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Tuesday, November 29, 2011

In defence of Mayawati's monumentality

awati's monumentalityThe Indian middle classes never seem to be able to come to terms with Mayawati. At best there is grudging and condescending admiration of her rise to power against impossible odds; at worst there is a visceral loathing for her extravagant ways, her vulgar aggrandisement of wealth and the crudities of her style. Her obsession with creating monuments, which host her statues along with the Dalit pantheon is seen as being pathological and evokes uniform outrage. Yet, she seems impervious to ridicule and continues to do exactly as she pleases , decreeing as Kubla Khan reportedly did , yet another stately pleasure dome.
And ‘ Stately’ those domes indeed are. They are designed in the grand imperial manner, they are pure pastiche- an extravagant panty raid into the Lutyens closet- vaulted arches, Corinthian columns with an Indian twist, a wide stepped entrance, intricate stone jaali-work and of course the phalanx of elephants with raised trumpets. every feature is meant to strike awe. Triumphalism has rarely had so elaborate an expression.
I pass by the Noida monumental ‘park’ everyday. While it may not conform to my standards of architectural aesthetics, there is no doubt that the whole complex is pleasing to the eye. The proportions,the massing, and the groupings of the various structures are competently done. The quality of stone work is astonishing. The scale is very impressive and anyone who claims not to be impressed by the sheer grandeur of the structures and the landscape is pretending.Any day, in terms of design, the complex is far more impressive than the Akshardham temple or the Birla Mandir and infinitely superior to the ‘modernist humdrum’ monstrosities churned out by the CPWD.

Why then do the sneering and condescending classes feel so outraged ? The expression of outrage normally runs along the following predictable lines: ‘ Mayawati is an epitome of corruption, venality and pursuit of vaulting ambition and this obsession with scarring the landscape with her own statues is a typical example of her pathetic record of governance. The squandering of public resources on such an unprecedented scale, when essential priorities in health and education are so woefully neglected deserves unqualified condemnation. Our politico cultural traditions do not tolerate commemorations of the living.’

This deserves rebuttal. It is necessary , firstly to distinguish between Mayawati’s accumulation of personal wealth through the abuse of State power and her wasteful use of public resources. My guess is that Mayawati’s spend on parks and monuments contributes little ( If at all ) to her personal wealth, this expenditure being highly visible and subject to public audit. Most corruption income is not through such visible public expenditure but through the clever use of State power in such areas as grant of concessions for the use of land, mining, allocation of natural resources, licencing and the granting of approvals for various private economic activities. Associating her monumentality with her corruption is therefore incorrect. We need to de-link the two.

Mayawati’s corruption or the growth of her private wealth through the use of political power has a political, cultural dimension which is often ignored. It does not justify it, but it may offer a possible explanation for the blatant manner in which it is done.

Purely in terms of scale Mayawati will rank quite low in the gallery of rogues in comparison with many members of the Union Cabinet, many present and former Chief Ministers, sundry progenies and sons in laws of prominent political dynasties, and other shadowy denizens of Indian political life. Yet while most others will evoke nary a reaction from the chatterati, Mayawati’s conduct invariably evokes voluble expressions of revulsion. Caste prejudice is undoubtedly at work here.

There is also no doubt that as much as the upper classes hate her, her own constituency adores and admires her despite or maybe even because of the growth of her wealth.Her identification with her own lot is so complete that her growth is their growth and a form of retribution for centuries of servitude and exploitation.The growth of her personal wealth also corresponds to the growth in her political stature in a mutually reinforcing relationship so that her wealth and her open flaunting of it makes a strong political statement -that in a world so hostile to Dalits she has singlehandedly fought her way to the top. Her wealth is to be admired for the power it gives to her to continue fighting for Dalit pride. For them she increasingly becomes more iconic and each statue of herself that she unveils confirms the durability of the mythic hold she has in the minds of her worshippers. It is not vanity ormegalomania, it is a powerful political statement .

Whether intentional or not, these investments also have a sound economic rationale. First, it means enclosing a public space, adding value to it through architecture and design, and making it into a useful public asset. Compare this to what most politicians in power do- appropriate public spaces through means legitimate and illegitimate, create deliberate land scarcity, hive off scarce land to speculative developers/ builders and then take a share out of the windfall gains through the artificially induced astronomical rise in real estate prices. In Mayawati’s case public assets remain public and in fact become useful public recreational space. Second, as an asset creation investment which provides meaningful employment to thousands, it is far superior than any number of those brainless, rent seeking yojanas churned out by the Central Government Ministries and the Planning Commission in the guise of poverty alleviation( NReGA included) which create sub standard assets designed to to sink and collapse soon thereafter, to keep alive the rent seeking opportunities. Those investments perpetuate dependence on the state through wage slavery,while these provide to the workers and creators an income gain substantial enough for them to overcome their dependent status. Third, they are a major contributor to urban regeneration. Anyone who has visited Lucknow after Mayawati came into power has to acknowledge the regenerative and transformational role these creations ( with accompanying upgradation of civic infrastructure) have played in rescuing a city which had seemingly degraded and decayed beyond redemption and making it into a hub of urban vitality. Fourth, the interventions generate very substantial employment for a class of artisans steeped in traditional building skills, particularly, stone masonry and stone carving skills, which were otherwise on well on their way to extinction. Lost skills have been regained and reacquired without having had to set up expensive National Skilling Missions.

One of the arguments hurled against her monumentality is that of perverse priorities. While Mayawati’s fiscal mismanagement maybe comparable to most Chief Ministers ( and probably no worse than Punjab, or West Bengal or Andhra or Orissa) singling out her monumentality as an example of irresponsibility is uncalled for. There is an economic justification and more than that in any democracy, decisions on priorities in public expenditure are the sole prerogative of the Legislature and the elected Government. If an investment is openly and transparently a part of the Legislature approved and voted Budget, the question of priorities stands decided. That is the way of federal democracies and merely because we would have determined priorities differently if were in a position to do so does not make Mayawati’s priorities any the more inferior.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Article published in the IIC journal in 2008

By Amitabha Pande

As a confirmed backbencher who had perfected the art of appearing to listen attentively to lectures while being fully asleep, I was very disbelieving when I received a command invitation to give a keynote address, of all things, on ‘Governance Reforms’! It can’t be me, I thought. This is the kind of thing that very senior, very high-minded civil servants do when they are re-employed in constitutionally secure assignments and can afford to say all the things that should be done but were not, when they were in a position to do them. So I checked with my hosts whether they really wanted to inflict yet another secretary to the government on to an audience aspiring to reach similar heights of mediocrity and whether they wanted an ‘official’ point of view, in which case I could think of many better suited than I to make nifty ‘power-point’ presentations on such serious matters as ‘transparency’, ‘accountability’, ‘smart-governance’, ‘outcomes budgeting’, et al. They gave some kind of assent; so I assume I have the license for a very personal and digressive ramble through some of the issues that have concerned and bothered me and which may also, incidentally or otherwise, reflect on some facets of governance.

Most bureaucrats, as they grow greyer and graver, tend to become quite insufferably pompous and not only lose their capacity to ask the right questions, but also become intolerant of the question raising ability in others, especially their subordinates. This is more serious than it appears. Quite apart from the fact that a pompous bureaucrat makes for terrible company at a party, the inability to ask awkward questions, constantly, often has disastrous consequences for policy-making and governance.

As bureaucrats, we know that correctly defining a problem is central to problem solving. yet, more often than not, when we do not question accepted wisdom, we confuse the problem with the manifestations of the real problem, the symptom with the disease. We then attempt to administer treatment to problems, which have been incorrectly diagnosed. Consequential failures are then attributed to poor ‘implementation’. you often hear the statement that ‘the policy was well-conceived in theory, but there was a failure of implementation’. To me, this is a contradiction in terms, almost an oxymoron. A well-conceived, well-considered policy, made after asking the most probing, the most searching, the most uncomfortable of questions can never fail during implementation because ‘implementability’ and the appropriate designs of implementation mechanisms have to be an integral part of policy thinking.

In the 1970s, the failure of the policy to give incentives for birth-control measures and aggressively achieve vasectomy targets was not a failure of implementation. It was a failure of misreading the problem as one of ‘over-population’ rather than as a problem of poverty, ill health, illiteracy and poor livelihood opportunities. How did this misreading of the problem occur? Primarily, because we failed to ask and raise questions, accepted a
Diagnosis and prescription, which was wrong, and then, vied with one another to implement it with competitive vigour. We all know the consequences of that. Could this then be called a case of a bad policy well implemented? If that is a logical absurdity so is the ‘good theory but poor practice’ argument. My advocacy of irreverence, non-conformity and intellectual restlessness, therefore, as a value to be nurtured and nourished rather than as a character flaw to be subdued and suppressed has a purpose beyond appearing to be a ‘hat-ke’ type of person. Issues of ‘style’, therefore, may not always be divorced from issues of ‘substance’.

Talking of style, I find it extremely disturbing and abhorrent that, over the years, there has been an exponential growth among both civil servant and politicians in the search for, and the hankering for, the frills and fripperies of power. Every other person stands around with a retinue of peons, gunmen and other hangers-on, all festooned with baubles and gewgaws of tinsel and satin; fancier and fancier white limousines are acquired with flagstaffs, and red and blue overhead lights, white curtains, and bigger and bolder number plates advertising the designations of their owners and their positions in hierarchy. It is now customary that children of those in power are taken to school by official, chauffeured limousines; that free tickets for entertainment events are claimed as a birthright; that discretionary quotas in professional educational institutions are appropriated wherever court scrutiny can be avoided; that scholarships to prestigious higher education centres abroad are engineered and manipulated for the children of the favoured; that contacts and contracts with big business are subtly used for securing lucrative employment openings for one’s progeny. These have now come to be taken as the accepted perks and privileges of office without even attracting the charge of compromised integrity. In fact, many defend these privileges as a surrogate compensation for poor pay.

Again, the issue here is much deeper than my aversion to lifestyle vulgarities. At one level, it is the sheer anachronism of the situation which strikes one. We take pride in being a modern democratic State, which has unshackled itself from the chains of its feudal and imperial past, and which hopes to be a big player in the international arena.
Our outward frippery, however, is more befitting of princelings of a declining Mughal empire.

More than the anachronism of the situation, however, I feel that in many ways, the vulgar displays of power on the part of those who are members of the ruling elites or those closely associated with the wielders of political and administrative power, are symptoms
of a much deeper malaise. We are all aware that some of the more widely reported recent criminal trials involve the children of those closely connected with political power and the State apparatus. In all such cases, criminal behaviour was accompanied by a display of swagger and arrogance of a kind which only comes out of knowing that State power can be used whenever required for achieving illicit and undeserved personal ends. What is even more shocking is the blatant use of power and wealth begotten out of misuse of State power to alter the course of justice.

Probing deeper into the problem, I believe that we are witnessing a very difficult socio-political development which, in many ways, is peculiar to the Indian subcontinent. The emergence of the modern State in most countries of the West was a consequence of the
emergence of classes in society. It was the revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which divided society into different social classes. The modern State came about primarily in response to the needs for managing the conflicting and competing interests among these classes as an overarching and seemingly neutral mechanism
for the exercise of legitimate authority vested in it. In the Indian subcontinent, however, the State and the State apparatus was an instrument for the furtherance of imperial interests. It did not emerge in response to the indigenous development of classes. At the time of Independence, therefore, we inherited a State and an apparatus which was ‘overdeveloped’ in relation to the development of classes. This was a thesis that was convincingly developed in the ’80s by the sociologist Hamza Alawi and remains extremely valid even today.

The consequences of inheriting an ‘overdeveloped’ State, to begin with, have meant that the growth of the State has been substantially independent of the development of classes in civil society. Today, in my view, the Indian State constitutes a class for and by itself, whose primary purpose is to expand and perpetuate itself, through self aggrandizement
and extraction of rent from the economy which, in turn, is engineered and re-engineered, produced and reproduced to yield more and more rent. So governance, in fact, often becomes a means for setting in motion a vicious cycle of rent production and rent extraction.

Let me briefly elaborate the point. First the State uses its inherent coercive power to enter as many spheres of activity it can muscle itself into including such ‘spaces’ as would traditionally be seen as belonging to civil society. This encroachment is through legislative and administrative means, by prescribing an increasingly complex set of ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’, by requiring the obtaining of permissions and approvals for virtually any and every action, by taking on the role of being a supplier of a whole range of services in a monopoly situation, and by itself becoming the engine as well as the driver of the economy. Having occupied an overwhelmingly dominant space– remember the concept of ‘commanding heights’ – it then delegates and decentralizes the power to say ‘no’ and the veto power both vertically and horizontally. Everyone in the government has the power to say ‘no’, to block, hinder and inhibit. The power to say ‘yes’, on the other hand, is selectively centralized so that a class of collaborators and intermediaries and facilitators can generate rent and share it with the functionaries of the State for manipulating a ‘yes’ decision. The opportunities for rent extraction, therefore, exist in every sphere and at every stage – from cornering approvals and permissions for industrial activity to acquiring land for fuelling real estate speculation, to personnel placements – there is a bewildering range of rent production and appropriation opportunities too long and numerous to list.

I believe, therefore, that the biggest problem of governance reforms is how we can whittle down the State and look at forms of governance which can progressively enlarge the sphere of action for the civil society and civil society organizations.

It is ironic that in a country that pioneered the most innovative forms of governance and social mobilization, where the best practices of the deepest forms of participatory democratic action developed many years before such innovations became a part of
the governance jargon, we sometimes tend to look outwards for models and practices. I am referring to that most impossible of romantic revolutionaries, Mahatma Gandhi, who realized, far ahead of the times, the dangers of the unchecked growth of a centralized
State. The concept of small, fully autonomous, fully empowered, interconnected and interdependent, yet free of central control, village republics which exercise all legislative, executive and judicial powers is probably the most radical and the most futuristic blueprint of good governance ever drawn up. What is remarkable is not only the boldness of the vision and the centrality of placing the individual, direct democracy and the exercise of democratic ethical choices at the centre of governance processes, but also the extent of detail to which processes have been engineered. I will not today dwell on this blueprint but only commend to you to read, absorb and marvel over the grandness, elegance and simplicity of the architecture and design of governance Gandhiji has bequeathed to us. It is a legacy which we ignore at our peril.

It is easy to dismiss Gandhiji’s blueprint as the impractical, utopian fantasy of a faddist. Quite apart from the fact that this does grave injustice to the magnitude and the magnificence of Gandhiji’s practical achievements, it also ignores the impact on social organizations of the single greatest technological development of our times – the Internet
Revolution. What has it done? It has enabled the mushrooming of small groups of knowledge-savvy entrepreneurs to come together to form very high-tech, compact, lean and highly profitable businesses. It has redefined relationships between the home, the neighbourhood and the work place. A whole new geography of relationships has developed between people, institutions and places. Geographical distances have shrunk in cyberspace. Even giant IT transnationals, such as Google, or Microsoft, or Intel, or Apple, are nothing more than a very large number of highly decentralized, geographically spread, fully empowered, small communities or collectivities, fully networked with each other, which only happen to work under a common umbrella and a common ‘brand’. The monolithic giant enterprise is a dinosaur of the past – an extinct species at least in the knowledge industry. New forms of exchange relations have emerged – barter trade in knowledge and the emergence of a knowledge currency. Internal hierarchies have been completely shattered with pyramids replaced by networked nuclei. The distinctions between owners, shareholders, management and labour have got blurred
to the point of obliteration. These fundamental changes have taken place within just a decade. Do we still dismiss the dream of decentralized, interconnected, self-governing, self-regulatory sustainable communities and neighbourhood and village republics as idle fancy?

Some progressive political leaders and civil servants are using technology to fundamentally alter governance paradigms and models. However, resistance to e-governance from entrenched interests and Luddites will take a while to make this a workable model spread all over the country. Suffice it to say that technology now makes it possible for us to move out of a paradigm, which treats governors and the governed as distinct and separate and move into one where people govern themselves without needing governors or governments. The challenge for us is to support, accelerate and empower the creation of a social environment and forms of governance and power structures that provide the framework for the expression of a collective initiative and community control as well as the development of the full capabilities and creativity of the individual. This is now a distinctly practical possibility.

Perhaps the time has come for us to make ‘Gandhigiri’ the central focus of governance reforms, and to say ‘Lage Raho Munnabhai’.


Friday, July 29, 2011

Junk the Lokpal.

There exists an astonishing perversity of consensus about the desirability of having a Lokpal .  Every one seems to want one and everyone seems to think that having one is critical to the crusade against corruption . Voices of dissent have been few and far between and  more about the role a coterie of  self appointed ‘ Civil Society’ representatives have arrogated to themselves and the manner in which they have tried to sidetrack the processes of parliamentary democracy than about the Lokpal per se.

Will the Lokpal make  even an iota of difference to the bewildering diversity of rent seeking avenues that exist within the Indian state system ? Will it bring about a change of heart in the corrupt ? Will he transform decision making processes within the Government and make decision makers more democratically accountable ? Is  greater centralisation of authority in a public official and the creation of a whole new bureaucracy an answer to problems created by bureaucratic centralisation in the first instance ? The answer to all these questions is an overwhelming ‘No’. Why then persist with a proposal which we know will only open yet another rent seeking opportunity and the emergence of new Czars of anti corruption corruption. The proposal deserves to be summarily jettisoned. Not dilution or moderation but  an outright rejection.

Why ? For one, a prescription made without knowing what the disease is, or  made  after defining the disease in such simplistic, generic terms so as to make the definition meaningless, can lead to fatal after effects. ‘Corruption’ is one of those  seemingly universal, umbrella words which can mean very different things to different people but which everyone thinks they know But let’s face it, even when we talk of ‘financial’ corruption , we are referring to a bewildering variety of wrongdoings. There is ‘corruption’ which is better described as rent seeking. There is corruption of cronyism. There is corruption of misuse of power and authority for personal gain. There is corruption of defalcation and embezzlement of public funds. There is corruption of patronage and favouritism. Each of these forms of ‘corruption’ requires to be treated very differently and rarely, if at all , through a cure all prescription like the Lokpal. The votaries of the Lokpal Bill have neither attempted a diagnosis nor seem to have the critical, analytical faculties to do so and yet offer a universal prescription with the smugness of a  self righteous quack.

It is difficult to attempt, here, a detailed analysis of some of the causative factors which make the Indian State into a gigantic rent seeking apparatus, but a few major factors stand out. The first is the sheer size of the state. The Indian State remains ‘overdeveloped’ ( using an old thesis of the sociologist Hamza Alawi ) in relation  to the classes of civil society and constitutes a class by and for itself.  It uses its inherent coercive power to encroach,  through legislative and administrative means, into as many spheres of activity  as it possibly can.  Then by prescribing an increasingly complex set of ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ it ensures that permissions and approvals  are required for virtually any and every action. By taking on the role of being a  monopoly producer and supplier of a whole range of services and by itself becoming the engine as well as the driver of the economy, it positions itself in a perfect situation to become a super rentier. Corruption is therefore embedded in the basic framework of the State system .

The second factor is the structure of Indian democracy, heavily biased in favour of a centralised, unitary state in which the legislature plays a secondary role to the executive on the one hand and federated units and local governments get increasingly subordinated especially in the economic and financial decision making sphere. Their primary role becomes something like that of a franchise holder who operates the  rent seeking business for the parent company on a revenue share model. The unit ( the state or the local ‘government’ institution) is not really an autonomous unit of democracy taking its own decisions but an implementing agency. The number of such agencies is  so large that it is impossible to fix responsibility and maintain any kind of transparency. The power to say ’no’ is completely decentralised and devolved, so that everyone can block or hinder unless paid their share of rent, and the power to say ‘yes’ so centralised so that at the apex the highest share of the rent revenue can be collected.

The proponents of the Lokpal Bill, on the other hand show complete ignorance of these systemic flaws and accept the structure of decision making and democracy as it is. The touching faith in a knight in shining armour going full pelt tilting at the giant wind mills of corruption is pathetic in the poverty of thinking it exposes.

One of the biggest flaws in such thinking is the premise that the fear of getting caught and being punished keeps a check on corrupt behaviour. This is as naive as thinking that theft and burglary and murder will be reined in if the Police is given even more draconian powers to catch and prosecute offenders. In fact, it is well established that beyond a certain threshold, policing and crime develop a cosy relationship with one another and a vested interest develops in keeping crime alive to sustain an expansionary police , especially if crime acquires a strong financial and commercial dimension. The police then goes actively fishing for crime and sniffing out new opportunities for extracting rent. The perpetuation of crime justifies more police so crime requires to be kept alive for police to grow and keep itself in business. Already, the CBI  looks for and more opportunities to carry out investigations not merely to sustain themselves but to reassert their position in the bureaucratic power hierarchy. Trivial cases, generated on the basis of dubious ‘source reports’ are kept alive for years on end either to extort money or other benefits, such as discretionary allotment of scarce Government housing, or simply to show their place in the power structure. For every genuine case of corruption there are five times the number of cases of trumped up charges against honest persons which never come to light because they are deliberately prolonged to keep the business going. Such instances will grow exponentially with a super powerful, ‘ independent’ agency like the Lokpal and the removal of existing safeguards which offer a modicum of protection to the honest.

For the dishonest the deterrent value of a powerful Lokpal  is actually very little.  Having a ‘strong’ Lokpal  only means that he /she has to work out more ingenious ways of escaping detection.  In any case, most corruption rarely comes to notice  because the corrupt are more often than not ( except where sheer arrogance e.g Maran, Raja, Kalmadi, makes them careless ) very careful about correctness of procedure. Vigil keepers and investigators invariably look for deviation from rule, norm or procedure to keep a check on corruption or to nail the corrupt, forgetting the fact that  most of the really corrupt are clever enough to be meticulous in their paperwork and conform strictly to the established procedure.

 In defence procurements, to cite just one example, 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 ( the Tehelka tapes gave a fleeting glimpse of that). At no stage does anyone really need to circumvent or short circuit the procedure because following the procedure itself provides the opportunity. Paradoxically, higher the  level of procedural  correctness and propriety required, higher the chances of the bidders  having to pay more for a smooth passage through the procedural rigmarole .For the rent collectors/ facilitators along the approval chain, it is not necessary to either deviate from procedure or to influence the purchase decision in favour of any bidder. All he needs to do is to keep the process moving forward because all the bidders open a kind of Letter of Credit with the established chain of rent collectors before the procurement process begins and as each stage of the transaction is crossed , the rent gets automatically paid at the appropriate level. At the apex of the decision making chain is the Chief Collector, which could be the Minister/ Prime Minister , or his/her confidante who gets the highest share of the rent. It matters little who wins an order, because payment is made for the final approval being granted and  not for deciding in any one persons favour.The drill is so well established that the flow of rent rarely gets disrupted except when there is a falling out  among the middlemen or one of them decides to violate the Thieves’ Code of Honour. No part of the procedure is violated, no rule flouted, no bias shown and no pressure exercised. At the apex decision making level all that is required is steady progress of the transaction along the approval chain and regular flow of  advance information to keep negotiations ongoing with all the bidders until the end and then strike the best bargain with the one who is most likely to win. In the Bofors case , for example, the choice of the gun had nothing to do with the pay outs. Had any other gun been chosen , the same commissions would have been paid, except that the middle level agent/ middleman, like Win Chaddha would have been different for each company. The agents who operate at the highest levels, (like the Hindujas were said to be) are guaranteed their share because it is known that bypassing them means risking the whole deal.Fear of detection, prosecution or punishment has no impact whatsoever in a transaction of this kind.

Fear of harassment from the investigation/ audit/ vigilance agency on the other hand has a paralysing impact on the honest. An honest person has only his  carefully built record of integrity to be proud of and his reputation to defend. If he /she is also a doer he is most likely to make mistakes and often fall foul of procedural propriety. If he knows that he has to constantly look behind his back before taking a decision , or that the consequences of making a bona fide mistake or an error of fact or procedure means being subjected to interminable investigation which will wreck a carefully built reputation, he will just stop taking any decisions  which could latert come under scrutiny. This kind of paralysis has already hit many Departments, like Defence, which have to take complex techno commercial decisions.

 Internal  file notations, in which officers were encouraged to freely express their opinions, disagree , admonish, praise, overrule and served as a fascinating record of the internal decision making process, now undergo a pre scrutiny to ensure that before pen is put to paper, the implications of each sentence are carefully worked out and an ‘agreed’  fully sanitised note is prepared which can have a smooth passage. Officers who may not fall in line with such a procedure are simply transferred and replaced with more pliable ones. Inconvenient notations are routinely replaced to ensure that the file becomes a bland, controversy free document, showing complete unanimity of approach, along the hierarchy. Files which may not conform to this sanitising routine, are simply buried and once the personnel concerned have moved on or out, a new file started. And this is the situation within the ostensibly constrained environment that the C.A.G/ C.V.C/ C.B.I  triad function under.. We could soon have a situation ( and we have already come a fair way towards it ) where only the proactive rent seeker  will do things and the honest will either conveniently slip out of the decision making process, or deflect the issue  expertly to put it into a spin so that no decision is possible during his tenure. The bright officers will do doing what they are really good at-  ’ paralysis by analysis’. As no one is ever penalised for inaction, or delayed decision making or nipping bold  unconventional ideas in the bud , the timid, the pusillanimous , the servile, the nit-picker,and the status quo‘ist will prevail. Any discerning observer can see that this kind of rot is already widespread. The Lokpal will ensure that such behaviour now gets wholly institutionalised and rewarded. The incentives will move in the direction of those who do not take decisions.

Is there a way out or should we simply learn to live with corruption? A true crusade against corruption must begin with radically rethinking  and redesigning structures institutions and processes. There are no short cuts to this. The State has to be made to shrink, to reduce the sphere of its activities and to devolve  most of its powers, resources  and jurisdiction to the smallest, feasible unit of democratic governance following the principles of subsidiarity. Devolution has to be comprehensive including the actual , physical transfer of assets, resources and the power to raise resources. Decision making has to involve the participation of the maximum number of people and there has to be a concerted move to move from bureaucratic processes to democratic ones. Budgets, as instruments of control and regulation have to replace administrative hierarchy based controls with clearly designated responsibilities to ‘ Budget Holders’ for achieving budgeted outcomes. Internal delegation of powers has to follow the principle of ‘maximum possible’ rather than ‘minimum necessary’ and mutual trust has to replace mutual suspicion. Direct elections have to be confined to the smallest  identified unit of democracy and governance- village, block, district, city- so that people have direct knowledge of the people they are electing and election costs are affordable to everyone. Elections to any other tier of democracy have to be indirect. This requires a complete rethinking of the architecture of democracy to bring it as close  as possible to the Gandhian blueprint. In other words - Panchayati Raj has to be reinvented, utterly and comprehensively.

These suggestions need to be elaborated at length to carry the debate forward. Enough to say at this point that the grand crusade against corruption has, instead of addressing these issues and mobilising popular support for a large scale transformation of politics and governance has reduced itself to a campaign for an authoritarian bureaucracy, centralised controls and a further diminution  of even the limited institutions of democracy we have been successful in nurturing. What we need is more democracy, not less.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Speech at Ashok Saikia's Memorial Service 2008

Close friendships among men often display some peculiar characteristics.  Greetings are almost invariably in the form of insults and imprecations.  The closer you are to one another, the more extreme is the choice of the obscenity.  To achieve the intended result the chosen words or phrase have to be in the vernacular, because the English language in the Indian context lends respectability and sophistication to even the worst of profanities and thereby takes away from the depths of affection you wish to convey.  Obscenities as forms of endearment are peculiar to the human male species and, in my case, such endearments were reserved for some very, very special friends.  Out of my batch mates it was only with Ashok, Devdas Chhotray and Shivshankar Mukherji of the IFS that the instant I saw them or heard their voice on the phone, I had to let loose a volley of colourful expressions in Hindi and Punjabi.  Each of us constantly honed our skills in being more outrageous than the other.  Ashok or Hoicks would occasionally vary the ritual by looking slightly pained if you had hurled the first salvo and ask with grave innocence ‘Oy, shaala, gaali kyun deta hai’ before unleashing his own repertoire.  This ritual exchange of pleasantries was unfailingly followed, irrespective of the time gap between our meetings, and it established many things.  First that the special bond between us was unaffected by time and circumstance. Second, that sincerity in service and exaltation in status and hierarchy would never dim our desire to puncture pomposity whenever the opportunity arose and that we will never take bureaucracy seriously.  Third that both of us continued to have a very strong desire to be always on the wrong side of the establishment whichever be the establishment in power.

This form of ritual exchange of pleasantries had its horrifying moments.  In the long list of the ‘Most Embarrassing Moments of My Life, top of the order belongs to an occasion in 1991 when batchmate M.S. Srinivasan on a visit from Tamil Nadu to Delhi had dropped in my room in the Ministry of Defence and suggested that we talk to Hoicks about meeting for lunch or dinner.  I buzzed my PA an obsequious yet sly buffoon called Kathpalia and asked him to contact Mr. Saikia.  A few moments later, he buzzed me and said ‘Mr. Saikia on the line, Sir’.  Without further ado and without even saying ‘Hello’ I started off on an initial description of some generic blood relatives – sister and mother to be precise, expecting the usual response , so that we could get on with the business on hand.  For a few seconds there was a frosty silence on the other side and then a very unusually genteel Saikia said ‘Hullo this is Saikia here’.  That’s is a new one, I thought, and I won’t fall for it.  ‘Hellow this is Saikia here’ – I mimicked and then went into a flurry of colourful expressions describing in some detail the anatomical explorations of a variety of blood relatives and incentuous relations with them.  The person at the other end sounded most astonished on why one junior Joint Secretary in the Government of India should unleash such an unprovoked verbal assault without even a preamble.  ‘This is A.K. Saikia here’  he said in a very gingerly manner and in a flash I realized that I had been talking not to Ashok Saikia, but to Mr. A.K. Saikia, 1960 or 1961 batch of the IAS, ten/eleven years senior and someone most unlikely to appreciate the turn of expression Ashok and I revelled in.  I felt so foolish that I just put the receiver down.  Giving explanations would have probably worsened the situation and I really was completely flumnoxed on what I should  do.  When I finally got through to the real Ashok Saikia, he just chortled and guffawed at my plight and reassured me that the venerable Mr. A.K. Saikia would just let it pass.  Later, Ranjana fold me that Mr. A.K. Saikia met them soon thereafter and made a passing reference to Ashok’s interesting.  Ashok just blushed.

You will all recall how fetching Ashok’s blushes were.  His cherubic face with that impish glint behind a solemn pout, breaking into a chortle, moments after he had made a wise-crack with a dead serious face or heard a witty remark from you, would always make me awash with an enormous surge of affection for him.  You could never get angry with him.  There were many times in the days when he was wielding enormous power, that I had occasion to feel resentful that he was not doing enough to help me out of a terrible dip in my career and I would build up this resentment to try and confront and shame him.  However, each time I went to see him to vent my anger, one look at his face and all the anger would disappear.  He used to blush oftener than any man I know and his face would radiate such innocence that he would bring out in me almost maternal feelings of affection and tenderness, expressed of course through even more colourful insults.

Ashok became an instant friend the very first time I saw him in the Mussoorie Academy.  Although we had been contemporaries in Delhi University, the psychological distance between St. Stephens, my college and Ramjas his college and English Literature my subject and History his, had kept us apart.  On my very first evening in the Happy Valley block, after dinner, I was on the lookout for company for a cigarette and a nightcap.  My neighbours seemed rather strait-laced and not the kind interested in breaking rules about alcohol consumption in the rooms.  I found Ashok sprawled in a chair with T.R. Srinivasan and both sharing a toothbrush tumbler, full of rum and smoking.  I joined in and Ashok gave me two remarkably insightful bits of wisdom.  The first was in response to my saying how enjoyable a drink would be after a vigorous walk in the mountains.  Ashok, who was a ‘repeater’ as we called them in Mussoorie, told me that in his first stint he used to walk every evening to Lal Tibba and get back and have two bottles of beer that felt wonderful.  In his second stint he said, he realized that if you didn’t go for a walk but had four bottles of beer instead you felt even more wonderful.  I took to Ashok that very moment.  As the evening developed and we were on to our thirtieth cigarette of the day and talking about will power etc. required to give up bad habits, he told me that he had successfully ‘overcome’ his will power on several occasions.  That is a ‘funda’ the philosophical implications of which I am still exploring.

It was this quality of irreverence, of always questioning conformity and convention and received wisdom, of being able to detect any kind of pretentions humbug, this loathing of cant and hypocrisy of any kind, this wanting to puncture all forms of pomposity and sanctimoniousness and self-righteousness, of not being scared of being politically and ideologically incorrect and in all this having a deep seated core of concern for the underdog and the deprived, is what we shared as our common world-view, our ‘weltanschauung’.  For both of us our concerns had to hide behind lighthearted banter and if ever conversations among friends veered towards solemnity or high minded seriousness we had to introduce the totally facetious and the frivolous to restore balance.  This was our greatest bond and with his going away, there is no longer anyone among batch mates that I can share a similar bond with, without being misunderstood. 

Of course, what really cemented our bond was our common love for a tipple.  Ira has written about Ashok being the presiding deity of the ‘Tib Dhaba’  ‘chhang’ joints in Happy Valley where as we discovered to our utter delight that one large kettle of ‘chhang’ for 2 Rs. seemed to have to the same amount of chhang as a kettle worth 4 Rs.   But chang was our drink of the last resort when we had run through our princely takes home salaries of 200 Rs.  The first week of the month was spent in daily trips to Whispering Windows where the management used to dilute the peg and we normally ended the evening having almost a dozen large ones of gin and lime.  The second week was solan No.1 or Old Monk, obtained often by waking up the hapless Bareto of Bhai Dhyan Singh fame at 2 in the morning.  He treated Ashok as his greatest ever tormentor.  The third week was Golden Eagle beer, then really cheaply available and brought in cases every weekend by Ashok to a cottage which Ira and I had hired, in an old fashioned ‘hold all’, with leather straps.  We would polish of a case or two and sit on the hillside rolling empty bottles as they were consumed down the slope waiting to hear the tinkle of the bottles when they broke.  All this while we, Ashok and I, Deepa Jain, Sudip Bannerji, Devdas Chhotrai, Shilabhadra, Sanat Kaul would undertake the most searching enquiries into political, social, philosophical and literary questions, bitch about those of our batchmates we saw as ambitious, careerist prigs, lament the circumstances which had landed us in a career in bureaucracy and strengthen our resolve never to succumb to the culture of petty privilege and patronage represented by the Indian State.  Most of us, ‘Comrades of Chhang’, I think, still retain that something which we gained through our bonding in those idyllic times.

There are hundreds of stories of Ashok and I and alcohol and the rest of our gang but those must be recollected and savoured another day.  What I wanted to comment on apart from our shared values and shared attitudes was a unique role which Ashok played in our batch in the IAS.  In Mussoorie, we were broadly segmented into three or four different types.  Those of us from metropolitan, westernized, public school, St. Stephens type backgrounds with seemingly superior airs, intellectually snobbish, ‘been through done that’ kind of attitude and very little understanding of the world outside Delhi or Bombay; those with somewhat similar backgrounds but a longer exposure to provincial life, small town India and the vernacular tempering their snobbishness and those with a predominantly provincial background for whom the English language was a skill-acquired through diligence and for whom entry into the IAS represented an achievement obtained through struggle.  Most of us got typed into one of these broad groups and our friendships developed primarily within the type.  While there were spillovers and cross overs from one group to another most of us were more comfortable within our ‘type’.  Ashok was probably the only one who straddled all three or four types with equal comfort and felt equally at home with every one of them.  His unique Assamese accent in Hindi and English he converted into a kind of designer statement of his own and whatever he spoke always sounded so sweet and delightful that his acceptability in all circles, including the really snooty ones was high.  It was this ability to relate to every one that made him the central server of our batch network.  We connected with each other through Ashok and now that the central server is down or temporarily inaccessible, we will suffer a severe network failure.  But don’t worry, partner, one of these days we will catch up with you and in the rolling meadows and glens of heaven, you and I will bring out that peat roasted brew and drink ourselves silly and pass lewd comments on all the angels, that go marching by.  For the moment, my friend – ‘Au Revoir’. 

Monday, June 13, 2011

excerpts from a speech I gave at the memorial service for a senior colleague

Intimations of mortality are always sobering. More sobering is the fact that these intimations should come now with such alarming frequency. In the last six months, we have met here in Kapurthala House in precise two-month intervals in remembrance of three of our dearest, most loved and admired colleagues. It is painful to be doing this with such regularity and I sincerely hope that a divine intervention will at least lengthen this gap.

The commonality does not end in that all three colleagues had an iconic status in the Punjab cadre. What is really striking is that one of the most distinguishing characteristics of all three was the bigness of their laughter. Krishnamurthy’s laughter came out of an unfettered ability to enjoy the quirks and quiddities of life. Vaishnav’s had a hint of mischief. But that of Mr, Kapila was in a league of its own. Whenever he was in the throes of his prolonged spells of laughter, we had to check not only that the window-panes of the building were intact but that the foundation had not suffered damage. It was a laughter of such a liberating quality that anyone present in the room would himself begin to feel as though he had been through a paradoxically enjoyable catharsis. It was a laughter which was informed by wit and intelligence. It was a laughter as a signature statement. It was a laughter which should be treated as an intangible heritage.

I came to know the youngest of the Kapila brothers, Neethu, when I was uniquely, distinctively ragged by him as a fresher in St. Stephen’s College. The middle brother, Sethu, who had left College was by then already a legend with numerous records of the ‘how many eggs you can consume in five minutes’ kind. We only knew of the eldest brother through stories but came to realize early on that  all the male members of the Kapila family had a really endearing madcap quality to them, which made them among the most interesting and stimulating friends you could have. Neethu and I were very close friends and shared a streak of impulsive wildness which was both exhilarating as well as something capable of landing us into great trouble. When I came to know the rest of the family, including the grand patriarch in Hoshiarpur, I realized that this was a family characteristic and that whichever of the Kapilas you chose as your friend, you would be in for interesting times.

Mr. Kapila came into our lives and careers when he joined the Mussoorie Academy as a Senior Deputy Director when we were probationers. We immediately made him out as a cut above the rest. The informality of his manner, the sharpness of his wit, his irreverence of all hierarchy without ever being impolite or impudent to those in authority, his articulation and -- above all -- his persuasive skills in making people see things from his point of view and in actually converting them to his own without badgering them, was among the most extraordinary. He was a great trainer and later, when we worked together as the founders of the PSIPA, I was awestruck by his ability to transform stodgy, conventional bureaucratic minds into lively, questioning and open minds even if the transformation did not always endure. His interaction with his peers and especially with subordinates often had an inspirational quality and it was from that I learnt to place a great value on how to do things differently and how to set seemingly impossible challenges toone's subordinates as a means of getting them to extend themselves to their fullest potential. I personally rate the time I worked with him as one of the most stimulating periods of my career.

Of course, working with him required one to pay a price. When we started PSIPA, it was the first time I had access to a staff car that I could also use for personal purposes on a fixed monthly payment. Being unused to such luxuries, I tried to make the most of it by driving the official car myself on Holi, with a large, merry and raucous band of revelers spilling out of the car (on the roof and inside the boot) and going to the houses of all our seniors to play the wettest and most rambunctious of Holis. The revelries included our dousing Mrs. Kapila (who had locked herself in the bathroom to shampoo her hair) with a bucket of pure, glorious magenta water thrown at her through a high ventilator by Inderjit Singh Bindra, honing his skills as a fielder. While Mr. Kapila joined in our antics with his characteristic passion, he made it very clear to me the next morning that he found my use of the official car for a Holi outing as thoroughly objectionable and unacceptable. Knowing that he was right, I decided to give up the staff car and follow his example by going to work riding a bicycle. It was a difficult act to follow because not only did Mr. Kapila go to office (and he was Punjab’s Home Secretary then) on a ruddy bicycle, he insisted on carrying his tiffin carrier himself from his bicycle parking shed to the eighth floor of the Punjab Civil Secretariat.

Those days in the Punjab Secretariat were halcyon days. Somehow differences of age and seniority in service, did not interfere with the informality and friendliness of our relations. Because of his informality and the shared antipathy to pomposity and authority, Mr. Kapila was closer to us, the Young Turks of the Secretariat, than he was to many of his own age group. Rajendran Nair, Krishnamaurthy, Deepa Jain Singh, Piyush Verma, Jai Singh Gill  and I would often get together for tea in his room because he was a connossieur of Lopchu and of tea made exactly the way it should be, to yield you a golden brew to be had, in his case, with a pinch of salt and a crushed cardamom. He would make the tea himself and we would spend a delightful half-hour doing what Vaishnav pithily described as ‘malicious meditation’ directed against common enemies in the still higher echelons of the Punjab bureaucracy, including sundry Chief Secretaries. As always, the room would soon be rocking with laughter of the kind that now seems to be lost forever. I think I speak for most of us that these were among the most enjoyable interludes in our careers.

Why is it that we do not have officers like Mr. Kapila any more? People who wore their position so lightly, people who had passionate interests in things outside their careers—books, music, mountains—people who could stand up to their convictions against seniors and ministers with a deftness of touch, people who avoided unpleasantness without having to make compromises, people who saw that fighting for a cause, or a principle, or an idea or a person was not just a personal quality but something essential to the performance of the job one was paid for; people who had scant regard for the fopperies and tinsels of office? When I now see such people held in contempt  and the opposite kind valorized: those for whom timidity, puisillanimity, sycophancy and kow-towing to those in authority are the presiding values, I am glad that I had a chance to work with and be trained by the Kapilas, the Kathpalias, the Vaishnavs and the Vasudevas of the world. For those who will never be able to know how exciting it was to be with people like Mr. Kapila, I have pity. They don’t make them like that any more.

Amitabha Pande

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The culture of corruption- some reflections

Two months ago, Neera Yadav, former Chief Secretary of U.P. and once its most powerful bureaucrat was convicted and sent to jail. Soon thereafter, BS Lalli, CEO of Prasar Bharati, was suspended on allegations of corruption. Both were my batchmates in the IAS and my memories of them as probationers are so completely at variance with the reputations they acquired later in their careers that it becomes both sad and difficult to reconcile the two.

Do social origins and the cultural milieu in which one has grown up have a role to play in the kind of IAS officer one eventually becomes?

At one level, all bureaucrats have been corrupt in some way or another -- favouring friends or kinsmen or persons of a particular region, using the perks and freebies offered by PSUs, accepting free ‘companion’ tickets offered by Air India, and so on. Worse, many readily condoned or not resisted the corrupt behaviour of those in power and often, while keeping their own noses clean, allowed their masters to get away with murder. A few, however, become known for the voraciousness of their appetite for material acquisitions and their tyrannical behaviour, especially in dealing with the subaltern classes. They stand out both because of the awesome scale of their greed and because of their complete disregard for what this greed does to their reputations in civil society or even their peer group. What makes for this change in behaviour? Were the symptoms, or the ‘Lakshanas’ of such behaviour always there?

When we joined the IAS in 1971, the entrants could be broadly grouped into three distinct, occasionally overlapping, categories.There were those of us whose parents had been/ were in the higher echelons of civil service or senior management positions in the boxwalla companies. Most of us had been to public schools and our undergraduate years had been spent in the elite colleges and universities of India. We cultivated intellectual airs. We thought, or at least pretended to be, well read; were passionate about books, classical music and the arts. We had little understanding of caste and community relations, except in academic terms. The only world we knew was the world of the metropolis and gender distinctions were absent from our world. It amused us that many found us to be insufferably snobbish, English-speaking minority in an India that was then still predominantly rural and provincial.

The second social group in the IAS was also from an urban middle class background but with a strong non metro, medium sized city bias. Belonging to cities like Chandigarh, Ludhiana, Kanpur, Nagpur, Sagar, Baroda or Mysore, their parents were mostly from professional, technical backgrounds working in the middle rungs of their organisations. They were deeply rooted in the emerging Indian middle class and the IAS was a very significant part of their aspirational growth. Their fluency in English, to them a second language, was acquired with a fair degree of effort.

The third group had closer links with the rural and provincial than the second. They were deeply and integrally connected to land and land relations. They accepted, even venerated, feudal style hierarchical relations between ‘master’ and ‘servant’. The IAS of their imagination was still rooted in a semi feudal, patriarchal order. Their most distinguishing feature was their unease with the English language. Their lack of familiarity with Western literature, with the Arts was almost a badge of their being rooted in the vernacular. A strand of anti-intellectualism ran through their normal discourse, as they believed that intellectuals did not make good administrators.

This threefold varna is probably sharper in retrospect than it was at that time and many of us fell in between these groups. Nor was this division based primarily on class or caste or income although these dimensions did exist. The distinctions were primarily cultural and the English language the main dividing line. Many in the first category came from families whose incomes were much lower than those in the second or third categories and many in the third category belonged to the higher castes.

Many of us in the first group were half ashamed of our elitist origins. While we were most comfortable with our own blood group we took pains to cultivate friends from the other groups. To our social guilt tainted eyes a person like Neera appeared a shining example of someone who had fought her way out of a male chauvinist, patriarchal social order and stood her own ground in an elitist milieu. The fact that she was completely unselfconscious about her ordinariness made her even more striking to us.

To understand what changed, tracing the career trajectories of the three groups can offer interesting sociological insights. Those of the third group rarely sought careers in the Central Government, saw little benefit in acquiring specialised technical and professional skills, had very close relationships with provincial political satraps and local traders and contractors (forests, mines, liquour, cement, kerosene, civil works) and most of their corrupt dealings dealt with land and real estate related transactions, mining leases, excise licences etc . All of them displayed a tremendous appetite for acquiring landed property. The economic profiles of most changed dramatically between the beginning and the end of their careers. Very few remained free from the taint of corruption.

Those of the second group, while not averse to Central Government careers, focused on jobs traditionally associated with power and status -- Ministries of Home, Defence, Industry, cultivated low profile politicians powerful in the backrooms of party politics to secure posts in such Ministries and Departments, gave great importance to following rules and procedures and paperwork and avoided getting into controversial situations. For the majority of them wielding authority, being treated deferentially, ensuring protocol proprieties was more important than making money. They never took a bold, unconventional stand and never questioned the status quo. They managed political masters deftly showing sufficient elasticity to bend when required without getting into ugly confrontations. Most of them had their children take up careers in finance, or consultancy or Government and they saw to it that their educational progress was geared towards such careers.The corrupt among them concentrated on opportunities in Government procurements, industrial licences and approvals, grant of concessions, food procurements and trading in essential commodities etc. Unlike the third group, their accumulation was relatively discreet and modest in scale. Corruption was practised more by showing flexibility in the application of Rules and procedures and the calibrated exercise of discretionary powers to favour identified parties than through brute domination and control of resources and powers to grant concessions. The incorruptible among this group suffered from intense ‘bouts of integrity’ with a strong sense of self righteousness and sanctimony.

Those of the first group made a beeline for careers in the Central Government as far as possible in Finance, Commerce, Industry or the Infrastructure Ministries -- jobs that offered the maximum potential for international careers and foreign postings. Many managed careers in the International/multi Lateral bureaucracy eventually getting absorbed by them. Most jobs required dealing with International treaties and protocols and therefore superior skills in communication in English gave them a natural advantage. Those with an Economics and Finance background leveraged that to considerable benefit in career terms with organisations like the World Bank and the IMF or the poorer cousins in the Asian and African Development Banks. Relations with political masters tended to be awkward until the Rajiv Gandhi regime brought in the generation of politicians with very similar cultural backgrounds. The corrupt among them brought high levels of sophistication to corruption itself, making it knowledge- and skill-based either to bring about policy changes conducive to favourite corporates or interpreting policies and regulations to facilitate favoured transactions. While some may have salted away fortunes in tax havens, most corruption was a kind of lifestyle corruption rather than crass accumulation of property.

Several generalisations can to be made from this descriptive account. One, that the differences in the internalised image of the IAS between the three socio cultural groups were substantial and determined future behaviour. In the construction of these images their lingual/cultural origins played a significant role. Two, the language of discourse which persons like Neera and Lalli were used to, being steeped in provincialism, showed a very high degree of acceptance bordering on reverence for existing socio-cultural hierarchies. The purpose of getting into the IAS was not to reduce hierarchies but to be on top of them and perpetuate them. A tyrannical style of functioning was appropriate and expected. The Public School/ St Stephen’s lingual environment, on the other hand, encouraged irreverence and reflected a less socially iniquitous culture. Three, each of these language based categories occupies its own distinct cultural and moral universe in which standards of what is acceptable behaviour differ substantively and qualitatively. In the universe of those with a pronounced provincial background acquisition of wealth by using the privileges of office is natural and legitimate. Rent does not have to be sought but should flow as a natural consequence of the position one has made strenuous efforts to get to. In the same way as politicians from a similar social background join politics in order to acquire wealth and power and see nothing wrong with that as a purpose, entering the IAS with similar objectives carries cultural legitimacy. Being oblivious to the social consequences of their reputations outside their own universe is probably why many of them could be so blatant in their styles of corruption.

For those of us from elitist backgrounds the cultural gap between the Officer and the Politician was enormous. They literally spoke completely different languages that made it easy to caricature the Politician as a crass and greasy low life creature with an unspeakable accent and the Officer as an impeccable, upright (steel frame), genteel and ‘honorable schoolboy’. This cultural gap made it difficult to work out a convergence of interests between the two for the optimal exploitation of rent seeking opportunities. This gap has now substantially disappeared and since achieving success in corruption requires complicity and very close collaborative relationships between the Officer and the Politician the narrowing of the cultural, lingual gap has facilitated the process. At the same time, the induction into politics of the new breed of public school educated politicians has meant the emergence of a new kind of nexus especially when it comes to subtler and more sophisticated forms of knowledge based corruption (corruption related to policy design, design of bidding systems, selection of consultants and experts, designing forms of public/private partnerships etc).

A major part of the problem in the IAS stems from an inherent design flaw. The architecture of the IAS was consciously drawn from the ICS and it was premised on a social and cultural distance between administration and civil society on the one hand and between the political executive and the civil servant on the other. It was self consciously elitist and relied on creating a kind of Brahminical mandarinate which was specifically groomed for the task of governance and wielding power in a way in which even outsiders could be put into an appropriate cultural mould. The critical mass had to consist of people who shared a certain cultural ethos, who subscribed to an ‘Esprit de Corps’, who genuinely believed in what is cricket and what is not.

Such a design was obviously at variance with the rough and tumble of the Indian democracy where the Realpolitik was increasingly emerging as the only ‘Real’ Politics. Instead of redesigning the architecture more appropriate to the changing socio-political context, the IAS was sought to be retrofitted by tinkering with its basic design. Obviously uncomfortable with the bias in favour of the westernised, deracinated and seemingly effete elite the policy makers gradually sought to broaden the recruitment zone to include more and more of those with a vernacular background. This was done in the naive hope that by inducting persons of more vernacular social origins and giving them the same elite status the system could be made more sensitive to the underprivileged.

What has happened is the opposite. A new, more aggressive vernacular elite has replaced the earlier one that has brought in a whole new culture where pragmatism, expediency and moral elasticity are the presiding virtues and the exercise of petty tyranny and corruption a legitimate practice. The flaw in the design is in the idea of the elite in a democratic system not in the social composition of that elite. The concept of the IAS itself is an anachronism in a democratic framework and tinkering with its design makes it prone to ‘corruption’ in a very fundamental way. To think that one can actually engineer an elite force which is trained into social conscientiousness and good governance and which remains immune to changes in the socio-political environment is not just naive, it is dangerous. Just think of the number of new, techno savvy, culturally sub-educated, petty tyrants who get added on to the monstrous apparatus that is the Indian State and tremble with fear! What is the alternative? As that contemporary of the Bard said: ‘Another time another place... Besides, the wench is dead...’.

Jammu & Kashmir - A Tangled Web- The IIC Quarterly

2: At the Crossroads

In Praise of Federalism

et me begin with a dramatic over statement. Kashmir today offers what could be the greatest opportunity for lasting peace in the sub-continent. It also has the potential to take a leadership role in radically redesigning the architecture of democratic federalism in South Asia and serving as a model for decentralized governance based on the principles of subsidiarity. Yet, more likely than not, the national and security mindset, which dominates policy thinking, will once again convert this opportunity into a threat and reinforce those traditions of political conservatism and pusillanimity that have repeatedly thwarted any attempts at revitalizing the peace process. Kashmir’s greatest tragedy has been that is too disturbing a reminder of policy failures and the shallowness of our commitment towards a genuinely pluralistic and federal democracy. Forces of

centralism do not like to be disturbed and Kashmir threatens these forces in very fundamental ways.

But let us for a moment suspend cynical disbelief and explore this unique opportunity. Every recent visitor to Jammu and Kashmir has been struck by the overwhelming, all-consuming yearning for peace, cutting across all segments of society: for restoration of the humdrum routine of daily living; for a life free of curfews and sand-bagged check posts, the ‘concertina wires and jack-booted surveillance’; for the freedom to pursue the aspirations of normal middle-class youth anywhere else in India, and for the young to be able to dream the same dreams as the young in Mumbai or Delhi or Bangalore. It is also evident that the current phase of unrest is qualitatively different from all earlier ones, although obviously there are connecting strands. It is dominated by the youth. It has seemingly touched a chord with a much wider cross-section of people than all earlier phases of militancy. It has a massive groundswell of popular support without any visible signs of political engineering. These outbursts are spontaneous; they are not the conspiratorial inventions of Mr. Geelani or the Hurriyat. Given its spontaneity and unpredictability, the popular upsurge seems incapable of being handled either by brute force or by economic packages, sops or concessions. The protests have increasingly taken the shape of a movement that has no clearly identifiable centre and can any day blossom or burgeon (depending on one’s perspective) into a Tehrir Square-like mass, direct action, campaign. The conventional political formations, including die-hard secessionists and all shades of the Hurriyat, are now being led by the movement rather than being the ones leading it.

In a situation of such flux, genuine and sincere efforts towards dissipating public anger and communicating a commitment towards carrying the conciliation process through to finish can have an electrifying effect. At the same time, any procrastination can so irretrievably damage the emotional balance that the call for secession will become the rallying cry, shutting out voices of moderation. If this opportunity for reconciliation is missed, it is most unlikely to feature again in a hurry.

While recognizing that the situation in the Valley today is qualitatively different from what it was even two years ago, our discussion of the problems invariably reverts to a political discourse that is insensitive to these differentiates. It is a discourse trapped

in the vocabulary of the past, in dead and meaningless clichés, and derived from constructs that have long outlived their social and political significance. We forget that the language we use determines not only the tone, tenor and timbre of any dialogue that we are engaged in, but defines its very substance. It serves little purpose now to continue repeating ad nauseam that ‘Kashmir is an integral part of India’ or that ‘there can be no discussion outside the framework of the Indian Constitution’, or to talk of the ‘Pakistan factor’ and look at Kashmir in the context of ‘the external security scenario’, to view the phenomena of mass popular protests as a ‘law and order problem’ and talk of the sufferings of people in terms of ‘grievances’. Such phrases trivialize the situation and ensure that any dialogue becomes nothing more than a repetition of the rigid positions embedded in the syntax and the idiom of a dead discourse. From the Kashmir side, this means repeating ‘recognition of the Kashmir dispute as an international dispute’, ‘the inherent right of the Kashmiri to self-determination’, ‘Freeing Kashmir of Indian occupation’ – phrases that immediately trigger a hostile reaction from large sections of the Indian middle class. In fact, it is because the repetition of these clichés from both sides provokes a predictable response that they continue to be used. This ensures that the enormous vested interest that has developed in perpetuating conditions of hostility and conflict finds ready sustenance. The existing language of discourse, therefore, will not allow the reconciliation process to take root.

This is a bigger problem than it might seem. Language creates conceptual constructs. Constructs are often taken as being fundamental, immutable and sacrosanct. Some constructs become so loaded with emotional and political meanings that whole ideologies get built around them. Questioning the construct, then, is inevitably seen as an attack on core, fundamental value systems that must be resisted and thwarted at all costs. Wars can be and are fought to defend the sanctity of the construct. The problems get compounded manifold when the construct acquires a religious dimension in addition to a political one.


One such construct is that of the ‘sovereign nation-state’. This construct has now taken such a vice-like grip on the Indian middle-class mind that it unthinkingly accepts that the idea of India is the same as the idea of the Indian State and that the word ‘nation’ means the same as the ‘nation-state’. It is widely believed that until colonial rule consolidated the empire and created the basic structure of the Indian State, there was no real entity called India – a land of thousands of fragmented principalities, feudal fiefdoms and fractious village communes. This was a belief actively perpetuated by colonial rulers and uncritically accepted and internalized by most of us as a ‘fact’. In a seminal article on sacred geography, Professor Diana Eck cites Sir John Strachey as saying: ‘This is the first and most essential thing to learn about India, that there is not and never was an India, or even any country of India possessing, according to European ideas, any root of unity, physical, political, social and religion, no Indian nation, no people of India of which we hear so much’. To the imperial mind, the bewildering diversity of a civilization – that refused to fit into any of his classificatory boxes – represented utter chaos that could only be brought to order and unity within the unity of the imperial state. In fact, it was probably not until the British and the Europeans introduced the idea of a ‘nation’, that Indians began to be troubled at the lack of an essentialized core to the complex network of relationships among a diversity of individuals and communities that was their most distinguishable feature as a civilization. ‘There is, therefore, no central something to which the peripheral people were peripheral. One person’s centre is another’s periphery’ (Wendy Doniger – Hinduism, An Alternative History). Before the idea of the nation as a unified community took root, this absence of a centre, therefore, was never a cause for anxiety and could explain why neither a unified religion nor a unified state was found necessary for forging a national identity.

Yet the idea of India existed many millennia before the formation of the modern Indian nation state under British imperial rule. In a seminal article (Rose Apple Island – Feb./March 1996 – India Magazine), Professor Diana Eck, cites the Greek scholar Eratosthenes giving an account of certain informants who, in the fourth century, could describe India to Alexander and to Megasthenes, as a land ‘which was a quadrilateral shape, with the Indus River forming the western boundary, the Himalayas and the Hindu Kush stretching

along the north, and the seas skirting the other two sides.’ She further quotes Alexander Cunningham who in 1871 was a major general of the Royal Engineers writing: ‘The close agreement of these dimensions given by Alexander’s informants, with the actual size of the country is very remarkable and shows that the Indians, even at that early date in their history, had a very accurate knowledge of the form and extent of their native land’. Professor Eck goes on to say, ‘It is remarkable that long before there was any semblance of Indian political unity, those who described India to Alexander’s company apparently thought of it and described it as a single land.’

The idea of India, therefore, is much larger, much subtler and more sophisticated than a constitutional, juridical one. It must be viewed as a civilizational entity, consisting of an intricate web of social, cultural and economic interrelationships within a distinct geography, which has survived and continuously evolved over thousands of years and continues to do so even today.

If, therefore, one was to look for the one, ‘essential’, defining feature in this idea of India as distinct from the idea of the Indian state, that feature is India’s diversity. Diversity is not merely something that exists around us. It constitutes us. It is an integrative phenomenon, not a divisive one. Were we to ask the simple question of who, or what, is an Indian, the answer invariably has to stress our plurality and diversity. We are what we are because of our diversity, not in spite of it. We are one only because we are many. This may appear an obvious truism but is easily forgotten, and – worse still – seen by many as a societal failure that can only be overcome by some form of homogenized cultural nationalism.

Before we consider the political dangers of viewing our diversity as a weakness, it is worth understanding why it is so important to us. Looking at the world of nature, we know that the interdependence of species requires bio-diversity and it is through bio-diversity that Nature maintains its balance. It is bio-diversity that provides ecological sustainability and it is through bio-diversity that species get cross-pollinated and enrich one another. Diversity in human societies is, for the same reasons, as important as it is in nature. It strengthens the mutual interdependence of individuals and groups. It ensures social and cultural enrichment through a cross pollination of communities – languages, customs and cuisine. It maintains balance, in society as well as in individuals, by ensuring that multiple

identities remain dynamic and do not get frozen. The culture of diversity as much as the diversity of culture leads to a broadening of minds, a cosmopolitan outlook and a natural affinity for the values of tolerance and mutual respect.

Diversity as an organizing principle is applicable as much to individuals as to society or nature. Plurality and multiplicity of identities exist within individuals as well as in groups and communities. There are identities that are in a sense given and that are not easily changed – gender, skin and hair colour, place of birth, parentage and ancestry, mother-tongue and genetic characteristics. But most others are contextual, and dynamic – religion, faith and belief systems, professions, languages learnt and acquired, education, class, food preferences, politics, to name just a few. Every human being is a composite of these multiple and diverse identities with a considerable degree of dynamism and fluidity among these identities. Some identities can be altered, modified, reformed, reshaped and revamped; some can be, and are, outgrown or subdued or discarded; some are engineered and re-engineered and some constructed and reconstructed, produced and reproduced. Every human being continually and seamlessly shifts and moves within these identities and the identities themselves grow and change in relation to time, place and the environment.

As long as the plurality of these identities is seen as natural, matters remain simple, uncomplicated and conflict-free. Problems arise when people start ranking identities hierarchically in some perceived order of importance. Identities get frozen and ‘essentialized’ – being treated as primordial, immutable and superior in relation to other identities. This happens particularly in the case of identities of race, colour, religion and caste and it happens when individuals and groups cease to celebrate diversity and instead seek homogeneity. When this occurs, then instead of identities revolving around politics, people start playing politics around identity.

At the national level, similarly, when we stop celebrating our diversity and instead search for an elusive homogeneity or a single, hegemonic, unitary identity – be it around religion or cultural nationalism, as propagated by the Sangh Parivar or the construct of the ‘nation-state’ – we begin sowing the seeds of division and conflict. Unfortunately, our constitution makers at the time of framing the Constitution were themselves trapped in a mindset that saw

plurality and diversity as a challenge, rather than as a blessing, to the creation of a modern state. They were fearful men, as many continue to be now, of what they perceived as ‘fissiparous and centrifugal tendencies, which could be contained only by giving the constitution a bias towards a strong unitary state’. It is precisely the same fear, that were it not for the monolithic Indian state (which at best would grudgingly yield some space for regional identities strictly on terms set by it) the country will break up into a thousand different parts, that provides the state legitimacy in unleashing fierce repression to subdue any semblance of resistance to its omnipotence. The fact that Ms. Arundhati Roy can be criminally charged with sedition for speaking out against the Indian state and that such an action is seen as justified, shows how widespread and how deep-rooted the fear of the break up of the State is. The survival, of the State and its machinery, whatever be the cost in human terms and whatever the implications for democratic processes, becomes the paramount objective, expressed in terms of ‘national interest’. ‘National Interest’ becomes synonymous with the interests of a homogenized, unitary state with the Constitution acquiring the force of an ideology. People become creatures of the Constitution rather than the Constitution being a creation of the people. It acquires the status of divinity and defending it becomes a sacred duty.

Few realize the dangers of this. An ideology that justifies unchecked trampling of human rights, of violent and coercive means of defending the authority of a unitary state, can easily descend into a kind of secular fascism, not very different from the theology or cultural nationalism, peddled by the RSS. In fact, because the ideology of the State is ostensibly secular it is even more dangerous as it allays liberal middle-class opinion against the repressive behaviour of the State.

The architecture of Indian democracy is consequently based on fear

– the fear of diversity. The State fans this fear because it sets itself up as the cementing force that holds together disparate communities, each having its own geography. It is then natural for a whole range of vested interests to coalesce around a strong, unitarist state that views genuine federalism with extreme suspicion. Such vested interests aid and abet the gradual militarization of the State, and make State brutality appear acceptable – a necessary evil for the defence of its integrity. In short,

they fuel the propagation of a ‘national security’ mindset in which democracy has to be subordinated to the interests of security.


The Kashmir problem has to be viewed within the dynamics of this interplay between democracy, diversity, identity and the State. It does not help that in this interplay as the Indian polity becomes more and more federal, or even confederal, systems and structures and processes of government become more and more centralist. There is constant need for increasing the number of Central Police forces, central investigation and intelligence-gathering agencies and expanding the role of the military.

At one level the fight in Kashmir, therefore, is a natural resistance to the forcible submergence of the Kashmiri identity within the Indian nation-state identity. The insistence on treating the ‘nation-state’ identity as the superior one to which the Kashmiri identity must be subordinate not only makes the resistance to it more fierce, it also accords a statist dimension to a regional identity in a way in which the cry for secession acquires an emotional edge. The sharper insistence on the part of the State to have its omnipotence unquestioningly accepted, the deeper the desire on the part of Kashmiris to raise the hackles of the Indian state by demanding separation, little realizing that the notion of secession itself is caught within the nation-state construct that they oppose. Having Kashmir as a separate nation-state does not solve anything. It only replaces one coercive rent-seeking apparatus with another, probably much worse, one.

How do we get out of this trap? It is here that in the character of the current phase of what is happening in Kashmir at present, there lies a great opportunity. The first opportunity is to try and see that any dialogue that is resumed is led by a new set of players: new faces, mainly of the youth, who do not carry with them the baggage of history of the older generations. Most of them have a refreshingly different, ‘out of the box’, approach to issues and while they share with the older generation the cumulative rage against a repressive, insensitive and uncaring state, their political understanding is very different and free of the clutter of clichés and rhetoric. They are capable of using a different language and writing a different script.

Here arises the second big opportunity. One word on every Kashmiri lip that has become a rallying, cry for all age groups in the valley is that of ‘azadi’. In its fullest sense azadi is a very creative, liberating word with very positive connotations. Unfortunately, on both sides, it is the narrow, limited, statist construction of it which gets adopted and it is immediately assumed that it is a call for secession. Many begin to see in it a reiteration of the two-nation theory. It is possible, however, to use the emotional appeal of the word to initiate a collective exploration of its creative potential. In libertarian, non-statist terms, such an exploration can be a unique opportunity for a designing a new architecture of federalism and democracy not just for the state of J&K and the rest of India but for the entire South Asian region.

A beginning in this direction has already been made by the J&K Peoples’ Democratic Party in ‘The Self Rule Framework for Resolution’ they brought out in October 2008. While this document shares similar concerns with the earlier National Conference document on ‘autonomy’, it has a much broader, supra-national focus inasmuch as it brings Pakistan and the concerns of Pakistan Administered Kashmir into the ambit of ‘Self Rule’. In many ways, this is one of the most remarkably well-crafted documents to come out of a political party and it is a great pity that policy analysts and policy makers have generally ignored it. As a working blue-print for a bold new architecture of federalism, it can give substance and focus to any dialogue, especially as it has been formulated in very sober and reasoned terms.

A critical problem in discussing the concept of ‘self-rule’ and ‘shared sovereignty’ in respect of Kashmir, is the tendency to view the problems of Kashmir as something unique, and very different from other regions/states in India. This is primarily on account of the history of the ‘special status’ accorded to it in the Constitution and the special circumstances of its accession to the Indian Union. From the Kashmiri point of view, this means seeking a resolution that is Kashmir-centric, as for them any accent on their separateness from the rest of India is a part of their self-identity. This insistence on separateness invariably provokes the opposite reaction from the non-Kashmiri who tends to treat Kashmir as an aberration and their demands as the demands of a spoilt and pampered lot. At the policy level, this means a constant effort to try and dilute the special status

for Kashmir and have Kashmiris accept that their identity has to be subordinated to the Indian identity. Stalemate situations are thus in-built in the design of the dialogue itself. It is this suspicion of proposals that are a seen as the precursors of separation that has kept mainstream political opinion distant from the otherwise extremely practical solutions proposed in the PDP Self-Rule document.

It is in this context that it is more important than ever to treat diversity as a fundamental organizing principle for the architecture of federalism in the country. By recognizing and celebrating diversity, we paradoxically bring the focus to the commonality and similarity of problems and issues among diverse entities rather than to the differences. The concept of self rule and shared sovereignty, therefore, is a concept relevant not only to the state of J&K and Pakistan Administered/Occupied Kashmir, but to almost every state in India, most particularly, the states in the North-East.

It has the potential for a radical redesigning of India’s federal architecture in which Kashmiris can take a leadership role. It may be worthwhile to conceive of a South Asian Commission on Federalism under the SAARC umbrella that is mandated to look at new political superstructures for all South Asian regions and sub-regions, work out a phased programme of economic integration that transcends borders and suggest appropriate restructuring of the Constitutions of the nation states involved. If the idea is too radical for all of South Asia, an experiment can certainly be made within India to have an All India Commission on federalism led by representatives from Jammu and Kashmir. In one stroke, this takes away the stigma of separatism from the proposals for Self Rule and expands its applicability to a larger national, regional and even international context. It also becomes a means for broadening and deepening the debate on the slogan of ‘azadi’ and exploring how the slogan can be used for conducting a mass participatory dialogue on the nature of democracy in South Asia.

The conduct of such a debate can also make a beginning of taking the federalism debate out of the trap of the ‘State’ and the ‘nation-state’ constructs in which it has been stuck for long. As long as it remains confined to these constructs, it becomes primarily an instrument for containing secessionist impulses, or a means of reconciling, accommodating, managing or resolving diversity-related conflicts. The question then is: who accommodates whom, who manages whom, and who acts, as a conciliator for whom. Inevitably,

this is taken as the role of the state that then uses federalism as a means of perpetuating itself through a system of distribution of legislative and executive process, fiscal equalization, assymetric decentralization, etc. The inherent potential of federalism to question the state itself and rethink and redesign systems and institutions of governance gets lost. It is, therefore, important that in exploring this potential, the radical and subversive edge of the slogan of ‘azadi’, is not diluted but is given a positive, innovative twist.

One person who had a profound grasp of the radical potential of the concept of ‘azadi’ was Mahatma Gandhi. As late as 1946, just a year before our independence, when asked to give a picture of the independent India of his conception, he said: ‘Independence must begin at the bottom. Thus every village will be a republic or a Panchayat having full powers. It follows, therefore, that every village has to be self-sustained and capable of managing its affairs even to the extent of defending itself against the whole world.’ He then goes on to say: ‘In this structure of innumerable villages, there will be ever widening, never ascending circles – the outermost circumference will not wield power to crush the inner circle but will give strength to all within and derive its own strength from it.’

The metaphor of oceanic circles is important because it articulates decentralization. A completely different meaning – power being simultaneously ceded outwards and drawn inwards, rather than being handed downwards in a hierarchical order. Gandhi had obviously prefigured the concept of self rule and shared sovereignty in a way that was so far ahead of its times that our Constitution makers could not really comprehend its true significance and pushed it into the margins. From what should have been the framework for the structure of Indian democracy, is it possible to hope that, in the process of elaborating proposals for self-rule, political leadership in Jammu and Kashmir can revive the Gandhian vision to suggest major alterations to the Constitution that are applicable not just to the state of J&K but to all states and sub-regions in India?

It is necessary here to touch briefly on the ‘Within the Constitutional framework’ cliché – constantly bandied around whenever the Kashmir issue surfaces, as though the Constitution is a millstone around our necks and prohibits any innovative changes from taking place in the Constitutional scheme. The Indian Constitution is meant to be an enabling and empowering framework and not a constraining one. It is dynamic. It is flexible. It allows for a great variety of forms of

sub-national governance, and it enables major institutional reforms. It is doubtful whether any substantial section of Kashmir political opinion wishes to question the fundamentals of secularism, of the overall scheme of Indian democracy, of Fundamental Rights and the Rule of Law. So let us not see the Constitution as a road block and let us accord the Kashmiri people the privilege of leading the exercise to recommend alterations in the Constitution for deepening federal democracy in the sub-continent.

A note of caution about the government-centricity of our political processes, particularly when such processes are designed and scripted by the executive arm of the government – both the political-executive, as well as the bureaucracy. Too often initiatives are trapped within the short-term opportunistic, political goals of the government in power and are reduced to meaningless, bureaucratic waffle and double-speak. The dialogue process, therefore, will have to be led by alternative institutions in which independent think tanks, civil society groups, non-state organizations play a much bigger role. In the joint Memorandum submitted by Mirwaiz/Yasin Malik for the All Party Delegation that visited Kashmir last year, it had suggested the creation of an empowered Kashmir Committee to enter into a process of engagement with the representatives of the people of Jammu and Kashmir. Is it possible to think of such a committee as a subset of a Federal Commission of which the Vice President as the Chairman of the Council of States be made the Chairperson?

It is time to rescue the Federalism debate from ‘practical’, ‘nitty­gritty’, ‘nuts and bolts’ issues within a statist framework and go back to its philosophical roots to rediscover its poetry. For too long the debate has been hijacked by political scientists, policy analysts, constitutional experts and ‘practitioners’ at the political and administrative levels who ensure that the debate continues to remain confined within its conventional categories. Kashmir is the land of the Sufi poets, musicians, mystics, philosophers and artists and a land of bewitching beauty. Is it too much to expect that the youth in Kashmir will now pick up the debate, take it out of the worn-out clichés in which it has been wrapped and imbue it with the beauty of their land and the elegance of its people? Who knows whether the next Gandhi is waiting to be discovered in this paradise?