Hamam Mein Sab Nange Hain!

“Judge not, that ye be not judged.
2 For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. 3 And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?” (Matthew 7:1-3, The Bible, King James Version)

“Something is rotten in the State of Denmark”
(Hamlet, Prince of Denmark: William Shakespeare)

It was extremely depressing to read the 60 page note purportedly penned by Kalikho Pul, former Chief Minister of Arunachal Pradesh, before he committed suicide in August 2016. The note, which virtually amounts to a dying declaration under Section 32(11) of the Indian Evidence Act (though there may be some legal quibbles about this) is a searing indictment of the Indian system of governance and leaves no institution with even a fig leaf of credibility. This is not the place to go into the details of the note and one hopes that there will be at least some anguished introspection about the incident which saw a new, rather ignominious first for the Indian republic: a public representative taking his life out of despair at the prevailing state of affairs.

Recent years have been ones of deep disenchantment for the people of India. Illusions about politicians died many years ago: most of them are seen as representative of the corrupt, venal strain of society. The socialist economy of the 1960s and 1970s established political corruption as part of the “command” economy, a legacy of the Nehruvian era. Political life has continued to touch newer and newer lows over time, as criminals realised that they could be direct participants rather than sponsors of the political drama-farce. 1991 was only a minor hiccup for the politician; by 1994, it was business as usual again. In any case, state governments continued to blithely operate by their own rules, with the new breed of politicians unconcerned about probity in public life.

The less said about my own tribe, the bureaucracy, the better. Till the mid-1970s, the uppermost echelons, the IAS, IPS and the Central Services had relatively few black sheep in their midst. Over the 1980s, shamelessness started to pervade even the elite services. The middle and lower bureaucracy in the states were infected with the twin evils of corruption and politicisation to an extent where, returning to field level administration in 2000 in the same area I had served in ten years earlier, I could hardly believe the extent to which the rot had set in. Things have only worsened in the new millennium and the ugly politician-bureaucrat nexus is now caught in a fatal embrace (fatal for democracy, that is).

Faith in the judiciary was the one reassurance one sought in an increasingly darkening scenario. Unfortunately, the judiciary never used whatever independence it had to set its own house in order. The backlog of cases piled up at a dizzying rate; measures that might have made a difference, like written arguments (in appeals), summary disposal procedures and specified, limited recourse to legal remedies were never pursued. Lawyers who, as officers of the courts, are expected to assist in the speedy provision of justice have often resorted to tactics aimed at deflecting rather than
delivering justice, with judges remaining silent spectators. We now have an unseemly
conflict between the highest levels of the judiciary and the executive on the manner of
selection of judges to the upper echelons of the judicial system. That India has a woeful
per capita judicial officer quota is beyond doubt. But neither have serious efforts been
made by the government to rectify it nor has the judiciary tried to at least make the best
of a bad situation and enforce accountability in performance and propriety.

The press started to crawl in 1975, when shown the whip by the government of
the day. Print media at district levels had always had its share of doubtful characters,
who lived off the largesse of government advertisements and downright blackmail. But
the print media at national and state capitals was still peopled by stellar characters. The
downward slide started with the domination of electronic media and the larger than life
image of well-known media personalities. Given the incestuous ties of journalists with
North-South Block and Dalal Street, it was only a matter of time before something like
the Radia tapes exposed the seamy side of journalistic wheeling dealing. Today, it has
become common to associate any media group with a specific political party or
business house (in terms of ownership and/or ideological slant).

The biggest casualty in the morality stakes has been civil society. Corruption was
endemic in Indian society, but, till the 1970s, at least attracted some opprobrium. It has
now gained respectability; the honest officer faces the ire of her superiors, peers and
even family members. Systemic reforms face hurdles at every level, with the Indian
propensity for jugaad at its inventive best when devising methods for circumventing the
law. Post demonetization, a fair amount of government energy has been expended on plugging loopholes in implementation.

Poor Mr. Pul was trying to draw attention to these national drawbacks in his
impassioned letter. The meaninglessness of his heartrending wail lies in our hardened
attitudes to lawbreaking and looting public money. As a nation, we have also developed
the habit of blaming every institution except that one of which we are a member. The politician seeks alibis in the intransigence of the judiciary, the non-performance  of the bureaucracy and the hostility of the media.
The bureaucracy, when it is not cosying up
to the politician, either blames the political executive/judiciary or outdated procedures and rules. The media relishes hauling the executive over  the
coals without seeking to understand the complexities of policy  making
and implementation. And, of course, the judiciary has extended its reach
to virtually telling governments and other agencies how to run their
businesses. No one seeks to set their own house in order. How many
Ministers at Central or State level have foregone their discretionary powers in
dispensing patronage or finalising contracts? None, barring the Union Railway Minister.
How many officers have resisted the temptation to bend rules in their last years in service to secure post-retirement appointments?  Probably a handful. How many journalists do not seek their mess of pottage in terms of house allotments
and foreign junkets? The fingers of one hand may suffice for this. Members of the
judiciary are yet to raise the bar of accountability to deliver speedy justice,
enforce norms of integrity in their ranks and restore waning public faith in the
effectiveness of the judiciary. And the general public has let institutions  of
governance get away with sub-optimal service delivery levels,  adopting the
prevailing motto of “each man for himself and the devil take the hindmost.”

In his book on the Mahabharata, the author Gurcharan Das had talked about the
impossibility of being good. Our human failings make it impossible for us to stay on the straight and narrow path during the course of our tumultuous lives;
even Yudhisthira had to utter a falsehood to get rid of Dronacharya.  And yet,
the beauty of human existence lies in our attempts to surmount our weaknesses
and struggle to attain the noblest expressions of our humanity. Else, we will all be like the citizens of Mohenjo Daro in their open air baths , our nakedness visible for  the entire world to see.

 

The Governor – His Master’s Voice?

The ongoing political drama in Tamil Nadu once again focuses the spotlight on the role of the Governor of a state. The Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu sent in his resignation letter to the Governor on the first Sunday of February, 2017. The Governor, who was holding additional charge of the state of Tamil Nadu, was, on that day, ensconced in the salubrious climes of Tamil Nadu’s premier hill station, Ooty. What he did subsequently defies comprehension. Instead of moving immediately to Chennai to ascertain who in the ruling party enjoyed the confidence of its legislators, he chose to decamp from the state, apparently reaching Mumbai via Delhi a day later. Meanwhile, the outgoing Chief Minister, after communing with the spirit of his mentor, decided that he would rather continue as Chief Minister. The subsequent Mahabharata saw the s**t hit the ceiling, with the current Chief Minister and his likely successor, a long-time confidant of the deceased Chief Minister, trading ugly charges of conspiracy that would have done credit to a William Shakespeare play.

More to the point, what ought to concern us is not the Tamil Nadu drama, which has all the makings of a successful Tamil movie, but the way in which, once again, the institution of the Governor has taken a beating. Governors have come (and gone) in all shapes, sizes and political hues, contributing more than their share of controversy to the wonder that is India. We have seen Governors pressurising administrations of Universities to alter marks of politically influential students, indulging in unbecoming behaviour in Raj Bhavans and, recently, leaving after allegations of sexual harassment. More par for the course have been the efforts of Governors to interfere with the constitutional process for government formation in the states (especially opposition ruled ones), generally at the behest of the political masters who appointed them. Arunachal Pradesh is still fresh in our memory, with the death of one Chief Minister and the overthrow of another following gubernatorial actions; ditto for Uttarakhand, where it needed the Supreme Court to reestablish constitutional norms. Any government coming to power in Delhi exercises its divine right to sack existing incumbents and appoint its chosen favourites as Governors. Out of work or inconvenient politicians are generally the first choices, though the list often extends to bureaucrats, police officers and army officers who have established good equations with the ruling dispensation. There being nothing like a free lunch, especially in statecraft, favours have to be returned by the appointees, mostly through political meddling and (in case of opposition ruled states) making life difficult for the government of the day. Rare, or nonexistent, would be the Governor who takes any decision of consequence without the prior nod of the political bosses in Delhi. A more recent bad habit of the central government has been its propensity to not appoint a full-time Governor for a state but to give additional charge to another Governor. A major state like Tamil Nadu, which has had more than its share of
political turmoil and natural calamities in recent months, has been among the victims of
this cavalier approach of the Delhi Sultanate.

It would, of course, be unfair to tar all Governors with the same brush. There
have been outstanding personalities like Surjit Singh Barnala and Gopalkrishna Gandhi,
who have not only displayed qualities of independence from the Delhi Darbar but have
also rendered sage counsel to their state governments. In my own karmabhumi of
Maharashtra, I remember the quiet dignity of C. Subramaniam, the political father of
India’s green revolution and the dedication of P. C. Alexander to removing the
developmental backlog of the Vidarbha, Marathwada and Konkan regions of the state.
Despite being close to both Indira and Rajiv Gandhi and being appointed Governor by a
Congress government in 1993, Dr. Alexander enjoyed a close rapport with the Shiv
Sena-BJP government in Maharashtra and, paradoxically, was supported by these
parties for elevation to the post of President of India, though not by the Congress Party,
proving that a Governor can endear himself to all shades of political opinion through a
professional, nonpartisan approach.

However, since such Governors are the exception rather than the rule, there is
need, in a situation where, increasingly, the centre and states are ruled by parties with
different ideologies and political beliefs, for the Governors of states to be selected by an
independent process. I suggest that Governors should be selected by a collegium
comprising the Vice President of India, the Prime Minister, the Chief Justice of the
Supreme Court, the Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha and the Chief Minister of
the concerned state. This would ensure that a totally incompetent political apparatchik is
not foisted on an unwilling state government. It also gives scope for a reasoned choice
where a state faces major challenges like insurgency, political instability or law and
order breakdown.

Nonpartisan choices of competent public figures for the post of Governor are the
need of the hour in a scenario where the professional politician in power in the states is
increasingly pandering to the urges of the lowest common multiple in the electorate and
is concerned only with hanging on to power at all costs, consequences be damned.
More disturbingly, political flunkies who, as Governors, act neither as per convention nor
in accordance with the Constitution damage the credibility of the democratic process. A
misstep in a state like Tamil Nadu with a history of strong local sentiment could well
have consequences that endanger the federal consensus that is the bulwark of a
republican democracy. The sooner the political elite of Lutyens’ Delhi realise this, the
better it will be for the health of the Indian polity.