Aspects of governance

Aspects of governance

Jyoti Basus legacy

Jyoti Basu was a fine individual whom the nation rightly mourns. But emotion appears to have overtaken reason in the kind of uncritical adulation accorded to the CPM leader who was chief minister of West Bengal for 23 years.

The fact is that apart from some initial good work done in the first phases of land reform and devolution of power to panchayats, the state’s HDI indices and state of infrastructure deteriorated and there was disinvestment, de-industrialisation, mounting poverty and unemployment as a result of ideological rigidities. On any reckoning, the state was in decline during Jyoti Basu’s long watch. It is fortunate that party ideologues did not permit him to move to Delhi as prime minister when this was mooted. Had he done so, the consequences might well have been problematic.

This may appear a harsh judgement on someone who has departed. But the sycophancy that attends our leaders when alive, and even after they are gone, is disconcerting and prevents us learning from experience. The secrecy attending archival policy is partly a reflection of the tendency to shore up reputations by precluding the world from prying too closely into the past of our heroes. A nation that does not learn from history risks repeating its mistakes.

G Parthasarathi’s diary entry on Nehru’s true view on Chinese attitudes during the ‘bhai-bhai period’ and of his Man Friday, Krishna Menon, just published by the former’s son, Ashok, casts a flood of light on matters that it would have been better to know contemporaneously. The continuing classification of the Henderson-Brooks report on the 1962 debacle stems from the same desire to protect a legacy. Nehru is surely big enough to do without this shield.

Another problem of governance was aired recently by junior ministers in the UPA government who complained to the prime minister that they had little or no work. This is largely because of a tendency to centralise decision making with the result that secretaries to government do what could well be disposed of by their deputies while minister’s usurp the role of their permanent secretary’s. This often leaves ministers and secretaries, Central and state, with insufficient time for policy making, monitoring and evaluation.

The enlargement of cabinets to satisfy all manner of representational principles has also resulted in fragmenting sectoral responsibility without adequate coordination. In the first few governments formed after Independence many bright sparks were appointed deputy ministers or parliamentary secretaries who answered questions in parliament and assisted the minister in other ways, thereby gaining experience that equipped them to shoulder heavier responsibilities over time. Now everybody aspires to be a minister ab initio, if not prime minister or chief minister. This may be a matter of political culture but it certainly impinges on good governance.

Another issue of governance that calls for attention is the battle being fought over the right to access file notings under RTI. The RTI regime has certainly helped promote transparency and accountability in governance but there has been a difference of opinion on whether or not file notings should be made public as a rule. There is currently a dispute over an information commissioner’s decisions to permit an applicant access to file notings pertaining to the decisions reflected in the Indo-Pakistan joint communiqué at Sharm el-Sheikh some six months ago which aroused much controversy over how it was to be interpreted.


Insistence on making public all file notings is misplaced as this could well inhibit officials and ministers from giving frank expression to their views. These would not be noted on file but recorded elsewhere or exchanged orally, resulting in double entry book keeping of another kind. Suffice it that a reasoned statement is made available so that a fair judgement can be made about the quality and ethical basis of the decision taken.

At a very different level, concerning public relations more than governance as such, is the unwise decision, fortunately rescinded, of the Maharashtra government to insist that new cabbies in Mumbai must have lived in the city for 15 year and read and write Marathi.

This was a misguided concession to parochialism, in competition with the Shiv Sena’s petty localism. What any city needs is a good and honest taxi service rather than an indifferent one offered by cabbies speaking a chaste native tongue.

The default rule now incorporated in a new cultural policy for Maharashtra lays down that ministers should speak only in Marathi at official functions and converse with foreigners solely in Marathi, through interpreters. No language flourishes by fiat and these are pitiful rulings by small men.

Finally, the vice-president’s call for making intelligence agencies accountable to parliament through a standing committee merits serious attention. There is today no intelligence oversight body, as the L P Singh Committee had recommended some 30 years ago. This need not imperil intelligence operations but could provide a safeguard against possible misuse and an independent monitor and sounding board.