Even if one discounts the 90 per cent approval rating that a PM-associated poll has accorded to demonetisation, there is no doubt that a large section of the middle and working classes and the urban poor have endorsed what they see as a gigantic step towards rooting out corruption in public life. In their calculus, the rich and powerful, who have exploited this nation for decades, will now be brought to book. With more anti-corruption measures promised, they believe that, among other things, the coercive corruption hawkers, tea shop vendors, rickshaw pullers and shanty dwellers have had to put up with will end, as also the socially debilitating system of bribing when seeking a train reservation, a driving license or a ration card.
Their dreams have been fanned by economists supporting demonetisation. The latter envision a digital India with universal education and healthcare, full employment, low direct taxes, elimination of funding for terrorism, a booming economy, et al. Expectations are higher than when Indira Gandhi beguiled the nation with her “garibi hatao” slogan.
Irrespective of the Opposition’s strident demand for a rollback, it is clear that demonetisation is irrevocable. As the currency availability eases, the government will need to confront its social responsibility of taking speedy action to improve the condition of ordinary people; farmers, informal sector workers and the poor who have borne the brunt of demonetisation. If this is not to become a betrayal of the people, demonetisation should be the first game changing step to a more just society. After stoically suffering the trauma caused by demonetisation, the aam aadmi must be the government’s focus — not the suit-bootwala, as has hitherto been the case.
The PM himself has announced that by 2022, every family in the country will be provided environment-friendly housing. He has also announced that 25 per cent of the tax penalty on disclosed black money will go to the Jan Lok Dhan Yojana corpus. In one fell sweep, he has neutralised the million mutinies around caste, community and region by positioning the poor-rich dialectic as the nation’s central concern. As Uma Bharti has pointed out, there are Marxist, Lohiaite and Kanshi Ram-inspired overtones to the PM’s agenda. What demonetisation thus promises is nothing short of a social revolution.
But the greatest challenge before the government now is to rouse a lumbering bureaucracy to accomplish its objectives of rooting out corruption and ensuring rapid economic growth with social justice. Ultimately, it is the bureaucrat who is responsible for service delivery. Centuries ago, Sophocles observed that nobody has a more sacred obligation to obey the law than those who make or enforce it. However, our brute reality is that politicians and bureaucrats have, in tandem, fostered a climate of corruption that has vitiated all institutions of governance. Rajiv Gandhi’s trenchant observation that only 15 paise of every rupee spent on public projects is actually utilised for bonafide work still holds — now, the same bureaucracy has to deliver on the government’s promises.
A former cabinet secretary and a former CBI director, among others, are in favour of ruthless hounding of corrupt bureaucrats through an all-out offensive, including the stern application of the Prevention of Corruption Act and government service rules. These worthies believe speedy, exemplary punitive action is paramount; they even suggest weeding out the corrupt without bothering about the justice system. They have ignored the imperative of protecting the innocent and ensuring that a punitive anti-corruption regime does not make the bureaucrat indecisive and risk averse. Too much policing inhibits decision-making and reduces the civil servant to a negative rule-bound cipher, potentially disastrous for any organisation.
On the railways, for instance, unions have succeeded in paralysing the system whenever they insist on “work to rule”. On a recent visit to Delhi, John Kerry voiced a common concern, observing that “bureaucracy needs to be a partner in making decisions, not an expert in setting up roadblocks”. Recognising the damage that an overzealous and punitive anti-corruption regime can do to the body politic, this government kept the Lokpal in limbo and initiated legislation recommending amendments to the Lokpal Act (2013) and the Prevention of Corruption Act. This had the clear intent of curtailing the powers of anti-corruption watchdogs, based on the acknowledged fact that unbridled power in the hands of anti-corruption agencies can be disastrous for governance.
The Supreme Court has now pulled up the government for not constituting the Lokpal. The setting-up of the Lokpal — which is founded on a pathological distrust of all institutions of governance — should worry the government as it is bound to slow down governance. The PM had recognised that too much government can strangle the economy; hence, his promise of maximum governance, minimum government. But now that the anti-corruption crusade has overwhelmed all other concerns, one foresees a maze of government rules and regulations and an overpowering bureaucracy dominating our lives. We are already witnessing demonetisation via daily government rules for withdrawing one’s own money and the intrusive presence of the RBI, income tax, post and bank officials in our lives.
Evidently, the bureaucracy can make or break the government’s best plans. In order to foster a bureaucracy that works proactively, without fear or favour, for public good, the political executive needs to support boldness in decision-making, encourage innovation and protect against harassment over bona fide mistakes or errors of judgment. The PM has promises to keep and miles to go on the path he has set forth upon — he can succeed only if the bureaucracy plays ball.
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