governance, political economy, institutional development and economic regulation

Posts tagged ‘Rahul Gandhi’

Enter Rahul the Rudder

There is an ill wind blowing in India which is sweeping away established institutional norms. This is a pity because the Indian political architecture is a copy of the UK system which has no constitution to guide it and works solely on the basis of conventions. Take the convention of sanctity of cabinet decisions or for that matter the broader issue of sanctity of agreement/contract. In the context of the criminal bachao ordinance neither means much. A cabinet decision is being overruled by someone outside the cabinet, albeit in public interest. An agreement between the UPA allies is being broken unilaterally. On the face of it, this is actually a very positive “jhadu” (broom) sweeping the denizens of Lutyens Delhi. Cabinet decisions and agreements, which are against public interest, clearly need to be reconsidered. So who are we aam admis and aurats to complain when this happens? And why?

The devil as usual is in the detail. Had the PM, or any member of the cabinet, done a group rethink and then moved to withdraw the criminal bachao ordinance on their own, we would all have applauded them. Now that they are doing so under the duress of Rahul illustrates two points. First Rahul should be a part of the cabinet if his personal opinion aired publicly is more important than the collective wisdom and integrity of the cabinet. Second, a cabinet which is led by the nose from outside and meekly abides by the decisions of external actors is no cabinet at all. Today the rethink is in public interest. Tomorrow it could be against the public interest. Who shall the national hold responsible for decision making? A puppet cabinet reduces us to the level of a banana republic not an emerging super power.

The Congress party is clearly going through tough times reconciling the sophisticated shadow play between power and position, devised by Mrs. Gandhi on the one hand and on the other the strengthening voice of the party’s natural heir: Rahul Gandhi. Shashi Tharoor, recently reverted to being a writer, rather than a politician, on a TV show when he admitted that the Congress has a special place for the Gandhi’s, no secret to anybody, and anyone who was uncomfortable with that bottom line should either leave or not join the Congress. Frank and forthright as he used to be, perhaps emboldened by Rahul’s “coming out” on the criminal bachao ordinance.

Who are we to quibble about how to manage the Congress party? Or any other party for that matter? The only problem is that we are not talking of Congress party here. The issue before the cabinet of the government is the oath sworn by any Minister in the Government of India. See the oath below

“….I will do right to all manner of people in accordance with the Constitution and the law, without fear or favor, affection or ill-will

If the cabinet acted in accordance with the oath in the first instance, when it decided to request the President to approve the ordinance, then it cannot now possibly convincingly argue that the withdrawal is also in the same spirit. Clearly public sentiment is against the ordinance and the President is unlikely to approve, it even if Rahul changes his mind. It is prudent therefore for the government to withdraw the ordinance. The question is what are the implications if it does so?

More significantly it is also clear that the entire cabinet has neglected to act “without fear or favor or affection” In fact it has blatantly acted in a partisan manner twice. Once by clearing the proposed ordinance it decided to protect the narrow interests of criminals in Parliament. Second by withdrawing the bill it acted not in exercise of its wisdom and in an impartial manner but at the behest of a non-statutory but clearly powerful entity. In bowing to the informal power of Rahul the entire cabinet is guilty of betraying the oath they took at the time of joining office.

The only honorable way out is for the entire cabinet to resign led by the PM and for the Congress and its UPA allies to reconstitute the government.

We are luckier than the US where they have a President but no government. We have an entire functioning government of babus working away at their tasks. Is it not time to give them Ministers they can trust and work with? It is difficult enough in government to attribute blame to anyone. The concept of effective sanctions to punish, but also to deter future transgressions, is missing in most governments. With an added shadow play of “informal” power the concept of sanctions disappears completely. More importantly if leaders in positions of authority are perceived to be powerless, “formal” governance systems freeze and its open season for tricksters, scamsters and much worse. This is clearly Rahul’s government. He must act now and take change formally. Dr Singh has already accepted that we would willingly work under Rahul since he is a professional without political ego. Sailing with the wind is pleasant and a good, environmentally friendly, principle but a sail boat needs a rudder steering it.   Image

Babunomics for Rahul

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Rahul Gandhi’s very public grabbing of the political lead on Friday, on a day when the Delhi glitterati were busy electing a new management committee for the Gymkhana, perturbed the generally convivial mood. Babus however are used to such periodic outbursts from their political masters, so the Prime Minister, sitting in Washington, must have smiled his secret smile at the wanton ways of the young and gone about his daily business of shaking hands and uttering vacuous pleasantries and platitudes.

Today Rahul’s intentions are suspect. Was it conviction or tactics that led him to rubbish the criminal bachao ordinance? If it was the former it needs to be followed up and a pattern of actions based on convictions established. He must rubbish the second tired and “populist”, vote centric measure, announced last week; hiking Babu pay by setting up the Seventh Pay Commission.

Ask any aam admi or aurat (AAAs) and their instant response will be babus are a mollycoddled, good for nothing lot, who earn more than the value they add…..the only exception being the army. Not surprising, since the value of spilling ones blood for the country or risking one’s life in civil relief operations is difficult to quibble about. Ask any babu (or army jawan) at the end of the food chain and they will painstakingly list why they can’t make two ends meet in what they earn. Ask a babu (or a general) at the very top and they will shrug their shoulders, clad in a stitch-less Arrow shirt and sigh that the government doesn’t appreciate their worth. Quite a perception gap there.

There are at least 1 billion AAAs against only around 200 million family members of the 19 million “babus” (including the army), the government employs and pays in the federal, state, local government level. Paying more to babus therefore should not make good politics.

Rahul should play to his intuition and stick with the AAAs by nixing this proposal as being untimely and wasteful but assure that the government, if re-elected, would link babu compensation to merit and performance so that they deliver more than they receive. Here is a minimalist babu reform program:

  1. Till now babu pay is indexed to inflation. Unlike the poor, babus earn more if they waste more. This can change is babu pay is indexed instead to economic growth. Freeze the aggregate wage bill of government at the existing level creating a fiscal envelop within which babus of different groups (civilians, army, technical etc.) can bargain with each other for their share of the aggregate wage bill. If babus want a higher share of GNI as pay, they will have to first grow the economy and only thereafter take a part of that that growth as their share.
  2. Ensure that the highest paid babu earns at least 15 times the lowest paid babu. This will ensure skill related compensation parity within babudom. Currently this ratio is around 11, which is very low and illustrates the well-known problem of over compensating the more numerous but less productive “bottom feeders” at the expense of the more productive but underpaid and fewer, “top feeder” babus.
  3. All perks (house, furniture, house help, official car, telephone etc.) to be monetized at market rates and taxed. Babus to be offered the option of opting for the perk or the cash. This will make transparent the Cost To Country (CTC) of a babu; avoid the existing senseless waste of perks; encourage the physical diffusion of the power elite into the respective housing, consumer durable and services markets of the cities they live in and also save them from the cold bath of retirement, when all perks are withdrawn and only a meager pension is left.
  4. Wholesale across-the-board public service reform is not politically feasible in India due to competing political interests. An option is to select a few corruption “hotspots” and critical departments for extensive restructuring and reform to meet the hitherto unmet objective of enhancing efficiency and effectiveness.
  5. There are low hanging fruits available in ports, airports, railways, roads, telecom, coal and energy. (a) They should be manned by specialized “officer” oriented cadres operating in an electronic medium, with minimal support staff. (b) All positions to be filled through a fast track Union Public Service Commission led process, by competitive selection, including from outside the cadre, on time specified contracts doing away with life time service appointments. (c) Public sector enterprises, in these critical areas, to become Board managed with a clear arms-length relationship from government ownership at the very minimum and progressively and selectively privatized.

This reform agenda will not please the left (they traditionally protect the bottom feeder babus and state owned enterprises) and the “old guard” of the congress, who have a stake in preserving the status quo. It will however endear Rahul to the young professional community and there are at least 100 million of them. Rahul should take heart from the ground swell of positive opinion he has enjoyed since yesterday by doing the “right thing” wrt his condemnation of the criminal bachao ordinance. If he truly believes that he has a legacy to live up to and a destiny to fulfill, this is another opportunity to astound us with a second outburst against more-of-the-same management of babudom. Time is running out. Modi is watching.

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