Sunday 3 July 2016

Lutyens should no longer be a ‘safe zone’ for fixers (Sunday Guardian)

The Election Commission of India, as with almost all institutions with an all-India zone of responsibility, has always been staffed at the top by “Lutyens lok”. Over the seven decades since 1947, a colonial system continued that ensured safety and comfort (including monetary) for the 5,000 or so hyper privileged within the governance structure and of course those in business and in other fields they patronised. This post-1947 creamy layer is best referred to as “Lutyens lok”, those who have gained exponentially from the Mughal-British-era governance system that got perpetuated in “free” India. The protective wall around them is, of course, at the expense of the rest of the population of this country. They form a weatherproof bubble that has been leeching off the population of this country, while all around them the potential of the rest of India gets drained away into the gutters of underperformance because of defective policies.

The frame holding the governance structure in place is the trio of “high caste” Central services. Doing an audit of the top 500 individuals in the IAS, the IFS, the IPS and those of three-star and higher rank in the military, would be a simple matter for an honest and motivated task force loyal to the transformational objectives of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Such an enquiry would document the top 500 within the pool of officials, detailing lifestyle, including travel of themselves, their spouses and their children. It would look into their contacts, including phone calls made, much in the manner of what has been revealed in the case of arms sales expert Sanjay Bhandari recently, who has been in contact with Lutyens Zone heavyweights on a regular basis. It would find out details of the education of the offspring, especially if this be in pricey foreign shores, and the jobs such offspring enter into after completing their education. For example, it may not be entirely coincidental that the large financial conglomerates responsible for the 2008 crash have recruited several offspring of influential policymakers over the years, even as they operate in India with an impunity denied them in the US or the UK, where they are often made to pay huge fines for actions commonplace in India. Full knowledge of those who are at the core of decision making and implementation in the country is a prerequisite for ensuring that honesty and merit and not the date of joining a service becomes the primary factor in career advancement and enhanced responsibility.

The Lutyens Zone has operated in a climate where transparency got replaced by opacity. Where, instead of looking through plain glass accurately at those who rule over them, a subtle censoring of facts about the privileged means the public see only misleading images of key decision makers , impressions of them that are entirely removed from reality. Few officials have suffered in the slightest for facilitating high-level financial and personal peccadilloes, but such immunity comes as no surprise. In the Lutyens Zone, it is bad form to point fingers at those within the circle of privilege. In that other giant democracy, the US, those in Washington who are part of the Beltway elite dislike Donald Trump, because thus far he has ignored them and publicly pointed out errors they have made in policy. Of course, it may be that should he get elected, Trump may make his peace with the Beltway heavyweights by giving them choice slots in his administration, and adopting several of their policies. Others who have come to power in different countries promising change but persisting with the status quo have done so, V.P. Singh and his deliberately ineffective Bofors enquiry being an example. On the other hand, those personally familiar with Trump are unanimous that he would not compromise with the Beltway grandees, which is why there is an effort even within sections of the Republican Party to back Hillary Clinton, who is as much a part and protector of the Washington Beltway as Sonia Gandhi is of Delhi’s Lutyens Zone. 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has launched an ambitious programme of transformative modernisation. His success will largely hinge on the quality of administration. Hence the importance of ensuring that the “high caste” trio of Central services be given the same treatment as the military, which weeds out officers from the system much before they reach 60 or even 55. By the time a high (civilian) official is 50, many within his batch ought to have been made to move out of the government as a consequence of periodic quality control checks. Indeed, after the results come in of the audit of the top 500 suggested earlier, in all except the most egregious cases, punishment for those who have shown clear evidence of misutilising their powers ought to be enforced retirement, plus payment of taxes on discovered extra income. Especially since the 1980s, there are all too many “fixers” in elevated government positions. Indeed, their social and communication skills often result in such fixers moving up the promotion and responsibility ladder far faster than more honest counterparts. All this needs to change, so that the comprehensive change personified by the victory of Narendra Modi in 2014 comes about. The Lutyens Zone must no longer be a safe zone for the major beneficiaries and practitioners of a system of governance that takes away outrageous quantities of discretion from the people and transfers this to a colonial administrative machinery. Such extreme powers are not meant to improve governance, but to amass hidden wealth, so as to better afford college fees in the US, UK and France and of course vacations in Miami and Paris for the families of the officials who have adopted the mindset of the British. This is to (a) consider as permissible all their misdeeds (b) constrict the freedom of citizens to emasculate them and (c) create policy structures designed to maximize the opportunities for bribery. Only genuine accountability, especially at the higher levels of government service, can liberate India from the curse of a governance system that has since colonial days been designed for a small elite, and is comprised of and is run by them.

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