governance, political economy, institutional development and economic regulation

Archive for November, 2013

Careful with the eyes and ankles


Sex is an outcome but also often the cause of inflamed passions. Regulating sex through law has a downside because the adversarial, legal process we follow is pretty poor at establishing “guilt”. The police are so busy lining the roads for VIPs and doing crowd control, that investigating individual crime is a low priority. Shoddy investigations often do not result in meeting the tests for enabling the State to encroach on an individual’s liberty and life. This is especially so when public sympathy is not with the murderer.

In the popularly followed soap opera of the Aarushi and Hemraj double murders (murders committed in 2009; lower court judgment after six years in 2013), public sympathy seems to be with the murderers-Aarushi’s parents. The disgust is reserved for Hemraj, the male Nepali house help, whose sexual relationship with Aarushi, a minor girl, enraged Aarushi’s father to murder and her mother to be an abettor to the act.  

Similarly, in 1959, Nanavati, a dashing naval officer confronted his wife’s lover and asked him if he intended to marry her. When the lover laughed in his face, Nanavati shot him with his service revolver. Public sympathy for the noble, husband, murderer and aversion for the lecherous, opportunistic, lover made the President of India pardon him.

In the ongoing Tejpal rape saga, public sympathy is with the victim, but it seems more than likely that she will not be able to meet the onerous legal requirements of proving him, or his abettor Tehelka Editor Shoma, guilty in court. Tejpal and Shoma have yet to be arrested and Tejpal’s long term political association with the Congress will stand him in good stead, unless yet again Rahul takes a principled stand.

The Gujarat snoop gate in comparison has not attracted much public attention despite it providing a platform for Congress to attack Modi’s governance style. Possibly, the reason is that Modi is not the only Chief Minister using his state police to keep an eye on political opponents. After all, the woman whose privacy was invaded by the Gujarat State has not complained to anyone and her father seems to condone the action. The clearly established charge (for which no commission on enquiry is required) of misuse of public resources is an endemic “perk” across governments. Nevertheless it would be fitting, for a front running, Prime Ministerial candidate, like Modi, to sanction his assistant Amit Shah, who ordered the snooping, by distancing him from the 2014 poll preparations and fast forwarding the criminal charge process.

Trial by the media helps in getting people convicted fast, but it is never clear if the guilty have been punished. Similarly, judicial proclivity to rely on moral outrage rather than the facts on file, can distort justice. Sometimes, this judicial stance provides a convenient just-in-time outlet for widespread social outrage, with the intention of pushing upwards to appeal courts, the tricky business of handing out justice.

Things get confused in a transitional society, like India, where norms of sexual behavior vary enormously. Dress codes and sexual behavior in a night club are very different from the codes prevailing while shopping in a market. Normally the silos are water tight. Night clubbers dress and behave different when shopping. However, signals get mixed when, for example, a “memsahib” tired of her daring clubbing dress, hands it down to her maid, who promptly wears it, inappropriately, in the park, sending out unintended signals, identified by the “Khap Panchayat mentality” as the cause of inappropriate male behavior and defended so vociferously, by women, as their right to dress as they want. Without a doubt, the onus for a mental makeover is on men, who being socially dominant in India, hold women to account to a stricter code of sexual morality, than for themselves.

The rash of recent criminal legislation seeks to reverse this skew by holding men more rigidly to account for sexual transgressions. This is easier said than done. In Germany a recent legislation proposing to criminalize the customer (generally male) of a prostitute was opposed by prostitutes themselves. Their argument was that this would drive prostitution “underground”, make them more dependent on criminal intermediaries and expose them to dangerous customers. Unintended consequences indeed for a law which meant to do good.

Much the same is true of the spate of recent Indian legislation on sexual behaviour. Unintended consequences will mar these well- meaning laws. Here is how:

First, it is difficult enough today for a woman to compete on-the-job with social norms requiring her to multi task between home and office. Effective team work often requires a high degree of intimacy and huge amounts of time spent together. Women are disadvantaged in “hanging out” and “networking” primarily because it is still very much a man’s world. The majority of bosses, at different hierarchical levels, are men. They are likely to be even less willing, than currently, to employ women competitively if even their innocent actions of workplace intimacy can potentially attract criminal sanctions. To put it simply, if today a woman has to be twice as good as a man to get the job, she will now have to be four times as good. Even the “strident voices” which campaigned for making the law on sexual transgressions more draconian, are now finding out how difficult it can be to implement the law effectively in their own offices. Women should be concerned about this additional barrier to their competitiveness.

Second, the notion of a woman as “innocent or naïve” and any man as a “predator” seems antediluvian. The law for sexual sanctions should be gender neutral. Consider for instance the gender biased law on adultery (the most common sexual transgression), where the man is presumed to be the adulterer, even if both parties are married. Similarly the law only regards men sexually harassing and stalking women, as criminals.

Third, laws must respond to the state of play of collectible evidence. It is difficult enough to prove motive but it is even more so to prove whether or not a sexual advance by a man was consensual or not. Oldies will remember the film, “Pakeeza”(1972), in which Raaj Kumar is instantly attracted to Meena Kumari’s ankles, resting on the iron window bars of a train. Only the Taliban would go to extent of banning the exposure of ankles. But it does illustrate how diverse and contextual are the sexual signals communicated between a man and a woman.


It is not for nothing that the eyes are the said to be the windows of the brain. Indian actresses, catering to our modern, prudish, sexual norms, have been adept at using minimalistic body language to convey powerful sexual signals. The lowering of eyes at an appropriate moment is understood to signal consent even if here is no verbal confirmation; playing with their hair is similarly a popular “I am interested” signal. All these are legitimate signals of the human mating dance. Also just as clearly the onus is on the male to calibrate his resultant advances, in a manner which is socially acceptable…and norms vary enormously depending on context.

Our laws are over wordy and over specified. This is a sure sign of a drafting process which gives too much weight to “satisfy” the demands of “strident voices” and “special interest groups”, rather than a professional balancing of the objectives of clarity, specificity, coherence and effectiveness.  Drafting good laws, which are forward looking, implementable and effective, is not our comparative strength. We use legislation just as a means to “shut the mouths” of discontents.

Lastly, lawmakers must assume that laws will be gamed by the unscrupulous; both men and women. This is the downside of the adversarial legal system we follow and its key limitation in harnessing social change. The US is a prime example where the fear of attracting “liability-civil or criminal” is so extreme that passers-by will not directly help the victim of an accident and instead wait for an ambulance to arrive for fear of attracting the liability of “legally” harming the victim.

Take a simple example. Increasing the age for becoming a legal adult from 16 to 18 for women is totally unrelated to the prevalent facts on the ground (UNICEF (2009) estimated that 47% of women in India are married in their teens). Dimple Kapadia was 16 years old in 1973 when she played the “quasi-Lolita”, title role in Raj Kapoor’s film; Bobby. Common sense would dictate that a fair proxy for adulthood is the average age of attainment puberty, rather than an arbitrary age, designed only to enlarge the pool of girls who would be “protected” by the more onerous sanctions against sex with a minor.

Finally, acceptable norms for social and sexual behavior must be left to be decided at the local level since the most effective threat against transgressions, is social sanctions. Pan-India laws are incapable of achieving this level of dovetailing between legal and social sanctions. It should then be left to people to vote with their feet and leave jurisdictions, whose social norms do not fit their world view. After all, India is increasingly a country of domestic migrants. Around 35% of the population has chosen to migrate, with the proportion increasing every year. Unacceptable social constraints and skewed gender roles (the Khap Panchayat world view) and unrealistic draconian laws (the social activist world view) would be just more (good) reasons to do so.   

Digit Sex, Lies and False Gods


Thanks to Bill Clinton and his legal brilliance, the definition of what constitutes a sex offence has become so broad that men and women now need to comply with the strictest code of antiseptic, social behavior.

Earlier we all knew when we were crossing the line since the rule was simple. In Rome do as the Romans do….and what they do can fill entire books. Red lines of sexual behavior are contextual.  Hugging, kissing on the cheek, or the palm of your hand, holding hands, caressing acquire significance only in a particular context. What would pass as acceptable in Africa or Russia would land you in jail in the US and India. USAID training manuals, in the 1990s, were compelled to advise Indian scholars visiting the US, that if their host’s spouse kisses them on the cheek, that is not an invitation to grope her!!! Even today China feels compelled to issue advice to their overseas travelers on behavior norms.

We have come a long way from there and as is usual in such things, overshot considerably on what a law should prescribe. Consider this. Under the 2013 Indian law if you come up on your ex-boyfriend trying to open his own room in a hotel corridor and hug him tightly from behind, in a “hello again gesture” and he does not shake you off but just turns around in your arms, making you reach up and caress his face, he could send you to jail for “sexual assault” for three years. Surprised? But this is the kind of nonsensical rule that a law obsessed, urban society, led by the nose by social activists, legislates.

It assumes two preconditions, neither of which exist in India. First, an efficient police investigation and prosecutorial system, which would have the time, energy and the capacity to take an FIR to conviction of the accused. In India public interest tapers off quickly after an FIR has been lodged. Second a judicial system which could decide the case in a short time. If neither exist a draconian law becomes a hotbed of corruption and misuse.

The human body, and indeed any living creature, is morally inviolate. Human society conveniently permits humans to have double standards; one for themselves and another for other living things. We can kill animals, except some privileged ones like the Tiger, but not ourselves. Within humans, there are gender differences and historical gender behavior codes which marginalize women, in India and most of the World.

There are three ways of reversing the unhappy state of gender equity.

First, Laws can give access to public power through positive discrimination (reservations); prescribe special procedures for fast forwarding gender justice in our investigative, prosecutorial and judicial system and reverse perverse economic laws, like on inheritance, which are gender biased.

Second, the government can enhance the functional capacity and skills of women, increasing their market power. It can also dilute the existing barriers to achieve this objective, including by, locating schools in a gender sensitive manner so that girls can access them; enlarge housing for urban, working women in a manner which blends convenience with safety; increase the street level presence of women police officers, especially at night, by instituting mixed gender police patrols and so on.

Third social change led by religious leaders and social activists can target individual behavior and mindsets, stemming and eventually reversing, the baggage of history which constrains the unleashing of woman power in India, across the economic classes.

India has done a great deal on the first two but virtually nothing on the third, especially with respect to sexual equity.

We will not make much progress unless we become more open about our sexual needs and practices. Today most of us live a lie. Spouses prefer to turn a Nelson’s eye to sexual transgressions rather than confront them, possibly because sexual depravity is considered a higher social negative than corruption. The children of sexually deviant people attract opprobrium on the erroneous assumption that it is genes which determines sexual conformity.  The concept of sexual depravity is generally gender biased and it is easier for a woman to fall foul of this “moral” code than a man.

The most affected by the sex warp are the middle class. The poor have no space, time or resources for living by Victorian values. Children grow up in the same room as copulating elders; women change partners, since men often fail to be the “provider”; involuntary sex is one of the many dangers of tight, spatial proximity of an extended family; most poor women work which gives them a great deal more economic freedom.

The Indian elite are more evenly gender balanced, as one would expect. Many are double income households, which automatically dilutes the “man above” hierarchy. The very rich are also known to permit reciprocal sexual equity, though women generally have to be more circumspect about it than men.

What does this mean for the Indian family and for traditional values that spouses and partners genuinely love each other and have no need for breaching the sexual behavior code. Nor surprisingly it is the middle class, both urban and rural, which adheres the most to traditional values. Cynics would say this is not out of choice but compulsion. Middle class men are not enveloped by the miasma of power which so attracts others. Middle class women are so tired out with just managing the cost of onions and tomatoes, cleaning and cooking that they have little time or energy left for even thinking about sex. They sublimate their fantasies through movies and film magazines, since their reality is so grim.

What is a sensible sexual behavior code? Here are some suggestions:

First, sexual behavior should become a crime only if one of the two or more parties, alleges non consensuality and complains to the police. Gay sex, multiple partner sex may be socially deviant behavior, though even this is very, very, debatable, but it must not be a crime unless it transgresses the red lines of involving a person needing protection, like a minor. This single tweaking of the existing law would take way the absurdity inherent in the new law and rationalize the burden of proof required for securing a conviction.

Second, it is good that there are now institutional norms prescribed for sexual behavior in the workplace but it must be clear to all (it appears even senior managers are not aware) that these are only lead to institutional disciplinary action and do not substitute for the rule of criminal justice.

Third, men and women will always be attracted to the route of granting sexual favours for getting benefits in the workplace. This would be entirely their own business, if it did not adversely affect the rights of other employees in the workplace. A boss, looking for sexual favours, and there are many, will always favour a sexually compliant employee, so neither the employee nor the boss would be inclined to complain. Criminal law must consequently provide for an aggrieved colleague, in the workplace, to lodge a criminal complaint against both the boss and the employee for indulging in “sex for benefits” in the workplace.

The “Gods” of acceptable sexual behavior norms are often the ones who are most in breach of them. Such false Gods apart, acceptable sexual behavior norms, in general, are best left to be decided by the society concerned. A multiplicity of locally compliant norms is better rather than a pan-India norm. Meanwhile, a good principle to avoid crossing the red line is to (a) never try and have sex whilst drinking (b) examine the motive of your sexual urge, every time you get one and reject it if it is driven by ego or your “power miasma” (c) never make the first physical move, especially if you are a man, unless it is with another man (d) keep your digits to yourself unless they are asked for. 

Modi & Kejriwal; adrift sans a “clean” anchor


The Gujarat Snoopgate can play out three ways. In two variations Amit Shah may be guilty. In the third version Modi himself may be the culprit.

Amit Shah was either acting, at the behest of Modi, to help the woman’s father keep track of his daughter or was personally interested in the woman himself. The first is a quaintly “Indian”, fatherly action, which no one will lose much sleep over, even though it violates the basic governance principle that public resources not be used for private purposes. So, no surprises that the BJP has adopted this strategy for damage control.  The majority of parents (though fewer of young people) would want a Chief Minister, so accommodating, resulting in a possible self-goal for the Congress if this turns out to be true.

If Shah had a personal interest in the woman and used “sahebs” name only for giving the unusual surveillance request, some political gravitas, it speaks poorly of the governance systems in the Gujarat government, but is still not a major issue for the BJP. Shah can be jettisoned, with not many in the BJP shedding a tear.

It is the third variation which could be the thorn in the BJPs flesh. If “saheb” actually has a personal interest in the woman, it would severely tarnish Modi’s Brahmachari image (Bhenji, Didi, Rahul and Amma have similar celibacy status). He would not be the first to “keep watch” over a significant other. Why he didn’t do it with his own money is a mystery, but then the distinction between public and private resources is very blurred in India not least due to the “beacon and security” culture.

Those doing “public service” jobs feel entitled to have the State as their nanny. This is common in revolutionary movements where resources are scarce and “moneybags” informally finance the movement. Gandhi lived simply, but it cost the State and the Birla group, a fortune to maintain the environment around his simple life-style, though undoubtedly this money was well spent. It is difficult, but those who work 24X7 for the public should not fall into the trap of assuming that their private life and their public work are coterminous.

If Modi fell into this trap, he must accept it and atone publicly by resigning his position and submitting himself to criminal indictment. Even if he is innocent, he has no option but to recuse himself from the CMs position, till an independent probe has cleared him.

In an unrelated but similar development the Aam Admi Party manifesto for the Delhi elections was released and Anna lambasted Kejriwal for misappropriating money collected for his movement.

The AAP manifesto was a huge disappointment! It promises free water, a 50% reduction in electricity tariffs, an increase in the supply of renewable energy (never mind that this would increase, not decrease, the cost of electricity supply and bankrupt the government), more legislation, a Lokpal (as if we don’t have enough oversight institutions). It demonstrates complete ignorance of governance arrangements in Delhi. It is full of “mother hood” statements and misleading, unrealistic promises with scant regard for their fiscal sustainability, economic efficiency or indeed their welfare benefits. Do the poor in Delhi want free water? Kejriwal should know that the poor never look for handouts. The poor are not beggars. They are value shoppers, as C.K. Prahalad taught us. They are used to paying for what they consume. It is the rich who look ceaselessly for freebies. What the poor want are jobs, protection from human rights abuses, access to good education, clean water and in times of distress and affordable health care.

The AAP manifesto proves what we already know. Kejriwal is a well-intentioned man but he, like Modi, is just one man without a party. Sans their good governance stance they are nothing.

Kejriwal tried to develop his party overnight. His political naiveté led to overextending himself by growing too fast and too loosely. The supporters he attracts are bound only by the glue of “change for clean politics”. They have very different views on what to do once they get into power. Hence the hopelessly inconsistent and regressive manifesto, promising permanent jobs for sanitation workers (to appease Dalits) and drivers in the government managed bus transport service (to appease Harayanwis), user charge concessions for special groups, special protection for Muslims against unfair criminal indictment, roll back of the University’s new, four year Bachelors program (to appease teachers) and other such “goodies”.

None of these proposed actions are reminiscent of the Disruptive Innovator Kejriwal once was. At some point, you have to transition to being a mainstreamed politician with an agenda for the post-change period which hangs together. In the case of the AAP, a brand new party, the speed and degree to which it has succumbed to political cynicism, “pork barrel” politics and identity politics is extreme and hence rankles. Kejriwal has already joined the ranks of those he once despised.

Modi is a RSS man but he knows that India’s needs are bigger than the narrow agenda of the RSS. His problem is how to shake the RSS off and yet have a field cadre left to fight the 2014 elections with. One hopes that he will continue to humour the past in Nagpur but reach out to India’s future elsewhere. Young Indians are not looking for a foster father in Modi. All they care about is growth, jobs, the economic freedom to innovate and the social space to forge a new Indian identity unrestrained by our obvious diversity of caste, religion and culture.

Kejriwal’s mentor Anna is hopelessly antiquated, but provides a “mask of morality” in these amoral times. Kejriwal desperately needs this link since the rag tag bunch around him, are unlikely to do much for his image of public propriety. He is doing the politically astute thing of being publicly “hurt”, at the allegations of impropriety, randomly hurled at him by his mentor, but privately relieved, that he doesn’t have to live under the same roof as Anna any more……as are many Kejriwal supporters.

Both Modi and Kejriwal need to change in the run up to 2014. Modi needs to loosen up, unbend and descend from the clouds of celibate power and walk-the-talk by going through an “agni pariksha” (trial by fire). If he is innocent this can will only boost his image. If he is guilty he cannot hope to become PM in any case, so he may as well come clean and live to fight another day. Voters admire Saints, but they also like human beings and accept their trespasses, so long as their own self-interest is preserved.  What they don’t like are falsehoods. Don’t promise what you can’t deliver. Accept your limitations honestly and don’t light fires you can’t extinguish.


Netaji-Mulayam’s 30/30 India (U) Vision


Blame it on Nehru. If it had not been for him, India (U-ndivided) would comprise Pakistan, Azad Kashmir and Bangladesh, though regrettably still not Sri Lanka (Galle and Kandulama are so beautiful!).

Now why couldn’t the man have just made Jinnah the PM, who would have been gone soon enough, anyway. Nehru would have been back in the saddle and the rest of history would have unwound as it did, except:

(1) We would have won more hockey matches.

(2) Our cricket and football teams would be stronger.

(3) Our movie stars would be taller and better looking and Imran Khan would be ours.

(4) Indians (U) would no longer feel compelled to cheer cricket teams on the basis of religion.

(5) The delights of Lahore would still be available to the average Punjabi

(6) We would not have the absurd feet stomping, yelling, in-your-face antics between border guards, every day at Attari.

(7) The refined Dilli culture would not have been overwhelmed by exuberant Punjabi refugees.

(8) Bengali would have been a dominant Indian language spoken by 15% and Urdu would never have declined and be spoken by more than 25% of U-Indians.

(9) India (U)’s river water potential would have been better harnessed

(10) Hydro power would still be a major energy source

(11) Cheap gas, piped from Turkmenistan would fuel household energy needs, industry and electricity in the North

(12) Our forest cover ratio would be much worse but our freshwater availability would increase significantly.

(13) The Soviets would still be there in Afghanistan because we would never have given the US a toehold in Karachi, the Panjab or the NW Frontier areas

(14) The Taliban would never have been born, nor would have Bhindranwale.

(15) India (U) would not be a favourite tourist destination for Israeli backpackers.

(16) We would still get cheap Sardas (a juicy, sugary sweet Afghanistan/NW Frontier melon) and exquisite dry fruit.

(17) We would still have to deal with “Afghani” money lenders and their wayward ways of dealing with defaulters rather than having them live here as pliant refugees.

(18) We would be able to visit Kashmir without bullet proof vests and enjoy its cuisine and natural beauty.

(19) Kashmiris would still opt for business, horticulture, hospitality, handicrafts, poetry and cricket rather than AK 47s and football.

(20) North and East India (U) would have remained competitive versus the West and the South with easy access to the sea via Karachi; undiluted Punjabi prowess in agriculture; Sindhi excellence in trade; Bengali competitiveness in “Kolture”, arts, law and the social sciences.

(21) We would have fathered micro credit and Muhammad Yunus would be ours.

(22) With one third of the electorate and dominance in the North, Muslims would no longer feel like a minority

(23) Under competition from a significant Islamic presence, Hinduism would have tended to consolidate, rather than splinter along caste cleavages, as it has today.

(24) The BJP would have been a dominant party of the right from the 1950s and Zardari and Sheikh Hasina would have been its Muslim leaders today instead of Shahnawaz Hussain.

(25) Nawaz Sharif and Khaleeda Zia would be the Muslim leaders of the Congress party, rather than Khurshid, Kidwai and Rasheed Alvi.(26) We would not spend 20% of our fiscal resources on the army.

(27) It is unlikely, Sikkim would ever have resolved to join the Republic, just as Nepal’s main regret is that it borders tumultuous India, rather than placid Sweden.

(28) China would be even more worried and hence more of an existential threat.

(29) The US would have been become friendlier much earlier.

(30) Najeeb Jung would still be Lt. Governor of Delhi

A Foreigner in Delhi


Foreigners aiming to live in Delhi must first get acquainted with its culture. It is they who need to adapt. No one, not the Mughals, the Brits, the entrepreneurial Punjabi refugees from Pakistan, the rich but rude, Haryanvi landowners, the clever South Indian Brahmins, desperate Bangladeshi refugees, the skilled Bihari, Eastern UP and Oriya migrants, the Christian tribals from East India nor the educated migrants from the North East, have managed to bend the robust spirit of Delhi, characterized by the five Cs: (i) Contempt for the law and rules: “sab chalta hai”. “Dilliwallahs” make the rules. (ii) Car; the bigger and higher the better, preferably black or white, with multi-coloured beacons, flags and a sign board on the front bumper (iii) Cut: variously, a cash payout from a deal involving public funds; short-circuiting a queue by using status; changing lanes frequently on a road, to get ahead of others. (iv) Cutlet: a westernized and tasteless kebab or a foolish friend and (v)  Carat: which is self-explanatory as jewelry, opulent clothes or a more generalized measure of quality.

The colonial Brits were adept at mastering this game. Many, not surprisingly given their choices, went “native” and integrated. Living examples are the journalist, Mark Tully; actor, Barry John and wildlifer, Belinda Wright.

Of course, the most recent examples are David Cameron and his wife, participating enthusiastically in Hindu rituals during Deepawali (clearly with an eye to the huge and rich Indian community in the UK) and the less strategic, but more genuine and endearing, “Indian”, Prince Charles, worshipping the Ganga in Varanasi. It is a measure of their maturity, that no one in the UK objects, to their leaders participating in the “foreign” rituals, of a minority community. The Americans are no different. President Nixon famously complained that every Ambassador he sent to Delhi became more Indian than American.

Modi must learn from the Brits. If he is to live in Delhi, he has to publicly accept the glorious Mughal and Muslim part of Delhi’s composite culture. It is a pity that Modi is vegetarian otherwise good sense would have got to him via his stomach.

The kebabs, korma and biryani, handed down from the Mughals, are mouth-watering. But he could feast on the succulent Shahi Tukda and reflect, on whether it is such a bad idea, to don a skull cap after all.

No one can argue that Modi is wrong. Of course, Indian Muslims have willingly been used as political pawns and “secularism” converted into a political tactic. Just as clearly, Hindu fundamentalism is misplaced in India. The BJP won the battle in 1992, but erred deeply in demolishing the Babri Masjid with the Congress looking on from Delhi. The Congress erred in supporting and feeding the fundamentalist Bhindranwale into becoming a cult figure for the Sikhs. It subsequently tarnished its image further, by having to destroy the Golden Temple, to get rid of him. Give politicians of any hue a cleavage and they shall play with it. No pun intended.

Hindus were massacred by Sikh terrorists in Punjab (1980s), Muslim terrorists in Maharashtra (2008) and got killed in the post Babri Masjid riots in Mumbai (1993). They have put the past behind them. Sikhs were massacred by Hindus, the Police and the Army (1984) but they have put that behind them. Christians have been sporadically killed in Odisha but they have not given up on the idea of India. Muslims have been massacred in Uttar Pradesh (1980s and 2013), Mumbai (1993) and Gujarat (2002). They, similarly, need to put this behind them.

Clearly the Hindu-Muslim religious tension is enhanced by the memories, albeit fading now, of the horrors of partition (1947). The continuing, intentional, overt support by Pakistan to Muslim fundamentalism in India does not help. Nor does the international, institutionalization of Islam in politics, evidenced by the rise of Islamist parties in the newly democratic countries of North Africa, Turkey, Iran, Iraq, the Middle East, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Democratization inevitably throws up what people actually believe in. If citizens are deeply religious, democracy is unlikely to lead to religious neutrality. In India we know that religion is entwined into culture and life and cannot be separated from State action, in the manner it is done in the West.

But we also know that 15% (or more) of our population is of Muslims who are poorly led since the traditional elite migrated long ago to Pakistan and other countries. Indian Muslims are defensive, as only a minority can be and are gradually being pushed into a tight corner by all parties, to become the obscurantist, backward looking political pawns they are made out to be today. A case of life imitating fiction.

Modi is against appeasement of anyone just for votes and who can argue against that stand in distinguishing him from the others. However, he needs a Bill Clinton moment when he comes out openly and pulls the average Muslim into the warm embrace of the national mainstream.

He can do this by rising above Advani’s brand of fundamentalist Hinduism. He can also do this by consciously playing to the development needs of the minorities and the marginalized: Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhist, Jains, the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes.  

Here are three suggestions:

First, be the caring elder you claimed to be in Patna. For the marginalized, the biggest concern is security of life and property. Set up an all India 24×7 call-in number and website which would counsel them if the local police are not taking sufficient or appropriate interest in their case and monitor the most outrageous cases of neglect. Law and order is a State subject, but it is within the Central governments powers to monitor and ensure that basic human rights are implemented by state governments.

Second, be even handed. Extend the scheme of reservations (positive discrimination) to the marginalized, who are currently excluded (Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains) but with an additional poverty criterion. With a downsizing government and growing private sector this is a sop but it does establish equity as the corner stone of state action.

Third, make democracy truly representative and kill identity politics by killing the potential for fracturing the vote. This is the most important reform. Change the existing electoral system under which MPs and MLAs get elected just by polling the largest number of votes, which is sometimes not more than 20 to 25% of the polled vote. Introduce a system of runoffs so that the elected candidate represents at least more than 50% of the polled vote, including the NOTA votes. This will ensure that the voice of minorities is not ignored.

Skull caps and Astrakhans are just a symbol. Donning one will not put off Modi’s supporters. The Gujarati voters cherish him, not for the Gods he worships, but for the development he delivers. 

Sending Hamlet to Lanka



India is caught in the quintessential indecisiveness of the fictional, Danish, Prince Hamlet, created by Shakespeare, who agonizes over “to be or not to be”, loosely applied here as “to go or not to go”, to the forthcoming Commonwealth meet in Sri Lanka.

Apparently, at issue is only how to deal with the outraged Tamil sentiment, should the government decide to participate, since this could undercut support for the Congress, amongst Tamil Nadu Members of Parliament, post the 2014 elections.

That the Sri Lankan army butchered their Tamils, both those heavily armed and the unarmed innocent, is clear. However, this is really no different from what is happening in Syria and what occurs in every place, where citizens decide to take up arms against the State.

The fundamental basis of the State, is its monopoly over violence. The manner in which violence is used, reflects the character of the State. In developed democracies, State violence is only permitted if aligned to the principles of the Rule of Law. For example, the State’s right to take away a citizens rights, liberty or life, is constrained by the legal requirement to follow the process of law. In pure forms of autocracy and monarchy, it is the ruler who has the power over life, death and taxes. Less developed democracies, like ours, fall somewhere in between. We allow the police and army to give the go-by to the rule of law, in areas of extreme civil unrest as in the North East in the 1970s to 1980s and Punjab, in the 1980s. Some, like Kashmir and the Maoist tribal belt in Eastern India continue to be endemic areas of conflict.

We are being hypocritical, if we are willing to suppress violent, domestic unrest, with a strong hand, but pretend to be squeamish about the manner in which Sri Lanka dealt with the Tamils.

No one can condone the killing of civilians by the State anywhere, but it does happen in poorly governed States. Once the personal, social and economic cost of taking up arms is lower for a citizen, than the benefits of remaining pliant to an oppressive regime, it becomes “rational” to revolt. Civilian deaths are collateral damage for the ensuing war to impose the supremacy of the State.

Mahatma Gandhi of course had the perfect, albeit difficult, strategy for citizens to deal with coercive regimes. Negotiate with the regime to make life incrementally better for citizens. Draw red lines, beyond which you will not be pushed. Oppose the regime thereafter, not by force, but through “Satyagraha” (passive resistance). By behaving thus, citizens retain the moral high ground. This moral high ground was not maintained by citizens in Sri Lanka, as it was not in Punjab and has not been in Syria, Kashmir and Maoist East India. By losing the moral high ground, citizens descend to the level of warriors and the rule of war replaces the rule of law.

Tamil Indians understandably feel compelled to highlight the ruthlessness of the conflict. But is it not better to focus on what India can do next, to mainstream the Sri Lanka Tamils,  rather than merely lament the past.

India has itself wisely used an entire gambit of measures, including special financial support, positive discrimination and political consensus, to pull the Seven Sisters (seven Indian States in the North East) into the national mainstream. Of course, it also helps that we are a genuine democracy. Hospitality, high-end retail outlets and private nursing services in metropolitan India are invariably manned by in-migrants from the North East. Sikkim, the most recent entrant to the Republic (1975), is poised to become a global, organic, tourism hot spot.

Dr. Singh, our Prime Minister, outlined his principles of “Panchsheel” yesterday, to include value based, enlightened self-interest, but usefully, left unclear, what our “values” are. But surely, we should apply the same value system to assess governance standards in foreign governments, as we use to rule our own citizens. By these standards, Sri Lanka is unexceptionally unfortunate in having treated its citizens shabbily, but they are no exception.

Perhaps our values are identity specific. Perhaps we view shabby treatment, by foreign governments, of their citizens of Indian origin, more severely. This is an entirely reasonable approach and consistent with our anti-apartheid stand in South Africa. But this is not a State visit by the Indian PM to Sri Lanka which could be interpreted to mean India condoning the killings. The choice of venue for the CHOGAM is incidental.

It is all very well for Tamil Nadu politicos to play to their gallery but that is about as much traction, as there is, for the “not to go” groupies in India. If we can shake hands with Pakistan, over the blood of our soldiers, in the larger interest of regional security, surely we can be one of the many Commonwealth members in Colombo, nudging Sri Lankan towards Tamil integration.

India has been extremely pragmatic and successful in dealing with internal rebellion, albeit at significant cost to the unfortunate individuals caught in the ensuing war. Rapid growth, with equity, along with the hope of transition to democratic governance, is our medium term solution for dealing with domestic disaffection. We should sell this model to Sri Lanka. It is time for the PM to fill-in his travel request for Lanka.  

Protecting Babus From Politicians


The Supreme Court has struck yet another blow for democracy by protecting babus from politicians. Not bad in itself, but puzzling, in the context of the larger objective of protecting democracy.

Democracy is all about citizens electing politicians to manage the “commons” and regulate the markets. A babu is merely an “ahlu” in the sabzi; employed as a technician to work objectively with any elected government, irrespective of ideology, translating broad political objectives into policy options and implementing the ensuing policy. It is the test of the ballot which legitimates the politicians. Babus merely facilitate the task of governance and in return they are assured a cradle to grave job with pension.

It is not trivial to answer the question what ails the Indian babu today and how her concerns can be met. The SC has identified four key areas for redressal.

First, the SC has directed that the minimum, normal tenure should be three years, which is undoubtedly, wise. The apprehension however, is that for every honest and committed babu who uses this protection to implement the rule of law, there will be multiple others, who would instead use it as a formal confirmation of their colonial “right to rule” and the powerlessness of “topiwallahs”.

Fixed tenures can be effective, as intended, but only if they are accompanied by direct oversight of citizens in assessing babu performance. A District Magistrate has the right to demand a fixed tenure but only if she is willing to seek an annual endorsement of her performance from all the elected representatives of the District. If however, babus are wary of citizen review, they cannot simultaneously, shy away from the direct control of the elected government of the day.

Second, the SC directed that no babu should henceforth act on a verbal order. Clearly the intention was to create a paper trail for audit of decision making. A good thing in itself. But consider that Ministers, across political parties, now routinely act on verbal orders from party bosses. Even the Cabinet of India was caught acting hastily on the verbal and very public outburst of a party supremo. Can we really expect a Minister, herself acting on verbal orders, to respect the “written orders only” rule while dealing with babus?

More importantly, the relationship between a politician and her babu is often, though not always, a very intimate one. This is as it should be. The rough and tumble of an effective democratic system cannot be managed, without a measure of trust and faith between the Minister and her babu. Cutting this symbiotic cord between the two, would be suicidal for effective governance. Imagine District Magistrate, Krishna Kumar, the hero of Ganjam, asking Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik to write all his orders in triplicate, even in the raging fury of a cyclone.

Verbal orders that do not go against the public interest are a non-issue. Those that do not align with public interest can be subverted, as they have always been, using the legendary guile that babus develop. If even this is not possible, the option is always available to follow E.A.S. Sarma’s advice and “step aside when it is impossible to decide in public interest”.

Third, the SC has directed that babu management be outsourced to an “independent” commission to insulate the process from “political” influence. This merely restates what already exists. Initial recruitment is already done by the Public Service Commissions and other Subordinate Service Selection Commissions. Promotions are already done by a committee of senior officers who record written orders. In the case of the All India Services, the UPSC has to approve before disciplinary action can be initiated. Many already believe Indian babus are too cosseted by protective legislation. If despite all this protection, babus still feel threatened; outsourcing their promotion, postings and transfers to yet another “independent” commission is unlikely to help. It will however create additional post-retirement babu sinecures.

Instead, to build a meritocracy, we should do away with the anachronistic “cradle to grave” employment system. Every position in the officer grade of undersecretary and above should be widely advertised for open competition and filled on contract, for five years, by the related Public Service Commission. The concept of time bound, seniority based promotion must die, if babudom is to survive.

Fourth, the SC has directed that government legislate a law for babu management, in the hope that this shall introduce transparence, equity and performance orientation. The last thing India needs is another law. We already have more than 1200 laws. Our belief, that legislation can solve problems in public management, is deeply misplaced. The international experience is that legislation, unless backed by deeply entrenched norms and social capital, is ineffective in changing babu behavior.

Africa and East Asia are littered with civil service laws, but the actual performance, in managing graft and protecting the poor is, at best, on par with India. Whilst out babus do need to shape up, consider that India runs a pretty tight ship. We employ barely 3% (17.5 million) of our labour force (650 million) in government (including central, state, municipality, police and the army). Compare this with the most developed OECD countries, Norway 29%, France 21%, UK 17%, US 15%, Japan 7% and Brazil 9%, South Africa 9%, (ILO data 2008). Yes, our public services don’t match up to OECD standards, but neither do the resources we spend on them. Our teeth to tail ratios are poor and the comparison would be even starker if we consider the proportion of professionals employed in government.

The SC has never failed, in public interest, to fill the gap created by executive inaction. But the law is not a substitute for effective, executive decision making, which requires the ability to play with the grey scales of the real world. The law is a black and white discipline, quite unlike life. Public Human Resource Management is not an area of comparative advantage for the SC, as evidenced by the judiciary’s record on this score. Those who live in glass houses must not cast stones.

Who Let the Sardar Out?



Only in India, would a proposal to erect a statue. in memory of Sardar Patel, who oversaw the integration of princely splinters into India, as we know it today, create so much controversy. After all, the poor Sardar only added to the land mass of India, like Mrs. Gandhi, who added Sikkim. He did not give any land away.


It would be understandable for citizens to object if the Sardar was still alive and yet got his statue erected, in his own lifetime. It would be understandable, to object, if the Sardar’s family had maneuvered to grab a piece of prime public land to dedicate to themselves. It would even be understandable if the Sardar was a just passing side show, in the political drama of the independence struggle.


None of this being the case, it is puzzling why the fuss about the proposed statue in the Narmada Sarovar? All the poor Sardar got, for his efforts during the independence struggle, was a chowk named after him in Delhi, from where he balefully contemplates the goings on in Parliament, visible down the road, through the noxious fumes of traffic.



Most comical are the efforts of those who claim that the Sardar belongs to “all of India” and not just Gujarat, where he was born. They are horrified that the Gujarat Government should choose to honour him thus, even though the Sardar was not from the political party which is currently in power in Gujarat. Who remembers which party Abe Lincoln or Churchill were from? National figures are bigger (or should be) that just their party. Of course, they belong to the Nation, which also includes Gujarat.


Some question whether INR 2500 crores of public money should be spent on the Sardar’s statue? After all this could feed 2.5 million poor people for a year @ Rs 27 per day! To these critics I can only say, if a proper statue to this illustrious “son of India” had been made in 1952, just after he had died, the cost would have been just INR 60 crores. The remaining INR 2440 crores is the cost of public neglect, over the last 60 years, of the political legacy of those (and there are many more besides the Sardar), whose families did not press to perpetuate their public image.


Others object that the BJP is rewriting history, by “appropriating” the Sardar, who they remind us, banned the Hindu Maha Sabha, of which, the current version is the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Samaj, the ideological font for BJP cadres. To these history buffs I say, emulation is the highest form of praise. The Congress should be happy that the BJP is commemorating one of their tallest leaders.


Still others assert that a better (and cheaper) way of remembering the Sardar would have been to name a public welfare scheme, or two, after him as there are for the Mahatma, Nehruji and Rajiv Gandhi. What they forget, is that a rose, by any name, smells as sweet. No one else remembers the name of a welfare scheme. What citizens care about is the tangible benefits accruing to them.


The most comical are the efforts of the BJP “permanent representatives to TV channels” who are at pains to explain that INR 2500 crores is not just for the statue but includes museums, viewing platforms, food plazas, movie halls, water sports and other such essentials of a global tourist hot spot. A truly Gujarati response; refuting allegations of public profligacy, by spelling out the “value for money” proposition and the “bankable revenue model”, behind the project.


In India, even a political legacy must “pay back”. After all, this is the land of the Maruti car with its apt advertisement: “kitna dete hai” (how far does the car run on a liter of petrol), illustrating the essence of India. This is still the land of those (like me) who darn their socks and repair their worn underwear. But it is also the land of the new rich Indians, who swivel their “single malt whisky, with just a splash of water please”, ride in their newly acquired INR 2 crore Bentleys to their INR 200 crore bungalows, but crib about the increase in the price of diesel and the horrendous waste on “the Patel statue”.


It is not the poor who are petty. They see jobs and opportunities for micro business behind the Sardar’s statue, in hospitality, tourism, transportation, retail and civil maintenance. They know that it is better for a few thousand poor to get sustainable livelihoods, rather than stand in line with folded hands, along with 2.5 million of their brethren, to get INR 27 per day for just one year.



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