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Governance, at what price

Title of the book - GovernMint in India - An Inside View; Genre of the Book - Governance and Administration; Name of the Author - T.S.R. Subramanian; Name of the Publisher - Rupa & Co.; Selling Price of the Book - Rs. 395; Number of Pages - 208

By Ashok Patnaik
October 05, 2010

“Progress”, Jawaharlal Nehru once remarked towards the end of life, “ultimately has to be measured by the quality of human beings—how they are improving, how their lot is improving, and how they are adapting themselves to modern ways and yet keep their feet firmly planted on their soil.” He built India’s political institutions with conviction and principle, yet in his own life time he witnessed with growing pain the crumbling of those temples.

In truth, panditji had great difficulties with his own cabinet, despite his towering personality. A good number of his ministers were corrupt and inept, and Nehru was one of the first to detect these political maggots. Yet he could hardly do anything. He revealed his deep frustration to J.D. Bernal, the distinguished British scientist in the following words, “Most of my ministers are reactionary and scoundrels but as long as they are my ministers I can keep a check on them. If I were to resign they would be the government and they would unleash forces that I have tried ever since I came to power to keep in check. I have to work with people who are actually influential within the country. They may not be the kind of people I like but it is the best I can do.” This confidential conversation between the two great minds took place in Beijing in 1954.

Over the span of 62 years these political maggots grew in sheer size and number, and sneaked into every possible quarter. Was it possible to resist such characters, the answer would be “no”. GovernMint in India is a critique on the governance in India. It is in a sense a stock-taking of our national scene since it became a republic. However, “criticism”, as Nirad Chaudhuri once characteristically remarked, “does not necessarily imply any rejection of established institutions and ideas, it only insists on a searching and continuous examination, to bring about revalidation. No nomos, no way of life, no system of values, can remain living without it. It is to be welcomed even if the criticism has to be part of destructive. To shun it, is to court decay.”

Today no one is better equipped than T.S.R. Subramanian, or TSR as he is known otherwise, to throw a beam of light on the darker sides of various constitutional agencies and other organs of governance. In fact, he’s probably the best. TSR has had a distinguished career in the Indian Administrative Service, where he held various key positions including that of Cabinet Secretary, the highest post in the Indian administration and the post of Secretary in the ministry of textiles. He also worked in the ministry of commerce, where he dealt with trade policy ... issues and matters relating to General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT) and with UNCTAD. Much of what he has written is based on his professional experience spanning over four decades, during which he has been deeply involved in administration, at different strata.

The India of 1947 was a “different kettle of fish from Britain. The experience, democratic temper, internal level of homogeneity in culture, language and social experience, the level of education and awareness of public affairs were far apart”. So much so, the internal checks and balances in that system came from the quality of the men who ruled India, the spirit of sacrifice and missionary zeal displayed by them. “These fundamentals were lost on our founding fathers.” As TSR writes: “Nobody envisaged in 1950 that the local MLA will issue directions to the district magistrate (frequently for party or monetary considerations), or that sub-inspectors of police would be transferred and posted through a computer in the chief minister’s office on the bidding of a local gunda, who finds a particular functionary blocking his path.” But actually there would be no end to such examples.

At one stage Nehru became very disillusioned witnessing his dream diffusing into thin air. He already knew his ministers were fraudulent and incompetent; and that he was surrounded by a pack of sycophants. When this reviewer took up the question with Shashi Tharoor, who wrote a fine biography on India’s first prime minister in 1997, he told me: “Yes, that's true, and I fear he died a disillusioned and broken man. As I recount in the book, he had really wanted to resign in 1958. Sometimes there’s a great danger in countries keeping their leaders on too long...”

The fundamental question is: Can the political class reform itself? Or can it devise checks and balances to guide itself? The answer is emphatic “no”. In fact, the political class “does not see the need for internal reforms of politics”.

Most politicians of 1950s and ‘60s belong to a decent rural background or with a professional urban background. They came from a reasonably educated background, and were honest, with a genuine desire to serve the public. In 1970s, however, the politicians became “savvy” and with it the era of shortages, and corruption tiptoed politics in a big way. “Politicians went out of their way to assert supremacy over civil servants at all levels. In the mid-1970s, the concept of ‘committed bureaucracy’ had already taken root with the strong push given by Indira Gandhi.” Very soon the term ‘committed bureaucracy’ further degenerated into a spectrum of ‘willing bureaucracy’. No wonder then, in 1977, at the end of Emergency, when the new non-Congress governments came in many states, many senior-most civil servants, who took a lead role in implementing Emergency policies became turn-coats to be willing collaborators of the new dispensation.

The history of the Indian political executive is slow but steadily and deliberately throws away all checks, to reach the sorry situation that we are in. As TSR rightly observes, “An effete Parliament and unwilling judiciary are mere spectators; the civil service has lost its élan and ability to question the political executive, rather they are silenced and the media has no stakes in the issue.” A Swiss Banking Association report of 2006, estimates bank deposits in the territory of Switzerland by Indian nationals to be staggering $1,500 billion. This is three times larger than the deposits from Russia and way ahead of countries like the US, Germany, Japan, Brazil etc. As for India’s total deposit, obviously it could not have been hard earned money.

In an age where criticism has lost its sharp edge and descended to dim-wittedness, and where assessment be it political or literary became personal, TSR like many great critics gives us the hope of the reverse. This is an audacious book written by equally a forthright man.

The author is a senior journalist.