Collective amnesia

Quite a lot has been said and written in recent weeks about mega scams involving grave acts of corruption by some bureaucrats and politicians. While it is right and necessary to bring the damage caused by the scams to the attention of the people, there is another issue thrown up by these scams which has not received the focus it deserves: the failure of the governments concerned to follow certain well-established procedures and conventions in decision-making. This is particularly true of the decision-making process in the telecommunications ministry of the Central government on the allocation of the 2G spectrum.
It is necessary that time-honoured practices are followed in taking decisions on projects which require the cooperation and involvement of several government agencies, especially when huge sums are involved. It is the duty of the implementing ministry to obtain the views of the concerned ministries in writing and, if there are differences of opinion with other ministers that cannot be resolved by inter-ministerial discussion, then to seek the approval of the Cabinet.
The implementing ministry may have strong reasons for pursuing a particular line of action, but if it doesn’t have the concurrence of other concerned ministries, like finance and law, it must be compelled to modify its proposals on the lines approved by the Cabinet. Even if a particular minister disagrees with the consensus arrived after discussions in the Cabinet, the Cabinet decision cannot be disowned by him/her because once approved by the Cabinet the decision becomes the collective responsibility of all members of the Cabinet, i.e. the Government of India.
What we notice from the documents already before the public is that the ministries of law and finance conveyed their disagreement on some important provisions of the proposal in unambiguous terms, and yet, even after noticing that the telecommunication ministry had ignored their opposition, the ministers of finance and law did not press that the proposal be placed before the Cabinet for a discussion. This is rather strange. It shows that the ministers were not willing to go beyond sending their views in writing. If they believed that the telecommunication minister’s proposal was really harmful to national interests, they should have insisted on their opposition and asked that their views be placed before the Cabinet. Failure to do this gives the impression that while they were not convinced of the proposals made by the telecommunication ministry, they did not care enough to pursue the matter.
The manner in which the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) dealt with the proposals from the telecommunication ministry on the allocation of 2G spectrum was also, to say the least, very surprising. It cannot be claimed that the PMO was not fully aware of the grave loopholes in the telecommunication ministry’s proposals. The Prime Minister himself knew from the telecommunication minister’s letter dated November 2, 2007, that the ministry had decided to continue with the policy of “first come first served”. His letter to the telecommunication minister of the same day asked him to consider “introduction of a transparent methodology of auction, wherever legally and technically feasible, and revision of entry fee, which is currently benchmarked on old spectrum auction figures”. But instead of complying with his suggestion, the telecommunication minister replied on December 26, 2007, that he had enough material in his ministry to ensure that the allocations were fair and transparent. After this came the Prime Minister’s letter of January 3, 2008, to the telecommunication minister, simply acknowledging the minister’s letter of December 26, 2007, which can be interpreted by those who support the minister’s action as indicating that the Prime Minister is not pressing his opposition anymore. At any rate, no action was taken by the PMO to ensure that the minister paid any heed to the views conveyed by the Prime Minister to him.
In my very long experience of working in the Central government, I have not come across a single instance where a minister has chosen to ignore the suggestion given by the Prime Minister on a major proposal such as this. It is not that powerful Prime Ministers like Jawaharlal Nehru or Indira Gandhi didn’t accept suggestions given by their ministerial colleagues on administrative matters. Nehru, in fact, had as his colleagues leaders like Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and Maulana Azad who were his equals in the Congress Party and he tried to accommodate their advice to the maximum extent possible, even making some compromise with his own views.
It is now well known that in 1954, Nehru could not include Krishna Menon in his Cabinet in spite of his keen desire to do so because of the strong opposition from Maulana Azad. Azad had strong reservations about Menon because of some allegations of financial irregularities against him during the period when he was high commissioner to the United Kingdom. Maulana Azad even informed Nehru that he would resign from the Cabinet if Nehru went ahead with his proposal to induct Menon. Bowing to the views of Azad, Nehru shelved the idea. Similarly, Nehru had accepted the suggestion of Sardar Patel to create the Indian Administrative Services on the pattern of the ICS of the British days in spite of his own strong dislike for continuing the ICS type of civil services in Independent India.
I can also say from personal knowledge that on certain very important and delicate matters requiring decisions at her level, Indira Gandhi had obtained the informal advice of R. Venkataraman who was her finance minister and P.V. Narasimha Rao, her foreign affairs minister. However, it would be wrong to draw any parallel between these great stalwarts in the Cabinet during Nehru’s or Indira Gandhi’s days with Prime Ministers’ colleagues in later years.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, if he was really keen that the proposal of the telecommunication minister should be amended on the lines indicated by him, could have easily done so without any difficulty — he had only to place the matter before the Cabinet.
Administrative procedures, like the ones I have given above, may not sound very significant, but if time-tested rules and procedures are allowed to be violated at the whim of individuals in a parliamentary democracy, the whole system of administration will stand in danger of gross distortion and deterioration and ultimate collapse, as it has happened in many newly-independent countries.

P.C. Alexander is a former governor of Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra

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