any other. Their ideology machine is rusty, with little by way of fresh intellectual inputs in response to fundamental social and cultural changes taking place all around them.
The westernised, Nehruvian, liberal elite that it saw as its principal threat is no longer a force and the minorities too cannot be overtly identified as the ‘other’ to define themselves against without harming the BJP’s electoral prospects. There is little left therefore to sharpen their ideological claws against.
Continuing to see Modi as an arch, iconic representative of the RSS blinds us to the dramatically different phenomenon Modi is turning out to be and the way he is shaping Indian politics around ‘Brand Modi’.
Keeping it clean
We know that Modi is possibly the smartest, shrewdest politician in India today with an unmatched capacity for long term strategic thinking; plays his cards close to the chest and has supreme confidence in his abilities to turn the game around.
He is also the most inspirational mass communicator we have seen since Vajpayee. We also know that first in Gujarat and now at the national level, he has decimated and marginalised any internal dissidence in the party. The elders have been kicked upstairs and the rivals co-opted in a way that they can be checked at will. Some of the loony fringe have been inducted into positions where they can be controlled and some others thrown into oblivion.
Since the Gujarat riots neither in word nor in deed has Modi betrayed any signs of communal bias. True, he may not always have spoken out against communal potboilers as vociferously as he could or should have (but there could be a tactical reason for that), or made demonstrable overtures to win the hearts of the minorities, but he has scrupulously avoided making an overtly communal remark or gesture.
On the other hand he has displayed a single-minded focus on good governance, on economic growth, on business promotion and investment attraction, on infrastructure creation and on ‘delivery’. Throughout his election campaign and thereafter he has been at pains to talk of cultural inclusiveness, of all Indians coming together for a mission to transform India, of humanity, of his debt to Buddhism, of the need to abjure violence, of the need to fight battles across South Asia against poverty, against terror, against sectarian trends. All these are part of a very carefully constructed and attractively packaged ‘Brand Modi’.
This brand has no place for anti-minority propaganda and no room to carry the Hindutva baggage. The electoral success of the brand depended and will depend on biting off huge chunks of the secular, centrist vote. Modi does not have to pander to the Hindutva brigade.
He has created a huge constituency of his own across India, across the young, aspirational population, across castes and communities and across regions. No one in the BJP has ever managed to do this. While cadre-based support of the Sangh Parivar has its uses, Modi is now capable of building his own cadres around Brand Modi. The RSS and the BJP need Modi to stay relevant not the other way around. Brand Modi is much, much bigger.
The road ahead
Obviously, throwing out the Hindutva baggage cannot be done overnight. It also has to be done in a way that avoids direct confrontation. So how can this be achieved? It has been done partially by having co-opted and accommodated sections of it within the government, where they have been kept completely under control. The rest of them were left to work off their own steam.
The Yogis and the Sakshi Maharajs had come to believe that it was the stridency, the pugnaciousness and the belligerence of their variety of Hindutva which had given them the edge in UP and they could rely on communal mobilisation plus anti incumbency against Samajwadi Party to carry them home. They were allowed, intentionally I think, to take the lead and build their own lunatic platform of Love Jihad. Access to Brand Modi was denied.
At the same time by maintaining complete silence on their shenanigans they were allowed to think that they could dominate the show. They now stand discredited in ways that no disclaimers from Modi could ever have achieved.
Is this a genuine transformation? Will the closet Hindu in Modi make an eventual come back? Who knows? But personal political ambition is a bigger driver than any ideology and Narendra Modi is here to realise and fulfil his ambition to be the greatest Prime Minister of independent India. Hindutva will not be allowed to thwart that ambition.
The writer is a former Secretary to the Government of India

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Bogey of Public Security

Although my major claim to fame is as a practitioner with a  flair for recalcitrance and controversy, I have always had an obsession for conceptual and theoretical explorations before undertaking any action. I have never understood the theory versus practice or policy versus implementation divide, believing as I still do, that poor theory and poor policy leads to bad practice and bad practices , in turn, generate still poorer policies. This is because we think that conceptual concerns are not very relevant to hard, down to earth issues like ‘public security’ where the  meaning is and should be obvious enough to everyone. But is it?

Have we ever paused to wonder why our sense of security has declined in inverse proportion to the growth of the ‘security’ industry- an industry which spans the bureaucracy, the military and the police, the private sector, the academia and the world of the security analyst and the security expert?  Thirty years ago, at the peak of the extremist upsurge in Punjab, I had no hesitation in travelling the length and breadth of Punjab with no ‘security’ without ever feeling threatened. Sixty years ago, Prime Minister Nehru could be spotted on Delhi roads being driven in a car with no escorts, no pilots, no accompanying security personnel and just a chauffeur. Was it bravado or was it a fact that most of us genuinely felt secure because in a hard won democracy, a free citizenry  was seen as the best safeguard against any threats to safety and well being? Is a Prime Minister who lives behind  electrified barbed wires and moves  around in a motorcade of forty bullet proofed limousines on roads which are sanitised before he can enter them more secure than a Raksha Mantri who just ten years ago had had the gates to his house removed so that anyone could enter his house at anytime without any let or hindrance? Were threats to security in relation to the times any less then than they are now?

I know it will be said that the world has changed after 9/11, 2001 or 26/11, 2008, or 31/10, 1984 or 21/5 ,1991 but the point is whether people are more ’secure’ today with the humongous investments we have made in providing more security, than they were thirty or fifty years ago and if they are not , is there not something fundamentally wrong with our concept of what constitutes ‘security’?

A major part of the problem lies in treating ‘security’ as a stand alone  analytical category and a value in itself, hoping that the inherent fuzziness of the concept will go away if one hyphenates it with ‘public’ or ‘national’ or ’homeland’ or ‘food’ or ‘energy’ or ‘environment’. The fact is that without conceptual clarity and definitional precision we have created a monstrous bogey which is used to justify the militarization of the state, the centralization of coercive authority, the proliferation of bureaucracy, the trampling of human rights, the severe curtailment of individual liberty and all this, paradoxically, has created conditions in which we all feel far more insecure than ever before.

There is a complete perversion of values involved here. The security of citizens is conflated with the security of the state , the state apparatus and those who control the state apparatus. The sovereignty of the people is conflated with the sovereignty of the state and its territorial integrity. Security is conflated with public order and democracy  and the exercise of constitutionally guaranteed freedoms  are seen as threats to achieving that order. So instead of ensuring that people feel secure in exercising their rights and enjoying their freedoms, we ensure that they sacrifice it at the altar of ‘security’ and that this sacrifice is seen as being in their own interests. Security , instead of being a means to achieve certain ends becomes an end in itself and no one knows what that end is. When and where have we reached that somewhere which can be said to be the destination for perfect security? An isolation ward in Tihar ? The jesting pilates of security will not stay for an answer.

The second set of perversions is achieved by the appropriation of security as a concern not of the public or the citizenry or the community but as a concern of a professional bureaucracy and the police or the military. They know better than we do what is good for our security. The citizen can question neither the arrogation of this power by the authorities nor the decisions taken ostensibly on his/her behalf. At its most benign it becomes a justification for a nanny state which takes away from a citizen the most fundamental of his fundamental rights and at its most malevolent, a justification for indescribable brutality and repression.

A perfect example of how treating ‘security’ as a stand alone concern can completely distort policy and practice is the case of Punjab my karmabhumi for a major part of my career. The surge of  extremist militancy that took place in  the decade of the eighties and a part of the early nineties meant that Punjab was kept under President’s rule throughout this period in the belief that the ‘security’ situation needed to be brought under control before normal democratic functioning could be resumed. The Police was given, not just a free hand to be as ruthless as they deemed necessary but also sweeping powers under special laws which provided legitimacy to their excesses. Human rights were suspended pending the restoration of order. ‘Supercops’ were imported and given the licence to kill if necessary. For ten years their sway was absolute. Each surge in militant insurgency was met with more ruthless repression and every such response was countered by an escalation of violence on the part of militants. To cut a long story short, it was not until democratic rule was restored in 1991 and an elected political executive put in place that the people turned away from violence, stopped providing sustenance to the militants and thereby enabled police action to become effective. So democracy is a precondition to peace and normalcy and order and not the other way round.

Any discussion of ‘public security’ must therefore be placed in the context of societal objectives and how conditions can be created in which people exercise their fundamental rights freely and without fear, in which they actively participate in the democratic decision making process, in which they are enabled to access the means to advance their social and economic well being and the means to realize their creative potential. If these conditions are not fulfilled or threats to the achievement of these conditions not substantially reduced then that constitutes a failure of security.

The achievement of these conditions is the basic purpose of governance in any democracy and keeping public order a means to achieve those purposes. Public order cannot be an end in itself. By elevating public order to a value by itself and then conflating it with the notion of ‘security’ we have turned governance upside down. The primacy of the basic values of democracy have therefore to be restored before issues of public security can be addressed. Not the other way round.

It is in this context that we have to locate the discourse on public security within the discourse on federalism. We often forget that federalism  is not just a power  sharing arrangement but has a deeper  threefold purpose- making diversity an organising principle of governance, deepening democracy by reducing distance between the people and government and protecting and nurturing individual liberty against the tyranny of the big state. So by federalism I mean not just a mechanical separation of powers between two orders of government, hierarchically arranged, but a means of creating an architecture in which governance is devolved to the smallest possible, viable unit following the concept of subsidiarity.

Viewed from such a prism public security has to be treated as one aspect of devolved and decentralised governance. This is completely at variance with the existing approach where federal devolution is seen as a hindrance or a constraint to achieving ‘security’. The argument offered is that since most threats to security operate at national or global levels these need to be tackled at the national levels both on account of capacity constraints at provincial or local levels as well as the need for centralized coordination. This is a specious argument because by that logic, taking terrorism as an  example, it can be argued  that since terrorist organizations do  not respect national boundaries and operate as a global network, it can only be tackled by a specialized global agency centred in the US of A.

We forget that almost all  public issues operate simultaneously at all levels and the impact at each level is different and specific to that local context. Unless these problems are  understood in terms of their specificity and tackled at that level, by the people who face that problem and unless those people have a controlling say in  the way in which the problems are tackled, we will suffer the same fate that the people of J&K for example are suffering from- a complete collapse of governance.

I would have  had much to say on how we can rethink the architecture of governance to make it at once more federal, devolved, decentralized, coordinated and networked and how resources can be pooled through innovative intergovernmental partnerships and collaboration , but that discussion will have to await another forum, another venue. Suffice it to say that public security and public order has to be subordinated to democracy and not the other way round.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Modi reconstructed through foreign eyes.

The westernised Indian elite has long known that their reputations as intellectuals, scholars, creative artists, management  moghuls have first to be established with foreigners before they are presented to Indians. International recognition must precede the testing of Indian waters. One always thought that this trick was the preserve of that threatened species called the Nehruvian elite which had guaranteed access to Oxford or Cambridge or the Ivy League  Universities or the Art Academies of France. One certainly did not expect a home grown, self made, Hindu nationalist to cotton on so quickly  to the extraordinary impact an international image can have on one’s national constituency.

What else explains the stark contrast between our Prime Minister’s cautious, fumbling, almost lack lustre, moves on the domestic front with the flurry of initiatives on the foreign policy front - some of which genuinely take your breath away ?

On the domestic front it seems that the inevitability of incrementalism has been accepted as a strategic response, a one tentative step forward and a half step backward. The choice of  Ministers (with exceptions) in the Council of Ministers was largely uninspiring. In some cases there seemed to be no particular logic to justify either the incumbent’s selection or the portfolio allocated. The much touted ‘minimum government maximum governance’ seemed to have stopped with a very half hearted regrouping and reclustering of some departments. The attempts to get politically appointed Governors to leave with the Home Secretary dropping threats was clumsy and ham handed. The leaking of the report on NGOs and their alleged adverse impact on economic growth showed predictable lack of intelligence from the oxymoronically named Intelligence Bureau.  The Gopal Subrahmanyam Affair showed flat footedness and pettiness. The Delhi University brouhaha was unimaginatively handled and the famed communication skills of the HRD Minister seemed sorely wanting. The Rail Budget was competent and forward looking but hardly set  anyone  or anything on fire and certainly did not seem to be the forerunner of a bold new vision. The Budget was a great dampener- a confused hash of  measures,  completely bereft of an overarching vision of economic transformation that one had come to expect from  Narendra Modi.

Contrast this with his initiatives on the foreign policy front. The invitation to the  neighbouring Heads of Government and in particular to  Nawaz Sharif to the swearing in ceremony was a gesture of pure inspiration. It signalled a willingness to bat off the front foot in a way that even Vajpayee had been hesitant to. Not since Sachin hit that famous six off Shoaib in the World Cup 2003  had there been a stroke in India Pak relations which sent such a frisson of excitement across the subcontinent. When everyone expected  tired lines of   ‘unless the terror infrastructure is dismantled….’ variety  being repeated ( albeit in  a more thunderous voice than that of his predecessor) Modi was vowing the world with the vocabulary of peace, friendship and free trade and commerce. In one stroke and in a single day, Modi registered his arrival on the international stage as the tallest leader in the region who will henceforth set both the agenda and the pace of mutual  relations among South Asian nations.
This was followed quickly by another masterstroke- that of singling out Bhutan for his first international visit as a Head of Government. It made a small, proud nation which must always have felt like a Lilliputian among giants, feel special  and simultaneously  sent a signal to the other small states that smallness of size would  not  henceforth, diminish their strategic importance and that they need not fear the big brother. It also signalled his deeper understanding of cultural and civilizational ties within South  Asia and  sent a clear message that he saw South Asian Regional cooperation as central to his international strategy. That he saw SARC as far more important than his predecessors ever did,  was eloquently confirmed with yet another stroke of genius- the call for India to launch a SARC satellite which will allow a cooperative, participative use of peaceful space technologies.

As if all this excitement was not enough for the first fifty days we have had the Brics Summit, the Brics Bank creation agreement, the meetings with Xin and Putin, a  cascading waterfall of events seemingly designed to construct a new, modern, internationalist Modi who appears as though born to the Manor. Gone is the awkwardness of a provincial leader, inexperienced in the ways and mores of international diplomacy. It has been replaced by a man wearing beautifully cut ‘Bund Gulla’ suits, with a confident stride, a firm handshake, a straight look in the eyes and the silken cadences of a statesman.

Aspirational  India has always tried to view itself through its perceptions of the foreigners’ perceptions of India and Indians. What the foreigners say or feel about us matters much more than what we ourselves may feel or see. So if now the Putins and the Obamas and the Xins and the Rouseffs and the Zumas and the Merkals see Modi in a new light  will we too not forget all those bad Karmas of 2002 and hail a new incarnation?

Thursday, July 4, 2013

CBI- an instrument of coercion.

As the cries for CBI autonomy get shriller, with the Supreme Court joining the chorus, it is possible that the Government may give in to popular pressure and make the CBI more powerful and more seemingly ‘autonomous’. In a situation where the CBI is primarily an institution of coercive harassment and extortion giving it more ‘autonomy’ rather than making it more accountable is fraught with extreme danger.

We seem to have a genius for defining a problem incorrectly and then finding solutions that not merely exacerbate the problem but give rise to a host of new, much worse, problems. The misuse of the CBI as a political tool is said to be the main problem. But is it?

First, the number of cases where the Government of the day may have an overweening political interest is very limited. Such cases are exceptional and should not determine policy. Second, no amount of control and influence a political executive wields can make up for investigative incompetence which is often the real problem. Take the initial years of the Bofors investigations for example. The CBI had a completely free hand with unprecedented public support, yet it failed to draft even a halfway decent  FIR that could stand judicial scrutiny and was thrown out in the first instance. Surely it was neither lack of autonomy nor the interference of the political executive that led to the appalling hash the CBI made of that case!

Autonomy is the space that an institution creates for itself for its own freedom of action unconstrained by any external agency. Unlike, say the IB, the CBI occupies a unique space where there are no other rivals. The Minister in charge performs only routine administrative coordination functions and has no role to play in  CBI’s investigations. The Director does not report to him nor has he to bother about an annual performance appraisal. He has  more or less a guaranteed tenure, which has never been abridged. The coercive powers that the agency enjoys are enormous, with ready access to any document, information or resource. It is networked with international agencies with access to privileged information of the kind that no one else in the country has. Never short of funds, the CBI can put wiretaps, bring people under surveillance or conduct tests with complete impunity. Third degree methods of interrogation are common as they do not attract the kind public disapproval they would in civilized societies.

Is this then a ‘caged parrot’?

The fact is that there is nothing in the objective circumstances that constrains the CBI. It is entirely up to the Director to be as independent, fearless and unapproachable as he wishes to be; to refuse to be misused; to persist with an investigation if he wishes to and to abandon one if he finds it ill motivated. Being pliable or not is his choice.

The problem is not a lack but excess of autonomy, which is misused for a variety of extortionist pursuits .  The  overwhelming proportion of the CBI  portfolio  consists of petty bribery cases,  cases of trivial, administrative misdemeanour, minor procedural transgressions and bona fide mistakes made in the decision making process by honest officers, or policy decisions that got soured by subsequent developments  beyond the control of the decision maker(s).

These cases, mostly based on motivated complaints or references inspired by those wishing to settle scores are the real bread and butter business of  the CBI. Most involve soft targets, particularly civil servants with no political godfathers. Such references allow the CBI to start a fishing expedition so that if they cast a net wide enough they will catch the small fry. If an official reference is not forthcoming, an anonymous or pseudonymous complaint will be converted into a ‘source report’ to initiate the enquiry. The more honest a person, the greater his vulnerability to such fishing exercises. The dishonest, on the other hand invariably have powerful political protection and are rarely touched (unless they fall out of political favour).

It is natural to ask why the CBI should so easily lend itself to political misuse if it has so much autonomy? The fact is that Indian politics revolves around rent seeking through the exercise of State power, especially its coercive power. This requires complicity between political masters and the police. Police officers grow in an environment where cosying up to those in power is the norm. For any officer to climb to the top requires him to learn this art early on in his career. This relationship where both the politician and the police officer mutually align their interests is far more direct than in the case of politicians and civil administrators. Police officers who have not in some manner or the other cultivated useful political links are extremely rare (A Julio Ribiero is absolutely exceptional) .The  Director CBI is a plum post and a just reward for a policeman who has managed to reach the top through his political links and his vows of loyalty to the regime in power. Subservience to the dictates of the political masters is as natural to him as breathing -- otherwise he would not be there.

As long as the CBI occupies a position in the architecture of State power which allows it to wield arbitrary power without any responsibility and accountability, and as long it is manned  only by policemen. it will remain primarily an instrument of harassment, coercion and extortion (if not in money then in terms of power). The institution will invariably align itself with the politically powerful. More autonomy will make it even more wilful and arbitrary in the exercise of such power.

The most important aspect of CBI reform is  not its insulation from legitimate political authority but ensuring its accountability to institutions of democracy, to the Parliament through parliamentary committees  for providing  non partisan oversight and supervision. We need to increase democratic control over the CBI, not lessen it. Equally important is  a complete change of personnel, top to bottom,  to bring in people not from conventional police forces but from a wide variety of professions- law, forensic sciences, information technology, finance, business management and human and behavioural sciences.

The bigger issue of course is to shift the public focus from baying for the blood of the corrupt to carrying out systemic reforms to prevent corruption. However effective,- investigation, prosecution, trial and conviction- has a very limited impact on corrupt practices and corrupt behaviour.  It deters the honest, paralyses decision making and motivates the corrupt to find ever newer ways to seek rent. But  then systemic change and genuine administrative reform  has neither a constituency which will vote for it nor a TV news channel which will champion it.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

English and the Civil Services

Unwittingly or wittingly, the politics of language with all its  socio-cultural associations seems to have caught up with the UPSC. When it notified a few weeks ago some major changes in the  Civil Services examination scheme giving  substantially  more weight in the main examination to  compulsory papers in general studies over optional papers in conventional academic disciplines (which earlier constituted the core of the Main Examination), introduced a qualifying paper in basic matriculation level English language  and put some constraints in the way of candidates opting to write the papers in the regional language, it treaded on a fault line which divides the country, socially, culturally and politically. It is a line which  runs very, very deep , occasionally  overlapping and intersecting  with those of caste and community and income, and while it is as complex and as laden with emotions as any of those, it is also very  different. This is the divide between English versus the Rest.

Stereotypes on both sides of the divide  are often frighteningly false even though they may appear to be true. But they deserve to be understood. The stereotype of the one on  the English side of the divide,- the infamous Macaulayputra/putri, runs something like this. He/she is born into privilege-with parents in the higher rungs of the civil services or large  multi national corporations , grows up in the metropolises, goes to expensive ‘public’ schools, is surrounded in childhood by Ayahs and other faithful retainers, his/her only brush with the subaltern being with domestic servants and sundry service providers; sails through school and college because an educational system biased towards the English language gives him/her an unfair advantage; continues to make use of that unfair advantage in securing plum jobs in the private sector or being successful in competitive examinations like the Civil Services Exam; has a natural affinity with the world of privilege and glamour and influence peddling; is oblivious to the ground realities of caste and communal conflict; looks down on the vernacular; has expensive tastes; is used to ‘western’ mores with little knowledge of ‘Indian’ cultural heritage and is thoroughly out of synch with the rough and tumble of the countryside, with ‘Bharat’.

On the other side of the divide is supposed to be the struggling vernacular; born into relative poverty in  rural and small town India, in a milieu ridden with caste and communal conflict and many other social tensions; makes his/her way through  poorly endowed, Government schools in small towns and villages, learns primarily  in the regional language, treats English as a foreign language, struggles through University or other Professional Education institutions, sees the Civil Services as a cherished aspiration and works hard and assiduously to get into the life of privilege that the Civil Services  seem to offer. His background supposedly gives him greater sensitivity to social conditions especially the conditions of the deprived.
Despite the extreme shallowness of these stereotypes and the fact that the contradictions far outnumbered the correspondences, they were accepted as the basis to review the system of the Civil Services Examination in the early eighties. Many major changes (motivated by a strong sense of social guilt) were introduced to correct a perceived bias in favour of humanities and social sciences, in favour of English as the medium in which to answer question papers and in favour of the interview or ‘personality’ test’. A two stage examination system replaced the earlier one, many technical subjects were introduced in the optional papers in the Main Examination allowing engineers and doctors and scientists more elbow room for performing well, and candidates could write in any of the scheduled languages so that facility in the English language did not confer any particular advantage. These changes, intended to ‘de eliticize’ the Civil Services and make them more egalitarian, alongside the implementation of the Mandal Commission recommendations brought about a substantial difference in the social composition of the Civil Services.

What is fascinating, is that these changes corresponded with the major political changes taking place in the countryside with the growing ascendancy of the regional parties, the rise of the backward classes both economically and politically and the replacement of English as the language of political power by Hindi in north and central India and parts of the East and the major regional languages in the rest of India. This is not the place to trace the growth of the political power of the vernacular accompanied  with a massive rise in his economic power and the reasons for his rapid climb, but the fact is that today English is no longer the language of political power .  Anyone from an English language background, hoping to make his way in politics has to massively ‘vernacularize’ his persona.

Paradoxically , English, however, remains the language of  economic aspiration, of social mobility and of moving into a globalized world order. It is the language a Dalit can use to transform both his self image as well as his standing in the socio cultural hierarchy. It is the language to move into the world of Call Centres, of the Services economy. There is now a clear cleavage between the language of political power, of  tumescent ‘cultural nationalism’, of the muscular, strong State which is overwhelmingly vernacular and the language of globalization led economic growth which is overwhelmingly dominated by English.

The Civil Services Examination system is now  caught smack in the middle of this tension. On the one hand, the earlier attempts to remove the bias in favour of English brought in a new, more aggressive vernacular elite. It was forgotten that  the flaw in the design was  in the idea of the elite in a democratic system not in the social composition of that elite. To think that one could actually engineer an elite force which because it was drawn from a less elitist, non English speaking background could be more easily trained into social conscientiousness and good governance and which remained immune to changes in the socio-political environment was extremely naive . The attempt now is to restore the balance and bring in  to the Civil Services a  socially more well rounded person. In the process it goes headlong against a very  politically strong  vernacular power elite. It is extremely doubtful whether it will manage to do so.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Military Corruption Complex

The  Military Corruption Complex

I have been quietly amused by the pother over the Westland helicopter scam, as though bribes were paid because the Government exercised its choice in favour of that company and someone ‘tweaked’  the requirements to limit the choice. Typically, this shows a complete lack of analytical understanding of corruption in Defence and this case like all other cases before it, will follow a predictable wild goose chase, investigators will earn junkets to Rome, some honest reputations will suffer permanent damage, much dirty linen will be washed, all major procurements will come to a halt, procedures will be made even more tortuous and centralized and like water , ‘rent seeking’ will seek out newer outlets.

Pity, how we squander each opportunity for systemic reforms by opting for the short term excitement of hunting for the corrupt and providing the hunters more and more game for their pleasure. We so easily overlook two cardinal factors. First that in Defence procurements in India most bribes are paid not for choosing X over Y but for simply proceeding with the procurement process and crossing the million hurdles placed on the track. The choice of the vendor is generally made on reasonably strong professional grounds and merit is almost never sacrificed, because it is well established that whoever is selected will pay.  

Second ,in a system where responsibility for a decision is  so widely dispersed and diffused any attempt to nab and nail the corrupt becomes a fishing expedition, in which the big fish invariably escape and small fish are caught for all the wrong reasons. The CBI revels in such fishing exercises as it provides them multiple opportunities for extracting their own part of the ‘rent’.

In the Westland case, going by a superficial scanning of media reports and analyses there appear to me two red herrings. One, that money was paid for ‘tweaking’ the requirements ( lowering the maximum altitude in which the helicopter was expected to operate and specifying a higher door/dome height) and much is being made of who ‘tweaked’ the requirements and when.  This does not sound right. Money is normally paid for restricting competition and tailoring specifications to favour a particular product/brand not for expanding it and allowing more vendors to be in the reckoning. While being given a chance to compete may command a price, it in no way ensures eventual success in the competition, particularly when in terms of capacity to  pay bribes, the competitors to Westland may have had a distinct edge. Naturally, Air Marshall Tyagi is at his wits end to figure why he should be under attack for simply having endorsed a decision to expand competition?

The second red herring is to draw attention to the role played by Air Marshall Tyagi and some of his relatives. Quite apart from the fairly convincing denial offered by ‘Julie’ Tyagi and the former Air Chief, the fact is that this was not an Air Force related procurement in which the Air Chief could have had a prominent role. This was a civilian requirement of the SPG and the Air Force at best played the role of technical advisers to facilitate the SPG in being able to meet its requirements. In any procurement process the determining role either in laying down specifications( GSQRs) or in tailoring processes to favour favourites, is that of the buyer not of those giving technical advice.. Why any payments should be made to someone whose role was so peripheral does not stand to reason .

I had written last year about the ‘why’ ‘where and ‘how’ of corruption in Defence procurements and drawn attention to three separate tracks of corruption.The first being the track of demand estimation, demand vetting, demand projection and inter se priority determination;  the second being the technical one - from framing the GSQRs, to preparing the engineering specifications, technical trials, user trials, and techno commercial evaluations before the procurement process commences. Both these tracks are the jealously guarded turf of the Services and brook no interference from anyone outside.  Neither the processes nor the practices are ever audited or subjected to independent professional scrutiny. However, this being an SPG requirement both these tracks are not  very relevant in this case.

The  focus should be on the third track which  is that of  the actual procurement one, where the onus shifts to the Ministry.In all procurement transactions there is a well established hierarchy of rent collectors along the approval chain. The approval cycle itself is so complicated and so lengthy that the opportunity for each functionary or facilitator to collect his share of the booty along the ‘nuisance value’ chain is maximised . At no stage does anyone really need to circumvent or short circuit the procedure because following the procedure itself provides the opportunity. Upto a certain stage all that is needed is to keep the process moving forward and as each stage of the transaction is crossed ,  the rent gets automatically paid. However, these payments are relatively small as these are meant to keep the ball in play and not for scoring a goal. The beneficiaries are generally the junior and middle rung Government officials, the network of personal staff attached to officers dealing with procurements, sometimes the officers themselves, Service representatives at the middle level who participate in the PNC (Price Negotiation Committee) meetings etc. At this stage the  main commodity on sale is information.

Things start getting hotter as the negotiations show signs of moving towards a conclusion. This is the stage where the main political level decision maker needs to get closer to insider information through his trusted man/woman. He needs to know in advance which way the wind is blowing. He does not need to influence the choice, he only needs to know who is the most likely winner. This is the time to summon the probable winner or his agent, the chief deal broker (normally one of three or four big time deal fixers), the main political level fixer (the contemporary Quattrocchi like figure), legal and financial facilitators and work out the final details of the payoffs, the sharing arrangements and the routings. There is a flurry of  official briefing meetings so that  the political level decision maker(s) can keep ahead  of the vendors in the information game; secret huddles in private farmhouses, closed room meetings in the Executive Clubs of five star hotels and a constant humming of mobile phones. At this stage all the vendors have  to open something like a Letter of Credit so that whenever the final decision is taken the payments get automatically credited to the designated accounts. Occasionally, last minute theatrics take place because of a falling out among the  multiplicity of agents and the principal deal brokers and the political fixers. There is considerable flexing of muscles and if one of the major deal brokers is antagonised, he can ensure through selective leaks to the media, or through a sudden review of priorities that the deal is either scuttled or pushed back sufficiently to enable him to regain control over it. However, such instances are rare and normally it is in everyone’s interest to cross the final hurdle. The deed done, the Dom Perignons  and the Blue Labels are brought out and the magnificent  fortified palaces in Chattarpur or Mehrauli or Sainik Farms  come alive to play host to many thanksgiving parties with a liberal sprinkling of beautiful ladies from Uzbekistan or Georgia or Ukraine.

The point of the long narration is this. Corruption is  deeply embedded in the architecture of Defence transactions and anything short of a complete transformation of structures, systems, processes will not make an iota of difference. There is no deal in which middlemen do not play a role and in which very hefty commissions are not paid. . Investigators, needlessly focus on why a particular vendor was chosen. It does not matter.  They also focus on procedural infirmities in the hope of catching the wrongdoer. Corrupt deals will always be procedure perfect and in fact if there are procedural flaws it is likely to be a  rare, clean transaction. The focus should shift to looking at the money trails, who paid whom and when, the  specific role of the big time deal fixers (whose existence everyone knows about and who can be found at every important social gathering in Delhi and on whom the Intelligence Bureau maintains huge files and yet they never seem to be in the least  bit inhibited in their movements or their activities) and the political connections of these fixers. Is it any wonder that in all the major investigations so far the role of these big deal brokers never been properly investigated or exposed?

Eventually, however, the focus on nailing the corrupt and teaching them a lesson achieves little in terms of curbing or preventing  future corruption. It only paralyses the honest and ensures that the corrupt, on the other hand, find more ingenious ways of making money. Only a complete system reform can change things. But that has few takers. Who would like to shut off such an important source of revenue for our system to survive?

Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Poverty Industry

Poverty  is an industry sustained, perpetuated and continuously reproduced by the State. It is possibly the most lucrative sector of the parallel  ‘rent’ economy which supports  and funds our politics. It provides sustenance to millions of contractors and businessmen who function as the back end of  the poverty supply chain. It is the main source of income for the parasitic officialdom that adds value- nuisance value- to the  poverty reproduction process. It gives nourishment to vast numbers of economists and policy scientists, NGO activists, and of course in a category by themselves-members of the NAC and the Planning Commission.

If only this was heavy handed sarcasm ! The frightening reality is that the  contemporary Indian State survives on poverty as an industry and this industry needs the  poor  to exist in large numbers to consume its products and services. While a small  shrinking of the market through some incidental  trickle down effect  of real growth could be tolerated, any genuine reform which can catapult the growth rate or ensure a more direct redistribution of wealth will never be permitted. Indian politics today, revolves around the State and the unprecedented rent seeking opportunities that open up when one captures  State power and the size of this ‘rent economy’ is mind boggling .

The business itself is not limited to visible ‘ poverty alleviation’  programmes but to a range of activities and State interventions  taken in the name of the poor. It is both insidious and perverse. Perverse, because even genuine, well meaning intentions get converted into the most devious stratagems for extracting rent , disempowering the poor and conserving them in a state of poverty. Insidious, because the politics of poverty uses the rhetoric of social justice to disguise its true intent. 

 At the heart of this thesis are three  interrelated questions . What  constitutes poverty and what are its determinants ? Why do the poor continue to stay poor in spite of billions spent on them and for them (but never by them) ?   And who gets enriched by the poor staying poor ?

Poverty is difficult to define because of its multi dimensionality, but we do know that it is a  denial of choices, opportunities and resources leading to a life of deprivation, insecurity and degraded environmental conditions. This denial is structural in which the poor are forced to be in a situation of perpetual subordination, inferiority, dependence and powerlessness. They cannot engage with the economy and society except through a relationship of dependence on their superiors and on terms determined by them.

Who are these superiors?   The Great Unthinking Left automatically concludes that these are the owners of capital who fatten themselves on surpluses created by an exploited working class. Their conclusions have to fit predetermined theoretical categories irrespective of whether those categories correspond to actual conditions. The fact is that the majority of  organised industrial capital  needs a good, strong, and stable market  for its products and services. Poverty depresses this market and prevents growth.  Capital, inherently and by definition cannot survive without growth and therefore poverty and backwardness are its enemies not its friends. Yes, capital needs commodification of labour, its relationship with labour is problematic, often exploitative, but it does not need vast numbers of poor.

So who needs the poor and whose interests are best served if the poor remain poor? 

One of the biggest flaws in our understanding of India’s political economy is a very inadequate understanding of the Indian State. Recalling the sociologist, Hamza Alawi’s famous thesis, we know that  at their independence India and Pakistan inherited a State  apparatus which was ‘overdeveloped’ in relation to the development of classes in society. The subsequent growth of the Indian State has not just been independent of the development of classes, it has spawned the growth of the State as a class by itself - in that its interests, its ideology, its network of connections, its way of working can be differentiated from other classes in civil society. In fact it is not just a class, but almost a universe in itself, with its own processes of accumulation and legitimation, its own economy and its own contradictions. This universe consists not just of the politicians and the mandarinate but a vast group of contractors, traders, fixers, touts, mafiosi groups, academics and activists, and business empires built around State monopolies. They derive their businesses from the State and their lives are inextricably intertwined with the State and the use of State power in thousands of different ways.

Broadly categorised, there are seven different ( though overlapping)  business sectors. The most obvious is the one in which the business opportunities arise from implementing  poverty  related  schemes,(NREGA, for example) programmes, projects for the State, including hard core areas like infrastructure building, civil works, labour contracts, transportation etc and soft core areas like academic research, statistical surveys, measuring poverty levels and providing a multiple variety of feedback  and evaluation reports etc. 

The second set of businesses are related to the State serving as a  gigantic market  for products and services procured by it either for consumption or for redistribution. Again the range is vast- from paper and stationery products to military stores,  to food and nutrition products, to medicines and healthcare products, to e-governance services and so on.  Not all but a substantial part of this is  related to State expenditure on poverty.

The third set is derived from State monopoly on scarce resources- land, forests, minerals, hydrocarbons, river waters, terrestrial and satellite spectrum, to list a few. While the relationship of these businesses to the Poverty Industry is indirect, poverty provides an umbrella justification for continuing monopoly ownership and control over the resource, and preventing local communities in whose habitats the resources are located, especially tribal groups, from claiming any ownership rights or any share of the benefits of commercial use of the resource. it is extremely important to keep local communities at bay and in a relationship of subordination and dependence to the State and its contractors/ collaborators. Maintaining poverty is vital to these interests as is resisting any genuine  transfer of political power to   communities and local governments.

The fourth set revolves around State subsidies, specifically subsidies on food grain, fertiliser, diesel, kerosene and LPG. These are very high volume transactions and the value chain is very long and complex offering opportunities for illegal gains and mediation at every stage- procurement/ import, transportation, warehousing, sorting, grading, packaging, wholesale distribution and retailing. The trade is conducted with  complete opacity almost entirely through State owned monopolies which allows everyone to pretend that there is a ‘social’ benefit being served and therefore the monopoly must be maintained. 

The fifth is in the related areas of  the controlled trade in certain essential commodities-- pulses, edible oils and sugar where periodic policy interventions are taken for the sake of price stabilisation  and/ or for protecting  and furthering farmers’  interests or the interests of poor consumers. Again a class of contractors and subcontractors, agents and middlemen effectively control the trade and run huge empires with very high levels of liquidity and abundant availability of cash- an extremely useful asset for maintaining a cosy relationship with the State apparatus and the political class. 

The sixth, relates to the business of credit for the poor- rural credit, farm credit, differential rates of interest credit, micro credit, credit for women, credit for micro enterprises, credit for artisans and craftspersons, credit for self help groups, co-operative credit - it is a business which runs into  many, many billions. There are many ways through which the flows are channelled to a chain of intermediaries, both outside the system and within, creating a new class of billionaires.

Ironically, farm sector credit often  become a means of strengthening and fattening the  same conventional money lender/ arhtiya who was sought to be replaced by the organised banking sector in the first place. What happens is something like this. A farmer needs finance for a variety of consumption needs during the year which are not necessarily related to agriculture. Farm loans from the commercial banks or cooperative credit institutions are available only for very specific purposes e.g mechanisation, pump sets for irrigation, fertiliser. The trade in these products and services is also controlled by the same arhtiya. This arhtiya helps his client farmer obtain a cheap loan by fabricating the necessary paperwork  for him and then converts it  into a cash loan at an extortionist rate of interest. As the farmer is now more bound than ever to sell his produce at harvest time  to the Arhtiya the risk of defaulting on repayment is minimal. This provides universal satisfaction. The credit institution can meet its lending targets and be assured of recovery. The moneylender gets to make money using someone else's funds. The farmer gets to meet his consumption needs so no one needs to complain.

The seventh is the alcohol trade- not the manufacturing, but the distribution and retail of it. The relationship  of this trade with poverty is only because  State policy interventions for  curbing alcohol consumption of the poor are seen as welfare measures, which require a control , licensing and taxation regime of incredible complexity and a vast staff infrastructure to administer this regime. The regulatory framework is quintessentially designed to leak and to provide maximum opportunities for, literally, siphoning off, vast sums through tax evasion. 

These seven business ‘verticals’, if they can be so called, share many common characteristics. Poverty provides the legitimacy, the social justification for their sustenance. Mass poverty also provides the volumes. The businesses are intimately connected with the State apparatus and in fact, are derived from it. They require State owned monopoly  organisations/ institutions to  ‘channel’ them and provide the cover for illicit operations. Most of the businesses are either carried out in cash or convert banking transactions to cash transactions through ingenious methods. All the income streams are through blatant tax evasion-income tax, vat, sales tax, excise,royalty payments, custom duties and therefore require a very close collusive relationship with the State machinery.Many of the businesses require the use of  criminal coercion and violence to quell resistance from the people as well as  from honest officials. All the businesses require the poor to be powerless and dependent on the State for their survival.

A significant feature of this perverse, State sponsored and State derived capitalism is that it is dominated by the owner/ promoter capitalist having a clutch of closely held companies, sole proprietor firms, partnerships or at best private limited, unlisted companies which rarely feature in the media. The main players remain in the shadows and are generally confined to life in private farmhouses,  only occasionally providing glimpses into their opulence. Their social circles are populated mostly by underworld musclemen, backroom politicians, sleazy bureaucrats and a bevy of ‘ladies of the night’. Many tend to be deeply religious and are major  cash donors to temples and little known religious trusts. Some occasionally dabble in the film industry. Unless their progeny bring them notoriety by smashing their BMWs or Lamborghinis or Porsches, they keep a low profile. Once they cross a certain threshold of wealth, acquired through collusion ( mostly illicit ) with the state machinery, some of them foray into legitimate corporate businesses- real estate development, hotels and resorts, malls and multiplexes, infrastructure contracts on a larger scale, energy -- being the favourites. Many continue to retain  the original, collusive, trading dominated, cash generation  opportunities even as they gradually shift focus to more respectable corporate businesses. The cash businesses are important to retain collusive control of politics and the corporate profile critical to gaining respectability and opening windows for success in legitimate enterprise. Many of today's corporate giants have grown in this fashion.

Two aspects of this perverse form of capitalism have to be highlighted. The first is the manner in which it reduces all politics to ‘realpolitiks’ such that underlying the text of any political issue is a subtext of greed, venality and  hard  nosed political horse trading. So differences  between political parties in political philosophy, ideology,  principles, values and strategy are completely hypocritical and opportunistic and meant only to mask the competition for gaining control over State power and the Poverty business. Most political battles, therefore, have value  primarily as a kind of charade played out to keep alive the pretense of fighting for principles and values. Indeed, the charade has a sufficient degree of realism to make some players believe that there is a genuine clash of philosophies, but the primary purpose of maintaining such differences is to ensure that each political formation/group retains the loyalty and allegiance of its  specific constituencies. However, these differences can be happily abandoned when it comes to the actual exercise of State power. Alliances between different political groupings can be formed and reformed, changed and shuffled  around with insuperable ease because everyone in the game knows what the ‘real’ issues are. Politics is therefore, intrinsically and inherently corrupt in the Indian context.

While this may be a universal phenomenon, the major difference with western capitalist societies is threefold.  Firstly, the larger share of capitalist development in those societies is on account of legitimate entrepreneurship  and technological innovation, unrelated to the State and most business opportunities lie outside the arena of the State. While sharp business practices, unethical conduct, insider trading, exploitative labour relations, irresponsible environmental  management and all the attendant ills of capitalism may be rampant, the businesses themselves are not derived from the State. The State may serve as an instrument for protecting and furthering class interests but it does not constitute a class by and for itself. Secondly, the realm of politics and public policy is a real world where differences in approach, in philosophy, in values actually matter and people vote on the basis of their own ideological/political perceptions. It matters, for example, what position a party or a candidate takes on taxation, on government spending, on gender, on arms control, on foreign policy and so on and differences do not disappear once votes have been won. In our context, on the other hand, such differences are a kind of shadow play and of no import once power has been captured. Thirdly, there is a vast sphere of social, economic and cultural activity in which the State has no role whatsoever. The realm of the Private is much bigger than that of the Public, unlike us where the Public sphere encroaches into every aspect of our daily lives creating a relationship of perpetual dependence on the State such that permissions have to be obtained for almost any and every human activity. The State dominates our minds in ways that are quite unthinkable there. It is this relationship of dependence that virtually guarantees the persistence of poverty as a permanent feature.

The second aspect that deserves being highlighted is the conundrum of ‘black money’. Conventionally, it is assumed that evaded taxes constitute the black economy and that most of this wealth  is  either spent on real estate, diamonds, gold  and conspicuous consumption or secreted away in tax havens abroad. The situation is a little more complex. There are those  who are engaged in regular business activities but do not like to pay taxes and therefore resort to various means of tax evasion - undervaluation of property, benami transactions, under and over invoicing of transactions,  but the main source of their revenues  are  legitimate business activities. The only illegitimate part is the evasion of taxes. Such businessmen maintain approximately 60 to 70% of their income in ‘black’ but most of it goes into either lifestyle related consumption or real estate or gold and diamonds.

This  kind of ‘black’ income sustains  a substantial part of our economy and through ‘conspicuous consumption’ such as opulent weddings supports the hand and cottage sector. It creates massive self- employment and independent livelihood opportunities and it enables the  conservation and the continued nurture  of hand based skills. A grand wedding, for example, generates very lucrative incomes for a vast number of people- from the person producing hand made paper for the invitation cards, the graphic designer, the wedding planner, the event management team, the dressmaker, the embroiderer, the weaver of fine fabrics, the tailor, the bangle maker and the bangle seller, the mehndi artist, the caterer, the cook, the waiter, the tentwallah, the ghorawallah, the brass band, the entertainers and the performing artists, the gift basket maker, and of course the producer/grower of fruit and vegetables and flowers, poultry, meat and food grains.One fat Indian wedding, thus, generates more useful and productive employment, nurtures and gives sustenance to non alienated, creative, skilled labour than a dozen leaky, wasteful and dependence creating poverty amelioration schemes. So ‘black’ money spent in the country and going into the  domestic economy  is actually more beneficial than ‘white’. A substantial part of the black money  consumption oriented spending becomes ‘white’ through the payment of taxes like VAT.

The second set of black money generators, on the other hand, are those  who have made their money through illegitimate activities, mainly by using their access to State power to siphon off and criminally misappropriate taxed resources. These ‘white’ taxed resources, therefore, are the ones which go into the secret chests of the political parties, the pockets of a bloated and corrupt officialdom and the hidden vaults of the captains of the poverty industry. As the bulk of this income is gained  through illegal and corrupt means it is necessary to secrete  it  to foreign tax havens. The bulk of the ‘black’ money in foreign bank accounts is, therefore, generated, I suspect, by these ‘white’ taxed revenues.

Lumping all capitalists as uniformly evil and not being able to differentiate between those who are a part of this nexus  between the State, politics and poverty and those who are not, can blunt the edge of any democratic resistance and subvert any genuine reform, however well intentioned it may be. Our tools of understanding of both Indian capitalism and the Indian State have to be honed substantially to be able to know whom to build alliances with and whom to fight against and what kind of reform strategies to formulate. This  parasitic form of capitalism, which feeds on and fattens itself on the State, prevents genuine capitalist growth, is infinitely more exploitative and completely perverts the political process. It has a strong vested interest in perpetuating poverty and in maintaining a constant and continuing state of disempowerment. Organised  industrial capital on the other hand requires  stable, effective demand and much lower levels of inequality for its growth. It is therefore a natural ally for carrying out reforms aimed at reducing the State and adopting non statist, market friendly instruments of growth and inclusion. 

Is there a way out ? Obviously, for poverty to disappear the following things have to happen- the stranglehold of the Big State on the economy and on politics has to go, the focus has to shift from State led ‘inclusion’  and devious redistribution to straightforward growth led by the organised corporate sector with the State confined to physical infrastructure creation; direct and conditional income transfers to the poor have to replace programmes guaranteeing  wage slavery and dependence; the poor have to be democratically empowered to find their own ways out of poverty with women  (in particular the girlchild)  forming the avant-garde; women have to be made the custodians of ecological and environmental assets and eco services and compensated for their stewardship; high technology interventions have to be used to mainstream the craft/ hand/ artisanal sector to economic growth  processes and new  business models designed to make decentralised, boutique units the principal means of value added production for localised markets as well as  for high value, eco sensitive export markets; communities have to have decision making powers with appropriate technological assistance in the use of natural resources available in their habitats.

 But why should an entrenched rentier State allow this to happen and why should it allow its rent seeking opportunities to be circumscribed? All that and more has to be the subject of another long essay. Suffice it say that there are emerging windows of opportunity in the resurgence of federalist and devolutionary impulses in the polity, demands for greater autonomy and more decentralisation, the ascendance of women as a political force and the growth of private sector industry unconnected with the State . How these trends can be made use of to forge new alliances towards transforming politics as well as economics is the real challenge.