Sunday 17 June 2018

Rahul should support, not oppose, reform (Sunday Guardian)

M D Nalapat

The Congress Party is following the tradition first adopted by Nehru and Patel of placing the (colonial model) Civil Service above India’s Civil Society.

Some days ago, an unnamed worthy called and referred to the Karkardooma courts while informing this columnist that he would soon face prosecution and worse. What was the crime? Being tardy by a few days in clearing a bill of Rs 1,100 of Tata Indicom, a company that has gone out of business. It is sobering to read Arun Shourie’s book, Anita Gets Bail (and that too in the daytime and not late at night, the way it was granted to our fabled business and political leader, Karti Chidambaram). Bail ought certainly to be a routine right of any citizen not yet found guilty of a crime, but often is not. Given that the British-era (and centuries-old) laws of our democracy give a terrifying number of agencies the power to deprive a citizen of his or her liberty even for a sum as trifling as a rupee, the agent’s threat once more revealed the contempt of the post-1947 political class towards the rights of the ordinary citizen in “post-colonial” India. Elected politicians share with officials an attachment to British-era laws, for these give them immense power over citizens not well connected. That a company (or those acting as its agents) is emboldened enough to threaten to deprive a citizen of his or her liberty on a matter that would rank as a petty—and civil—dispute in any other democracy indicates why daily life in India remains a hazardous enterprise. Not leaping to attention when the National Anthem gets sung in the theatre, accidentally brushing against a member of the fair sex while walking, sending off a tweet that offends any of our 1.27 billion citizens. These are a few of the thousands of ways in which a citizen can find himself thrown into the quicksand that the legal system is in a country, where cases drag on for decades. And yet there is an entire army of individuals who thus far have almost totally escaped the clutches of the law, and these are the “unknown” but easily identifiable individuals in the banking system who have cost taxpayers more than Rs 600,000 crore of current value during the past decade and counting, by gifting loans to those who had zero intention of repaying the same.
Not all NPAs are caused by an intention to cheat the financial system. Some have their origin in business conditions gone bad as a consequence of factors beyond the borrower’s control. And there are those individuals who have refused to scurry away to London or Singapore, but who have worked hard at repaying their creditors, and succeeded. Such individuals need to be named, recognised and honoured by government rather than ignored the way they have been. Instead, it is often those who have—in effect—stolen huge sums who adorn VVIP anterooms and the society pages of newspapers. The Indian Express (which, let it be admitted, is the first newspaper this columnist picks up in the morning) has mentioned in its 15 June issue that a record Rs 1.44 lakh crore of “bad loans” were written off by India’s commercial banking system. While private banks wrote off Rs 79,940 crore during the past ten years, the State Bank of India alone accounted for Rs 123,137 crore of bad loans written off during the same period this year alone. Who were the sanctioning authorities during this period? Does anybody know or care? Some within a stock exchange have been reported to have given unfair access to select brokers, resulting in an “insider” windfall to a few HNIs. More than a few of those who were associated with this still enjoy positions of power and patronage, and have been appointed to their posts either by the government or with its blessings. This columnist has long said that an exhaustive inventory of current lifestyles of the top 500 public officials during the past decade may be instructive and easy to accomplish.
An administration needs to be judged by the median income of the inhabitants of the country in which it is operating, and by such a metric, India’s is among the worst in Asia. Despite this, there is a collective howl of protest when even the most minimal of administrative reforms gets carried out. The Congress Party, during its decade in office under Manmohan Singh, ignored the numerous very useful suggestions of the Veerappa Moily committee. Earlier, Arjun Singh and N.D. Tiwari had attacked Prime Minister Narasimha Rao when he carried out a few reforms during 1992-93, affecting his confidence so badly that the reform process visibly slowed in the final three years of his term. Now, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s efforts at broad-basing—to a very limited extent—the pool of recruitment into the IAS is being met with fierce opposition from a party led by a relatively youthful leader who ought to be leading the charge towards altering the British-era system of the present in a manner that better meets the needs of the 21st century. By demanding a rollback of even a baby step towards reform, the Congress Party is following the tradition first adopted by Nehru and Patel of placing the (colonial model) Civil Service above India’s Civil Society. Rahul Gandhi in his earlier avatar of general secretary of his party correctly demanded the end of laws that criminalise defamation or send gay men to prison. It is not expected of a party under his leadership that it opposes even a wholly inadequate lateral entry of domain experts from Civil Society into the Civil Service.

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