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The Rediff Interview/T N Seshan

August 05, 2005

It didn't actually come as a surprise when former Chief Election Commissioner T N Seshan announced his decision to start a school of governance in Pune. The MIT School of Government will train young aspiring politicians, bureaucrats, NGOs, and yes, journalists too.

In an interview to Contributing Special Correspondent Shobha Warrier, the fiery civil servant who streamlined India's electoral process spoke about what prompted him to start such a college. At the meeting, Seshan appeared uncharacteristically subdued -- in fact it was the first time Shobha saw him so restrained. In all his previous interviews to her, Seshan had always been in an attacking mood, but this time he was a different man!

Why did you decided to start a college for aspiring politicians and bureaucrats?

There are educational institutions in this country for training professionals in every branch; like medicine, engineering, management etc but for running government, there are no places where you can receive professional training.

You mean politically running the government?

No. Many people, including you, apparently make the mistake of believing that the government is only political. The government is not only political, though undoubtedly a big element of it is political. But there is a civil service, there is a judiciary, there is the Constitution, there is a role which the media plays -- and all of this is part of the government.

So, the totality of the government is all of this put together.

When politicians are elected to Parliament or legislature, they are, very often, unaware of how the government works. So, they can get an understanding of how the government works by taking this course.

Would you be training only aspiring politicians and bureaucrats or anyone who has anything to do with running the government?

We have identified three possible sets of people, one is, political aspirants, two, those who want to join the government in one form or another, to work with the government or for the government.

For example?

For example, economists, journalists, etc. And those who work in NGOs. They have to know how the government functions as they don't know whom to approach for what help. These are the three possible people who can benefit by joining the course.

How long have you been carrying this idea with you?

The idea has been ruminating for the past several years but we launched it in February-March.

Was it your personal idea?

Well, we were discussing this with (Lok Sabha Speaker) Shri Somnath Chatterjee and he said it was an excellent idea and that we should go ahead with it. That was in February-March.

Was it because you had to deal with both competent and incompetent politicians that you thought of this idea?

It is a combination of many factors. Good governance by politicians, by civil servants and by NGOs does not occur by accident, just like good managers do not come by accident, and good engineers are not an accident. So, good government is not an accident. It needs skillful work.

Those who want to write the Civil Services exam take coaching. Those who pass the examination get trained at Mussoorie. How different is your training going to be?

Even they take several years before they become good government servants who can understand how a budget is prepared, what the relationship between the minister and the civil servant is like, what the relationship between the executive, the judiciary and the legislature is like, what the source of corruption is. Most people do not know how elections are run. All this must be conveyed to people.

So, the purpose is to train a person in how the government works.

For that, do you need to have an exhaustive syllabus?

We are trying to make it as exhaustive as possible. The difficulty is that people won't come for more than one year. Even one year, sometimes, is too long.

Is the same syllabus applicable to the entire spectrum of people you have just mentioned?

Yes. They can also take specialisations. They have nine compulsory subjects like the Constitution of India, India's Structure of Government, the electoral process, functioning of Parliament, relationship between legislature, judiciary and executive, relationship between the elected representative and the civil servant, Budget and finance, the Indian economy and communication.

We also have nine optional subjects from which they can opt to study any three. These are planning, training and development, legal system, corruption, agriculture, industry, infrastructure, human resource activities and centre-state and inter state issues.

You mentioned corruption as a subject. What exactly are you going to teach them about corruption? Are you going to teach them to abolish corruption or tackle it, or accept it?

Nobody in the world has ever succeeded in abolishing corruption. The question is, what is the source of corruption, and how corruption occurs.

Teaching you how to deal with it?

Yes, how to deal with it. There are structural methods of dealing with corruption. If you go into corruption in detail, a society can reduce corruption by, for example, by reducing government. The more the government does, the more corruption there is. Not because of whether the government belongs to this party or that party -- anything which becomes everybody's business becomes nobody's business, and then there's corruption.

I will give you a simple example. When telephones was available only from the government, there was a lot of corruption in getting a telephone connection. Today, you can get a telephone from the Tatas, Reliance [Get Quote] or Airtel, and now where's the corruption? So, the less the government does, the lesser the corruption. The more open the government, the less the corruption. The more clear our election process, the less the corruption.

There are methods of reducing corruption. Corruption happens in any government office -- in purchases, appointments, recruitments, in spending money. So, if you teach somebody where to look to make sure that there is no corruption, you can reduce corruption.

Do you really expect people aspiring to be politicians to join your college and learn?

Yes. We have opened applications only ten days ago. I don't know the exact number, it's all in Pune but many, many people are aspiring.

We wrote to a whole lot of national leaders and every single person supported the idea. We got messages from about 70, 80 national leaders, and I have put them in the catalogue, and the order in which they are put is purely alphabetical. L K Advani, Mani Shankar Aiyar, Margaret Alva, A B Bardhan, Uma Bharti, George Fernandes [Images], Arun Jaitley´┐Ż

Do you feel among the broad spectrum, politicians are the ones who really need to know how the government functions?

No, no. One doesn't want to make any such statements which unnecessarily put people's back up. Everybody must know how the government functions. One of the terrible things in this country is that nobody knows how the government functions.

The hard fact of the matter is, journalists, for example, don't know how the government functions in this country. But, there is nobody who doesn't need to know how government functions.

From the time you joined the civil service to the time you retired, how much has the quality of politicians changed?

It has deteriorated. More and more common people are becoming members of the political spectrum. And, more of the transaction of business is done by all kinds of things other than knowledge -- making noise in parliament, making street demonstrations, etc.

Do you feel by educating them, you will see some difference in them?

Yes, the quality of debates in Parliament will definitely improve.

Will current politicians also join your college?

We don't take old people. The upper age limit is 35!

Who will teach the students?

We have a permanent faculty, we will also borrow people from elsewhere. We will have important guest lectures by IAS officers, military officers, police officers, revenue officers, etc. We will have VIP politicians who will come and lecture. We will have VVIPs who will come one day in a year and lecture.

Will you be taking classes?

Yes, I will be taking classes.

Will you talk to them about your experiences in dealing with politicians?

I told you. I read out all the subjects. I know something about each of those subjects.

What will your advice be to deal with a corrupt politician?

Stand firm and face the consequences, and not be a party to the corruption.

But in reality, in such situations, isn't the bureaucrat transferred?

If every civil servant stands up, they can't go on transferring. How many times will they transfer?

Will you move to Pune?

No, I will go as often as necessary.

From where would you get the money?

I am going to charge Rs 2.75 lakhs as fees, and Rs 75,000 for the hostel. That's good enough. We will be self-financing.

You are not guaranteeing any job to the aspirants. Still, you feel students will come and join your college.

I hope so. That's the hope with which we have started.

If it doesn't become successful, will you be disappointed?

We will close it down. One doesn't start anything saying, what do we do if it fails. I don't expect it to fail.

Image: Uday Kuckian

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