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Governance at right angles

A former cabinet secretary's take on what ails governance in India is neither path-breaking nor particularly insightful

A K Bhattacharya  |  New Delhi 

The Road to Good Governance
Author: TSR Subramanian

Publisher: Rupa
Pages: 274 + XIV
Price: Rs 595

What happens when a retired (a former cabinet secretary at that) tears an Achilles tendon while playing golf? Well, he blames first himself for his carelessness and then the poor ground conditions for causing the injury. And finally, he uses the two months of forced rest advised by the doctor to produce a 274-page book analysing almost everything under the sun - bureaucracy, governance, coalition politics, corruption, economic policy, the Central Bureau of Investigation, or CBI, and even sports. That seems to be the genesis of TSR Subramanian's latest book, which through its 18 short chapters presents a bird's eye view of interesting facets of public policy and its implementation in contemporary India.

Subramanian, who retired as cabinet secretary in 1998 after a long career as a bureaucrat, including a six-year stint at the International Trade Centre in Geneva, has a racy style that enlivens his account of the many policy issues and incidents with which he had to deal from his vantage point. There is no dearth of wit in his writing. A long stint in the government has not blunted his sense of humour as is evident in his portrayal of key politicians and civil servants whom he met during his long career.

He wonders, for instance, how senior civil servants or politicians agree to the tamasha of inspecting guards of honour (he mentions Mayawati and Mulayam Singh Yadav, in particular, understandable since he comes from the Uttar Pradesh cadre of the Indian Administrative Services).

In a scathing attack on a fellow bureaucrat and politicians, he recounts how a cabinet secretary and a senior cabinet minister had travelled together to negotiate with a self-proclaimed yoga guru to bring him round to the government's side in its battle against the Anna Hazare movement for a Lok Pal.

In the process, he is given to some mild self-deprecation as well. He tells a story of how as a young IAS officer insisting on his right to his reserved upper-class railway seat, he was once bodily lifted out of his seat and, indeed, the train by burly Jat hooligans. He also recounts how even he had to bribe the state-owned telephone department in UP to enjoy the uninterrupted service of his landline (this was before mobiles became ubiquitous). And he reminisces how, after retirement, he came close to being fixed by the CBI, which involved him in a controversy that had no basis. Inevitably, there are traces of cynicism in some of his stories but then, it is difficult to take bureaucratic traits out of a bureaucrat.

For large sections of the book, it is difficult to disagree with Subramanian's analysis of problems with India's governance, its politicians and civil servants. For instance, nobody can quarrel with his basic analysis that the current reality is "far removed from the promise of our Constitution, given by us to ourselves in 1950" and that "at that turning point in our history, we simply took the wrong turn".

He is also spot on when he concludes that governance in India for the last several decades has failed to distinguish between policy issues and implementation, which has resulted in sub-optimal results, often leading to undesirable outcomes including corruption. As he says, policy-makers should recognise that "governance is 5 per cent policy and 95 per cent implementation". He concedes that what he says is not rocket science: "…basic common sense is what is required. Above all, governance is only as good as the people who govern us."

A major highlight of Subramanian's account is his proposition that for the last several years, the country's main prescription for development has been to achieve higher growth, while paying little attention to equity. The narrow focus on financial sector reforms or on issues such as foreign direct investment, according to Subramanian, has not yielded the desired results, since the country continues to battle poverty even after six decades of independence.

For this major governance failure, Subramanian blames three economists - Manmohan Singh, C Rangarajan and Montek Singh Ahluwalia, whom he describes as "macroeconomists with little feel or understanding of microeconomic processes". His questions are sharp and pointed: Why should these men keep talking about growth rates even though "nearly 70 years after independence, nearly three-quarters of the population is in desperate straits"? Are these three "blind" men leading India? How did a man who batted for the developing countries in his capacity as secretary general of the South Commission switch sides to "make a 180-degree shift in his attitude to the West within a couple of months" after joining the P V Narasimha Rao government?

But Subramanian's tirade also brings out in the open the deep disenchantment or even frustration within the entire IAS community with the manner in which it has been marginalised in the economic policy arena by economists coming from outside the system and guiding the course of the economy for the last three or four decades. In the process, Subramanian appears a little too eager to attack those he chooses to criticise.

For instance, he takes Ahluwalia to task for claiming that those earning more than Rs 27 a day, or less than half a dollar, are above the poverty line, without using the purchasing power parity principle. Not that he is oblivious to this basic tool to draw comparisons among countries with sharp variations in standards of living and currency value. For, only a few pages later, he uses the same purchasing power principle to claim how 80 per cent of India's population lives on a daily earning of less than $2. But then, he uses the principle in the wrong way perhaps goaded by his over-enthusiasm to pillory the economist's failure to manage the country's economy in ways he thinks fit.

Is he as critical of himself or his own performance? Not really. He recounts his days as the cabinet secretary and lists the many achievements that the two coalition governments that were in power at the time. There is a streak of self-aggrandizement in Subramanian's account of his achievements as a civil servant, and particularly as cabinet secretary during the United Front regime. Even P Chidambaram, whose supervision of the finance ministry during the tenure of the United Progressive Alliance comes in for mild criticism, gets a pat on the back on how well he tackled inflation as finance minister in the United Front governments.

Subramanian complains that Ahluwalia failed to dismantle the Planning Commission in his long stint as its deputy chairman. If the book runs to a reprint, Subramanian would do well to add that Ahluwalia, though late, has indeed managed to reduce substantially the role of the Planning Commission with a massive restructuring of the centrally sponsored schemes and direct transfer of central assistance to states for their plan assistance. Rarely does a bureaucrat preside over the liquidation or dilution of the role of the department he or she heads. Ahluwalia is an economist, which is perhaps why he could move as far as he has in spite of the hurdles in the current system.

Why would Subramanian write a book that fails to get to the bottom of any central issue that ails the Indian governance system but dabbles instead in generalities that are neither fundamentally path-breaking nor particularly insightful? The only clue comes at the end of the book when he reveals that the forthcoming 2014 elections will provide another opportunity - a turning point - for the people to change the system and guarantee dignity as well as self-esteem to all its citizens. In his own words, the book is "a cry of anguish", seeking reforms in governance. He does not offer an alternative model of governance reforms, but is hopeful that if people take the right turn now, two-thirds of this century will belong to India.

First Published: Fri, February 21 2014. 21:48 IST