A friend of mine who had just retired went to see his bank manager to ask for his home loan to be rescheduled because his income was reduced. The bank manager expressed disbelief that he could think such a thing was possible. My friend then asked how it was that he, a longstanding but small customer, could have the rule book thrown at him while big customers could walk away with buckets of money and then have their loans rescheduled. The bank manager replied “telephone calls”. He said no more, but my friend knew who made those calls — politicians or bureaucrats. This is just one example of a crucial reason for India’s poor governance — the failure to prevent those who wield power in government trespassing on institutions’ autonomy.
The crises in JNU and the Hyderabad University have been created by politicians trampling on the autonomy of institutions. The handling of student activities is traditionally the responsibility of professional administrators and academics. There would have been no crisis in Hyderabad had the vice-chancellor not surrendered his autonomy by allowing a minister of state to influence his professional judgement. Politicians have been consistently stirring the pot in JNU.
Within government the bureaucracy needs autonomy to withstand illegal interference in their work by politicians. In theory they have the autonomy but all too often they maintain it is not functional. They claim they are not given the support they need to function autonomously. Recently a member of a central civil service said to me, “I have learnt that every year in a job like mine you have to sacrifice a bone of your spine so that in the end you are totally spineless.”
In my own profession there was a moment when it was thought that AIR and Doordarshan would be given the autonomy they needed to exercise their skill as broadcasters. But in the end the government couldn’t bring itself to forfeit its right to interfere in the running of the two organisations. The result was the birth of Prasar Bharati.
Many army officers believe that the civilian bureaucracy of the defence ministry denies them the autonomy an army in a democracy requires to take appropriate decisions. Surely politicians should have no role in the management of Indian Sports Associations.
Of course there always have been and always will be many people in government and other organisations who do not end their careers spineless. In broadcasting PC Chatterji, director general of All India Radio during the Emergency, had the courage to tell Indira Gandhi that her government’s interference in the news was robbing the organisation of all credibility. Rajiv Gandhi did realise that Doordarshan needed autonomy if it was to be credible and then removed the director general, Bhaskar Ghose, for exercising that autonomy. In the army Sam Manekshaw insisted that he, not Indira Gandhi, should decide when India was ready to go to war in 1971.
There is always a tendency to think that what happens in India is uniquely bad. Ask teachers and doctors in Britain about government interference in their professions and you will get an earful. Now the government is threatening to undermine the autonomy of the BBC.
Defending the need for institutions to have autonomy doesn’t mean excluding the government altogether from activities like banking, education, medicine or even broadcasting. What I believe it means laying down rules to define the autonomy institutions need to function professionally and insuring those rules are kept. Sadly all too often, professionals themselves don’t defend their autonomy, some succumb to the temptation to break the rules for their own profit. But we can’t just blame the professionals for being spineless. We the people are spineless because we put up with governments arrogating power to themselves. We forget that every government has vested interests, which only adequate institutional autonomy can defend us from. We fail to remember the words of Thomas Payne: “Government even in its best state is but a necessary evil; in its worst state it’s an intolerable one.”
The views expressed are personal