The institution or the individual?

The formal powers conferred on an institution are relevant, but what’s more important is how the head of an organisation functions to achieve its stated objectives. Power is assumed by the individual in most situations, though it’s rarely granted to a person for free exercise.

Some view the posts they get to occupy as their personal adornment, while others adorn the posts they occupy. In the former case, the posts themselves get diminished, in the latter, the post grows in stature. For example, Lal Bahadur Shastri was Prime Minister for a brief period, but he left a lasting impression due to his personal qualities. Even before the news of a rail accident in Ariyalur, Tamil Nadu, had fully spread, he resigned owning moral responsibility for the 144 passengers who had died. The very recent example of a Scotland Yard chief resigning, assuming moral responsibility for “hackgate”, is another case in point.
On the other hand, we now see the spectacle of ministers having to be dragged out of their chairs, kicking and screaming all the way to jail, or at least to the trial court.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is said to have ushered in the “era of liberalisation” — it should be remembered that he was implementing the policies of the then Prime Minister, Narasimha Rao, with the latter’s political backing.
Clearly, in the case of the present incumbent, the Peter Principle has come into operation — “in a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence”. Leadership qualities are not easily acquired — they have to be ingrained in people. Thus, by being invisible and inaudible in nearly every crisis in the past few years, Dr Singh has greatly diminished the post he holds. Any new incumbent will find it difficult to restore the position and prestige of the post of Prime Minister.
T.N. Seshan, a civil servant who rose to the highest civil services post, i.e. of the Cabinet Secretary, was reputed to be more obsequious than desirable in demeanour; he suddenly became a transformed person when he assumed charge of a constitutional post. That muscle power is not relevant any more in elections is a gift he gave the nation — when will Seshan reappear in a new avatar to rid the election scene of money power?
These comments are relevant in the context of the proposed institution of Lokpal. Large size is not a prerequisite for bite and effectiveness. Surely the solution to all problems of corruption cannot lie with one person, or even 11, supervising the wrongdoings of three crore government servants, five crore small businesses. I envisage the Lokpal to target exclusively the “ruling class” — the political executive, the members of Parliament and the senior bureaucrats, who have brazenly colluded in recent years to defraud the public through unholy conspiracies, winking at the law and oblivious to the need of good governance. It is a fundamental gap in our constitutional structure that no checks and balances were placed on the ruling classes to ensure that authority and power are not abused. Thus, this new institution is essential to plug the gaping hole in our governance system, to create an instrument that keeps our political executive, Prime Minister downwards, on the straight and narrow.
It is equally imperative that the Lokpal is empowered to call on the services of all major investigating agencies, which again have to be taken out of the control and influence of the government. Clearly, who will head the Lokpal is a key question; an enlightened and pragmatic selection system is of the essence — people make or mar institutions.
I have had the occasion to mention to successive Comptrollers and Auditors General (CAG), frequently in semi-bantering tone and sometimes quite seriously, that they were not doing justice to their positions — that they were not functioning as constitutional watchdogs over governance, preferring to remain pet poodles, cozily lounging at the feet of the administration. Perhaps the habit of a lifetime of subservience to political masters cannot be wished away through a change in designation; perhaps they don’t have it in them to comprehend the enormity of the responsibility thrust on them through a constitutional post — to serve the people of India.
Yet, suddenly we find a Vinod Rai, the current CAG, realising his powers and responsibility, fearlessly standing up to serve the nation. Successive governments have been happy to choose trusted civil servants likely to remain pliant for key positions — P.J. Thomas, for example, was elevated to the post of the Chief Vigilance Commissioner (CVC) for no other reason. After much controversy, we now have a new CVC, Pradeep Kumar, with much experience and who, by reputation, is known for his competence. One can only hope that he will outgrow his phase as secretary to the government, working as an adviser and playing second fiddle to the minister, and transform himself to become a peoples’ servant. Can one expect that the new CVC will, with unerring aim, sift out and locate errant secretaries, joint secretaries and heads of departments, and throw the book at them, starting an effective “due process”? If yes, he would then have done his job.

The author, a former Cabinet Secretary and chief secretary of Uttar Pradesh, has written Journeys through Babudom and Netaland

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