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Saturday, August 2, 2003

The recent strike of employees of Tamil Nadu state, the firm and decisive action by the government, the mature  and  sober  judicial  pronouncements  on  the issue, the  eventual capitulation  of  the  erring employees, and the  emergence  of an unlikely  hero in  Ms. Jayalaitha hold important lessons for our polity.Over the years, politics acquired a pejorative connotation in India. Most decent and honest citizens have begun to despise the political process and shun politics. This distaste soon expanded to rejection, and mindless and intemperate criticism of all political decision-making. Defiance of law and the directives of a duly elected government became a badge of honour. The stridency of rhetoric, and the unrestrained abuse which have become the hallmarks of our robust democratic politics have made it easy for the middle classes and the educated to vilify our politicians and inadvertently undermine public interest.True politics is about promotion of people's happiness. It is about assigning priorities and bridging the gap between our unlimited wants and limited resources. In real life, resources are always scarce and we have to make painful choices. Only in a boring place called heaven do resources outstrip wants. True politics is also about reconciling the seemingly conflicting interests of fiercely contending groups. Those of us watching from the sidelines have the privilege of running with the hares and hunting with the hounds simultaneously. But for politicians in public office, the buck stops with them. Every election is a mandate for change. If peaceful change is no longer possible in a democracy, then the only alternative is anarchy or brute dictatorship.And yet, we heap mindless abuse on politics and politicians. The politician is portrayed as foolish, corrupt, vile, barbaric, uncivilized and villainous. The contribution of the politicians in maintaining social cohesion and harmony in a fractious nation, and in furthering public good against great odds is ignored. The fact that the politician is often a victim of a vicious cycle, and not villain is forgotten. And in general, we portray the bureaucrat as the decent, honest, public-spirited citizen heroically struggling against the evil politicians. We forget that most of the misdeeds of politicians are a result of a political and electoral system which does not permit honesty to coexist with survival in office for long. Bureaucrats have no such compulsions. And yet, most citizens experience harassment, humiliation, indignity and extortion at their hands. A peculiar form of political correctness has taken hold of our society. The fact that only a small group of educated elites entered bureaucracy with a secure wage gave them enormous clout. Once this employment is in government, with its colonial hangover, it gave the bureaucrat great prestige. The license-permit raj and doles culture peculiar to our polity made the bureaucrat a dispenser of patronage and the citizen a mendicant.We have only 28 million organized workers earning a regular, secure monthly wage in India. Of them, nearly 20 million are in government  - 13 million directly employed by the state, and 7 million in public sector undertakings. This power of numbers gave the bureaucracy a disproportionate visibility and muscle. Most politicians and parties have been cowardly in dealing with bureaucracy. Even mighty governments which received unprecedented mandates were cowed down by bureaucracy. Success of a government is measured by its capacity to pay salaries to bureaucrats, even if all tax receipts and more are deployed only for that purpose. Failure to pay employees is seen as the ultimate political failure. This is in sharp contrast with mature democracies. Witness the shut down barring essential services) of American government once in 1981 when Reagan vetoed congressional spending proposals, and twice in 1995 when Clinton vetoed the budget. There was no sense of alarm in the US, and in both instances the defiant president emerged stronger, not weaker.But in India, political correctness demanded a huge wage increase by Gujral Cabinet in the wake of Fifth Pay Commission recommendations, without looking for gains in productivity. Some of the ministers were reputed to have left the cabinet meeting in the middle, only to urge the employees to stand firm and assure them that their demands will be met Such excessive political correctness made a mockery of cabinet rule and collective responsibility, and reduced the cabinet to a collection of warring tribes. The power of numbers, collective lungpower and the fact that employees man the polling stations on the day of election make politicians pliable. The wage bill keeps increasing pensions will soon exceed wages) even as services deteriorate and fiscal crisis deepens. The net cost to the exchequer across the nation on account of the Fifth Pay Commission decision was about Rs 80,000 crores per annum. This single decision deepened our fiscal crisis as nothing else has.Article 311, which was meant to ensure independence of bureaucracy, has become the millstone round the neck of the Indian nation. But things are changing. People are increasingly vexed with a recalcitrant bureaucracy. AK Antony in 2002 in Kerala, and Jayalalitha in 2003 in Tamil Nadu showed that the bureaucratic leviathan can be confronted without political costs. Judicial decisions over a period of time too have shown welcome recognition of putting public interest before bureaucracy. Gone are the days when judges boasted of their decisions favouring bureaucracy as a class. The faceless people eking out livelihood are asserting themselves against their paid public servants. Those who view this issue through the prism of union rights are plainly wrong. This is about public services, tax monies and accountability. It is time we restructured our bureaucracy, and made it into a powerful instrument for public good. First, we need to redeploy the public servants, and make health, education and key services the centrepiece of governance. Half of all our employees now are clerks, peons and drivers Second, accountability must be enforced at all costs, and corruption and sloth curbed ruthlessly. Third, the all-India services and senior services must set an example by removing fat, accepting a lean and hungry higher bureaucracy, and eschewing promotions and creation of supernumerary posts. Finally, politicians must wrest the initiative and restore the primacy of political process, bureaucratic accountability and quality public services. We have had enough of political correctness; it is time to confront the many holy cows and restore sanity to our public life.



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