Sunday 16 May 2021

Governance reform crucial for Modi 2.0 ( Sunday Guardian)


Modi 2.0 needs to ensure a robust level of the protection given to whistle-blowers. They should be allowed to escape penal consequences.

Death and taxes, they say, are the only certainties in life. To that needs to be added the fact that in democracies, politicians who come to power inevitably leave power. Only a very few continue till nature intervenes, as in the case of President Roosevelt in 1945. From being hailed as divinity by no less a personage than Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 1971 to getting defeated in her own constituency in 1977 by Raj Narain, Indira Gandhi saw a reversal of fortune. Her supporters melted away, but almost all returned as soon as she came back to power in 1980, among those being A.K. Antony. So watertight was the cocoon of ignorance of ground reality in the Prime Minister’s House that the Prime Minister failed to anticipate the humiliation of the Congress Party by a collection of individuals, who in 1971 belonged to the past and seemed destined to remain there. In 1975, this columnist (who even at a much younger age was peripatetic) was at Delhi airport to catch a flight to Ahmedabad, going there to meet a friend studying in the Indian Institute of Management. Morarji Desai was on the same flight. At the airport, he looked around and smiled at people he seemed to recognize, none of whom bothered to respond to the individual who for so long was among the most powerful men in India. This columnist went up to him and engaged him in conversation. Tulsi Ramayana was the subject Morarji chose to talk about, until we walked into the aircraft . Morarji was in a sombre mood, perhaps because of the manner in which he seemed to be among India’s forgotten men. Three years later, this columnist met him again, this time at South Block. Morarji was in his office, that of the Prime Minister of India. He smiled at the mention of that airport encounter, and asked if this columnist had read Tulsi Ramayana yet. There was a crowd of people outside his office who were waiting to meet him, among which may have been someone who had looked away at Delhi airport when the man who had been Deputy PM of India just six years earlier looked in their direction but was denied any sign of recognition. His trajectory showed that it was impossible to count any politician out, or permanently in, where India was concerned. The good news for politicians is that there seems to be an unwritten code, at least in the Lutyens Zone, to ensure that changes in government do not bring about any genuine (as distinct from cosmetic) effort at either transparency or accountability where high-ups in the previous regime are concerned. Take as an example a minister who siphoned off more than Rs 90,000 crores through gaming the markets through rule changes and insider information. He was held to account, not for the Rs 90,000 crore siphoned off by him but for small change, and the charges were such that the case may eventually get thrown out in court, as took place in the 2G matter with so many who had been prosecuted.

Even the limited level of accountability seen in Modi 2.0 is a plus, given the Lutyens Zone tradition that major misdeeds by the very powerful remain interred in the recesses of the governance system. The results of the absence of transparency and accountability in the higher reaches of the political administration have been visible in the consistent under-performance of India in comparison to many other countries. To change this, Modi 2.0 needs to ensure a robust level of the protection given to whistle-blowers. They should be allowed to escape penal consequences and suffer a financial penalty only up to 50% of their illegal earnings, provided they revealed evidence that implicated a higher-up. Finally, such a pyramid of the discovery gleaned through confessions and evidence submitted by wrongdoers would reach elevated levels. These are where graft needs to be eliminated, for it is at the top that the most consequential decisions get made. In India, the lower the level of the official, the higher the possibility of accountability, when the reverse is what is needed for the healthy evolution of the Indian state. We hear a lot of what happens in India, good and bad. What is less discussed is what does not happen, all too often as a consequence of misuse of executive power by an official belonging to the 5% of the governance machinery that is corrupt. In government, what matters is format and procedure, not outcomes. If the prescribed format is adhered to, decisions that favour individual interests get taken without routine discovery. As long as the paperwork is complete and has been correctly formatted, it has often been possible for a few to subvert the public interest for a bribe. This happens even if the Secretary, Minister or Prime Minister is honest. Which is why the stages of each decision need to be much more accessible to the public than they are at present. Until there is transparency, there will be no accountability. And unless there is accountability, there will not be a governance mechanism agile enough to meet the needs of the 1.4 billion citizens of our country.

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