FOR some time now, there has been no government in Delhi. The man who has been designated Prime Minister functions like Bahadur Shah Zafar did just before the British packed him off to Burma. He doesn’t even know – just like Zafar – what is happening in the country and probably doesn’t care. If the trains are running on time, and you get your salary cheque regularly, why bother?
This is also the case with most, if not all his ministers. P Chidambaram is a very good example. His main job seems, it is to appear before the TV cameras every day and abuse Hindus. He does it regularly – and he often does nothing else, besides trotting out the names of terrorists who, he thinks, are hiding in Pakistan. People are being murdered and raped, and thousands vanish from their homes, but our Home Minister is as serene as Buddha, and couldn’t care less, even when the office of his own collegue, the Finance Minister, is being bugged.
But somehow this great country of ours functions, as if it was on an automat. As I said earlier, if the trains are running on time, why bother? In fact, it is not only the trains, but almost everything else seems to be running normally. People get their salaries, post offices sell stamps, you can draw money from your bank, and the airlines function almost normally. Prices may be soaring but you can still buy your vegetables in the market, and order a cup of tea in your restaurant.
Who is running the country then? The politicians think they are running the country, just because the Cabinet meets every week and is attended regularly by the ministers. Actually, this is only a formality. The country is not being run by politicians, even though some of them call themselves ministers, but by bureaucrats. It is they who run the government, the banks, the post offices, the airlines, the currency, the trains, the buses, and the power stations. The rest is run by the corporates, who are cousins of the bureaucrats. And what is not run by the babus and the corporates, is run by foreigners.
There were times when there were proper ministers who governed the country. Nehru was Prime Minister, not just in name but a real Prime Minister who held all the reins. So did Atal Bihari Vajpayee when he was in the South Block. Vallabhbhai Patel made the bureaucrats tremble and had his fingers on the pulse of the nation, from Delhi to Cochin, and from Calcutta to Srinagar. The babus put up notes and got their signatures. But the politicians were the real masters, and people trusted them.
Now you still have politicians but people do not trust them. Who would trust a man like Kapil Sibal who is a lawyer by training and therefore prepared to argue anybody’s case for a fee? These are not men of conviction but of convenience. They come and go, but the babus do the real running.
We now have three new power centres in India: the bureaucracy the Corporates and the media. The babus were always powerful but they were always deferential to the politicians, because it was they who held the real levers of power. They dare not even sit before a man like Patel or Morarji Desai who knew their business inside out and who were trusted by the people. The source of their strength was the trust of the people. Take away the trust, and you have automatically taken away the power.
Because power abhors a vacuum, the gap has been filled by the babus, the corporates and the media. Let us not minimise the growing importance of these three entities. They now run the country, for better or worse, because the politicians have fallen by the wayside and are as good, or as bad, as useless.
Take just one portfolio : External Affairs. Only a fool will say that Sri Krishna is running the Ministry. He may attend UN sessions and visit countries now and then, but I doubt, whether he knows what is happening and, if he does, how to deal with it.
The same is the case with the Finance Ministry. Pranab Mukherjee may be a veteran politician, but he is totally lost as Finance Minister, though he is supposed to have authored several central budgets over the years. But he hasn’t a clue to the performance of the economy, which is why he has no idea why inflation is not under control and why GDP growth rates are plummeting. In fact, even the babus responsible for the economy, including such veterans as Montek Singh Ahluwalia have no clue to the strange manner in which the economy is functioning. A man like Pranab Mukherjee can tell you how you can bring down the budget deficit, but about the deficit itself he is clueless. On this kind of nitty-gritty, he has to rely on the babus who are the real masters in the ministry. It will make no difference at all to the government if one minister goes and is replaced by another, but it makes a lot of difference if one secretary is replaced by another, or if the governor of the Reserve Bank is changed. In the new scenario, the babus matter more than the ministers.
One reason why trains run on time is the fact that the railways are run by the Railway Board, an ancient agency that has run trains for decades and the engineers who do it are past masters at it. A minister like Mamta Banerjee can come and go and it doesn’t make the slightest difference to the ministry. But if you have a wrong babu at the top, or a babu who behaves like a politician, the trains will come to a dead stop and there will be havoc all round.
The shift of power from the politicians to babus means that nobody is really responsible for running the administration. The politicians can always say that they were not told, or it all happened behind their backs, or they did not go through the files, or the files were not put up before them. They can also cite other excuses, like the one Manmohan Singh used to give whenever asked about the 2 G scandal – compulsions of coalition government, although he knew and so did everyone else that it was a hollow and false excuse. My hunch is that the Prime Minister did not pay attention because his babus were in charge and there were no reasons for him to get involved. Result: chaos all round, leading to corruption.
The shift of power is also responsible for the increase in corruption in the last few years, as nobody is really accountable for the state of affairs and all can pass the buck to the next person – politicians to babus, and vice-versa. In the spectrum scandal, only the politicians and businessmen have been hauled up, but not a single babu. In the “Adarsh” building scandal also, the babus have been passing the buck to politicians, and the politicians to babus, with the result that the case is not just moving forward.
The increasing lack of accountability is the main reason for the growing corruption in the system. Had Manmohan Singh said that the buck stops here and I take the responsibility, followed by a shake-up in the bureaucracy, the pendulum would have swung back, though not perhaps to normal. But Singh is himself a babu, and babus don’t resign. He should therefore be held responsible, personally and otherwise, for the increasing rot in the system, and the growing mess in the administration.
Next week, I shall deal with the rise of the corporates and media, who, between them, have acquired tremendous powers in tandem with the growing authority of the bureaucracy and the decline of the political class.