Governance is the act or function of governing. The term refers to the management of public affairs at all levels. A government's business is to rule or control a state with authority. That is what the Central and State Governments in India have totally failed to do in recent years. In this paper I shall briefly describe the present state of affairs and suggest some remedial measures.
The system of administration we inherited from the British had not been tailored to meet the requirements of a democratic polity according high priority to social and economic development. Yet, it possessed the two basic requirements of the bureaucracy of a parliamentary democracy - professional competence and political neutrality. That system served us well during the first twenty- five years. We tided over the perils and trauma of partition. The threat of administrative collapse was averted. The princely states numbering over 500 were integrated with the rest of the country.
Then followed a period of modest political, social and economic progress. We succeeded in growing enough food for a rising population. The Bangladesh crisis was handled with sagacity and competence. That democracy survived for half a century is in itself a major achievement. The significant failures include poor performance in the fields of education, health, poverty alleviation, land reforms, democratic decentralization and management of public enterprises. Despite these failures, on the whole, we did reasonably well during the first twenty-five years.
Thanks to the stalwarts who assumed charge of the Central and State Governments after independence and the healthy momentum generated in the early years, the country was governed reasonably well in the first two decades. When we embarked on planned economic development there was a phenomenal increase in the volume and range of governmental functions. We failed to reorient the bureaucracy and equip it to face the new challenges. Not only that, the sharp fall in the caliber of political leadership, first in some States and then all over the country, adversely affected the morale of the administration.
The decline started in Bihar in the Sixties and soon it spread to other States. The Congress in Bihar had been riven by factions. Yet the party secured an absolute majority in the 1957 general election. There was a contest for the election of the leader of the legislature party. Canvassing for the leadership contest degenerated into a vicious campaign in which all kinds of foul means including promise of office and bribery were resorted to. Though Srikrishna Sinha won the contest, irreparable damage was done to the political process. The politics of consensus and conciliation gave way to the politics of confrontation. From then on political office came to be looked upon not so much as legitimate reward for dedicated public service but as a prize to be grabbed by resorting to all manners of unhealthy practices.
Though Bihar had a headstart in the process of decline, soon the evil spread to other States. In the 1967 elections, the Congress was defeated in all the States of North India from Punjab to West Bengal. A motley crowd of opposition parties with nothing to bind them except the love of office came to power. Because of intense group rivalry the position in some States ruled by the Congress was not much better. All over the country, barring a few honorable exceptions, Chief Ministers became prisoners in the hands of rival political parties or factions.
The slightest hesitation on the part of a Chief Minister to accede to even patently unreasonable demands of a group leader would lead to the fall of the ministry. Inevitably, several small men preoccupied with the pursuit of narrow, selfish goals became ministers. The new breed of ministers had no permanent place in public life. Their tenure of office was uncertain and insecure. They were on the lookout for pliable bureaucrats who would help them in their nefarious games. They did not have to search far. There was no lack of unprincipled opportunists in the bureaucracy. Before long several civil servants aligned themselves with particular political groups or individual ministers and became active collaborators.
The practice of nominating Congress Chief Ministers that came into vogue in the Seventies did not lead to any improvement. For choice was made on the basis of the sole criterion of loyalty to the supreme leader, totally ignoring the important factors of ability, integrity and popular support.
The period of internal emergency (1975-77) witnessed further decline. The great institutions of our federal democratic polity were deliberately undermined, and some were emasculated. The important institutions under attack included Parliament and State legislatures, the Cabinet system of governance, the office of the Chief Minister, the federal balance, and the bureaucracy. The rule of law and constitutional proprieties were discarded. All checks and balances built into the Constitution crumbled. Accountability, which had always been weak in our system, came to an end. The snuffing out of inner-party democracy in the Indian National Congress facilitated these tragic developments.
A stunned nation helplessly watched the ruthless and arbitrary exercise of extra-constitutional executive power by a small coterie. An assortment of hatchet men, opportunists and sycophants gained access to the levers of power. There was interference in delegated powers all along the line, resulting in gross inefficiency and demoralization.
The permit-licence-quota raj that prevailed and the utter lack of transparency at all levels provided an excellent ambience to clever businessmen and power brokers. They made quick fortunes and shared the gains with friendly politicians and bureaucrats. The short interlude of the inept Janata rule did not change things. Though initially Rajiv Gandhi showed some awareness of the problem, soon he was forced to come to terms with the evil system. His successors in office did little to stem the rot. The steady decline and deterioration continued at an accelerated pace.
The present situation
Law and order has broken down in large parts of the country, particularly in the Gangetic plain and some metropolitan cities. In these areas, citizens do not enjoy security of life and property. Kidnapping for ransom has become rampant. Industrialists, businessmen and other affluent people live in constant threat of being blackmailed. The wretched of the earth who muster courage to make such modest demands like payment of minimum wages fixed by government, are subjected to numerous inequities and are often liquidated. In some regions, private armies organized on caste lines and manned by hoodlums, stalk the land. Communal, class and caste conflicts, often leading to rioting, arson and slaughter have become endemic. The magistracy and police have often been reduced to helpless spectators; occasionally they have added fuel to the fire by their partisan conduct.
The administration seldom functions smoothly and efficiently. In most government offices citizens cannot get anything done without greasing the palms of myriad functionaries or bringing to bear considerable influence on the officer concerned. Routine is neglected and the elementary functions of government are not discharged with a modicum of efficiency and honesty. The Indian administration has become dysfunctional.
Recent years have witnessed an exponential growth of the twin evils of corruption and criminalization. In the early years, corruption was confined to a few areas like civil supplies, excise, public works and the lower echelons of the Revenue and Police departments. By the late Sixties, corruption spread to more areas of administration, particularly large projects and grant of permits, licences and quotas. Some ministers and senior bureaucrats joined the ranks of the corrupt.
In the Seventies, defence purchases became an important avenue for large-scale corruption. Thereafter corruption became more widespread. Even routine activities like allotment of government quarters, transfers and postings of government servants, etc., afforded opportunities for garnering illegal gains. In Bihar a minor department like Animal Husbandry became the conduit for the siphoning off of a thousand crores from the treasury. During a raid, currency notes worth Rs.4 crores were recovered from the house of a Union Minister of State.
The root cause of corruption is the role of black money in politics. Elections have become extremely expensive and all political parties spend huge sums in every election.
The need to incur colossal expenditure during election is often put forward as a justification for making illegal collection. That is, of course, a lame excuse. Rampant corruption is not merely a moral issue. It has resulted in all-round inefficiency and brought the system into contempt and ridicule.
Criminalization of our public life is another ominous development. Close connection between the political bosses and the denizens of the underworld is not a new development. In the Sixties, this malady was largely confined to the metropolitan cities of Bombay and Calcutta. The political bosses involved could be counted on one's fingers and the criminals were only mercenaries. Since the mid-Seventies, the evil has become widespread and criminals have gained access to the levers of power. Some have entered the legislatures and a few have even become ministers. A firm nexus has been established between amoral politicians, ambitious bureaucrats, unscrupulous businessmen and hardened criminals.
An action program
Thoroughgoing political and electoral reforms are necessary to rid the Indian polity of the serious maladies that have crept in and pave the way for effective democratic governance. The bare outline of an action program is given below: The nexus between crime, corruption and politics should be broken by disqualifying candidates who have been convicted or indicted of serious crimes. Candidates who had been found guilty of the abuse of power by commissions of enquiry should also be debarred.
Special tribunals should be set up in every State to hear public complaints against corrupt and criminal elements seeking election to Parliament or State legislatures. The tribunals should be vested with summary powers. The excellent maxims of criminal law that everyone should be presumed innocent until proved guilty and let a hundred criminals go scot free rather than one innocent person be punished, have no relevance in these cases. Being denied an opportunity to stand for election on the basis of a prima facie case and strong suspicion is not comparable to being hanged or sentenced to imprisonment.
The limits of election expenses should be fixed at reasonable levels and elections should be financed by the State.
Political parties should be required by law to practice inner-party democracy. There should be a provision for periodic elections for choosing office-bearers at all levels, strict maintenance of accounts, audit of accounts annually and all contributions above Rs. 1,000 to be by cheque.
The present practice of centralized distribution of party tickets should be replaced by the nomination of candidates by the enrolled members of the party in the constituency.
Introduce transparency and accountability in the functioning of the Central and State Governments by enacting a law guaranteeing the people right to information and amending the Official Secrets Act. Some States have already made a beginning.
Create the institution of Lok Pal with its own investigation agency to deal with allegations against the functionaries of the Central Government including the Prime Minister.
A new office of Director General of Public Prosecutions should be created and an eminent person of unimpeachable integrity qualified to be a judge of the Supreme Court should be appointed to that post. The CBI should function under the Director General of Public Prosecutions.
Without drastic decentralization and substantial delegation of powers a large country of great diversity like India cannot hope to achieve effective governance. Decentralization is also necessary for preserving our rich diversity and fulfilling regional aspirations. Only by pursuing such a policy can we hope to safeguard national unity. Therefore, the trend towards centralization observed during the past decades should be reversed by implementing the recommendations of the Sarkaria Commission. It is also necessary to go beyond the commission's recommendations and transfer more powers to the States.
The 73rd and 74th Amendments of the Constitution should be scrupulously enforced paving the way for effective democratic decentralization.
It is also necessary to downsize the Central and State Governments. Privatization should be accelerated and government should shed a number of functions it has been performing. Briefly put, the government should give up functions that other bodies can perform and concentrate on what only the government can do. The government's important functions should include the maintenance of law and order, enforcement of laws and regulations, collection of taxes, school education, public health, medical aid for the poor, social welfare and provision of infrastructure.
Following a sensible personnel policy should restore the morale of the bureaucracy. Preferment should be based on merit and not pliability. Transfers and postings on the basis of lobbying and bribery, which is a disgrace to any civilized democracy, should come to an end. The government should lay down guidelines and it should be left to committees of senior officers to effect postings and transfers.
Today, our polity is in a mess. It will not be possible to stem the rot merely by introducing administrative reforms, modernizing the administration and providing for the wider use of Information Technology. The need of the hour is thoroughgoing political and electoral reforms. There is no reason to expect, or even hope, that the present Parliament will initiate necessary action. One may, however, hope that the steps already taken to grant the right to information and provide for democratic decentralization will eventually generate the necessary popular pressure in favor of reforms.
PS Appu is a Former Chief Secretary to The Government of Bihar. The above article originally appeared in The Hindu on December 26, 2000.