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Mainstream, VOL LV No 22 New Delhi May 20, 2017

Exposing Unholy PoliticIan-Bureaucrat Nexus: Call to Reform Governance and Ensure Value-based Public Administration

Saturday 20 May 2017


by B.P. mathur

On the Corridors of Power: The Theatre of the Absurd by Parimal Brahma; Patridge India; 2017; pp. 302

Parimal Brahma is one of the rare breed of civil servants who have retained intellectual honesty and independent outlook and were not overwhelmed by the corrupting influence of power, while working in senior positions in the government. He had a ring-side view of the government, having worked in the Ministry of Defence, Civil Aviation, Environment and the Indian Audit and Accounts Department, to which he belonged, and his narration carries a high degree of authenticity. In his semi-autographical book, On the Corridors of Power: The Theatre of the Absurd, he graphically portrays how the political masters have grabbed power and wealth in active connivance with top bureaucrats, and in return given them a few crumbs. He captures some of the follies, absurdities and narrowness of the bureaucratic juggernaut, due to which it is unable to serve the people, its very raison d’etre. He sees things from the perspective of national interest and public good and notes that honest civil servants have very little place in the system and are always pushed, tossed and sidetracked.

Brahma worked on the desk that dealt with the Bofors Gun purchase, in the Ministry of Defence, which had become a national scandal during the 1980s, when Rajiv Gandhi was the Prime Minster, and the controversy raised was one of the factors in his defeat in the elections and loss of power. He has a totally different take on the role of Win Chaddha who headed the Anatronic Corporation, the middle-man who was said to have played a crucial role in the alleged pay off in the purchase deal. Brahma found him to be a straightforward and honourable man. It was the folly of abolishing the system of Indian agency for foreign firms and the system of paying them a small amount of legalised commission which was responsible for corruption making slow inroads in defence deals. The Swedish A B Bofors was a company which enjoyed high reputation but possibly they were trapped in a situation where they were forced to pay bribe to secure the deal. According to Brahma, it is the manipulation and greed of Indian politicians, who have found a convenient way to make money through lucrative defence deals, that is responsible for corruption creeping into arms purchases.

Because of the importance of the country’s defence and security,it has been a long standing tradition to have a very senior and respected politician as the Defence Minster, who invariably left a mark on the working of the Ministry. When he joined the Ministry, Sardar Swaran Singh was the Minster. He was a very capable administrator, thorough in his work and never interfered with the working of the Ministry. However, things soon changed with the declaration of the Emergency and Bansi Lal was brought in as the Defence Minster. He had no exposure to the Central Government’s working. His personal staff played havoc and indulged in dubious practices. Word went round that unless Indian agents of foreign firms visited the Minster’s office and ‘struck deals’ with his Personnel Staff, the pending contracts won’t go through. A bizarre incident took place at the time of Naval review of INS Vikrant by the President of India, to which a large number of VIPs were invited. The seating arrangements were made according to the long-standing protocol of the Navy. However, the Defence Minster insisted that a young rising politician not holding any official position (Sanjay Gandhi) be seated next to the President. Obviously the Naval Chief could not agree to such an unreasonable demand and a heated argument took place. It was rumored that the Naval Chief had submitted his resignation, but it was withdrawn at the intervention of Prime Minster Indira Gandhi.

The relations between the Defence Ministry and Services headquarters are complex and often remain strained. The idea of the Defence Ministry was to project a ‘civilian face’ of the Armed Forces and insulate them from the social, economic and political forces sweeping outside. It is the headquarters of the Army, Navy and Air Force, which formulates and executes all defence plans, proposals and programmes. The Ministry is expected to process those proposals and accord the government’s sanction. Brahma feels that the Defence Ministry appears a redundant organisation and all the functions can well be performed by the Army, Navy and Air Force Headquarters. Civil servants find it very frustrating to work in the Defence Ministry, as it gives them little scope for individual initiative. For this reason the Defence Ministry remains a very unpopular posting amongst IAS officers.

Brahma worked in the key post of Joint Secretary and Financial Adviser in the Ministry of Civil Aviation and discovered to his dismay that problems of the Air India and Indian Airlines were largely due to their key personnel blackmailing the management, who surrendered meekly to their unwarranted demands and lacked the courage to deal with them firmly. The pilots, airhostesses and other staff had secured for themselves hefty tax-free allowances, housing, transport, medical facilities, leave, free passes including life-long passes and other freebies, which bled the airlines and was a main factor for their recurring losses. The Income Tax Authorities wanted to bring the pilot’s income under the tax net, but the powerful Pilot’s Guild secured a stay order from the Court and the tax liabilities had to be borne by the company. The procedure to augment the fleet strength was slow and dilatory. In 1995 the Air India wanted to add two jumbo jet aircraft to its fleet (each aircraft costing about Rs 700 crores). It had to go through numerous channels for approval, pre-PIB (Public Investment Board), Planning Commission, PIB and the Cabinet which took almost two years. Compare it with the Singapore Airlines which became one of the top airlines of the world although founded much later than the Air India. Its Board had full autonomy. Some of its Directors went to the Paris Airshow, saw the latest version of aircraft, assessed their technological capability and placed orders in two weeks.

The Minister of Civil Aviation used to treat the Air India and Indian Airlines as his personal fiefdom and extracted all kinds of favours. Generally a bureaucrat, an IAS officer of Joint Secretary rank, enjoying political clout or the confidence of the Minster would be appointed as the Managing Director, who would take orders from the Ministry and ignore the Board of Directors. The Boards of both the airlines were packed with non-professionals. Once Russy Mody, a respected professional, was appointed as a common non-executive Chairman of both the Air India and Indian Airlines, but he soon discovered that he has no powers and was completely sidelined. Some of the MDs and Minsters made flagrant and shameful misuse of their position. A particular Managing Director made a sojourn to Europe with his entire family, travelling First Class, undertook a journey by the newly-opened tunnel train from London to Paris, hired a helicopter to go to some exotic places in Europe and the entire cost of the trip, including hotel charges, was borne by the Air India. The same MD kept two official accommodations, one at Delhi and another at Bombay. He would be on tour for two weeks in a month to Delhi and would charge daily allowance at hotel rates, while staying in his own accommodation! A particular Minster of Civil Aviation had to undergo a minor surgery which could well have been performed at the AIIMS, but chose to go to London. He stayed at St James Court, a five-star hotel in London, for more than a month and all costs of surgery and hotel rent was paid by the Air India.

The government introduced an open-sky policy following liberalisation of the economy and abolition of the Air Corporation Act and a number of private airlines were allowed to operate. Most of the airlines were doing badly and becoming sick. Brahma headed a committee appointed by the Ministry to look into their problems.

However, there was an exception in Jet Airlines, which was flourishing and within a short span of time developed a strength of 30 aircraft. Registered in the Isle of Man, nobody knew its credentials and source of funds. Jet wanted a ‘letter of Comfort’ from the government to facilitate its External Commercial Borrowing (ECB) to purchase four aircraft. It is an established practice that the government does not give such guarantees to private players, as in the event of default the liability will fall on the government. Brahma, as the Financial Adviser of the Ministry, naturally declined to issue any such letter. The Minster for Civil Aviation, having come to know of this, called for the file and sent it with his recommendation to the Finance Minster and obtained his approval. The same day the Comfort Letter was issued to Jet Airlines signed by another Joint Secretary of the Ministry, who was not authorised. Brahma was dismayed to discover the influence which Jet Airlines wielded. He, however, continued to do his job non-chalantly.

A large number of Tourism Offices were functioning abroad under the administrative control of the Ministry of Civil Aviation and Tourism and were proving a big drain on foreign exchange. Many of them, such as the one at Buenos Aires, had no business to exist, as Argentina received just a few tourists in a year. After discussing with the Secretary, Expenditure he submitted a proposal to close down six of those offices. All hell broke loose. Efforts were made to hound him out of the Ministry. Needless to say none of those offices were closed.

From 1990s onwards, when the coalition governments had been holding power in Delhi, posting of senior officers in Central secretariat is done largely on patronage basis. Most Minsters want officers of their choice, the ones coming from the cadre of the State to which they belong, so that they do their bidding. In such a system merit and efficiency have hardly any place. Civil Aviation is a very coveted Ministry with numerous perks and only those who have influence get posted to the prized post of Joint Secretary. It was by sheer chance that Brahma got posted there. The Ministry of Finance wanted only an Indian Audit & Accounts Service officer for the Financial Adviser’s post and Brahma’s name, being on the top of the panel, got approval of the then Finance Minster, Manmohan Singh. Therefore the Civil Aviation Minster had no choice but to accept him.

However, when Brahma’s turn for promotion as the Additional Secretary came, he was shifted to an innocuous post of Additional Secretary in the Department of Pensions. It is worth mentioning that in a similar situation, when the turn of an IAS officer comes for promotion, the post is routinely upgraded to that of an Additional Secretary. A blatant discrimination is made by the powerful IAS lobby against officers of the Central Services.

In his capacity as the Additional Secretary in the Department of Personnel, Brahma was designated as an ex-officio Chairman of Kendriya Bhandar, the biggest Central Government cooperative store. He was soon overwhelmed by a spate of uncomfortable parliamentary questions raised by some MP’s coming from Bihar, on the working of the Kendriya Bhandar. It was rumoured that some suppliers and corrupt employees were in collusion with some politicians. An investigation revealed that questions were generated by some blacklisted or deregistered suppliers involved in fraud who had close connections with some MPs. Brahma decided to meet one particular MP. It came out that the MP’s stenographer impersonated as one of the black-listed suppliers and would type out questions and obtain the Minster’s signature, without the MP even being aware of their content. The whole idea was to malign and discredit the Bhandar. From that day onwards embarrassing questions on the working of the Bhandar stopped coming from Parliament. The case highlights the misuse of parliamentary questions by vested interests and the gullibility of our parliamentary representatives. (Some years later the Kendriya Bhandar was freed from the government’s control and made an autonomous cooperative body.)

Brahma was not promoted to the top administrative post of Secretary to the Government of India, for which he had legitimate expectations as he had worked at every tier of the Secretariat hierarchy, Under Secretary, Deputy Secretary, Joint Secretary and Additional Secretary and had extensive experience of the working of the government with commendable record. This he attributes largely due to the IAS lobby and its trade union mentality, which prevents Central Service Officers in getting key posts in the Secretariat even if they are brilliant and outstanding. He returned to his parent cadre in the Indian Audit & Accounts Department. He had found the atmosphere in the Ministries stifling, with hypocrite Minsters and spineless Secretaries, having little place for honest and straight-forward officers.

Coming back to his roots, Brahma breathed fresh air in the Comptroller & Auditor General’s (CAG’s) set-up and rose to the highest post of Deputy CAG. Traditionally the CAG never interferes with the technical work of senior officers of the Audit Department and they are given a long rope to discharge their functions. This autonomy enables production of high quality Audit Reports, presented to Parliament every year. This is recognised by the Public Accounts Committee of Parliament which extends to the CAG its unflinching support. The Indian Constitution has granted an independent status to the CAG and the institution has proved worthy of the trust reposed in it and it has been discharging its functions as a true guardian of national finance. However, for the past some years an unfortunate situation has developed, with the appointment of IAS officers as the CAG, as they have no expertise in audit and accounts work and cannot give leadership. This is in contrast to the situation prevalent when Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, a true democrat, was the Prime Minster. During his time, only officers of the Indian Audit & Accounts Service were appointed as the CAG. Although individual CAGs, when appointed to the post, have tried to rise above their narrow parochial interest and some of them like Vinod Rai have acquitted themselves creditably, but a person without professional knowledge cannot command the respect of audit fraternity. This has a demoralising impact on the Audit Department and impacts it efficiency. There are also issues of serious conflict of interest when an IAS officer holding a Secretary’s post is appointed as the CAG.

The appointment of the CAG should be made only on the basis of merit and professional capability. An independent high-level committee should select the CAG, after prescribing an objective criteria and qualification for the post. In the UK, USA and other developed countries, the Chairman, Public Accounts Committee and Parliament have a decisive say in the appointment of the Auditor General, so that he could maintain his independence and is not beholden to the executive for his appointment.

Brahma refers to the breakdown of ethical principles in governance and collapse of moral values in society, which is responsible for most of the problems we face in the country today. He cites numerous scandals and corruption cases which have been surfacing from time to time, reaching its nadir during the UPA II regime.

Many problems that we face today in giving honest, people-friendly administration is due to our sticking to the colonial mode of bureaucracy, which we inherited from the British, and which cannot meet the social and economic challenges that a modern welfare state demands. It is worth noticing that the UK, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Singapore, which had a similar pattern of bureaucracy as ours, and many other developed countries have completely restruc-tured their public administration systems by embracing the philosophy of New Public Management (NPM). NPM emphasises that public managers must give high quality service to citizens, which they can provide when they are granted a high degree of autonomy, within a strict accountability framework.

The merit of the book consists in illustrating, by personal reminiscences, how the entire public administration system has degenerated into an instrument of self-aggrandisement and use of public office for private gain, largely due to the unholy nexus between politicians and bureaucrats. It has been written in a very lucid style and keeps the interest of readers despite the prosaic nature of the subject. The author observes humorously that for simply pushing files for four decades and not doing anything worthwhile, he has been rewarded with a hefty life-time pension!

The book, being in the nature of memoirs, does not offer any solution to the existing crisis in governance. Nevertheless, the book is a call for reforming governance and putting in place an ethical and value-based public administration system, in the absence of which the country cannot make progress and develop.

Dr B.P. Mathur is a former Deputy Comptroller & Auditor General and has worked in several Ministries of the Government of India. He has written several books which include two books on governance, Governance Reform for Vision India (Macmillan, 2005) and Ethics for Governance (Routledge, 2014).

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