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Jaimini Bhagwati: Dissent, tolerance & governance

There is an unstated understanding that officials should not push too hard for change let alone act as whistle-blowers

Jaimini Bhagwati 

Jaimini Bhagwati

A number of commentaries have been written on whether the Indian central and state governments were guilty of obfuscation or tardy in taking action post recent incidents of violence against religious minorities. A lot has also been said about the obvious and undeniable right of writers and intellectuals to protest against what appears to them as government inaction. When in power, Indian political parties would prefer that dissenting officials keep their views to themselves even when sub-optimal decisions are being made. This article is about: (a) the right to disagree and tolerance of contrary opinions within the government; and (b) how to increase appointments of quality officers to senior positions to improve governance.

It is a given that most officials who work in government or publicly owned organisations are risk averse. Further, in my 38 years in the central government which included stints in the external affairs ministry, finance ministry and the department of atomic energy an unstated understanding was that officials should not push too hard for change let alone act as whistle-blowers. Obviously, this leads to conformism and distorts decision making as many officers accommodate the sensitivities of the political executive rather than provide impartial analysis. Unfortunately, in recent years, more often than not, once the political dispensation changes those in crucial positions and perceived as close to an earlier regime are prematurely transferred or put out to pasture.

How do we promote effective governance if the process of selection and continuity at higher official levels in government remains so hostage to subjective political discretion? Clearly, we will not effect change by setting up yet another committee to review past reports on administrative reforms. Genuine reform within the central government and state governments should include the right to dissent.

Officers at junior levels are more likely to spot inefficiencies in implementation and how best to correct these at the ground level. One way to pressurise the government into taking action is to encourage the officers involved to publicise their views without jeopardising internal-external security or using classified material. To this end, government officers, in addition to their official work, should be encouraged to write in journals, newspapers and participate in television interviews about what they think is the best way forward. If the political dispensation in power is convinced about their policies, this should not make them insecure. It could be argued that this happens rarely if at all even in developed countries. At our current stage of development many of the policies which need to be followed are known but implementation is tardy, absent or deliberately distorted. Hence, the need for public airing of how best to motivate personnel and sustain funding to provide e.g. better policing, public health care and primary education.

In case all this sounds far removed from reality, many serving officers do make their views known through public forums. And, I have written a monthly column in this newspaper for almost 10 years while I was still in government without being censured. However, this is not happening widely enough to make the political executive take notice. A causal factor is that under current rules officials cannot publicly criticise government policies or actions. A specific occasion when I could not write without criticising the short-sighted policies of the government and Sebi was in October 2007. The editor of this newspaper had asked me to comment on greater transparency about beneficial ownership of participatory notes (PNs). The then finance minister P Chidambaram and Sebi backtracked when the stock market index collapsed nine per cent on an indication that more information about PN ownership may be sought. This injunction against officials publicly disagreeing with government should be dropped.

As we know, government officials tend to write more in open forums once they have retired. However, after retirement, officers have less current information on implementation or policy making. Hence the need for officers to make their opinions known while they are still serving. This would also mean that while deserving officers may be ignored for appointment to crucial positions they could still contribute through their writing. Additionally, compulsory interactions of secretary-level officers with the media at least once a quarter should be the norm. This should be seen as part of the public right to information and the act could be amended to make such question-answer sessions with the media mandatory.

Over time the morale of upright and competent officers has been undermined, particularly in state governments, with the ever present threat of being transferred or neglected. For pliant/mediocre officers there is the possibility of being appointed post retirement to constitutional, regulatory or other positions. It is logical that government rules prohibit officers from working in private sector firms post-retirement, if there is reason to believe that employment offers could be quid pro quo for decisions taken while in service. However, there is no similar check against the possibility of officers flouting norms to favour ruling political parties in exchange for post-retirement employment.

Going forward it would be in public interest if officers are not considered for any appointments made by the government for five years after retirement. If an officer is considered competent enough they should be appointed to positions such as election commissioner, Cabinet secretary or the head of a regulatory agency while they are still in service. Under no circumstances should the term of office extend beyond the usual retirement age. If a two-, three- or five-year term is deemed necessary for continuity in any position then the person concerned should have that many years left to retirement.

The stakes are high for the political executive and pliant officers and these suggestions are likely to be derided as hopelessly naïve and impractical. It is also probable that more than the political executive it is mediocre officers who would be the most vocal in opposing such changes in the rules.

The writer is the chairman of the Liberal Democratic Party and RBI Chair Professor in ICRIER.
The views expressed are personal.