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We need a new India, Modiji!

June 18, 2019 20:21 IST

'The time has come to substitute the present Constitutional set-up with an alternative democratic framework,' argues B S Raghavan, the distinguished civil servant.

IMAGE: Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi interacts with secretaries to the Government of India, June 10, 2019. Photograph: Press Information Bureau/PTI Photo

Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi is too astute and seasoned a politician to deem his day done with pep talks to some 85 bureaucrats and 60 ministers in the mass on what he expects of them. He must have known that pep talks break no bones!

As for the bureaucrats, having been one of them going back to the days of the first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, I can say that they would have found the script all too familiar.

In fact, having been at the receiving end of a British imperialist bureaucracy for 30 years as a freedom-fighter, Nehru used to be the most trenchant: All that he did not tell bureaucrats in his pep talks was that he would hang them, along with profiteers and black marketers, from the nearest lamp post, if they did not conform and perform.

Every successive prime minister and chief minister simply loved to deliver their homilies to captive audiences of suited, booted and perfumed bureaucrats looking appropriately deferential and impressed, although they have heard it all before.

However, Siddhartha Shankar Ray, addressing bureaucrats on his assumption of office as chief minister of West Bengal, unexpectedly introduced a new note by asking them not to think poorly of him for not being in the IAS and assuring them that he could have easily been in the IAS if he wanted to. And so, they had better behave!

If only pep talks could prime the bureaucrats, India would have been far ahead of other countries in economic development, ease of doing business, ease of living and all that those prime ministers and chief ministers wanted for India.

As for the ministers, there was, of course, the element of fear of 'or else' on their part, because they were dependent on Modi for their very chairs, and he could show them the door any moment if they displeased him.

 

I was somewhat intrigued to find him laying emphasis, as per media reports, not on their performance, but on their coming to office on time.

Two caveats immediately suggest themselves: One can be in office on time, but still idle away doing little. That apart, a minister may have to attend to many other legitimate public chores and keeping to office timings may not always be possible.

If Modi was calling for better and more purposeful time management by his ministers, he was spot on. Most ministers are pitchforked into top leadership positions with little training in the finer aspects of management and governance, and deficient in soft skills of communication and inter-personal relations. Some pick them up on the job, but many don't.

Even Presidents and prime ministers have been found to be wanting in political management, administrative acumen and running party affairs.

That is why there has for long been a demand for establishing an Institute of Political Management in which those wishing to get into, and be in, active politics are put through courses essential for the effective discharge of their responsibilities as elected representatives, leaders of parties and public servants.

The problem with governing India is not just the polyglot polity's complexity, diversity, size and population. Nor is it just the absence of implementation culture and competitive killer instinct, and failure to catch up with advances in science and technology.

It has basically to do with India's governance being still rooted in imperialist and colonial systems, procedures, practices and mindset.

Authoritarian arrogance and hierarchical rigidities extend all the way from grass-roots level public functionaries to ministers.

It is strange but true that in British days, the viceroys, governors and high officials of government acknowledged and replied to letters, signing themselves as 'I have the honour to be, Sir (or Madam), Your Most Obedient and Humble Servant', but the very first thing the rulers in independent India did was to do away with this what to them was humbling superscription.

There are in today's India public servants who fly into a rage if you directly contact them on their mobile phones; and who don't return calls and acknowledge communications, leave alone replying to them.

Citizens are viewed contemptuously as subjects to be kept at arms' length. Old nineteenth century laws put in place by British imperialist overlords still rule the roost in many spheres of administration.

In the Indian context, democracy itself has come to mean only the elections to state assemblies and national Parliament that are held (up to now) in due time.

State governments have already begun to look for ways to avoid holding elections to local bodies.

The representative capabilities of a member of Parliament from a constituency of more than 20 lakhs of population, and a member of the state assembly from a constituency of more than 3 lakhs of population, are also questionable.

Once the elections are over and governments are installed, an iron curtain descends between the people and their servants, with a total absence of accountability and commitment to moral and ethical norms of behaviour.

All this has made the suitability to Indian conditions of the imported Westminster model of parliamentary democracy doubtful. It is unlikely that any other equally exotic model (such as the presidential one of US) would prove to be any better.

Hence, no meaningful solution will come from merely tinkering with, and tweaking, some features here and there of these models as was sought to be done by Venkatachaliah Commission and as is being attempted by the Law Commission.

The situation is well past that stage and is crying out for a radical, root-and-branch replacement.

The time has come to give serious consideration to the question of substituting the present Constitutional set-up with an alternative democratic framework which will be imbued with values and systems close and intelligible to the people, and give effect to their aspirations and expectations in a manifest spirit of responsiveness, accountability and public service.

This is an undertaking so complex and demanding that full justice can be done to it only by the application of the best minds in the country's public life, putting in the exertion and effort required in a dispassionate manner with only the overall national interest as the ultimate objective.

Such an initiative could be in the form of establishment, by a resolution unanimously adopted in both Houses of Parliament, of a national commission comprising, illustratively, T S Krishnamurthy and N Gopalaswami, former chief election commissioners, N Vittal, former central vigilance commissioner, Subhash Kashyap, former secretary-general, Lok Sabha, A P Shah, former chief justice of the Delhi high court, Arvind Datar, constitutional expert, N R Narayana Murthy, founder of Infosys and a public-spirited citizen and Jayaprakash Narayan, founder of the Lok Satta Party.

Apparently, dissatisfaction with the democratic framework is getting the goat of the British people as well. An article in The Guardian of June 17, 2019, titled 'Any new PM is doomed if they don't fix Britain's democracy' talks of 'a lot of complaints about the urgent need for systemic change' and platform speakers explicitly rejecting representative democracy and trashing MPs, the House of Lords and civil service, while vociferously pushing for electoral reform.

B S Raghavan is a former member of the Indian Administrative Service, a US Congressional Fellow and Policy Adviser to the UN (FAO).
He has held leadership positions in India's state and central governments handling issues pertaining to political policy planning, national security, intelligence, energy and food security.

B S Raghavan
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