Saturday, January 08, 2011

Flat-footed response to a deep crisis

The Congress party’s response to the ongoing corruption tsunami is, to quote Alice, getting “curiouser and curiouser”. It began with a flourish over the New Year, promising an ordinance to deal with the issue. Then it transpired that the measure was nothing but old wine in new bottles — a dusted up version of the Lok Pal Bill thats been around for a while. Now, according to some reports, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) plans, believe it or not, to constitute a Group of Ministers (GoM), headed by the indispensable Pranab Mukherjee.
 Its two shining lights are, M K Alagiri whose anti-corruption credentials are mysterious, to say the least, and Sharad Pawar, whose presence in the body seems to be a brilliant stroke of black humour. For the record it also has St Antony, no doubt, to give it a veneer of probity, along with a motley crew of Mamata Banerjee, P Chidambaram, Kapil Sibal and Veerappa Moily. 
The party has also let it be known that  it is ready to include the Prime Minister in the  ambit of a new Lok Pal Bill, as if Prime Minister Manmohan Singh were being accused of any personal wrong-doing. This is such a transparent — if futile — gesture to deflect popular anger, that we can only term it pathetic. It is not going to win any converts among the masses, leave alone moderate the rate of erosion of its popularity.
Clearly, besieged by allegations of corruption, the Congress party leadership is losing whatever little touch it had retained with the habit of mass politics. Here we don’t count staged durbars, contact programmes à la Rahul Gandhi and election rallies. Mass politics is where ideas and issues flow up from the grassroots with the same felicity they come top-down.
In place of a political system that draws its energy and self-esteem from the people, as it were, we have a system where fixers, not only of the corporate variety, but also those who claim to speak on behalf of 10 Janpath or various coalition leaders, decide issues. Legislation is vetted by them, as are key political and bureaucratic appointments. Orders and instructions flow from the top to the bottom, with little understanding of the context.
One of the more revealing actualities that the Radia tapes have provided is an understanding of the role that corporate  lobbyists play in positioning politicians to become members of the Union Council of Ministers. The role of political fixers, however, still remains to be unveiled.

 In our system, selecting the Cabinet  is supposed to be the PM’s call, no doubt worked out through consultation with party bigwigs and coalition partners. But the final choice  is the undisputed prerogative of the PM. Now, with hindsight, we can explain the dissonance that has affected the UPA-II government — it arises because the PM is working with colleagues who he may not have selected, or even wanted, in his team.
There is, of course, a more profound problem. This has to do with the nature of the Congress party. Having neutered the politicians, it functions through the agency of bureaucratised politicians, or bureaucrats themselves. Instead of depending on inputs from the orthodox political grassroots, it is used to handling things top-down. That is the reason, the party has begun to put so much store by  the agency of legislation as a means of fixing social and political problems. So we have had in quick succession, the Right to Information Act, the Right to Education Act, the National Rural Guarantee Employment Act, and the yet to be passed Right to Food Act.
It is still early days with the RTI, but we can already see the system’s backlash. The killing of RTI activists is one indicator of this. Another is the effort being made  to strangle the act by restricting its ambit post facto and packing it with former bureaucrats — the equivalent of having a committee of foxes to organise the security of a chicken coop. The extent of corruption with NREGA is only now becoming manifest. As to RTE, it is simply not working.
The Right to Food Act, besides being virtually impossible to implement, is likely to become a major source of revenue for corrupt babus. Last year, in what is being called the mother of all scams, it was revealed that `2 lakh crore of food grain meant for Below Poverty Line card holders covered under various schemes  had been  smuggled not only outside the state, but outside the country in the 2001-2010 period.
Legislation has its place in a democratic country. But it is usually the culmination of a political process that comes from below, or a codification of a set of policy measures needed to make the government work better. Top-down legislation can work if you happen to be Otto von Bismarck.
The problem of hunger, illiteracy and maternal and neonatal health plaguing the country are not because money is lacking or that there is any lack of a specific legislation. You do not need laws to feed the hungry or eradicate illiteracy. The problem is that money appropriated for doing the needful ends up in the wrong hands.
More important is the structural problem. More than 60 years after independence, sections of the people — Dalits, women and tribals — are systematically excluded from development schemes because of social prejudice.
The political class can play a positive role here by mobilising and educating mass opinion. Unfortunately they’re more focused on enriching themselves and their families.
We need a political class  that understands that the state is distinct from the government. When there is an act of corruption by a minister or a public servant, it is the state, on behalf of the citizen that must act against him. This is not an issue that lies within the discretion of this or that party because it happens to be running the government.
State institutions have been undermined by our political class. What is needed now is to empower them and this can, indeed, come through legislation. Given our parliamentary system, we cannot have any system which is not answerable to Parliament. And that can only be done through a ministry and a minister. But that does not mean that the department of the ministry — say an autonomous prosecutor’s office under the Ministry of Law and Justice — cannot be guaranteed real autonomy.
Legislation is indeed needed to make the  Central Bureau of Investigation, which today functions as an attack dog of the government, into a body that uses its investigative and prosecutorial arms on behalf of the state, not the party in power. Likewise, the country needs a strong Central Vigilance Commission, given real autonomy by the laws of the state.
Individuals can play an important role here. After all, it was people like T N Sheshan, a pliant civil servant if there was one, who liberated the Election Commission from its political servitude. Subsequently Commissioners like J M Lyngdoh have burnished the body’s credentials, despite the effort by the Congress to undermine the commission by putting a Gandhi-family friend in-charge of the body. The Comptroller and Auditor General, too, has emerged as an important state entity who is playing the constitutionally mandated role as a watchdog of the people.
Sadly, independence and integrity seems to have been bred out of many of our senior bureaucrats, and the problem is worsening by the year. The public mood is one of cynicism and anger. The Congress will have to do much better to deflect public anger than by pulling some faux legislation and GoMs out of the hat.
Mail Today January 7, 2011

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