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Thursday, July 4, 2013

CBI- an instrument of coercion.

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

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

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

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

Is this then a ‘caged parrot’?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 30, 2013

English and the Civil Services

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Military Corruption Complex

The  Military Corruption Complex

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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