Daring to Charge at The System
‘You're telling me,’ I asked,
‘that winking at corruption is government policy?’
‘Oh no Minister!
That would be unthinkable.
It could never be government policy.
Only government practice.’ – Yes Minister
Don Quixote, in Cervantes’ novel was a middle-aged gentleman from La Mancha region in central Spain. Obsessed with the chivalrous ideals touted in books he had read, he decided to take up his lance and sword to defend the helpless and destroy the wicked. After a first failed adventure, he set out on a second one with a befuddled laborer named Sancho Panza, whom he has persuaded to accompany him as his faithful squire. In return for Sancho’s services, Don Quixote promised to make Sancho the wealthy governor of an isle. On his horse, Rocinante, well past his prime, Don Quixote rides the roads of Spain in search of glory and grand adventure.
Although farcical on the surface, the novel, especially in its second half, is more serious and philosophical about the theme of what psychologists would call self-deception. No wonder Quixote has, since its publication, served as an important thematic source of wild imaginings and outrageous practical jokes.
The character of Don Quixote became so well known in its time that the word quixotic was quickly adopted by many languages and also, the phrase “ tilting at windmills” to describe an act of attacking imaginary enemies.
Our Don Quixote
I recapitulated the above because of Rahul Gandhi’s repeated references to the system in his much-discussed ninety-minute TV interview with Arnab Goswami – the windmill of his imagination that he proposes to overwhelm. Of course like his role model Don Quixote, he hardly comprehends what this hydra-headed monster is.
In all fairness, it must be admitted that the oft-referred system is not entirely the creation of the Congress Party and the ruling dynasty. It is the British who meticulously devised it with a view to ruling over India.
However, nothing brings out more tellingly Nehru’s failure to shift gear of Indian polity from the colonial to independence mode after 1947, than the way he most unreservedly embraced the colonial bureaucracy (and is ways of ruling over natives) that the British rulers had devised to over-lord and exploit the country. Also, during his Prime Ministership, something more insidious happened. The very worst of our medieval past – the high-handed exercise of authority and utter lack of accountability – coalesced into the existing colonial administrative system bequeathed by the Raj.
Nehru was – like the common man in Laxman’s cartoons – a helpless spectator of these sordid goings-on. The result is the legacy of a hopelessly outdated system of governance persisting sixty-five years after Independence that we are witnesses to.
Ironically enough, during the heyday of independence movement, Nehru was a perceptive critic of the British administrative system. He was clear-eyed enough to see how obsolete it was to serve the needs of an independent India. In his Autobiography he had noted: “... one thing I’m quite sure, that no new order can be built up in India as long as the spirit of the ICS pervades our administrative and our public services”.
The ICS, the older generation will recall, was neither Indian nor civil nor service. The clichéd charge wasn’t without reasons. About half of the ICS class consisted of Englishmen. They were taught to be highhandedly aloof from those whom they were expected to rule over. They were never responsive to the needs of those whose destinies they presided over. Nehru was sure in his mind that after India becomes independent “the ICS and similar services must disappear completely, as such, before we can start real work on a new order”. And when Nehru took over as Vice Chairman of the Viceroy’s Executive Council – his very first stint at public administration – he was appalled at the ways the bureaucracy worked, how Government functionaries delayed decisions and, above all, how there was unconscionable delay in their implementation.
Why didn’t he have the courage to dismantle the administrative system that he was so deeply dissatisfied with? Perhaps there was the sobering influence of Patel immediately after Independence. Patel realized the importance of civil service to hold the country together in the midst of the administrative chaos created by the partition of India. And this work, as Home Minister of free India, he performed with remarkable efficiency. Personally, he established an excellent equation with the ICS officers who carried out his policies with remarkable speed and efficiency. It was Patel who built the steel frame of India i.e., the nucleus of the Indian version of the ICS and IP by creating new cadres of Indian Administrative Service and the Indian Police Service.
However, it is the Government of the day that fashions the system within which the civil service operates and carries out its policies. Left to themselves, the civil servants will love to act as mini-monarchs. It is for the political leadership to provide the necessary orientation to the system. Nehru might have had reservations about Patel’s perceptions of the need of administrative machinery inherited from the British. But after Patel’s death in December 1950, Nehru had a free hand to put in place a new system for a new social order if he so wanted and deeply believed in. Instead, he settled down to accept the system as it was.
Vain Bid to Reform
In July 1947 i.e., just before independence, as Head of the interim government, Nehru set up the Secretariat Reorganization Committee. This was followed, as is inevitable in the world of bureaucracy, by several more committees. (If the first committee makes some recommendations, another committee must examine them and then yet another to re-examine till the situation changes to warrant the appointment of another committee to look at the problem afresh. The process goes on ad infinitum. That’s how bureaucrats establish their indispensability. If you don’t agree, read once again the print edition of Yes, Minister.)
Nehru did something very unusual. He invited – of all the people in the world – Paul Appleby, an American expert in public administration to advise the Government of India how to tone up its administrative structure and its functioning. (Appleby was perhaps the only American V.K. Krishna Menon didn’t quarrel with.) A report was prepared and circulated and then forgotten about as happens to all such reports.
Why did Nehru allow the bureaucracy of the day to defeat the Prime Minister’s plan at reorganization? Explanations are aplenty. The real reason, however, was Nehru’s proverbial lack of will. He thought a rhetorical outburst was good enough. Hard-headed action that’s bound to hurt some people was something alien to Nehru’s nature.
Another great achievement of the bureaucratic system was to clone itself in the running of our public sector. As one PSU after another came into being in the 1950s and 1960s, the style of their functioning, it was assured, conformed strictly to bureaucratic procedures. The file culture was the first plant of the know-all civil servants who were deputed to run PSUs. No wonder most PSUs don’t operate at more than one-quarter of their potential.
Most of the laws governing the functioning of our administrative system are hopelessly outdated. The Indian Penal Code was enacted in 1860 when criminals shuddered before committing a crime unlike today when criminals are in most cases certain that their political patrons would ensure that they are out of harm’s way. The Criminal Procedure Code which regulates the administration of criminal law is over a century old. (It was adopted in 1898). How anachronistic has it become in our day, needn’t even be commented upon. (Perhaps, the rules still stipulate that the constable sent to the scene of crime is entitled to ‘tanga allowance’ and he must reach there by the shortest route.)
It’s most baffling what prevented Nehru to have a thorough overhaul of a hopelessly outdated system after 1947, and have it replaced by another attuned to the development needs of the society he was keen to bring into being. His initial zeal to reform and the impatience with the established system exhausted themselves in due course. He settled down – and with him, the country – with hoary customs and weary habits. Nehru did in his later years cavil at “procedures inherited by us from the past”, but didn’t think it was his or his Government’s responsibility to change them to suit a different age and time.
While lamenting this dismal failure of Nehru, we mustn’t overlook the fact the model of bureaucracy developed as per Max Weber’s prescriptions is indeed suited to orders where prominent social needs are stability, efficiency and, above all, continuity. What we needed in, and after, 1947 was the creation of a new order which, among other things, was required to discard most (if not all) of the accumulated baggage of the past. And when called upon to do so, we needed transformational leadership which knows where it stands, where it wants to reach and which route it must take to get there. These leadership traits weren’t Nehru’s; nor of his dear daughter and his grandson, nor that of his dear granddaughter-in law. All of them were content to speak about a problem but didn’t have the nerve to see it through. Indeed, we needed stability immediately after the 1947 upheaval. Simultaneously, we needed change – almost immediately after things settled down and most certainly after 1951.
Lack of Grit
Management of change is, today, a well-studied area of administrative practice – as much at the corporate level as at the Government level. The tragedy of Nehru was that while his perceptions were sound, he failed to select suitable administrators to execute his plans and, above all, he lacked the will to persist till his plans were carried through. He did show impatience with the system but, regrettably, settled down in the role of a keeper of the past while he prided himself being thought a dreamer of the future. History will judge him as the betrayer of a cause that he had committed himself to by presiding over the system which he detested and which he knew couldn’t deliver. Bureaucracy, on its part, had reasons to be very happy with him. As Bertrand Russell said three quarters of a century ago, “The only alteration they (the bureaucrats) are likely to desire in the status quo is an increase of bureaucracy and the power of the bureaucrats”.
This system – however harmful its long-term effect on the organization – suits the incumbents remarkably well. It absolves them almost completely of any accountability other than maintenance of status quo. So, over the years and decades we have travelled up and down from, and back to square one and will perhaps always remain struck there. Nehru saw it happen in his regime and after making inconsequential noises about it, reconciled to it with unabashed nonchalance. There it is to stay, perhaps, forever. But, at whose cost!
Was the British economist Friedrich von Hayek speaking in Road to Serfdom for you and me who have to suffer the humiliating tyrannies of the system day after day, when he wrote,
The power which a multiple millionaire, who may be my neighbor and perhaps my employer, has over me is much less than that which the smallest functionary who wields the coercive power of the state and on whose discretion it depends whether and how I am to be allowed to live or to work.
We are reminded of the mighty “coercive power” of these demigods day in and day out when we apply for an electric connection or a completion certificate of a house newly built. Instead of taking steps towards a drastic revision of the system in order to give it a new orientation, and a culture of adaption to ever-changing realities, Nehru perpetuated an exploitative civil service. And his successors adjusted to it with remarkable alacrity.
Some attributes of the System
Let’s have a hard look at the system as it obtains today – at least the some of those visible curves and contours of the monstrous entity that refuses to be tamed.
Its legislative wing consists of two chambers. The lower house – called the Lok Sabha – makes news if and when it works for a day though its hon’ble members – you wonder at times what is honorable about them – draw handsome salaries and hefty perks for creating mayhem in Parliament if and when it’s in session. Its upper chamber – Rajya Sabha – has metamorphosed itself into an exclusive club of crorepatis. Its renewable seats for six years are auctioned every two years.
And this vital part of the system is buttressed by the People’s Representation Act which allows a hardened criminal serving his term in jail to contest the election – with the help of both money and muscle power – and get elected to be the representative of the people. Is there a country in the world where his blundering anomaly can exist?
Indeed Nehru bequeathed a soft state where the law-enforcers sit and watch laws being flouted with immunity while the State doesn’t show the will and determination to enforce laws enacted by it. The way laws in India are flouted with utter impunity is most heart-rending. The way citizens dare to flout laws as we do in India will make a perceptive observer feel other democratic societies as specimens of totalitarian regimes!
Our judiciary is steeped in corruption except – thank the Good Lord for his small mercies – the highest echelons whose working is the only ray of hope in the dark, dismal surrounding.
The executive headed by a dummy Prime Minister for the last ten years will go down as one of the world’s most scandal-ridden bodies quite a few of whose members spent time in jails and have serious criminal cases against them.
We have a brutalized police force whose motto isn’t to serve and protect (as in other democracies) but strike terror and extort which our erstwhile rulers initiated them into.
The very concept of social contract seems to be been seriously eroded. Our society imbibed first the very worst of socialist experiment and now of its substitute, namely, the market mechanism. Over the years the rich are becoming richer and the poor are getting poorer. While our metropolises wear the look of vulgar opulence poverty stalks the land after wasted sixty-five years after independence.
We have a self-absolving, cussedly indifferent bureaucracy ever-ready to dance to the tune of its political masters.
The economic and social environment contributed to bring about utter erosion of the work ethic among those whom the system sustained to remain entrenched in privileged positions.
Every system has its stake holders who try their best to sustain it since they have vested interest in its existence. On which of the above fronts will Rahul Gandhi charge to initiate the process of change?
Rahul Gandhi’s father tried his hand at dislodging the stake-holders of the system that he too grumbled about. The system quickly sucked him in. He managed to run up against the vested interests of bureaucrats, big business and politicians from his own Congress Party. Rajiv had much more trouble dealing with the vested interests in his own Congress Party than his political opponents. And that, you’ll recall, was a motley crew of yes men and hangers-on who rode to power on the coattails of his mother, Indira Gandhi, and were responsible for much of the corruption and ineptitude in the party. A very similar – in fact, much worse – legacy awaits Rahul Gandhi should the latest avatar of Quixote get a chance to try his hand to charge the mighty windmill of the system.
Where Narendra Modi scores over all his political rivals is to demonstrate how through selfless, dedicated leadership and vision it is possible to achieve some measure of success within the system and thereby show its positive cohesive attributes that hold things together.