Posts Tagged Corruption

The Politics, Populism and Downsides of Surgical Strikes Against Cash Transactions

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There’s no doubt that there is a good deal of anger at the ground level, against tax evaders and people who are making merry and enjoying the luxuries of life based on unaccounted funds. This anger & resentment is particularly strong among the salaried classes, wage earners and even the ‘have-not’ sections of society. Given that this anger has built up over many years, it is easy to tap into this and exploit it, using a mixture of tall promises, popular fables built up over the years ( ‘ will bring back all the unaccounted funds parked in Swiss banks & distribute it among the people’), jingoism and hyper-nationalism.

I find that the support for this has been coming from sections of NRIs, the salaried classes and wage-earners and of course the bhakts across all sections of society. Some of them, like the NRIs are of course not affected at all. The salaried classes, particularly the urban middle classes are among the least affected immediately as they have recourse to privileged treatments in banks (relationship banking is still active ) and a variety of electronic transfer of funds and transactions which is what I gather the dusted-out and much-hyped term, ‘cashless economy’, refers to .

You lost the war, the battle and me

Prof. Prabhat Patnaik on Demonetisation

Some of the support is based on brainwashing, deluded thinking and sheer hypocrisy even. For example, I find several folks I definitely know to be dealing in substantial ‘unaccounted funds’ and ‘tax evasions’ routinely as an integral part of their businesses extolling this ‘courageous and radical’ step taken by Modi-ji. They are possibly doing so because a) it is the right thing to say during these times b)they owe their allegiance to the right-wing, conservative, Hindutva proponents who are in power and have taken this step, soon after surgical strikes of a different kind against public enemy no.1, Pakistan.
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I have little doubt that they have found a way to convert their ‘unaccounted cash funds’ already, using mules who have been apparently costing around 10% and hosts of ‘convertors’ who have seized on this business opportunity and who started doing business initially for 30 – 40% of the amounts put up for conversion and are now operating even at 20% – 25%, owing to heightened competition among their ranks. Shaking up the stocks of ‘unaccounted cash funds’ one-time, which as per every informed estimate is a relatively small percentage of the total ‘black money’ in circulation, achieves little other than mindless populism. The pain, by all informed estimates, far outweighs the gain.

Why Demonetisation Won’t Help to Minimise either Black Money or Corruption

Modi’s Money Mess

India’s Strange Cash Problem – NYT

Demonetisation is a Large Shock to the Indian Economy with Little Impact on ‘Black Money’ Generation

Economics is a nuanced and rather complex subject and many experts & analysts have weighed in on the pros & cons of this move and the way it has been implemented so far and the net impacts, almost invariably, are quite negative according to almost all of them. Besides the shock-and-awe to farmers, traders, small businessmen, retailers, daily wage earners and the poorer sections of society is real and very visible even now. If some folks are blinded by ‘bhakti’ and choose not to take cognizance of these realities which does not tie in with their beliefs and ‘bhakti’ that is their problem, and not ours.

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I am not sure about the political gains & losses of this move either. Leaving aside all other sentiments & political angles, Brexit and the election of Donald Trump in recent times make little or no sense economically, among other things. Yet the proponents of Brexit, Trump and Erdogan have managed to tap into some deep-seated resentments, fear, anger and below-the-surface prejudices and biases even for stunning electoral gains in the short-term at least. Modi’s politics & promises are pretty much in the same vein.

Narendra Modi Takes A Great Leap Backwards – Mao Would Approve

Apna Paisa Funny Money

Demonetisation Has Turned India into the World’s Fastest Slowing Economy

Modi Has Brought Havoc to the Indian Economy – The Guardian

Cash is King (Facebook Post)

Why Demonetisation Will Not Eliminate Black Money or Corruption

There’s heightened consciousness & debate now, particularly after the victory of Donald Trump against all odds, about ‘fake news’ and the need to flag them off as such and curb them. While Facebook, Google and some others are trying to come up with a technology and AI based solution to the problem, no safeguards are possible I suppose against fake promises and lemons sold by ambitious politicians to their base and to large sections of the unsuspecting masses, for votes and for grabbing the levers of power, of course.

P. Chidambaram on the Demonization of Cash

Raja Mitra

 

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The Corruption Brouhaha – A Reality Check

This is a conversation on the issue of graft in the country at various levels, between Q and A. Q is a middle-aged, mid-level executive based in Delhi who works for a Telecom firm whose business ethics are questionable. As part of his official duties, Q has no hesitation in corrupting people to get the job done when it is warranted and when asked to do so by his bosses to expedite matters. A is a worldly-wise budding entrepreneur who claims to have ‘been there and done that’. He is quite opposed to corruption in all its forms but realizes that there are times when one reaches a dead-end without ‘greasing’ individuals who help to keep the wheels turning. He also has a good enough understanding of structures, systems, and processes.

Q. This corruption in high places is really ‘killing’ the country. It has never ever been so bad before, has it?

A. If stunted development of educational facilities, poor infrastructure, lack of minimum standards in healthcare, slowdown in economic growth, gross inequities in income levels, runaway inflation & inadequate employment generation are not killing you, why is corruption alone killing you?

Q. Its just not fair, these guys making so much money on the sides, stealing our money actually? They should be brought to book & severe punishment should be meted out to them.

A. Aah, so you are primarily worried about big-ticket corruption? What about small-ticket corruption, harassment bribery? Doesn’t that bother you?

A representation of the Lion Capital of Ashoka...

The Lion Capital of Ashoka

Q. All kinds & types of corruption bother me, big or small. The small guys should not be left alone either.

A. Can you put your hand on  your heart, look your colleagues in the eye & honestly state that you have never ever either indulged in or encouraged, either tacitly or overtly, small-ticket corruption?

Q. I didn’t want to, but I had no recourse. I was stuck and without paying there was no way out. Everybody pays up in these situations you know.

A. Ok, let’s get to big-ticket corruption. How does that affect you directly or indirectly?

Q. It’s my money that they are stealing, isn’t it? Makes me mad.

A. Not really. Big-ticket corruption is usually between two individuals or institutions, one of whom has the power to provide a certain service or grant a favour and the other feels a need for that service or craves that favour for certain anticipated gains. Supposing we reclassify it as a fee being paid for a certain service or favour, would it still bother you so much?

Q. But it’s wrong, it’s dishonest and it’s hurting the country, isn’t it?

A. In some cases it may be speeding up a product or a service which, in the normal course, wouldn’t have been available for a while. Don’t you therefore think that sometimes it may have a salutary effect?

Corrupt Legislation. Mural by Elihu Vedder. Lo...

Corrupt Legislation : A mural by Elihu Vedder

While China may be somewhat better than India as far as corruption is concerned, it still remains quite low down in the ‘corruption rankings’. Most corruption in China is ‘institutionalized’ and of the big-ticket variety. Do you think corruption has impeded in any way the dazzling progress the country has made, virtually in all spheres, over the last two decades?

Q. My blood boils when I think about how corrupt our leaders are!

A. Look, corruption has always been a fact of life in India, particularly during the days of the license-permit Raj. The nexus between big business & politics has always been a reality. With accelerated economic growth & a quantum jump in the size of the projects executed, naturally the total amounts changing hands have increased significantly.

It is also a fact that the media has opened up a lot more than earlier and while certain sections of  the mainstream media

Pranab Mukherjee, Finance Minister

may be aligned with certain political parties there are enough other players in the arena who are always sniffing around for news of this kind and are not either afraid of or inhibited about putting it out. In fact both the 2G Telecom scam as well as the CWG mess were first brought to the notice of the public by smaller media players before the mainstream media picked up the refrain after some months.

Kapil Sibal - Union Minister for HRD & Telecom

The RTI Act which came into being in 2005 is also a pretty powerful tool which can be used both by the citizens and the media to get at certain facts & uncover them. And the growing popularity of social media has ensured that information dissemination and exchange of facts, thoughts & views can take place very, very quickly over cyberspace. It has also given rise to a degree of ‘citizen journalism’ even though this may be in its fledgling stages currently in India.

Q. Thank god that people like Anna Hazare & his group of ‘activists’ brought this issue centre stage!

A. If you carefully check out the facts, big-ticket corruption issues like the 2G Telecom scam & the CWG scam have been very much in the public domain almost for a couple of years before Anna Hazare & his people first emerged on the scene. The media kept on relentlessly highlighting it, it was a hot topic of discussion on social media & the opposition picked up the gauntlet as well, forcing the govt. to appoint a JPC to look into the 2G Telecom scam issue. The Supreme Court also kept up their relentless vigil on the whole issue and did not allow the various government agencies to brush the investigations under the carpet. In an unprecedented move a sitting Cabinet Minister was sacked, investigated and sent to jail along with various other players, including a M.P. who belongs to one of the constituent parties of the UPA and is the daughter of the party’s founder and the erstwhile C.M. of Tamil Nadu.  Several owners & CEOs of Telecom organizations who were the beneficiaries of the Telecom Minister’s benevolence have also been jailed. Suresh Kalmadi, a sitting M.P. of the Congress and a key member of its Parliamentary party who has also been the long-time & undisputed chief of several powerful sports bodies including the Indian Olympic Association has been jailed for the CWG scam together with several of his top officials. Actions of this kind against such powerful politicians, officials & prominent businesspersons has never before been seen in independent India. Bapat (Anna) Hazare and his group leapt into the fray after all this had taken place and thus can be suspected to be possibly crassly opportunistic.

Q. But Anna Hazare is a true Gandhian and is committed to Gandhi’s methods of fast & non-violence to pressurize this corrupt government.

Anna Hazare - Delhi

Bapat Baburao Hazare aka Anna

A. This government is one elected through a true democratic process. However flawed Indian democracy might be, the media is free, citizens can check out vital information through the RTI, contrary views & opinions can be voiced through the media or through many other forums set up for the purpose. There may be good and bad elements who are a part of the government. One may also agree or not agree with what the government does. If one does not agree with most of the govt’s actions & decisions one always has the option to vote out the govt. after 5 years, provided a majority feel the same way. Hence tarring the entire govt. with a black brush is in a way akin to blackening your own face.

Q. Who is going to wait five years every time. Besides all politicians are corrupt and need to be taught a lesson. India badly needs an ‘Arab Spring’ kind of revolutionary change. Jantar Mantar could soon become the new ‘Tahrir Square’.

A. What are your alternatives?  You could dismantle the present democratic structure of course, but then what do you plan to replace it with? Invite the Maoists for a shot at ruling the country? And if you think all politicians are venal, why don’t you actively help in getting a better person elected from your constituency the next time elections are held. Maybe you could stand yourself.

Also have you taken stock of what the ‘Arab Spring’ has achieved so far, if at all. Changes have happened in only two countries, one of which, Tunisia is an inconsequential state even within the Mid-East’s pecking order of nations. The other, Egypt, is in a state of transition with the army in charge currently. While Mubarak’s regime has been dismantled, already Egyptians are divided over whether he should be tried in a court of law and punished for his alleged misdemeanours or left strictly alone as a senior leader who also did a number of good things for the country. When elections will take place and what kind of government will come to power eventually is still anybody’s guess.

Q. Are you trying to say this government has provided good governance and done the right things as far as issues like

Baba Ramdev

corruption are concerned?

A. Not at all. They have had major issues concerning governance. There are many intrinsic problems, including an ‘appointed’ Prime Minister who is a classical wimp and is apparently answerable only to the party chief, Sonia Gandhi. The party chief and her son, Rahul Gandhi, who is one of the General Secretaries of the party, seem to be involved in making all the major decisions behind-the-scenes but they are really accountable to no one in particular. In addition to that there must be major internecine battles going on within the Congress party. All this adds up to a chaotic situation where no one is really in control firmly. This leads to an environment where governance aberrations start becoming more the norm rather than the exception and things just don’t get done.

Q. That is why Anna and the ‘civil society’ took up the cause of eliminating corruption strongly.

A. If you analyze objectively, they have actually made things worse. They ‘pushed’ their way into a government committee, comprising senior cabinet ministers, and got caught between the devil and the deep sea.  The team, including Bapat Baburao Hazare, doesn’t inspire confidence, consisting as it does of a sitting Lok Ayukta from Karnataka whose track record till date is quite poor, two activist lawyers with dubious antecedents who also happen to be a father-son duo and an activist who was till sometime back a civil servant and now runs an NGO.

After a few meetings they restarted the circus and started mud-slinging publicly and going on well-publicized single-day fasts even. Can you ever imagine two sets of people abusing & denigrating each other publicly and then sitting in a meeting and achieving anything substantive at all?

Q. But they have been demanding that the Lok Pal should have jurisdiction over all ministers, including the Prime Minister. Is that an unfair demand?

A. Provided there are enough checks & balances it is not. But then have you given a thought to the process of selection of the Lok Pal and his office? An ‘independent’ ombudsman who may turn into a rogue can be a serious threat to the administration and to an elected government. Such a ‘rogue’ ombudsman may bring decision-making and executive action about any issue to a virtual standstill. A well thought-out system of checks & balances needs to be implemented in parallel with the office of an independent, all-powerful ombudsman. The supervisor needs to be supervised.

Q. You have been mostly talking about what won’t or may not work. Why don’t you talk about what will?

A. Curbing corruption is a complex issue. It needs a whole series of structural, administrative and legislative changes, in addition to a change in the mindsets of people. One of the major sources of corruption is the electoral process in the country. To curb this, political parties need to be closely scrutinized and audited for their sources and usages of funds. Campaign finance reforms need to be initiated at multiple levels. One doesn’t quite see the proposed Lok Pal bill laying any emphasis on such issues.

There was a suggestion sometime back by the Chief Economic Advisor, GOI, about ways of curbing small-ticket corruption or what he termed as ‘harassment bribery’. Do browse an interesting discussion on the issue to appreciate the complexities of the task here.

In the absence of a well thought-out initiative, merely the addition of a Lok Pal may just mean addition of another layer of bureaucracy which, while pandering to populist sentiments, would hardly be effective in curbing corruption. At best, the incremental effect may be fairly marginal, at worst, nothing may change eventually.

A. I don’t want to listen to all your depressing arguments. My friends are right now calling me to join a candlelight march on the issue which they would be starting in the next one hour. I have to leave now. We will win, come what may. { Anna ….. Anna ….Baba …Anna….Baba…..Vitthala …..Vitthala ….Guruji }

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Is India the World’s Most Populous Democracy Or A Banana Republic Threatening To Implode?

Manmohan Singh, current prime minister of India.

Image via Wikipedia

Unlikely though it may sound, the exchanges below resulted from an initial post in a social media site, Facebook to be precise. If you thought FB was merely about status updates, pics of birthday parties and barely concealed narcissism, read on to be pleasantly surprised:

The protagonists in this discussion are Biswajit Dutta who started the ball rolling with his post, yours truly and several other people, who pitched in at various stages of the discussion. To maintain reader interest, I have added some material by way of additional links to relevant articles and pictures.

Biswajit Dutta (BD henceforth)

Had enough of scams & political turbulence ! This UPA government hesitant to come clean(the shameless CVC isn’t quitting after all) is stone walling all demands for a transparent probe . I say Manmohan Singh must go . A bungling spineless puppet & a root less politician(masquerading as PM) unwilling & unable to control his flock has no business to continue . The buck stops with him .

Suman Bhowmik (SB henceforth):

How can thomas resign? he has been handpicked by the all powerful madam who insists on having the corrupt & spineless (often christians) in key positions that will allow her a free run through state coffers e.g. the chairs of the cvc or the president. the man thus can’t even shit in his pants without madam’s permission!!

Me : (RM henceforth)

India has had all manners of PMs, spanning the entire spectrum from the good to the bad and the ugly. Blue Turban however would surely go down in history as the most ineffective one, a captain who has just no control over his ship, a wimp who is only too glad to enjoy the honour, prestige and perks bestowed by the seat while affairs are controlled and manipulated by the Royal Family of India ably aided and abetted by the eternal gomusta, Pranab Mukherjee.

Pranab Mukherjee, Indian politician, current F...

Image via Wikipedia

BD:

It’s a disgrace that the CVC continues . He was selected over two others despite severe corruption charges against him . Now even after the Supreme Court strictures , the Govt. refuses to release him . Maybe he knows too much about the telecom scam . Might chortle if he is out of office . That would be highly inconvenient to Congress .

This Prime Minister is the worst in my book . Clinging on to his chair like a limpet devoid of self respect . The lures of office are surely too attractive to relinquish .

SB:

Frankly, we need either a benovalent dictator or army rule for for 10 years – long enough to instill discipline in the country through rank & file and wipe out the present crop of assholes masquareding as politicians of every colour!! neither looks likely. but to have a combo of chandrababu, nitish, modi running the state with help of jaswant, jaitley, pranab, diggy & few others looks the best bet.

RM:

I can understand your utter frustration with the state of affairs and that of every well-meaning Indian. However autocracy or authoritarian rule may not be the way to go – the risks far outweigh the perceived benefits (check out Pakistan’s history as an example).
Suggesting solutions may seem trite and a somewhat futile exercise but here’s my 2 bits:

The people must find a way to hold any government

DELHI. With Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari ...

Image via Wikipedia

President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Ma...

Image via Wikipedia

that they elect accountable. And, to ensure such accountability, info, knowledge and audit procedures must be strengthened. I do have some ideas about how this can be done and have mentioned them in bits and pieces elsewhere so I shall not dwell on them again here.

Also, since the British parliamentary model hasn’t quite served India during the last 60 years or so, shouldn’t there be a serious discussion about possibly switching over to the Presidential model (like the U.S.).? If nothing else, imagine the billions that would be saved every year by abolishing the nominal Governors and Raj Bhavans and the nominal President together with the Rashtrapati Bhavan?

First though, to even initiate all this, the country needs a leader – an elected one and not an appointed one –

BRIC leaders

Image via Wikipedia

with leadership qualities, charisma & vision. Once that is in place, some of the other things would follow logically.

People must choose leaders at every level who articulate their ambitions and objectives – earthy & pragmatic ones & not rhetorical ones or mumbo-jumbo like introducing ‘socialism’ compatible with say Lenin’s left cojone for example. The hypocrisy and shamming has to be dropped at every level. If most people want prosperity, material wealth, a better quality of life etc., they and their leaders must clearly articulate those aims & objectives. Otherwise it is becoming a country either with no defined objectives or totally faux objectives because of which, once in power, its open season for rogues & scammers (in an oligarchy, only a small coterie accumulates wealth & power).

SB:

Agree. no system can truly substitute for a democracy. but for that to function ideally, the enabling conditions are adequate education, full information & fair elections. While we seem to have managed the last, the political class has ensured we are way behind in the first two. and unless we can develop a system of recalling & punishing non-performing & corrupt politicians at all levels they will never allow the changes required. That can only happen if good men enter politics with a vengeance!!

RM:

President Barack Obama meets with Prime Minist...

Image via Wikipedia

You’re very right. I wish the people make aspects like education, vocational training, infrastructure major election issues. Its basic human nature to want prosperity, a better quality of life, material possessions, comforts etc.,. Owing to certain age-old social hangovers & the bs propagated by these rogues in the garb of politicians, people have become defocused and confused. Elections are fought many a times mainly on some local, petty issues. The bigger picture is thus not addressed.

Re: availability of info, I daresay the situation is overall much better than it was, say 2 decades ago. The momentous RTI legislation passed by the Vajpayee govt. has helped quite a lot I believe. Non-conventional sources of info, the internet have all helped in this regard. I wish someone starts an Indian version of Wikileaks. I am sure if they are assured of complete confidentiality, there will be no dearth of whistleblowers, exposing many more scams and putting corrupt politicians and bureaucrats on the backfoot.

While on the subject, a friend sent me the links recently to this talk by ‘Dr. Subramanian Swamy. I know the man is considered cranky, whimsical and eccentric by many. Be that as it may, the contentions he makes here haven’t been emphatically disputed or challenged leading me to believe that there possibly is some degree of truth. As he says, on some of these issues he has filed petitions in the Supreme Court also. Here’s the link to the post.
http://goo.gl/N6Auk

BD:

Elections being fought on local issues is an universal phenomenon . The common American wants out of Iraq or Afghanistan as he relates with horror to the body bags of his friends & relatives . He does not loose sleep over national strategic interests . Very few look at the big picture . That’s for Obama & Hillary to ponder . It is another matter that what is good for the individual , more often than not , is also good for the whole . If you maximize individual welfare , barring a few exceptions & conflicts of interest which ultimately evens out at a macro level , you also maximize aggregate welfare . If local elections are fought on local issues of bijli , sadak , pani , naukri , law & order & better prices of produce – I have no objection to it . It ultimately boils downs to good governance .

In India what distorts the picture & prevents fair reflection of popular voice are :-
a)Caste system .

Singhbushlula

Image via Wikipedia

b)Black money & corruption .
c)Muscle power .
While we could have done with higher literacy , I believe in the robust common sense of people . They know what is good for them & unless the above 3 factors distort the scenario , they vote for the right candidate . The common Indian has plenty of horse sense to do right by themselves .

I would stick with the Westminster model of democracy that has stood the test of time in India . (a) Social reforms & progressive elimination of caste system is the need of the hour . (b) Black money generation & corruption are the main bottlenecks that shall curtail India’s growth story . We have to find ways of unearthing the massive parallel economy . Partial amnesty , institutional funding of elections , reduction in tax rates & better compliance are major issues that the govt is addressing . But somehow there is a lack of will to go all the way due to vested political interests .(c)Coercion is a law & order function that can be tackled .

I feel black money is the single most important bugbear . Find a way to effectively tackle that & India , sooner rather than later , shall realize its full potential .

RM:

If the economy doesn’t turn around reasonably soon and enough people aren’t able to secure jobs, make a decent living & put bread on the table, anything else Obama and his administration may do, would be immaterial. It is highly doubtful whether he would win a 2nd term in that case. As Bill Cinton rightly surmised and stated during his initial campaign, “Its the economy, stupid.”

Local issues are fine so long as they relate to the basic hierarchy of most people’s needs – food, education, opportunities for earning, quality of life etc., in their location or region. Ideally, in fact that is what it should be. What I meant was Indian politician’s introducing factors like caste, religious minorities etc., to drive a wedge among people and create vote banks for themselves. People don’t realize that these divisions eventually don’t do the majority any good.

Sometimes common sense may be pretty uncommon and if most people knew what is good for them, they would have held politicians and leaders to much higher standards than they have in India. It is the lack of accountability (and of course the lack of punishments) which encourages politicians to perpetrate scams. I for one wouldn’t be surprised if guys like Kalmadi & A. Raja are re-elected come the next elections. How do you explain the large numbers of politicians with criminal back grounds and cases pending against them who are elected to Assemblies and to the Parliament?
http://goo.gl/ZkCGX

Indian democracy, just over 60 years old, is pretty young by historical standards. If it hasn’t quite delivered, its time to make significant mid-course corrections, without of course doing away with democracy altogether. The social, cultural, economic, ethnic and a whole lot of other parameters are vastly different in India, compared to the U.K. or certain other countries in W. Europe. Hence merely transplanting that model to India, without changes and adaptations, as was done in 1947, I still believe was a major folly for which the country has been paying a heavy price.

BD:

I appreciate your reasoning but would still go by the model of democracy practiced in India . I feel there is nothing wrong with the system per se . The problem lies in its proper implementation . It is the practitioners who have let Indian democracy down . Set the faults right & implement a strategy to curb corruption . I am sure we shall be on track . There are sufficient checks & balances . Else , the chances of success under any other model including the US presidential model may not to be bright either . Will caste , graft or communal issues not warp the outcome of elections under other systems ? The Swiss model of direct democracy – referendum/initiative/recall , prima facie looks a good option . The question however remains as to how to work such a system in India with its large geographical expanse & diversity ? A method has to suit the geography , genius & diversity of the people where it is proposed to be introduced . India is too plural & may not lend itself to a great deal of experimentation or tinkering .

RM:

Image representing Facebook as depicted in Cru...

Image via CrunchBase

Implementation of systems is one of the major issues, I agree. Systems exist on paper. They are either not implemented or subverted easily. Certain systems (e.g. the legal system) are creaking and on the verge of breaking down because of a host of well known factors. Enforcement of systems is another major problem area.

Then

Gordon Brown and Manmohan Singh

Image by Downing Street via Flickr

again, red-tapism and bureaucracy is still so frustrating that using existing laws and regulations, some ‘babu’ or the other can just you hold you up endlessly. When one wants to cut through the red-tape, corruption mostly pops up as the recourse.

Also, for a developing country, there are far too many layers of officialdom and elected reps. Take W. Bengal as a case study. The accumulated debt of the State Govt. is USD 46 billion. It is really stretched to pay the wages of even State Govt. employees (what is the productivity of these State govt. employees; lets not get there even, because that’s a horror story). Add to that the expenses (direct & indirect; also official and unofficial) of electing and maintaining numerous MLAs,councillors etc., Throw in the costs of maintaining a Governor. What are the benefits that accrue to the people as a result of all this and at what cost? If you look at the diminishing returns of all these expenses (one has to add in all the unofficial expenses, including scams, corruption etc.,) wouldn’t you say that changes and reforms are needed to ensure that such unproductive expenditures and leakages mostly are controlled and minimised at least?

BD:

But US also has governors & states . How will its system of representative democracy & Presidential system help in ameliorating India’s status ? We have to cut costs & the debt mountain . Slash bureaucracy , prune by legislative fiat the bloated ministry sizes – both at centre & states(a limit on no. of ministers as a proportion to assembly size is already existent , make it harsher) , flatten the administrative structure , reduce the expanding tiers & hierarchies . The lesser the quantum of intermediaries between ministers/key officials & the average man on the street , lesser the chances of corruption . Babudom has to be minimised . Intensify use of IT in administration & truncate role of middlemen/lobbyists/power brokers . And yes , introduce state funding of elections . But all this boils down to need for a more efficient administration rather than a searing indictment of Indian democratic framework .

RM:

I am not advocating transplanting the U.S. system wholesale. That would be another mistake, much like transplanting the British system was many years back. Any system needs to be modified and adapted based on local characteristics & prevailing parameters. Systems also need to be dynamic and evolve and change over a period of time, rather than be static. Intense discussions and deliberations in this regard have to happen before a suitable and workable system emerges and it is disappointing to find that there are no discussions on even in this regard, currently in India.

As I have mentioned, democracy, with its many imperfections, I still believe is the best bet for India. However any objective analysis will show that the present system, for a host of reasons which can be discussed till the cows come home, hasn’t delivered. India has grown and even prospered in parts not because of its political system but in spite of it. The sheer size of its domestic economy, its demographics and private entrepreneurship are some of the key factors in the growth story if one again analyzes the economic and other related parameters.

I must confess though that talking of various prescriptions to remedy the current situation is futile armchair preaching, which I plead guilty to as well. Lot of these prescriptions are nothing new or novel. Many people have talked about these for a while. Management text-books, economists, plenty of other professionals will state what needs to be done. How will it happen and who will do it are the issues which remain unanswered. For whatever reasons, it hasn’t quite happened and, let’s face it, will not happen anytime soon. What then is the remedy?

Again, I must confess, I have no easy or ready answers to that query. As some of you may have noticed, I had mentioned sometime back that possibly, given the present state of affairs and the present system, India in its present form is ungovernable. Some friends countered that possibly that was a rather too pessimistic & negative line of thought. Well, I quite believe in being positive and personally am a ‘can-do’ kind of guy but I must say, at least I have no ready answers really to what can be done, realistically and pragmatically speaking.

The U.S. Presidential system vs. the British Parliamentary System is a huge topic so I am not even going there right now. However I can’t help mentioning some very fundamental differences which I believe are clearly in its favour.

1. The President / Governor once elected to office can effectively function as a CEO mostly. He can appoint his own team and find the best man for a job, at times cutting right across party affiliations. He can bring in professionals from any field, academics, corporate etc., without worrying about what their political leanings may be. He is not necessarily dependent on party high commands, powerful coteries within his party etc., solely to build his team.

2. The person and his/her track record, potential and capabilities are mainly evaluated and voted on by the electorate, at times cutting across party affiliations. Which is why one could easily have Republican Presidents / Governors when the Congress / Senate say has a Democratic majority and vice versa. The chances of the best person for the job, out of those who have thrown their hat into the ring, getting elected are thus considerably brighter than a typical British parliamentary system.

3. Each important appointee of the President / Governor is first scrutinized by the full Congress / Senate. In many an instance, the nomination of a person the President / Governor may be pushing for a particular post is struck down by a majority owing to blemishes in the person’s history or track record. This is a bipartisan process. This ensures a certain degree of quality and far more merit-based appointments.

4. All important elected positions including that of President / Governors is for a max of 2 terms i.e. for a 8 year period, provided the person can get successfully re-elected after the first 4 years. Consolidation of power and formation of long-standing oligarchies and coteries is thus avoided to quite an extent.

BD:

Good points .
1)Realistically how far can a President/Governor of US rise above party affiliations ? The extent of free hand also depends of the stature/clout/grassroots support/personality/profile of incumbent . Can they afford to antagonize the party rank & file ? Otherwise the CEO runs a real risk of having his proposed bills being repudiated by the Congress/Senate & rendering his position untenable . For instance , what’s the status of Obama presently after his recent electoral reverses ? Can he ride roughshod over the Democrats during the residual term of his Presidency
2)With drastic political polarization in US , scope of bipartisan consensus is limited .
3)The counterpart of President/Governor in India shall be the PM/CM . How much autonomy they enjoy is a function of their local clout , personality , goodwill & mass support base . The weaker the CEO , the larger shall be the vice like grip of the High Command . Manmohan Singh is that example . However , there have been numerous instances at the central/state level where the PM/CM have driven the party & not vice – versa . We don’t need to look too far . Recall Indira Gandhi & YSR .
4)An assertive PM/CM can definitely break free of the shackles of party & have technocrats in ministries/administration . Manmohan Singh as FM under Narasimha Rao & Sam Pitroda as technology adviser to Rajiv Gandhi come to mind . The CEO has to be precise about his priorities & demarcate his sphere of influence with the blessings of his party . That is possible in India .
5)A system of scrutiny of significant govt appointments like CAG , CVC is also extant here . The leader of the opposition is a part of their selection process . The ruling party with its numbers can of course push through dubious candidates(like the present CVC) , but that can happen in America as well .
6)Limiting the terms of PM/CM in India as well may not be a bad idea . In addition to development of coteries/vested interests around long serving incumbents , there is an aspect of limited shelf life as well . You need fresh ideas & approaches periodically which a new person can introduce .
7)An independent judiciary & free press are two pillars of a functioning democracy . With the rapidly spreading cancer of corruption in India , I fear for these two institutions . Already some high profile journalists have been compromised .
8)We can amend our constitution to make it responsive to change & adapt some global best practices . However I still maintain that there is nothing drastically wrong with the idea & conceptual framework of Indian democracy . What we have to guard against is diminution of moral values in our society leading to phenomenal levels of dishonesty in our system .

RM:

Responding to interesting points mentioned by you.

The U.S. situation, as far as Presidents & governors are concerned is a complex one dependent on many parameters and on the person’s image and charisma too. There isn’t one way or formula which works. But if the President’s / Governor’s popularity ratings remain high, the party almost always swing around behind him. In certain cases, if they don’t, he can actually tell them to go climb trees instead.

Look at Arnie in California. A predominantly Democrat state, traditionally returning the largest no. of democrats to Congress has elected and re-elected a Republican governor for 2 terms.

MK_RahulGandhi2

Image by Presidency Maldives via Flickr

Obama’s problems are partly of his own making. He indulged in lofty rhetoric and soaring promises of change and hasn’t delivered on those at all. He hasn’t quite delivered on the economy too though one must say he is trying his best and can’t quite be faulted if things haven’t exactly turned round as quickly as the electorate may have expected. Statistics show that the large base of young and undecided voters who helped elect him to office have largely deserted him in the last elections and have mostly stayed away or swung to the other side.

The PM / CM in India and the President / Governor in the U.S. are definitely not the same. The President / Governor enjoys far greater powers and autonomy virtually like the CEO of an orgn. A study of the systems will make that amply apparent. He doesn’t need party sanctions or legislative sanctions in many cases for getting certain things done. He can veto something passed by the Congress or Senate if he doesn’t approve of it.

It is extremely doubtful whether any U.S. President would have been able to ‘push through’ the appointment of the CVC as you have mentioned. The very hint of a ‘scam’ in his past record would have been enough for many Congresspersons & Senators of both parties to vote against nominating him. The President wouldn’t even have pushed under the circumstances as that would have quite tarnished his public image. In this case I believe the guy was appointed despite a formal objection from the leader of the opposition. That’s a stark example of either inadequate systems or dysfunctional ones.

Ashok Chavan with Sonia Gandhi in a Rally

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Also look at the quality of the Secys and various other appointees in the U.S. consistently and look at the general quality and calibre of ministers in India over the years. Your examples of Pitroda & MMS are hardly apt. Pitroda except for a few years hardly mattered in any sphere and was blown away as soon as Rajiv Gandhi exited. MMS’ pathetic predicament as an ‘appointed’ PM has been much discussed and talked about so I am not even going there.

You have mentioned personalities time & again. Sure, personalities do matter in any sphere, be it politics, corporate or academic. However evolving and implementing a system with enough checks and balances is the key to a functioning and vibrant democracy. No one’s saying it is perfect. However the U.S. system is far more evolved in that respect with its systems, safeguards and checks and balances. India may have systems on paper but more often than not, they are observed in the breach.

Finally, barring some intervening years when the Janata Dal / BJP held sway, wouldn’t you say that India has actually been a one-family rule, which is not even an oligarchy but a monarchy of sorts? Isn’t it downright pathetic that a country of 1.2 billion people can’t find people to helm its affairs outside of the one family which has ruled it since independence?

And how did it all start? Because Gandhi liked Nehru as his chief acolyte and ‘appointed’ him as the head of the govt. of an independent India? Was there any open discussion or election within the party as to who should become the PM? No. Was any attempt made to listen to dissenting opinions and voices? No. And once this man assumed the top job, his family members kept getting inducted and then elevated to the top job time & time again over 6 decades barring minor breaks in between. Can you imagine this ever happening in the U.S.? Well in their 300 years of history it hasn’t happened so far and it is not likely to happen anytime soon.

Together with a compromised judiciary, corrupt politicians and bureaucracy and systems which are largely dysfunctional, added to one-family rule for about 5 decades of its 6 decades old independence, is India even a functioning democracy, let alone a vibrant one? Despite any amount of rhetoric or assertions that it indeed is, I remain deeply sceptical because to me facts on the ground are what matters and seeing is believing and so far whatever I have read, heard and seen, doesn’t convince me in the least that it is.

BD:

Extremely convincing & persuasive . Must confess , I am seeing the situation more from your perspective after this debate . A few observations –
a)I was merely drawing parallels with positions under US system when I was referring to PM/CM in India. How can their powers & responsibilities be identical when the models of democracy pursued by USA & India are radically different – Presidential & Parliamentary respectively?
b)When I was referring to personalities , I was just mentioning how the stature , popularity , charisma & mass base of a PM/CM can alter their power equations with party . An assertive CEO who has risen through the ranks(& not foisted by the party) & is also a mass leader can enjoy considerable autonomy , room for manoeuvre(even a carte blanche) within the Indian political system . The party has little option but to fall in line . There have been plenty of such powerful regional satraps under the Indian political dispensation .
c)If the fundamentals of the nation state are flawed & the moral fibre is vitiated , as is evidenced in India today , any system whether US or India would throw up garbage . I diagnose corruption to be India’s primary malaise & ways & means have to be found to manage it . With black economy constituting at least 50% of India’s GDP & billions of dollars being salted away to tax havens abroad , serious introspection is called for . India can grow in double digits(with hugely positive multiplier on the distributive aspect too) even if a fraction of the parallel economy surfaces . Since the political machinery spews a major component of it , India needs a major revamp of its political set up . One way could be state funding of elections . There needs to be several other measures as well to clean up our Augean Stables .
d)I agree one party & one family rule has its shortcomings . But if a family has unique charisma & is the mai – baap of the bulk of rural populace , how can the Indian democracy be faulted ? CPI(M) in West Bengal has undoubtedly been a major beneficiary of rigging . No such accusation can be hurled at the Congress . They have won elections fair & square & have chosen the Nehru-Gandhi’s as their leader . What’s wrong with that ? It is the Congress party’s prerogative to choose their leader . What the Congress can of course be faulted with is the absence of inner party democracy & their atrocious process of ad hoc High Command selection of CMs or PM(as with MMS) .
e)Raja , we can debate this issue ad nauseam & arrive at no definitive conclusion . Wholesale reforms like introduction of US Presidential model isn’t going to happen . The Parliamentary form is here to stay in India for good . We have to suggest changes within the existing framework . Amend the constitution to make our system work better . I for instance like the US convention of fixed terms for President/Governor . In India this is not possible as an incumbent govt itself doesn’t have a fixed term , what to speak of PM/CM . This situation generates intense horse trading for numbers(though an amendment has been implemented about disqualification of MPs/MLAs) & aggravates corruption . Politicians find a way to circumvent the laws .
f)How about a fixed term of Parliament/State Legislature(no early dissolution) ?

Sonia gandhi early days

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The MP/MLA’s enter house through hustings . The house is convened by the speaker & the parties nominate their respective leader & his running mate – the deputy leader , candidates . Let the house elect a leader/deputy leader from among its members with a fixed term of 5 years . That would ensure the PM/CM has a relatively free hand & fixed tenure .
g)Let each appointment of minister recommended by PM/CM also be debated , vetted & voted by the members of house . That would be an improvement over the present arbitrariness .

RM:

Yes the topic can be up for endless discussions. I do believe though that a lot has to happen first for systemic and structural changes to happen. In addition to development of people and human resources, mindsets have to change and possibly major upheavals have to happen.

Have you looked at China as an example? Dazzling degree of development, complete transformation of the business and industrial landscape, great improvements in infrastructure, education, vocational training, generation of employment opportunities have all happened on a scale unthinkable in India over the last 2 decades mainly. Check out what Shanghai or Beijing are like today compared to what they were say in the late 80s or early 90s. Look at what their railroads, buses, roads etc., are like today compared to say two decades ago. They are comparable to the finest cities in the world today. How can they achieve all these over the last 2 decades?
Based on my observations and experiences over the last 15 years or so, let me identify some very basic factors:

1. The govt. had a grand plan, a vision about where they want to get to, in 5,10 or 20 years time. In addition to their collective thinking on this issue, they got the needed inputs from some of the best brains in this regard from the world over. If they had to pay top dollars in terms of consultancy fees to some of these people they weren’t hesitant to do so.

2. Once the plan and all its elements was in place, they set milestones for themselves and went about relentlessly implementing it. Yes there is corruption and even institutionalized corruption but the big difference is that at the end of it all, people must deliver and results as planned must be obtained. You know what would have happened to people like Suresh Kalmadi, even if he was a senior member of the party, the moment it was discovered that he had screwed up while preparing for the CWG? He would have been arrested within days, the trial would have been over in 3-4 weeks at the most and at the end of it all, if found guilty, he would have been put behind bars for a long time. Besides, they would have promptly done whatever is necessary to recover as best as possible, the amounts he had embezzled.

3. Is the average mainland Chinese unhappy at the state of affairs? No way. The equation is pretty simple – they want to get ahead in life, realize their ambitions re: wealth, quality of life etc., and are prepared to work hard at every step of the way (e.g. education, work) to do so. The govt. facilitates this greatly at every stage in the process (education, infrastructure, job & business opportunities, attracting investments etc., etc.,).

Hu Jintao at the G20 Smmit

Image by Downing Street via Flickr

4. It may be one party rule but the top leaders have a wealth of diverse & relevant experience over many years and need to have a pretty good track record generally to be even considered for the top job. Yes there is politics, coteries at work, group dynamics etc., which, I think,  is unavoidable in any large organization but there is also a process of collective vetting which goes on internally. For example if certain high-powered groups and committees, don’t ratify & approve of the guy there is no way he can get to the top job. Once in the top job he has to adhere to a blueprint for running the nation which is already drawn up and which is constantly monitored, benchmarked and amended if necessary. He has to deliver as per the defined milestones and if he makes any major slip-ups, he will be deposed & replaced with someone else by these committees. The process may not be transparent to the outside world but then is the way the board of a private corporation functions transparent to the outside world?

Look at the CVs of most U.S. Presidents over the years. Whether one agrees or disagrees with their personalities or their policies mostly people like Bush Sr., or Clinton are right for the top job given their good educational background and commendable track records be it as Governor, Senator, head of govt. agencies like the CIA etc.,

Now, if you compare all this with examples like Sanjay & Rajiv Gandhi, Sonia or Rahul, you will begin to see my point about what I meant while mentioning that this is actually a monarchy. Aside from a couple of years of experience after being thrust into the position of party general secretary, do you have a clear idea of what Rahul’s background and experience has been say till the age of 35? Can you tell me what his plans for the country may be after he assumes the top job and how he evolved those plans in the first place? Since he neither seems to have the background nor the necessary experience to have formulated such plans himself, do you know who were the people who helped him to formulate those plans? And more importantly, do you know the details of how he plans to implement those plans and what are the milestones for their implementation? Would the people vote him to power because they are impressed generally about his plans & vision and are convinced about his implementation strategy or just because he is the son of Rajiv & Sonia Gandhi, has a pleasant face and a nice smile and is a scion of the Nehru – Gandhi family which has anyway held sway over the country for decades? If most people are convinced that it’s a darned difficult job to govern India, how can they put someone at the helm of affairs who doesn’t seem to have either the background or the experience for the top job, whose vision for the country is not generally known and whose implementation strategy is utterly unclear (is there any plan at all or just a desire to go with the flow and be in power whatever it takes?)

Bill Clinton - yes, I took this photo

Image by Creativity+ Timothy K Hamilton via Flickr

Let me tell you the answer to some of those. Most people don’t even think along those lines. They vote based on possibly some petty local issues, money and muscle-power and as a result the Congress say cobbles a majority with the help of some regional parties to whom carrots like ‘lucrative’ ministerships and various other money-making avenues are held out. Once this is in place, Rahul G automatically becomes the PM in any case because every MP knows that he is the choice of the Chairperson (his mother) & the High Command (mother’s stooges) and since there is no democracy within the party and no process of electing and ratifying who will be the leader of the govt., any opposition to the idea on their part will possibly mean a summary expulsion from the party.

Is this what you would call a functioning democracy, far less a vibrant one?

You know why any discussion about any changes in the system is utterly futile and actually a waste of time? Because the people who have to initiate the process for any changes, have a vested interest in ensuring that these kind of changes don’t happen anytime in the future, because if they do happen, it will be greatly to their disadvantage (most of them anyway). Hence they will do all they can to maintain status quo at best (at worst, things will get a lot worse before something snaps). Therefore, you have a dead-end kind of situation.

Partho Datta:

I believe MMS should resign but Congress may not let him since it wud be an admission of negligence. Plus, the Prince of Wales won’t be risked when there are so many scams to handle.

Sure, scarcity, the Executive’s power to say yea/nay and poor oversight boost corruption. The primary source however is avarice. Structural changes might not happen in a hurry or be very effective. The multi-billion dollar business handed out to cronies and insiders by US Depts of Defence and Homeland Security is a case in point.

There are three things we as citizens can try.

One, use the laws like RTI, PIL and the recall mechanism. Information made available to people on their rights can build pressure.

Two, fight for the independence of the press and of supervisory agencies like the HCs and the SC, CEC, CVC. Use our vote and our voice to the maximum.

Third, refuse to use influence or bribe, even if it means some giving up in our personal lives.

Corruption may titillate the middle class but it penalises the poor. Left with no worthwhile option, with apologies to the makers of Slumdog Millionaire, they will either revolt, or become cannon-fodders or be just sullen and destructive. As John Kennedy put it: “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.”

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Is India Largely Bereft of Social Capital and Closer to Being A Banana Republic?

The thought or musing rather, expressed in the title of this post was occasioned by several loosely related events and triggers. While it may appear to be a rather staccato style of compiling them, here, without a lot of additional verbiage, are the triggers, issues and musings.

The Prime Minister Won’t Give In; Snap Polls Being Talked of As An Option

As briefly mentioned in the news report that the link above refers to, this was the response of the ruling party’s minions to the Supreme Court’s censure and query about why the PM has been silent & inactive about what is arguably the biggest heist ever pulled off by a Minister of the Union Cabinet. Andimuthu Raja, the Telecom Minister, had just handed in his resignation a couple of days earlier, after the Opposition had raised an uproar about a scam which, according to the CAG report, approximately led to a loss of USD 40 billion for the exchequer. [ Summary of the CAG report on the 2G Spectrum allocation by the Ministry of Telecom ]

If you are wondering why A. Raja is so important and how he could perpetrate a scam of such proportions, here’s a nice little piece about him.

Raja, the Spectrum Scamster and why he is important

The news item (link right at the beginning of this piece) and the associated chain of events, raised a host of issues and queries in my mind. Here they are, in no particular order:

Is it for his chosen minions or for Rahul Gandhi to judge whether Blue Turban is in an ‘embarrassing

Manmohan Singh, current prime minister of India.

Image via Wikipedia

position’ or not or is it up to the people of India to judge that? How can this wimp of a man, who has been ‘appointed’ by the Royal Family of India and who serves as a ‘rubber-stamp’ at their pleasure, be expected to hold his own in any discussion or negotiation, internally or externally, when it is widely perceived that he doesn’t have either the spine or the needed authority to act on any important issue independently? As the PM under whose watch humongous corruption, on a scale unheard of before, has been taking place, time & time again, is he not answerable for it all? Why does the media allow him to maintain a Sphinx like silence on such issues and how can he and his minders decide that filing a response, ‘in camera’, to the Supreme Court’s query about his continued silence & inaction is good enough? Why is he not forced to answer that and several other related queries in Parliament? If Manmohan Singh is the best that a country of 1.2 billion people can put up as its leader, is India really the largest democracy, as its leaders are fond of stating at every possible opportunity, or the biggest third-world banana republic?

Some of the reasons why the media doesn’t quite function like it ought to, if it was truly a vibrant media operating in a well-defined democratic set-up are possibly the following:

As part of a seminar which I attended recently, there was an informed panel discussion on the state of India’s media, backed up by an array of facts & statistics (the only convincing way points can be made and conclusions drawn). A few excerpts and selective sound bytes should serve to give you a good enough idea of the details that were laid bare and the conclusions that emerged. To a large extent, they also vindicated my feelings about the Indian media based on my exposure to two major Indian publication groups during the eighties and nineties, in a professional capacity. I had blogged about my observations based on those experiences in a piece sometime back ( link below ). Following that link are a series of sound bytes from the seminar and the ‘attached’ link which is ‘revealing’ of the way Indian media frequently functions.A 'Telecom' Raja
Why The Free Indian Media is a Myth – A Blog Piece by Me

  1. ‘Other countries have think-tanks to analyze major issues. India makes do with prime-time chat shows.’
  2. ‘In most developed TV markets, roughly 70% of TV earnings come from subscriptions & 30% from advertising. In India it is quite the opposite, possibly as a result of the ‘illegal’ origins of satellite broadcasting in India which meant that channels lost out on large chunks of subscription revenues.’
  3. ‘Given the utter dependence on ad revenues, news as such is a commercial product packaged to suit commercial targets and the lowest common denominators, cutting across all socio-economic & regional classifications that have emerged as boosters of viewership, are Bollywood & Cricket.’
  4. ‘By 2008, numerous regional channels started were openly owned by or aligned with political parties while Doordarshan continued to be a lumbering, state-controlled enterprise.’
  5. ‘Three 24-hr. news networks operate in Bengali out of Kolkata and the heads of all three agree that their biggest viewership is in Bangladesh. Their predominant concern continues to be how to find a way to tap effectively into Bangladeshi advertising.’
  6. ‘Indian television has continued to operate in a somewhat murky legal framework that is more akin to that utterly untranslatable N. Indian word – ‘jugaad’ ‘

Barkha Dutt
[The attached clip documents conversations between Niira Radia, a paid lobbyist in Delhi for Karunanidhi, his daughter Kanimozhi & A.Raja, the erstwhile Telecom Minister on the one hand & Barkha Dutt, NDTV News Editor on the other. Listen to the audio or read the transcripts]

‘Oh God! So Now What? What Should I Tell Them’ – Barkha Dutt, NDTV News Editor


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