By M D Nalapat
Target of PM’s next ‘surgical strike’ should be the crooked among the bureaucracy.
The most meaningful “Majority: Minority” dichotomy in India is between those citizens who are honest and those others who are dishonest, i.e. those who correctly pay the numerous taxes due and those who do not. Despite the reality that continuous additions to the colonial governance codes in India have arbitrarily criminalised swathes of activity that are legal in practically all other democracies, it would be safe to say that the “majority community” in India (i.e. those who are honest) comprise 90% of the population, leaving 10% in the “minority”. Even within that sometimes under-appreciated group, government servants, about 75% are honest and less than a quarter crooked, judging by the many this columnist has come across. Among officials, around 10% occupy posts which have the potential to make a significant difference to the situation facing the public.
It is on this 2.5% of the total of government employees that Prime Minister Narendra Modi needs to most concentrate on. Corrupt officials have an outsize influence on policy. They have the ability to move up the promotion ladder much faster than the honest, who need to spend most of their time trying to make both ends meet till the next payday, rather than wooing their superiors and political heavyweights in the manifold ways that the crooked have access to. Indeed, the uninterrupted flood of repressive laws and regulations that each government unleashes on the population demonstrates the chokehold of the upper echelons of the 2.5% of officials who are dishonest.
Almost all such regulations are broad and vague enough to be subject to misuse, thereby becoming manna for the dishonest rather than (as pious declarations accompanying such measures invariably aver) balm for the honest. The historically outsize influence of the dishonest in the actual working of the governance system ensures that many honest citizens get penalised under such laws and regulations, usually for technical violations, even while relatively few of the big fish get caught. These latter have the means to reach out to the dishonest minority within the governance system, thereby ensuring their safety. For public consumption, there may be a prime time hullaballoo raised by the very officials who are shielding them. However, proof of official intent vests in practical outcomes. If depredators either escape or get away with a mere wrist slap (such as a small fine), it is reasonable to assume that much more than conversation was exchanged between officials and the wrongdoer. When the political executive is being served a menu of policy options, and the judiciary the chance to review them, these two pillars of the governance system need to factor in the reality of corruption within the system in weighing and discounting recommendations made by officials which may focus not on the public interest but on their own and that of other corrupt individuals.
The Reserve Bank of India has believed since the time of Governor Yaga Reddy that the 1.26 billion people of India should be made to adopt the cashless ways of Sweden, despite the difference in conditions between the life of the median Swede and the median citizen of this country. It is clear from 8 November that RBI Governor Urjit Patel looks askance at those citizens with zero untaxed income who have nevertheless withdrawn substantial amounts of cash from their accounts to use towards patronising the (much-derided by Central bankers ) “informal” economy. The most trumpeted e-gateway in India for making payments is controlled by Jack Ma, who when last sighted was not an Indian citizen. Indeed, foreign rather than domestic interests have a lock on most major internet and mobile telephony entities in India. And “Indian” banks have been silently taken over by foreign entities. US shareholders dominate the big credit card gateways used in India, with Chinese shareholders in the same companies coming a close second and those with Indian citizenship nowhere on the equity horizon. Unless PM Modi manages to endow digital keys to over 600 million citizens within his term, for a considerable time to come it is more socially advantageous to put (taxed) rupees in the hands of the poor and the lower middle classes such as small shopkeepers and crafts-persons, rather than entirely through plastic controlled by multinational interests that are gaining in advantage over their domestic competitors with every passing day because of the rupee falling while interest rates and crippling regulations rise, with some rules making the word “draconian” an extreme understatement. An individual may have kept apart substantial cash (drawn from his or her bank account and shown in tax returns ) not to pay the “black” component of a future real estate purchase, but to make repairs to a temple entering the stage of dilapidation. The grim 1970s-style warnings issued by officials to taxpayers who prefer holding on to and paying with cash are making honest taxpayers, rather than the big crooks, nervous about depositing their clean “old” cash in banks despite the fact that such holdings will become waste paper after 30 December. Prime Minister Modi must protect the honest majority of citizens from crooked officials expert at using technical or imagined violations into darts designed to squeeze payments from honest taxpayers. Modi needs to ensure that the regulations being unveiled day after day on television be designed so as to protect the honest and get used on “bulk carriers” and not only small “fishing boaters” of black cash. A sniper rifle should be used in enforcement that aims at big fish rather than allow bureaucrats to wield blunderbusses spraying multiple innocents even as they incentivise the guilty to increase the bribe offer.
India’s honest overwhelmingly cast their 2014 votes for Narendra Modi. The target of his next high-octane “surgical strike” should be the crooked among the higher rungs of the bureaucracy. Those who have defiled the noble calling of government through graft and misfeasance should be made to encounter justice rather than peacefully catch a flight together with family to London or Miami for—in more than a few cases—a very long stay. Only an accelerated drive against high-level official corruption may motivate citizens into enduring for months more the pain caused by the incompetence of much of the bureaucracy tasked with implementing the epochal policy unveiled by PM Modi on 8 November 2016.