The endless battles

The endless battles

The endless battles. This is the twenty fifth and for the time being the last of the series of articles I have been writing for HANSINDIA on my...

This is the twenty fifth and for the time being the last of the series of articles I have been writing for HANSINDIA on my experiences as a civil servant while working with the political leaders of India at the State and the Central levels. I would be travelling abroad in the coming months and therefore an account of my experiences with PM PV Narasimha Rao would have to await my return from these travels.

I gave an illustration last week of how PM Chandrasekhar looked at competence and corruption. Later at a meeting of very senior functionaries he also said that a certain amount of corruption should be acceptable. Though it pains me to write about holders of high office occasionally in a manner that is not altogether complimentary of them I must state that India and its governance would have been better off without the regime of Chandrasekhar as Prime Minister of India. It is my personal but considered opinion it was also a dark chapter in our politics. What saddens and actually frightens me is that many did not think so then or later, probably because of its short tenure. I affirm that it is not personally about Chandra Shekhar himself as about the circumstances of politics at the time and the principle of responsibility involved. Nevertheless, in this context, we also need to acknowledge that the humblest of human beings amongst us always endeavour to, and often actually manage to, rise above their circumstances.

If this is so, what about persons whom politics determines to be Prime Ministers of countries, - countries as large as India? Rising above the circumstances in the context of the dilemmas each of one us faces would mean: how much are we willing to give up of our own personal ambitions and desires in the greater interests of our country? The centrality to this manifestation of one’s character is the ability to say “no” to the temptations of office. This applies as much to civil servants recruited to permanent post like the IAS as to politicians. Even civil servants should be able to tell themselves that if they are not able to discharge their duties according to their conscience; to the best of their abilities and their potential; within the framework of the laws and ethics that regulate the processes of decision making; and in short consistent with, as taught to us by great leaders like Nehru or Ambedkar if not Gandhi, the best interests of the nation, they should simply ask for a transfer or if that is not going to serve the purpose in any given circumstances, quit their jobs and do what they can for the nation from outside the Government. In a sense, the most honest and courageous among the civil servants though working within the Government often actually work as if they are outsiders in the Government; witness the lives of an Appu or a Godbole or Parakh. And others who have endured the Government like S R Sankaran.

This is of course very difficult to do for after all none of us worked so hard in our youth as to pass the highest and in many respects the most difficult UPSC examination in the country to get into the IAS, merely to resign and walk out of such a legitimately earned job the hard way only because the political environment and circumstances created by the top leaders of the country were so unworthy of the expectations of the trusting people of India. It is difficult to do this also for the reason that it is so hard for typical IAS officers to give up their cultivated image of self-importance in the eyes of the public and their peers, especially those sitting in the country’s topmost office. And above all these is the everyday battle that is imposed on you, sometimes practically on a majority of the issues you deal with by a reckless coterie around the leader. Also should be remembered the general rule and expectation, if you have reached one of the most coveted offices in the political system, is that genuflection is the hall mark of your bureaucratic genius and therefore any thought like standing up arguing vehemently for making right decisions in the Prime Minister’s Office is never a done thing. The general rule is that whatever the PM thinks is right or, more relevantly, whatever the coterie around the PM thinks is right and has to be done.Never mind that in this process the interests of the most deserving, including even those of the other civil servants who may not have the clout or contacts with the coterie in the PMO, would be just walked over. Such situations would vary in degree from PM to PM but what I have stated here is the general kind of rule.

In the case of PM Chandrasekhar, here was a leader who did not even have enough number of parliamentarians to constitute a council of ministers but was proposed as Prime Minster by India’s so-called Grand Old Party and was sworn in by the President of India. I remember clearly that President Venkata Raman had gone on record a few weeks earlier that coalition governments had come to stay in India. That was a fact but that cliché can be no excuse to automatically impose on the country governments involving dangerous horse trading.

The standard argument, but in my view highly self-serving argument of politicians including those who become presidents, is that elections are too expensive to be held frequently and therefore even a ragtag bobtail group could be handed the governance of India till their protagonists decide to pull the carpet from under their feet so there can be an election at a time convenient to them to return to power. This is exactly what was done in November 1990. That this had happened earlier in the Choudhury Charan Singh case was no deterrent to the sensibilities of either the Congress party or the President. Everyone knows how powerful an Indian Prime Minister is; and how difficult it is to run India in terms of its foreign policy, economy, external security, internal security and its federal governance as a plural polity - just to mention a few extraordinary imperatives. Besides, not today, not after just 1998, even in 1990 India was a nuclear power and so was Pakistan. Early in 1990 we had had a standoff with Pakistan. In India’s parliamentary form of governance, while the PM is very powerful power in various branches of governance is still exercised by a number other cabinet ministers. There are extremely sensitive subjects which the PM handles like atomic energy; space; defence; external affairs; oceanography; matters pending before the judiciary; and top appointments in the civil service, armed forces, public sector undertakings and banks; but then the PM is a very busy person and therefore delegates a lot of his work to some of his ministers including answering questions in Parliament on these subjects.

What would be the relationship between a senior permanent government functionary handling the most sensitive areas among those enumerated here and a minister to whom an admittedly temporary Prime Minister has delegated his functions? I was experiencing these dilemmas in my own area of work within the PMO and was fighting battles almost on a daily basis; and I could well imagine how problematic this must have been for those secretaries and heads of scientific and other highly sensitive establishments of the government. What also distressed me most was the way that a few very senior civil servants were exploiting this situation to their advantage to the detriment of the established procedures and legitimate rights of others who would not even know their rights were being flouted. Defending them in the PMO became a nightmare for me. In short it was one huge institutional collapse according to the way I understood the principle of institutional integrity. Can India afford this is the question our citizens should ponder. This is an urgent question for Constitutional experts. It is a question for Presidents of India to reflect upon. It is a question Governors of states should contemplate. Readers would recall the unconstitutional ouster by Governor Ram Lal of NT Rama Rao and the latter’s miraculous restoration within 30 days but the Chandra Shekhar regime lasted 8 months which embraced international events like the Gulf War. The sub plot in that bigger plot was that support to him was withdrawn by the Congress within 4 months of his assuming power as PM rendering him a lame duck but in an atmosphere of the kind described by me here including the calling of the elections.

Tragically, Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated midway through the elections that brought a new Congress-led government with PV Narasimha Rao as Prime Minister. Many momentous changes would follow and be hailed as historical in the way the Indian economy was reshaped but many opportunities were also missed where the poor were concerned. The story of governance of that dispensation as seen by me would have to wait for another day.

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