Setting,not vetting,and betting

These three words describe different political practices,each a symptom of the Indian political system

Written by Peter Ronald DeSouza | Published: May 31, 2013 3:47 am

These three words describe different political practices,each a symptom of the Indian political system

Anyone who wishes to understand the challenges of governance in India would do well to think about the three key words of this title. They give us a better understanding of how the political system works than many books written by eminent political scientists in South Asia departments in India and abroad. A theory of the Indian democratic system must be built from everyday events,which are then subjected to a critical analysis of why they occur. From the elements of this analysis,a theory has to be constructed from the bottom up. This must be done by looking for “inconvenient facts” and then attempting to explain them,by trying to understand the “ambivalences” that necessarily emerge,that is,which is the right way to go between two equally desirable options,and by recognising “paradoxes”,that is,how come good policies produce bad outcomes. The three key words in the title offer a clue.

“Setting” — a very Indian word that every Indian understands,but no thesaurus gives options for — describes an activity of fixing outcomes in one’s favour,particularly with respect to the decisions of the state. An alternative word could perhaps be fixing. “Vetting” — the thesaurus option is inspection — refers to the exercise of checking to see whether that which has been specified has indeed been fulfilled. “Not vetting” is,therefore,not inspecting,or inspecting casually. “Betting”,as gambling,refers to the taking of chances,knowing full well the risks involved,but gambling nonetheless,because of the higher payoff. These three words describe different political practices,each of which is symptomatic of the Indian political system. When read together,they give us a sense of the everyday working of Indian democracy. Why do these practices happen? How do they operate? What are their implications? These are questions that students of Indian democracy must seek to explain.

Three episodes of the last few weeks bring out the distinct aspect of each of these words. The Guptas in South Africa story tells us a great deal about Indian politics. They did what many influential groups in India do,what we,in our Hinglish,would describe as fine “setting” of the South African state. This may have caused a flutter in South Africa,but we in India were not surprised,only amused. Let us analyse the elements of this “setting”. First,demonstrate your access to power. The Guptas had on their list of invitees,prominent politicians from the Samajwadi Party in India. They also,reportedly,have at least one of South Africa President Jacob Zuma’s sons on the board of directors of their companies. Second,pamper those in power. A chartered plane was booked to fly these UP politicians to South Africa. Third,bypass rules and regulations by making a deal with the concerned officials. The chartered plane,which was not cleared to land at a civilian airport,was given permission to land at a military airport. This is no ordinary “setting”. Not everyone can get such important rules of state bypassed. Disdain for rules,and the self confidence that breaking them will not invite penalties,is a key element of such setting. Fourth,be brazen about such rule-breaking. The Guptas were reported to have transported their guests to the marriage venue in a fleet of cars with flashing beacons,in clear violation of the rules. Setting,in these four aspects,is a pervasive practice in Indian democracy and challenges our thinking about impersonal institutions and the rule of law. All groups practice it: judges,journalists,bureaucrats,politicians,corporate managers and academics. Setting is the generals who got houses allotted to them meant for war widows in the Adarsh housing scam. Setting is the public sector banks who have given huge loans to Kingfisher Airlines without adequate collateral. India may be a rising economy,but it sure is a setting democracy.

“Not vetting” is an equally pervasive practice in Indian democracy. What happened to the poor prime minister when he filled in his nomination papers for the Rajya Sabha,when his age was wrongly entered in the form by someone entrusted with the task,seems minor,but is symptomatic of our working democracy. If the PM’s nomination form can,even inadvertently,be wrongly filled,then we need to understand why this happens. It is not a rare error. It is a common practice. It describes a culture of casualness that permeates our public institutions. Sir,galti ho gayi. No one pays the price for “not vetting”. Such casualness of inspection marks all our regulatory agencies such as pollution control boards,banking watchdogs,municipal authorities,water boards,health authorities,school inspectors,etc. This lack of inspection is present in every institution,at every level,and makes the achievement of promised outcomes by senior officials impossible. Sometimes,students of Indian democracy blame the wrong level of government,since the culprit sits in the middle of the system. Not vetting is the Ranbaxy case of millions of dollars in fines for drugs sent to the US that were not up to standard. What were the drug control authorities doing? Not vetting is the regular building collapse that occurs in our metros,where innocent lives are lost. Where are the municipals building regulators? The regulator who does the vetting is the pivot of our democracy. Half our problems would disappear if she did her job. And when she does not,we have a pilot locked out of the cockpit during a flight because the door has not been maintained,and an oil terminal in flames because a valve was not turned off.

“Betting” is the third aspect I want to discuss. It is more than the betting scandal of the IPL and the buying of gold during Akshay Tritiya,even though world prices of the metal are falling. “Betting” in politics is about taking risks by indulging in a fraudulent transaction with the state. I find it unbelievable that even after the Commonwealth Games and coal block allotment scams,and a hundred others that dominate our media,when one would expect everyone would be watchful,a bunch of rice millers in Bihar take a gamble and shortchange the state food corporation of over Rs 500 crore. While there are elements of setting and not vetting in the story,the amazing thing is the millers taking the risk of receiving rice for milling from the SFC and not returning it to the SFC but instead,in some cases,selling it in the open market. Because they know the fraility of the state in imposing the rule of law,they take the chance of not being found out,because the payoffs of getting away without penalty are enormous. Most suppliers to government are betting wallahs. Betting is the supply of contaminated saline drips to hospitals. Betting is the inferior armaments supplied to our defence forces in the hope that war will not break out. Much of the time “betting” works,and is successful,because of “setting”,which requires that there is “no vetting”. Take any programme of the government,at the national,state,or local levels,and you will find setting,not vetting,and betting at work.

The writer is director,Indian Institute of Advanced Study,Shimla. Views are personal

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