My time in the government gave me a first-hand idea of the imperfections of Indian democracy; my subsequent time in the press brought me much information about its scandals. Some went into this column, published in Business Standard of 18 March 2003.
UNDERSTANDING THE INJURED INNOCENTS
All law-abiding citizens will celebrate the Supreme Court’s reinstatement of its judgment on disclosure by election candidates of criminal cases against them. Hats off to Jaiprakash Narain of Hyderabad for having petitioned the Supreme Court; while the rest of us wrung our hands at the politicians’ brazenness, he spotted the one institution that could stop them. But subjecting politicians to rudimentary standards of disclosure is not going to solve the problem of their substandard quality; and it should not stop us from trying to understand the system that shapes them. Unless we understand them, we will not be able to change the system. Although I saw impropriety reaching up to the highest level while I was in the government, the convolutions of the political society still baffle me. Recently I talked to a few people to understand how it works.
The first one used to be a civil servant; he has now become a entrepreneur. He worked for one of the state-level finance corporations. His job was to investigate bad loans. He found that in most cases, the entrepreneur who had been financed was a politician – an MP, an MLA – or his son, relative or protégé. The corporation was not serious about recovering the money, and discouraged him from reporting what he had found. Although he left, similar scams continue. Someone in that state captured the chief minister’s interest with a calculation that the state’s farms generated x million tons of straw, cowshit etc, which could be used to generate y million tons of biogas, which in turn could generate z megawatthours of electricity, which could be fed into the grid and relieve the power shortage. The state government worked out an arrangement with the Indian Renewable Energy Development Agency, which promised to fund the plants. A certain number were sanctioned for the state based on the estimated agricultural biomass outturn. Licences were given to MPs, MLAs and their kin and friends. If the actual investment required for a plant was, say, Rs 20 million, they applied for a loan for Rs 30 million. The difference was siphoned off by getting the plant manufacturer to overinvoice the equipment; the bio-entrepreneurs used some of it to bribe those involved in giving the licences, and pocketed the rest.
Some plants came up; then it was realized that farmers liked to feed the straw they produced to their cattle, and to burn the cowshit or turn it into compost. So the plants could not get all the biomass they needed. They were allowed to use coal to meet 30 per cent of their requirements. When an inspection was carried out, it was found that the few plants that worked were really small, high-cost coal-burning electricity generators, and sold their electricity at a high price to the state electricity board. The rest had not bothered to set up plants; presumably they pocketed all the money they borrowed.
My next interlocutor may be described as a leader of tomorrow or an incipient politician. A well spoken, well scented, well connected businesswoman, she is the Renuka Chowdhury of the north – someone who would have been a member of Parliament if only she had been a Thakur instead of a Brahmin. She gave me a rare insight into the world of politics. She said that when BJP politicians first became ministers, they were thrilled by the trappings of power – the villa, the car, the guards, the flunkeys. But then they realized that they were babes in the wood; they had no idea what they were supposed to do. They got a flood of files which they could make neither head nor tail of. Rajnath Singh tried to make sense of them by ordering that the notings should be in Hindi – an order that led to the notings becoming briefer and more cryptic. But most politicians do not like to admit that they are illiterate – they are all supposed to be graduates of one university or another – so they just meekly sign the files that are put up to them. Whence comes the feeling that civil servants are always pulling wool over their eyes. Often ministers told civil servants what exactly they wanted, but the latter found some way of frustrating the ministers. Thus the cause of the BJP government’s non-performance lay in their innocence or civil servants’ cunning depending on which way you look at it.
Non-performance would not matter if there had been no expectations; the ministers would enjoy the luxury and the ministrations of flunkeys while the Prime Minister’s pleasure lasted, and could then go back to sharing dosas in the Parliament canteen. But a minister cannot avoid expectations. As soon as he becomes a minister, supplicants start arriving. They storm the gate, enter his house, and squat until they can collar him. So the drawing room becomes unusable. The bolder ones might even enter his bathroom and steal the soap. So the doors of the drawing room have to be kept shut. Politicians have worked out ingenious solutions to this problem. For instance, after Mujeeb was released by Pakistan and reached Dacca, the Indian government sent an emissary with an important message. When he arrived at Mujeeb’s house, he found it surrounded by thousands of followers. He managed to make his way into the house and found Mujeeb; but he too was surrounded by admirers, and there was no room in the house. Finally Mujeeb took him into the toilet to receive the message.
N T Rama Rao was more resourceful. He built a two-story house. He let his hangers-on spread themselves on the ground floor; but the first floor was his. When he wanted to come down, he put on a pair of very creaky chappals. They announced his descent, and the devotees quickly sat up from the sofas they were sleeping on and took their feet off the table. By the time he got down they were standing in appropriately deferential poses. However, the BJP neophytes found it quite strenuous to handle the hordes of supplicants that materialized; their unpopularity must be attributed at least partly to their inability to oblige everyone.
That brings me to my last informant. He described to me the appointment procedure of a certain secretary in a ministry which requires some financial expertise: the concerned minister was ordered to take a certain candidate by the Highest Authority, who had been spoken to in support of the candidate by an Adi Shankaracharya, no less (and I am NOT talking of Shankar Acharya). The Highest Authority needs a lot of luck; he could not risk being cursed by the emissary of God. That is how we began to get some extremely holy and utterly clueless secretaries. We may not get great economic policies, but we are going to be very lucky. Some day.