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Durga Shakti versus the demons

It is hard to miss the chutzpah. While the political brass has made some utterly churlish, boorish and comical statements in the wake of the Durga Shakti Nagpal episode, the media, especially electronic, has run this as a Durga-versus-demons campaign. KR Lakhanpal writes.

punjab Updated: Aug 13, 2013 11:31 IST
KR Lakhanpal
KR Lakhanpal
Hindustan Times

It is hard to miss the chutzpah. While the political brass has made some utterly churlish, boorish and comical statements in the wake of the Durga Shakti Nagpal episode, the media, especially electronic, has run this as a Durga-versus-demons campaign. As usual, it is highlighting the symptoms, rather than analysing and understanding the deeper malaise that they manifest.

All bureaucrats (IAS officers) are not angels. By the same logic, all politicians are not demons. The trouble is with analysing such serious issues with far-reaching consequence for governance in terms of headline-hunting binaries like Durga and demons, victims and beneficiaries, and prey and predators. To see the truth only in black and white tantamounts to masking the truth itself. The real world is indeed grey.

The institutional collapse our country has witnessed since the late 1960s and early 1970s and still continues to suffer from is coupled with the psyche of the power elite. The basic governance framework is enshrined in the Constitution and various laws and rules framed under it. To implement this framework, various instruments and instrumentalities in the shape of the legislature, the executive and the judiciary have been provided. These, together with their respective spheres, carefully delineated, constitute the instructional backbone of governance.

Institutional woes

It is this institutional architecture that is squarely responsible for delivering effective, transparent and accountable governance to the country's citizens (including civil servants), thereby securing their inalienable right to free speech, life, limb and property, ensuring the majesty of the rule of law, and corruption-free delivery of public goods and services.

To attain this lofty objective and to remain germane to its attainment, the institutional architecture is required to be continuously revitalised and reinvented. From the mess that we see all around us, it is evident that this clearly has not happened. Not to speak of revitalising and reinventing the institutional architecture, the powers that be have done everything they could to supplant it. It crystallises into the following scenarios:

1) A legislator, minister or chief minister is not content with just being so, but also wishes to be a cop and a collector (permanent executive), meddling in day-to-day administration, rather than making laws and policy and holding the permanent executive accountable for good governance.
2) A civil servant who is not content with just being so by conscientiously implementing the policy and administering laws and rules, but wishes to be a buccaneer, wielding raw power, lusting for coveted posts and seeking post-retirements assignments.
3) A criminal justice administration system which has degenerated into an instrument of harassment of the innocent rather than bringing criminals to justice.
4) Parliament and state legislatures in a state of continuous disruption, and the laws being debated upon on TV channels and enacted in the streets.
5) Regulation becoming more complex and expensive and, at the same time, increasingly ineffective.
6) Corporates busy swinging the deals, rather than adding to the competitive edge of the nation.
7) The media sensationalising, if not demonising, all the above.

Fear & insecurity

Sadly, the picture that emerges from foregoing images is predominantly of malgovernance than that of good governance.

The utterances of the political brass in the wake of this episode is the product of a mindset which is driven by fear, insecurity and insincerity. One politician challenged the union government to withdraw all IAS officers from the state and boasted of doing even better with state officers. Sure there is no love lost between politicians and the state civil services. Tactically, they wish to get rid of the first hurdle first in order to hold a lesson to others. Another likened Durga's suspension to the punishment by a teacher to a truant child, not realising how revolting undeserved punishment can be. Yet another welcomed Durga back to her parent cadre, not realising the cruelty of a bad joke.

It is very tempting to see the political executive and the permanent executive in an adversarial role. It is, however, not in accordance with the constitutional scheme. Among the first principles engraved in the Constitution, the most important is the principle of checks and balances between various organs of the government. In other words, no organ of the government can act arbitrarily, absolutely and arrogantly, and their actions are subject to this principle. In practice, however, the check has morphed into 'cheque' and the balance has gone out of the window. The power elite, especially the political class, must realise that their being elected to the legislative chambers neither confers on them absolute power to do whatever they wish to do in whatever manner nor absolves them of criminality. But this realisation is nowhere in sight.

Westminster model

The All India services, the central services and the state services are neither an unnecessary burden nor are they self-invited guests to the scheme of governance mandated by the Constitution. In fact, they are as integral and as important a part of the executive as the political executive. In the Westminster model of parliamentary democracy, which we have followed, secure, independent and impartial civil services are a sine quo non for conducting the business of government according to the law of the land.

Today, the civil services are both victims and beneficiaries of the present system. They are often unfairly criticised for succumbing to politicians, not acting according to the law and the rules, and lacking in leadership, especially in the absence of a level playing field between the political and the permanent executive. The field is totally skewed in favour of the former. Civil servants, especially at the cutting edge, are functioning even though facing an existentialist threat on a daily basis. This underpins the need for restoring the balance by enacting of a comprehensive Act by the appropriate legislatures governing recruitment to public services and their terms and conditions of service, including transfer, tenure, promotion and punishment and holding them accountable for their various acts of omission and commission.

At a deeper level, real politics has receded farthest from the first principles. We must rediscover, reclaim and reaffirm our faith in them. It has to begin with politicians, because they are sitting at the top of the food chain and, even in Darwinian terms, the survival of the predator is dependent on the survival of the prey.

First Published: Aug 13, 2013 11:29 IST