It’s time India and Indians spoke up for excellence. For too long, too many have treated excellence as an elitist concept, mixed up with luxury, with the upper classes and too abstract to be relevant to the teeming problems of India. In a sense, it was an intertwined mindset with that which treated both profit and commercial success as dirty words. Conceptual confusion also led us to assume, at least subconsciously, that excellence necessarily encompassed the few and couldn’t be operationalised among the many.
The time to change all that has come. Contemporary India has shattered many myths. The Metro has shown us how we can achieve the highest levels of quality without compromising any other virtue. Indeed, the citizenry frequently puts up with the huge disruptions caused by Metro construction because they know that this institution strives for and has achieved excellence.
Neither is excellence an exclusively urban paradigm nor is it only a virtue to be cultivated only in activities related to the rich and the empowered. Prince Charles was paying obeisance to excellence embodied in the activities of the Mumbai dabbawalas when he insisted on meeting them and seeing them in action. Amul achieved excellence in a rural setting and revolutionised the concept of not only milk production but also its supply in a hygienic form.
The new Indian challenge is how to institutionalise, internalise and operationalise excellence at all levels. We have to start a national movement of excellence. We have to begin by recognising it at all levels. We have to applaud it, encourage it, promote it and institutionalise a mechanism for doing so in a non-partisan manner. Perhaps we need a new Ministry of Excellence. This MoE would recognise and promote excellence in all walks of life. Did we know that, for example, the UP Bridge Corporation or the Railway construction and engineering company, RITES, have been displaying excellence for decades by completing prestigious projects of outstanding workmanship within time both in India and abroad? The MoE would recognise them and award them in an institutionalised manner to spur them and similar entities to greater heights of achievement.
The MoE would also have to develop and tailor sophisticated criteria for evaluation of diverse departments, activities and persons on the touchstone of excellence. All important public recognition awards, including the Padma awards, would come within its purview.
It would be wrong to equate the general concept of meritocracy with excellence. In a nation as diverse and unequal as India, ‘merit’ in the abstract sense is a chimera and can become a tool for vested interests. Constitutional obligations and historical injustices also necessitate several diluting exceptions to the general principle of merit. The concept of excellence is fully compatible with such reservations, reverse discrimination programmes, affirmative actions and minority targeted entitlements. Excellence is a virtue that deserves recognition no less within such classes — it not only increases the competitive edge within special groups but brings in merit intra class in a manner natural and self-sustaining. If applied creatively and sensitively, excellence and its institutionalisation in India soon create several role model enclaves and pockets of excellence across India. We have nothing to lose except our complacency and status quoism.
The ones left behind
I feel very sorry for the hundreds of folks on both sides of the India-Pakistan border who have been recruited by their respective governments for petty information-gathering activities in the other country but who, after suffering traumatic incarceration for decades, are left destitute by their respective homelands even after their release. These are not James Bond category spies. They are mostly petty agriculturists or small traders recruited for relatively low level information gathering in the rival country (assuming they are not altogether innocent, because many of them are mere inadvertent strayers into foreign territory).
They suffer a double whammy. They successfully carry out a few sorties and supply some small time information to their country for petty sums of money but are invariably apprehended in their third or
fourth attempt. Having suffered decades of incarceration in inhuman conditions, if they are lucky to return to their homeland, they face destitution since they are untouchables as far as their genuine employer is concerned and they have no other cover or vocation to fall back upon.
Apart from crusades for the release of those in jails of the rival country, it’s time each country created a sensible mechanism to provide for those released from jail. My suggestion is to have a double cover or code for such persons. The real one would be their employment with the espionage agency. But an ostensible one should be created with the provision that on their return, irrespective of age, they shall be given continued employment with their ostensible employer and that their years of incarceration would be provided for as back wages by the ostensible employer. After all, they have all been serving the country.
Abhishek Singhvi is an MP, National Spokesperson, Congress, and former Additional Solicitor General