[In Britain, everyone is assumed to be a gentleman until it is proved otherwise; in India, it is assumed otherwise until a person is proved to be honest - especially if he belongs to another party. This column was written when L K Advani was behaving strangely in the home ministry. It was published in Business Standard of 3 July 2001.]
THE DANGERS OF CRONYISM
Everybody who is anybody in the government is naturally paranoid. If he is not, the press will cure him quickly. After I joined the government, I knew I had arrived when a Bombay journalist wrote that Harshad Mehta had not been arrested in the bank scam because I had once been his economic adviser – and I had never met Harshad Mehta. Another wrote that I had held up the computerization of stock exchanges – this after I had gone to Bombay to persuade BSE to computerize, and after I had approved the setting up of NSE. But then, I heard Atal Behari Vajpayee advise Manmohan Singh in Parliament to develop a thicker skin; I took his advice to heart, and forgave my ill-wishers.
So I was quite prepared the one time I met L K Advani – long ago, before he came to power. I was introduced to him as a journalist. Immediately he launched into a fiery invective against journalists. Having taken Vajpayee’s advice to heart, I listened in silence and forgave him. To this day I have not written about him, although many regard him as the ogre of Hindu nationalism. But now he has got to the point where, if he is not careful, he may do serious harm to himself. And that matters because he has gone far towards the most powerful job in the country; if anything happens to Vajpayee, no one could stop Advani from stepping into his shoes.
However, it is not Advani’s ascent towards the peaks of power that is interesting, it is his use of power. He is the most influential member of the cabinet committee that places senior civil servants; apparently, this committee has usurped the functions of the cabinet secretary. The result of this transfer of the power of transfer is twofold. First, political loyalty becomes a major criterion for preferment. I am not saying that it should not be a criterion at all. Politicians form governments with a popular mandate, and believe that they have a right to have the civil servants’ cooperation in fulfilling that mandate. There are mechanisms in various governments to ensure this cooperation. In Germany, for instance, civil servants are openly partisan. The civil service is deliberately overmanned; there are too many civil servants for the top jobs. When a party comes to power, its adherents in the civil service also get powerful posts, whilst adherents of other parties get equally senior but powerless posts. Even in Britain, where the civil service was supposed to be the timeless, neutral upholder of the law, the Labour Party has brought in 70 outside policy advisers.
But in the Government of India, loyalty has become the prime criterion for preferment, and competence and ability to get work done have become secondary. Examples are galore; just take two. Last year, M K Kaw penned an attack on “foreign” religions. However opinionated an Indian civil servant may be in respect of religion, he would do his best to disguise it if he valued his effectiveness in a professional administration. If he did not, his minister would have him removed – if the minister were interested in the reputation of his ministry. But the minister did not – and the minister was L K Advani. Or Ajit Kumar, who rudeness is legendary – if you want a chap to put people’s backs up, he is your man. But he was Fernandes’s man, he dealt with Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat in the manner desired by Fernandes, and he was rewarded with secretaryship in the ministry of finance, of which he knew less than nothing. Just the other day, a very senior bureaucrat – whom this government no doubt values – was telling me he wanted to quit because he could take no more rudeness.
Second, whereas rank-and-file politicians would have been embarrassed to go and lobby the cabinet secretary, they know Advani intimately, and have no compunction about pressing the case of one or another civil servant. This favours not only loyal civil servants, but also fawning, boot-licking civil servants, civil servants who run rackets in cooperation with politicians, and generally dishonest and opportunist politicians. Remember the chief of CBDT who was arrested for corruption? No one mentions it, but he had been appointed on strong recommendations from BJP politicians.
Loyal civil servants are not necessarily stupid. But their loyalty to their masters is a part of their loyalty to themselves. And they seek, not to serve their masters’ interests, but to pander to their prejudices. Take two recent orders from the home ministry. First, the requirement that people should report to the police foreigners staying in their houses. One can see where this comes from: Pakistani and other terrorists who come to organize an attack usually rent a residence for some weeks or months. If their landlords had reported them to the police, and the police had had the diligence and intelligence to go and investigate them, a bomb attack might have been prevented. There will always be a damfool politician who will go to Advani and tell him, see how many terrorists are having a field day because you have no inventory of foreigners in the country. A competent civil servant will tell Advani, “Look, Sir! If the ISI sends a terrorist here, it will surely have the brains to organize a safe house for him. And can you ever imagine our indolent police going and investigating the thousands of tenancies being given out every month? A regulation asking people to register foreigners is likely to prevent few attacks, but will cause enormous harassment and resentment. You might do well to think twice about it.” Well, the civil servant who served Advani was a loyal one, not a competent one.
Or the new rule that Indians should have to get the government’s permission to invite conference participants from three countries. Maybe a secular Pakistani attended some Indian tamasha and made incautious statements about Musharraf. Maybe the Pakistani high commissioner asked Advani how he could allow such things to go on; and Advani said, “I’ll shut them all up!” A competent civil servant would have told Advani, “You advertise India as the world’s largest democracy; the whole point of a democracy is that everyone can blow their steam off. And if you let foreigners too do it, you will know where their allegiance lies: what people say and to whom is valuable intelligence that we should not forgo – valuable not just for us but for your new Pakistani friend. And finally, it is always better that people should talk rather than act violently. You may abhor the Hurriyet, but its members are not killing anybody, and they are expressing views that are there underground and whose presence we would like to know about”. Again, Advani was served loyally.
The trouble is, he chose the loyalists. He should remember the fate of Mrs Indira Gandhi, whose loyal lackeys told her she would win the 1977 elections with a landslide; she lost it. Far be it for me to wish upon Mr Advani the mantle of Mrs Gandhi – Senior or Junior.