Stemming the rot

MENDING INSTITUTIONS

After 63 years of independence we are more clearly looking at our leaders and institutions. Jawaharlal Nehru nurtured the institutions of democracy, the legislature (the political party at central and state levels, state leadership, respect for the legislature, etc); the executive (bureaucracy and administrative services, selection, promotions, tenure, etc), judiciary (selection, respect for their judgments, non-interference, etc); and the defence forces (appointments, training, civilian control, etc).

The (print) media in the early years was invariably polite and respectful of the political leadership. It was quick to reflect the views of government. Businessmen were kept at a distance because making money was not appreciated, though it was famously said that in the first parliament, G D Birla had financed a hundred members. Now, evidentally, the top businessmen and academics are increasingly part of the policy-making environment.

The Second Five Year Plan with its emphasis on government direction of all resources gave a dominant role to the public sector. In the absence of trained managers, many bureaucrats were appointed to top positions in the public enterprises. There were episodes of politicians using their powers to make money for themselves and others, but the opportunities were limited and amounts were small. The Mundhra case cost the then finance minister T T Krishnamachari his cabinet berth for a while. However, catching and punishing erring government officials was uncommon.

In Indira Gandhi’s time, government spending rose significantly on defence equipment and buying of aircraft for the national carrier, and in the public enterprises. There were many opportunities for ministers and officials to make illegal incomes. Intermediaries flourished, arranging deals between businessmen — both Indian and foreign — and the government.

Ostensibly, political parties had to collect money for fighting elections but individual politicians and bureaucrats also prospered. The earnings were spent on improving their living standards, invested in India or illegally sent abroad for investment. Government policies facilitated profitable investment of illegal earnings.

After the Emergency years, the media became more investigative and less shy of publishing its findings. Growing competition especially from the electronic media and the internet, led to greater exposures.  The ‘iron frame’ that we inherited from the British creaked as it aged but for long we thought that it was honest and dedicated to the country’s best interests.

Many top bureaucrats were respected household names.  We held the judiciary in awe and regarded them as above any reproach (except for some lethargy) and there were icons among them as well. We regarded the defence forces and their leaders as patriots who sacrificed for the nation.

Blind belief

Each service had its nationally recognised heroes. All of us believed whatever news we read in the media and the opinion columns of top editors, columnists and journalists had considerable influence on many. These institutions and their leaders have in recent years lost their lustre.

The rot festered during the Emergency and after. Politicians and bureaucrats were whispered as having made fortunes from their positions. There is no iconic figure left today either among politicians or administrators. Many at the top seem limited in ability or venal. No political party is free of the stain. New political leaders appear to be emerging, but are yet to assume iconic proportions.

The one politician who might fit the bill is Nitish Kumar, while Narendra Modi has demonstrated organisational skills and visionary administrative leadership. The Congress party from the time of Indira Gandhi has not encouraged the rise of leaders outside the family, except when Sonia Gandhi gave the prime ministership to Narasimha Rao and he marginalised her.

There is a consensus that the administrative services are primarily responsible for the poor implementation of government programmes, their inefficiency, poor targeting and large scale theft of public funds. The involvement of every institution that we expect to lead — political, administrative, military, judiciary, media, in many scandals, the naming of corrupt Chief Justices of India by a senior advocate, and the exposures of media and business tycoons in the leaked Radia tapes have damaged the faith in the country’s leadership.

We have reached a stage where we can not unquestioningly respect leaders in any sphere. If our democratic framework is to survive, we can no longer rely on past respect for institutions. We need systems and processes that ensure accountability.

The Central Vigilance Commission and other investigating agencies like the CBI should no longer be the exclusive preserve of a ruling party but must be free to investigate. Prosecution of ministers and bureaucrats should not require government approval but must be left to independent investigating agencies.

There must be a Media Commission with teeth to review content and practices (like the disgraceful practice of ‘paid news’). A National Judicial Commission must review appointments and investigate charges against sitting judges and purpose action. The Central Administrative Tribunal should be a more independent body and be responsible for transfers, tenures, promotions and prosecutions of administrators. Penalties must be severe and include confiscation of ill-gotten gains as well as long and rigorous imprisonment for wrongdoers. Automatic respect must be replaced by systems that enable it.

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