Good in Parts

The PM’s talking secretaries should not imply bypassing ministers and making the PMO the focus of decision-making.

The new government has set a scorching pace for systemic reform in a bid to streamline the administration. This is as it should be to ensure better governance through the avoidance of delays, weeding out out-dated legislation and rules, reducing fragmentation of responsibility with its resultant turf battles, passing the buck to avoid accountability for decisions and so forth. Few realise that delay often implies denial and that there is a huge opportunity cost of delay. India has no time to waste, even as Nehru reminded us in 1947 that aaram haram hai(idleness is sin).

The PM met all secretaries to the government and told them he expected them to take and hasten decisions and promised them direct access if they had problems trouble-shooting. This should not however imply by-passing ministers and making the PMO the focus of decision-making. Collective cabinet responsibility too must remain inviolate to ensure parliamentary accountability. However, too many decisions are pushed up – and sideways to the party in power – in order to hedge responsibility and insure against wild and indiscriminate charges made years later, even post-retirement, to hound honest officials.

The Supreme Court’s decision to set aside the so-called single directive to the CBI to seek permission to investigate/prosecute officers of the rank of joint secretary and above is timely, but has aroused undue fear among officials that this will open the door to witch-hunting. Rather than going back on this salutary decision, the remedy lies in awarding prompt and condign punishment for frivolous complainants. The secretaries have also been told to ensure clean office spaces and corridors, send old files to designated depositories (to end the nuisance of “searching for files” for an eternity), abbreviate and simplify forms, and recommend the repeal of archaic rules and Acts.

The Rajasthan government has taken a bold step in announcing amendments to three national labour laws that have come in the way of new and expanding employment in order to preserve a limited number of traditional jobs by barring efficiency norms, innovation and so forth. Meanwhile, the government is reportedly looking to fill up to eight Raj Bhavans with new incumbents, many of them party faithfuls or retired officials. While this is understandable, Raj Bhavans have a role to play in good governance by offering objective advice. Men and women drawn from the field of professionals, academics, public life and the arts can be inspirational and should not be crowded out.

It is altogether another matter, however, when individual freedoms are sought to be curbed, sometimes violently, by ideological vigilantes, busybodies and crackpots on grounds of “hurt sentiment”. Books have been blacklisted and targeted in recent months, resulting in their “withdrawal” by publishers. This is sheer criminal blackmail. The answer to criticism of a certain point of view, whether literary, artistic or philosophical, is to present a reasoned critique, another book perhaps, rather than drown a dissenting voice in majoritarian clamour. 

Hate crime

Last week, in Pune, a young Muslim IT professional was beaten to death, ostensibly by a group of ultra-right Hindu Rashtra Sena (HRS) hoodlums, for an allegedly hurtful Facebook posting of Shivaji and Bal Thackeray. The HRS is headed by 34-year old Dhanjay Desai who is already booked in 23 other cases, involving hate crime and Muslim baiting. Just before this incident, Orient Blackswan, publishers, withdrew for “comprehensive assessment and review”, Megha Kumar’s recently-released “Communalism and Sexual Violence: Ahmedabad since 1969”. Objection to the book has been taken by Dina Nath Batra, convenor of the Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti on whose diktat Wendy Donniger’s book on Hinduism was withdrawn by Penguin.

 Batra has also targeted Sekhar Bandopadhyay’s 10-year old book “Plassey to
 Partition:  A History of Modern India” on the ground that it defames the RSS.This kind of banning of scholarly and artistic works by blackmail is intolerable from whatever quarter. Though not necessarily mala fide, there is a whiff of latent mischief in the CBI’s report to the government that some foreign-aided NGOs are stalling development, such as those that opposed the Kudankulam nuclear power plant, the first 1000 MW unit of which is now feeding into the southern grid, and would like to stall the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor on environmental grounds. 

The new government needs to take a close look at these trends and ensure that development, the environment and a free and liberal society coexist and reinforce one another. There is room for anxiety when the RSS, VHP and other `Parivar’ entities press for abrogation of Article 370, oppose GM technology, seek a ban on cow slaughter and so forth. The VHP leader, Ashok Singhal called on Modi on May 24 to “restore Hindutva rule… after Prithviraj Chauhan” and ban religious conversion “to ensure peace and well-being”. Modi cannot remain silent when such divisive voices are raised.

The government has done well to announce early visits to neighbours – Bhutan by the PM and Bangladesh by the foreign minister - and to host the Chinese and Japanese heads of government within the year. Movement on Teesta sharing and land boundary agreements with Bangladesh, currently vetoed by Mamata Banerjee, is imperative for winning Dhaka’s trust and co-operation so important for transit to the north east and India’s Look East policy. The opening up of Indo-Bangladesh trade and investment could also be packaged in agreements on improved border management, issue of work permits and a resolution of the long-festering problem of “infiltrators”.

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