‘Modi may be an agent of change, but he has to reshape an entire ocean’

Known for his forthright views, Arun Shourie believes there is an urgent need to undertake governance reforms that percolate down to the last denomination of the government’s interface with the public.

By: Express News Service Written by P Vaidyanathan Iyer | Updated: December 22, 2015 3:30 pm
Arun Shourie, minister in the previous NDA government, added depth and intellect to the Atal Bihari Vajpayee Cabinet. Arun Shourie, minister in the previous NDA government, added depth and intellect to the Atal Bihari Vajpayee Cabinet.

Former Union minister Arun Shourie talks about the ‘impenetrable fog’ that surrounds those who assume office and how the media makes it more dense.

P Vaidyanathan Iyer: What do you think about the government and the buzz around PM Narendra Modi’s style of functioning?

I don’t want to use harsh words but the  consensus seems to be that when all is said and done, more is said than done. I am sure sincere efforts are being made and they may yield results, but as Akbar Allahabadi said, ‘Plateon ke aane ki awaaz toh aa rahi hai, khaana nahin aa raha (The  plates’ sound can be heard but the food is not coming)’.

Harish Damodaran: Why is the food not coming?

In every government, including this one, the focus is on announcing new schemes. Each scheme adds a task to the hands of the government/state. People in office think their marks will depend on the number of schemes they have announced. Yet, in spite of all the talk, we do not attach importance to the State — its functioning, personnel, institutions, rules, etc. With the kind of personnel any government in India chooses for institutions, does it show they attach importance to the State? We always think of reforms as one scheme — GST aayega ya nahin, insurance Bill pass hoga ya nahin. But the real theme of reforms has been to reduce the role of the State in our lives. We continue to do the opposite. That’s why things don’t happen. And rationalisations develop for this. An article commented on Mr Modi’s Cabinet. It said there is the Pareto rule that says institutions and governments are run only by 20 per cent. You only need 20 per cent who are good. So, we seem to think of putting good persons in only two-three ministries.

Even today, the main instrument relied on is bureaucracy. But bureaucracy is not what it was 30-40 years ago, you don’t have L K Jhas or B K Nehrus. A civil servant I met recently said: ‘I am going to retire in 15-20 months. Ten years after my retirement, I will be subjected to some CBI inspector. So, why should I take a decision? Let the minister take it.’ Thirdly, you could still rely on civil services but induct experts. But that can only be effective if you put them not in decorative advisory positions but in decisive ones.

Dilip Bobb: So you don’t think Modi is an agent of change?

He may be an agent of change as an individual. But no matter how big your oar is, you have to change, reshape an ocean. It’s not just about simplifying reforms. The depth and pervasiveness of reforms has to be great. To reform, say, the CBI, you can’t just change the director, but the training of persons who are at the cutting edge — the inspector, the investigating officer. How long will it take to do that?

Same is with the the lower judiciary. In November last year, a policeman came to our home with a non-bailable warrant of arrest for my wife — if she didn’t report at 10 am in a Faridabad court the next day, she would get a five-year punishment. Shocked, I asked why. He said she refused summons five times. But I said we got no summons. He offered no explanation.

At the court, I asked the woman magistrate why an arrest warrant was issued for my wife. She said she refused summons. I said we got none. She said, ‘Sometimes our people don’t deliver summons and write they have been refused.’

She said we were sent summons for building an ‘illegal’ farmhouse  and asked if we had a plot in the Aravallis. I said the plot was registered in our name for a few months. We needed money to build a house near Pune, so we sold it. We didn’t place a single brick there. The public prosecutor said, ‘Yes, it’s not their plot and they have built nothing there.’ The judge, however, said: ‘But now the process has begun. I can give your wife bail but only till the next hearing when she has to appear physically.’

So, my wife is out on bail for refusing summons which were not served, for building a house which we have not built on a plot which we don’t own. The lady magistrate has gone, a new person has come. He says, ‘I know you have done nothing. But if I let you off, people will say it was done under political pressure or that you’ve paid me.’

So the reform has to be much deeper. When people assume office, they forget how deeply the system has to be changed. They get surrounded by an impenetrable fog of self-satisfaction. And media makes the fog more dense. Their photographs are everywhere. The industralists says you are ‘almighty’s gift to us’. I am told secretaries have started speaking this way. They think change has already come. Our job is to keep them awake.

Amitabh Sinha: Going by high-pitched campaigns like Swachh Bharat, cleaning Ganga, or reviving Sanskrit, what do you make of the priorities of this government?

Swachhta is a wonderful idea. It involves both society and the State in cleaning public spaces. If the State succeeds in generating a movement, it would be very good. On Sanskrit, there is the either/or thinking — similar to over the three-year vs four-year courses at Delhi University. What is the fault of those who are learning German? If you are so keen, introduce Sanskrit as an optional subject, then increase the capacity to learn… Maybe a lot of YouTube videos, CDs… Over three-four years, introduce the whole thing. It becomes a painless transition.

Rakesh Sinha: What do you make of the move to dismantle the Planning Commission?

Dr Y V Reddy had said that throughout, even when it was not a great intellectual resource, the Planning Commission was regarded as a referee between the Centre and states. But the perceived proximity between Manmohan Singh and Montek Singh Ahluwalia made the Planning Commission look like an instrument of the Centre. So, it lost credibility.

The Planning Commission had asked me to write a paper on reform. I had interviewed officers and asked them to characterise the Commission. Somebody said ‘a parking lot’, another said ‘gaushala (cowshed)’. I told an officer that his colleague had called the Commission a gaushala. He said, ‘A gaushala has cows that give milk. This is a place for derelict cows.’ So, if you appoint such personnel, the institution loses credibility. You could improve the Commission by getting the best personnel.

Mr Modi’s presumption, I think in this case, was formed by the resentment of the previous 10 years as a CM against the commission.

P Vaidyanathan Iyer: Do you see the current government as an extension of Modi’s campaign — one person at the top and the Cabinet not very varied or delivering governance at the doorstep?

India is diverse and very large. I am using the words of a very big man, whose name I cannot tell you. ‘It is not a municipality, it is the federal government of India,’ he said. It cannot be run by small numbers.

Raj Kamal Jha: One of the most visible things Modi has done is on the diplomatic front — his visits to the US, China, Australia, Japan. How do you view India’s international relations under the new government?

Modi certainly thinks on a different scale, and laterally. I remember his phrase: ‘Arrey, yeh theek nahi hai, kuch dhamakedaar idea do (This is not okay, give a bombastic idea).’ You can see that in foreign policy: one is emphasis on neighbours, and secondly, looking at China. I endorse that, but it should be done at a lower profile. If you look at it from the Chinese viewpoint, all these are acts of provocation. If you want to provoke them, you have to be prepared for the backlash. In Japan, Shinzo Abe has a stridently anti-Chinese rhetoric. Vietnam is in non-lethal conflict with China. I am all for alliances and intelligence exchanges with them, but don’t rub it in the face of China.

What has China done? Without any fanfare, they signed an MoU with Nepal for the development of districts. They have announced $65 billion for development of infrastructure in Pakistan.

We are going all over the world (talking) about our acquisitions and orders. I fear we are doing things with a visibility, which will provoke China.

Surabhi: Critics say there is intellectual paucity in the government — no Planning Commission or PM’s economic advisory council.

Three PMs valued ideas as ideas: Panditji (Jawaharlal Nehru), Narasimha Rao and Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The others seemed to be practical men. Maybe that is what India needs, but ideas are also necessary.

Rajgopal Singh*: What is your opinion on age limit for political appointments at the Centre?

I am past 72 or 73, but I felt this is the wrong criterion even when I was younger. Sanjay and Rajiv Gandhi were young men. What did they do? The two biggest reformers in India, Narasimha Rao and Vajpayee, were older men. Look at a person’s capacity to contribute.
Harish Damodaran: The PMO interacts with the secretaries and the ministers are nowhere. Is it sustainable — ministers with no power and bureaucrats all powerful?

The first part may be correct, but not the second. I had taken up this view with Mr Modi before the formation of the government, that given the quality of people the electoral system throws up, he would have to ensure direct contact with secretaries who would, generally speaking, be better than ministers. But do secretaries know how much they can decide? I don’t know. Do ministers know how much they can decide? I don’t know. What is the limit? Can they appoint directors on their own to Coal India, to Air India, to banks? Under Vajpayee, you would be given a charge and could do anything.

Praveen Swami: This government has announced grand schemes but has not given out details about their execution. Do you believe there is a lack of vision or do you believe a few people close to the government saying there is a great deal going on?

A PM can only give a sense of direction, he can symbolically do a few acts so others take it up. But if the others are uncertain about what they can take up, then details do not get worked out. Maybe it is a reflection of that. Such campaigns have to be carried to the toilet on the road. But maybe the Transport Ministry doesn’t know, so they don’t work out the details.

About the 100 smart cities, by now, we should have been told the essence of smartness… In the case of Swachh Bharat, we should not look upon it and ask whether Modi will succeed or fail. Then it becomes merely Modi’s campaign.

Abhishek Angad*: How do you think the government is handling issues about Muslims?

I agree with Modi’s general approach, which is to provide facilities across the board, not on the basis of caste or religion. Whenever we provide benefit based on a criterion other than economic, politics is played around it. Development requires focus, and Modi has to ensure that focus, which means you must also control the fringe elements. You cannot talk development in Delhi and love jihad in Muzaffarnagar. It distracts. If love jihad was so dangerous, how did the phenomenon stop after voting?

Ajay Shankar: The Modi wave still seems to be prevailing. When and how will there be a reality check?

The reduction of oil prices has put blinkers on people’s eyes and has delayed a reality check. Otherwise, by now, with the fiscal deficit and diminishing oil prices, if for the first seven-eight months the targeted deficit would have been consumed, a reality check would have come. As Swaminathan Aiyar said, it’s not just achhe din, but also achhe sitare.

P Vaidyanathan Iyer: Would you accept a role in government if offered?

Nobody offers me, what to do? (Laughs.) Faiz Ahmad Faiz had said, ‘Kuch hum hi ko nahin ehsaan uthane ka dimaag, woh jab aate hain mail-ba-karam aate hain (I did not want to take on another obligation, whenever she came, she came determined to endow her favours on me)’.

Ajay Shankar: What happened during the famous pre-government meeting of yours?

The post-government meeting should also be famous. First newspapers give you the job, then next day say you are disappointed (laughs). I’m neither appointed, nor disappointed.

*EXIMS student Transcribed by Aslesha and Saikat Bose