When India’s economy was opened up in 1991, the ways and means laid down for implementing liberalisation, an opportunity to bring in revenue to the exchequer, was also seen as a chance by several political executives to fill their own coffers. The allocation of natural resources such as coal, minerals and spectrum — several of which have gone through a round of public shaming — was left for lawmakers to decide, instead of market forces. The quantum of monies was huge, and loopholes for lawmakers to exploit were aplenty.
Anyone who opposed illegal procedures — whether a bureaucrat or a corporate — had to face the music.
While an industrialist could oppose the procedures to prevent favouritism, bureaucrats were sometimes prevented from executing work which could hinder a politician’s agenda. In his book, former chairman of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) Pradip Baijal asks a pertinent question. “When reforms pose such challenges to the polity, should political parties attempt reform, instead of continuing the centrist policies we have always practised?”
While chronicling India’s reform story, A Bureaucrat Fights Back also serves the purpose of telling about Baijal’s involvement — or the lack thereof — in the infamous 2G scam.
Baijal has tried to tell the reform story through the processes he was involved with, in disinvestment, power and telecom, but the book is anchored in developments in telecommunications. In the first two chapters, Baijal describes the history of India’s telecom sector, and the associated corruption and politics. The third chapter provides an elaborate account of the decisions taken by the NDA and UPA governments that led to the 2G scam. From his coign of vantage in Trai, Baijal shows how the ingredients of an imminent scam were put on the boil.
Several times in the first part of the book, Baijal states that Trai’s powers were limited to recommending policy, while executive decisions were the government’s domain. This is a useful reminder to the current lot at the telecom and broadcast regulator, who are trying to get the Trai Act amended to secure more powers.
In the second part of the book, Baijal has written about his stints at the ministries of power and coal, and at the Department of Disinvestment, which also faced criticism for their reform processes. In his foreword, Justice S.S. Sodhi, the first chairman of Trai, suggests that Baijal was “acerbic”, but the book predominantly presents the facts of the matter rather than the opinions of a bureaucrat who was in service at a time, when the ground was prepared for a huge fraudulent exercise.
But later, Baijal sharply criticises another sectoral watchdog, the Central Electricity Regulatory Commission, for inaction over several key decisions.
Even so, he is kind enough to admit that Trai faced huge repercussions for its “overactions”.
Baijal’s book does serve as a ready reckoner for readers wanting to understand the benefits and the pitfalls of the reform process in India, but it is really an account of the distinctive political consequences he faced as a bureaucrat who sought to initiate reform.
In the latter half of the book, Baijal writes of the interview for his entry into the Indian Administrative Service, which committed him to doing what he felt was right, even if it meant taking the brunt of political pressure. The book suggests that a bureaucrat trying to implement reforms must pursue the goal irrespective of personal cost, and accounts of Baijal’s experiences illustrate how to deal with the political consequences.