A gift for Mahatma Gandhi

October 2, 2012

(Rajan Ghotgalkar is Managing Director of Principal Pnb Asset Management Company. The views expressed in this column are his own and do not represent those of either Principal Pnb or Reuters)

Having replaced the feudal princes by colonising India, the British Civil Service carried on with the master-subject relationship which, understandably, entitled them to huge discretionary powers.

In fact at the district level, collectors (civil service officers) were both administration and judiciary, virtually masters of their entire jurisdiction.

After getting rid of the British and having renamed the ICS to IAS, we took away the discretionary powers of civil servants but promptly surrendered them to the “people’s representatives” in the government.

Corruption is after all a matter of opportunity and nothing can present more opportunities than being granted unbridled discretion. History is replete with stories of the misdeeds of our princely rulers.

With these vast discretionary powers – which would more often than not get exercised without any appreciation of the underlying technicalities or improprieties – it did not take long before our people’s representatives turned wannabe maharajas.

In the 70’s our government took control of banks, mining, generation and distribution of all sources of energy, infrastructure, all mass transport, sales and logistics of agricultural produce.

Still worse, what they did not own they sought to control through the ‘Licence Raj’ and now our new rajas could control without the associated accountability.

Of course, a maharaja’s job is naturally expected to stay in the family with the incumbent being expected to do everything within his power to pass it down to an heir.

Unfortunately for them, while they remained busy with building their power base, our democracy was slowly but surely striking strong roots, and it is hardly surprising that our maharajas now require lots of money to gain popular votes.

The solution to corruption is therefore to primarily wrest away every discretionary power from political appointees and vest it with a committee of professional and technical experts and a bureaucrat representing the government.

This way our voted representatives will get back to doing what they were supposed to do in the first place – debating issues of public and national interest and making laws.

On the other hand, the apolitical committee members can be subjected to oversight by independent constitutional agencies.

As the ancient Arab saying goes: “A fish always rots from the head downwards”.

In India, the fish represents our political establishment riddled with conflicting interests leading to endemic corruption.

The solution has to emerge from within our constitutional political establishment and very quickly at that, lest our beloved country gets overwhelmed by rabble rousers and politically experimenting novices.

The state of Egypt today is a case in point.

However, my optimism was reinforced by a single new item I read on Tuesday.

India’s defence minister has a discretionary power to approve defence contracts which do not meet the technical parameters detailed in the product proposals.

The news report said Defence Minister A K. Antony (who is known for his clean image) had ceded his discretionary powers to the Defence Acquisition Council.

There could not have been a better gift for the Mahatma on his birthday.

No comments so far

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/