Continued from A Misstep, Prime Minister
Have you ever wondered, in your reflective moments, what explains the political survival of our seemingly fractured polity? The answer is the centripetal forces of the Constitution — that invaluable legacy of the Founding Fathers of the Republic. These uphold a network of interlocking institutions that hold the system together. Come to think of it, we as a polity have survived the crises we faced primarily because of the functioning of two major institutions, namely, the Supreme Court and the Election Commission.
As it is, we, as a society, are notoriously bad at institution building and hence, at nurturing institutions that are still around. One of the most grievous of the afflictions of our polity — and entirely self-inflicted at that — is how, over the years, we debased our institutions.
It was Vivekananda who for the first time highlighted the lack of our national inattention to organization-building. In fact, this has been a fatal weakness of Hindu civilization. It was for some time rectified by Buddhism, which understood the importance of creating the organization of Sangha for social cohesion. How an organized Church was, for instance, a great source of strength for Christendom. Ecclesiastical organizations were created to achieve goals transcending individual or group interests by addressing collective effort yoked to a tangible vision through dedicated leadership and strategy, backed by unflagging morale. These played a key role in socio-economic transformation as much as in administration of other existing institutions throughout the Christian world.
In our long, chequered history we paid a formidable price for our failure to build and nurture institutions and the traits that sustain them. It wasn’t after all just the superior cannon power that helped the British to build their empire in India. More importantly, organizational skills, morale and, above all, strategy carried the day. And this happened not once but repeatedly in our history. The better-led Bengal Army was — let’s not forget — the sword arm of the British power in India. The defeat of the Sikh forces in the Sikh Wars was entirely on account of poor leadership. In Srirangapatnam, for instance, it was the superior organizational skills of the British in terms of strategy that led to Tipu’s defeat in 1799. Cussed indifference to organization-building has been the Achilles’ heel of Indian rulers.
Three Vital Institutions
Their real intentions notwithstanding, the British played a very significant role in creating three vitally important organizations during their two-hundred-year rule in India. These were: the Indian Army to defend the country and maintain its territorial integrity; a permanent civil service to run the country's administration; and a judicial system to enforce the rule of law. What have we done, we may ask, to deploy, preserve and further consolidate these institutions, since Independence?
Regrettably, our record doesn't cover us with glory. Take, the Indian Army, or rather Indian armed forces. Almost everything possible has been done to lower the morale of the services by most uncalled-for political interference in matters of postings and promotions — matters that should be entirely left to the painstakingly crafted policy-frame that vitally affects morale. Each political intervention in these matters erodes the credibility of the system on which rests the foundation of morale — that all-too-important attribute of the armed forces. Repeated intrusions in the working of the system by the likes of V K Krishna Menon undermined the sound foundations on which the system had been built and repeated tinkering with it, has only tended to damage it irreparably.
The harm done to the administrative services has been worse. Over the years, the Congress Party took every possible step to politicize the bureaucracy to achieve short-term political ends. This led to the administrative services ceasing to be the instruments of policy implementation and becoming, instead, pawns on the political chessboard. The slow-moving judicial system was, simultaneously, allowed to atrophy.
However regrettable the above developments at the macro level; the degradation in our society of the institutional infrastructure at the micro level is heartrending indeed. Each organization is created to serve certain stakeholders some of whom are internal (like its employees and shareholders) while others (its customers, for instance) are external. The latter, of course, are far more important because an organization's future depends on serving them effectively. Most of the organizations created for the specific purpose of serving the society — our municipal bodies or the PSUs for instance — have, over the years, become instruments of serving only the interests of their internal stakeholders. For our trade unions the interests of the workers are far more important than the long-term future of the organization or the satisfaction of their customers. Similarly, our municipal bodies seem to be concerned only with the jobs and prospects of their employees rather than providing the services for which they were created. What we have done in our society to belittle the raison d'etre of institutions is unparalleled in the history of organizational theory and practice.
In the Western society which excels in organization-building; diagnostic tools have been devised to ensure timely intervention to give an organization a new lease of life before the stage of inevitable decline sets in. By caring exclusively for their internal stakeholders we’ve managed to ensure that the stage of organizational atrophy sets in prematurely and organizations assume comatose status during the growth stage itself.
Consequently, we are saddled with a notoriously unresponsive multi-layered bureaucracy whose concerns scarcely go beyond the three p's that matter the most to it, namely, pay, perks and promotion.
Perhaps the best example of debasing institutions is what happened to the Congress Party in the last sixty-five years. What was once the sword-arm of a mighty nationalist movement has been reduced to the pitiable status of a family fief? The basic reason for this was the Nehru-Gandhi family’s inglorious bid to perpetuate the feudal tradition of dynastic rule. And politicians all over the country picked up the cue with alacrity. Literally, from Kashmir to Kanyakumari all those who mattered in public life spared no effort to ensure continuity of family rule in their respective fiefdoms. Let's begin with Jammu and Kashmir. Sheikh Abdullah (who died a disappointed man, unable to have him anointed as the ruler of the Sheikhdom of Kashmir) passed the well-worn mantle to his successor, Farooq, who, in turn, lost no time to draft his son. Let Allah's benign mercies be with the Abdullah lineage. Next door, Himachal Pradesh didn't lag behind. Virbhadra Singh drafted Rani Sahiba as well to serve the people. How could, then, Prakash Singh Badal lag behind? His son jumped in the political fray to be groomed as the next torch-bearer.
In the South, film industry is the nursery of politics. The route to political stardom via silver screen was discovered by M G Ramachandran. His political protégés, including the leading lady of his films, Jayalalitha continued to follow the trail. K Karunanidhi who didn't face the arc-lights, had to be content with script writing. But in good time he made the grade. The Karunanidhi lineage will be carried forward by Stalin (Don't mistake him for his moustached Caucasian counterpart who ruled the USSR with an iron fist). He is the anointed heir to the DMK throne. NT Rama Rao provided Andhra Pradesh its own political dynasty, Telugu Desam. However, the dynastic right to rule was hijacked there — in the true medieval Muslim tradition — by a son-in-law, leaving the legitimate heir and the poor widow bereft of their hereditary right to rule.
No wonder, the only tool of management we have evolved over the years is what goes under the name jugar — a term as untranslatable in a precise manner as dharma (that we supposedly live by). Every time we confront a problem in managing things, there is a frantic search for jugar. All it boils down to is: find a quick-fix and then forget about the problem till it resurfaces when we shall think of another makeshift solution. Though there are, today, over 600 management schools in India, churning out thousands of MBAs every year who are supposed to bring to bear upon the management of our economy new skills for better results. And yet we don’t seem to be managing our industrial undertakings or our social services or public utilities in any way better than before. After over six and an half decades of Independence the most pre-eminent management characteristic is the fear of, obedience to, and dependence upon those who occupy positions of power. Meanwhile, there is elsewhere in the world a sea change in perceptions that managers deploy to tackle the tasks they are supposed to address themselves to. As Walter Wristen puts it in his seminal study The Twilight of Sovereignty: “Indeed, the new source of wealth is not material, it is information; knowledge applied to work to create value”. Attention now has shifted to intellectual capital which covers not only human brainpower but also brand names and trademarks. Meagre indeed is our intellectual capital to withstand the onslaught of foreign competition which is bound to overwhelm us in the years to come (We have it on Philip Kotler’s authority that the only indigenous brand name India has created in half a century, is Titan).
Institutional Decay in Armed Forces
Let’s have a look at the goings-on in our armed forces from the above perspective. To begin with, our politicians have, over the years, spared no effort to tinker with the time-tested command structure of our armed forces through repeated interferences that dented their morale. India is the only democratic polity in the world where defense forces are not a part of the defense-related national policy-making. (We have, similarly, a thoroughly dehumanized police force which has its fingers in almost all the pies baked in the world of crime. We have a judiciary whose rusted wheels move slower than the proverbial snail's pace.)
I’m indeed grateful to the readers of the last piece who took the trouble in response to my request to correct and update the list of Defense Ministers since Independence. May I deal with the list with some inferences drawn therefrom in the next essay?