Nearly three decades ago, officials and employees of the Tea Board of India, in Calcutta, were dumbfounded as their chairman angrily rushed down from his office on the eighth floor and suddenly locked up an office belonging to the Board’s chief accounts officer. The officer in question had evidently made some caustic observations about the impermissible expenses incurred by the chairman, who belonged to the Indian Administrative Service, on a just-concluded foreign trip. The chief was enraged.
The CAO was a member of the Indian Audit & Accounts Service, and therefore not technically responsible to the TBI chief. His noteworthy conscientiousness notwithstanding, the powers-that-were in New Delhi decided to move the ‘offending’ officer – not to a higher post, but out of the office. In so doing, they chose to save the bumptious IAS officer, who subsequently made off quite nicely: he retired as a departmental secretary, and is now on the board of governors of a well-known management institute. The media failed to report even a hint of what was going on, with the TBI’s faithful lackeys in the media giving blisteringly sunny coverage.
During a 1998 roundtable, N Vittal, the former head of the Orwellian-sounding Central Vigilance Commission (a government body created during the mid-1960s to address official corruption), launched a resounding indictment of the Indian bureaucracy. Bureaucratic corruption is “a low-risk high-profit area”, he formulated, further describing it as a “neta-babu-lala syndrome” perpetuating a culture of scarcity of goods and services in India. He added that “this culture of corruption in turn makes India less competitive.” Vittal himself, however, is a good example of the difficulty here. In practice, this high-profile public servant accomplished almost nothing in terms of curbing corruption during his time at the helm of the watchdog commission. Even after having received incriminating documents against the chairman and managing director of an ailing public-sector undertaking – the National Jute Manufacturers Corporation, the accumulated loss of which had crossed USD 650 million – no action was initiated from Vittal’s secretariat.
Bureaucrats did not call the shots in pre-colonial India, even during the Mughal period. That changed when the British colonial administration gave the bureaucracy great power, and the mantle had passed on to the administrators and managers of post-colonial Southasia. Today, the ‘bureaucracy’ in India is actually a supra-political system, made up of well more than the common stereotypes – the desk clerks and the red-tape mentality. The big stick is wielded by a few people at the very top of any large organisation, including in the private sector. Unfortunately, despite possibilities to the contrary, the widespread presence of bureaucracy in Southasia continues to increase the probability of inefficiency, as well as the possibility of corruption.
Corruption and bureaucracy have become mutually inclusive, especially in the ex-colonies. In his book The Elusive Quest for Growth, former World Bank economist William Easterly levelled criticism at Pakistan’s bureaucracy for having “little incentive to provide services as opposed to filling its own wallets.” Easterly points out that from 1985 to 1999, Pakistan’s myriad anti-corruption courts only succeeded in attaining 102 convictions for ‘irregularities’ of all kind. That is “a low number for a one-million-strong provincial civil service universally agreed to be corrupt,” notes Easterly.
Pakistan’s bureaucracy has been influenced by one institution in particular: the military. The military bureaucrats were, after all, the ones who were able to flourish following the coup by General Ayub Khan (who then helped his son, Gauhar Ayub, become one of the country’s top industrialists). Ishrat Husain, a former World Bank director, described this as an “inherited colonial legacy of a strong paternalistic mai-bap kind of relationship between the British rulers and the Pakistani civil servants.” This stands in relative contrast to the situation in India, where unbridled powers were eventually diluted and reined in by the political ascendancy of a strong middle class and an elected leadership.
In Pakistan, Husain says that the predominance of the military led to the protracted subversion of democracy, and further entrenched a new type of military bureaucracy: “The martial-law regime of Ayub Khan during the decade 1958-68 gave rise to a new sub-class of elites.” The rest of the country, meanwhile, was subsequently forced to capitulate. The political parties, despite crying themselves hoarse against dictatorship, likewise retained an odd solidarity with this new sub-class. The families of Nawaz Sharif, Asif Zardari (Benazir Bhutto’s widower) and others flourished under this situation, in direct contrast to the masses languishing at and below the poverty line.
Pakistan’s nouveau riche nexus of the political classes and the military bureaucracy had a contentious relationship with the country’s traditional business houses, such as the Habib group, the Saigols and the Haroons. At a time when the new Rawalpindi government was penniless due to a delay in the transfer of Pakistan’s share of the Reserve Bank of India’s INR 750 million kitty, Muhammad Ali Habib came to the rescue of M A Jinnah with a cheque for PKR 80 million. Yusuf Haroon, a prominent scion of the Memon clan, who rose to become chief minister of Sindh and governor of West Pakistan before purchasing a large print-media syndicate, took it upon himself to criticise General Zia ul-Haq for systematic discrimination against Karachi businessmen – an act that eventually forced the Memons to look outside the country for investment opportunities.
The message sent by the general’s removal of the Memons is similar to that sent by the critical accountant’s reassignment from the TBI by the Centre. In both cases, what those at the top of the bureaucratic food-chain value most in those below them is not ability or honesty but rather blind obedience. The bureaucratic honchos ignore the misuse of state resources by their employees, so long as their own, often questionable, actions are not challenged. This has led to the systematic exclusion of all critical voices within the system – a significant obstacle to the effective functioning of any bureaucracy.
Bureaucratic corruption is not the only thing plaguing Southasia. The ‘toadie’ culture, those slavish relationships built on shameless flattery and subservience, is in full swing in Nepal. The Nepali sociologist Madhusudan Sharma Subedi has done an exhaustive study called “Corruption in Nepal”, which began from the era of Prithvi Narayan Shah, the 18th-century ‘founder’ of modern Nepal and the Rana regime. Subedi discusses the so-called chakari system, in which those in lower hierarchical orders are supposed to display obsequiousness, sycophancy and a willingness to act on the dictates of those of higher rank.
Subedi argues that the chakari system was originally “a form of control designed to keep potential rivals or opponents away from belligerent activities”, but that is soon also became a breeding ground for corruption. Gradually, the chakari system evolved into a form of slavery in the interests of powerful political leaders and parties. Although officially abolished after the Ranas were removed from power, Subedi states that it still remains at all levels of Nepal’s current government in the form of underlings paying seniors for favour. Chakariwals, or victims of the Rana ‘virus’, include a large number of government employees who are forced to regularly pay bribes in the form of ‘gifts’, in order to ensure job security and career promotion.
Anthropologist Lionel Caplan observed in a 1971 paper on bribery in Nepal, “The practice of chakari is considered a necessary and appropriate method of getting employment. It is recognized as demeaning to the supplicant, but no man loses esteem in the eyes of other residents if he demonstrates weakness before and dependence upon the administration. To do this is merely to accept reality.” Small wonder, then, that the system cast a negative pall over the administrative and political life of Nepal: employment criteria were not made up of academic qualifications, training background, or conduct on the job. Instead, a submissive attitude was considered the principal requirement under chakari. In other words, the chakari system – including its modern-day form – represents a feudal culture replicating itself, and ultimately undermining what could be an efficient and accountable bureaucracy.
Basyata banam dakshata
Sixty years after Independence, India is certainly not free from the contagion of runaway bureaucracy. Incompetent bureaucrats dominate politics, politicians and political parties, all the while forming unwritten and unholy alliances with politicians, especially ministers in the national and state capitals. The leftist parties by no means rise above this characteristic. In his autobiography, Ashok Mitra, the first finance minister of West Bengal’s longstanding Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front government, suggests a dichotomy between the subservient and the efficient (basyata banam dakshata, ‘subservience versus efficiency or competence’).
According to Mitra’s reading, those who climbed within or were particularly favoured by the powerful functionaries of the CPI (M) in West Bengal have always been primarily the subservient ones. For instance, a little-known biophysicist named R K Podder, who had done relatively poorly in his post-secondary schooling, was ultimately chosen as the vice-chancellor of the University of Calcutta solely due to his loyalty to CPI (M) overlords. Likewise, a former ‘confidential assistant’ to a powerful minister was chosen as registrar of Jadavpur University, despite lacking even the minimum prescribed qualifications. He edged out half a dozen qualified and experienced candidates.
As insidious as the danger of inefficiency or the possibility of shielding ineptness within a poorly run bureaucracy, of course, is the spectre of corruption. And indeed, the jugalbandi of bureaucratic dishonesty (including such elements as nepotism) has managed to pollute the democratic polity in India by penetrating deeply into society. This process picked up particular momentum during the Nehru era. In his presidential address at the Indian History Congress in 1999, the historian Deepak Kumar highlighted an interesting dialogue that took place during a chance 1954 meeting in Beijing between Jawaharlal Nehru and the British scientist J D Bernal. “Most of my ministers are reactionary and scoundrels, but as long as they are my ministers I can keep some check on them,” the prime minister explained. “If I were to resign they would be the government, and they would unloose forces that I have tried, since I came power, to hold in check.”
But Nehru was not decisive during crucial moments, and subsequently started reeling when his government was suddenly grilled by his son-in-law, Feroze Gandhi. It was Feroze who exposed the so-called Haridas Mundhra scandal, which involved the newly formed state-run Life Insurance Corporation of India. The LICI had misused premium payments of 5.5 million policy-holders and insured customers to purchase its own shares at above-market prices (worth USD 3.2 million, even in those days) for a notorious speculator named Haridas Mundhra.
Nehru instituted a probe by the retired chief justice of the Bombay High Court, M C Chagla, who indicted four people: then-Finance Minister T T Krishnamachari, Finance Secretary H M Patel and two LICI officials. Although Krishnamachari argued that he was well removed from the situation, Chagla pointed out that the minister was “constitutionally responsible”. This line of reasoning left Krishnamachari with little option but to resign from the ministry, which he did. The chief bureaucrat, Patel, was also removed from his post.
But time continued its march, and the irony of history was that Patel went on to join the rightwing Swatantra Party. In the first non-Congress party ministry, with Morarji Desai as prime minister, he was handed the portfolio of finance minister – with the blessings of even the revered Jayaprakash Narayan, whose main slogan against the Congress and Indira Gandhi had specifically been the accusation of bhrastachar, corruption. The media joined in the reworking of Patel’s reputation. In a book review, The Hindu newspaper described him as “an upright public servant with such a luminous record”, and made insinuations as though he had been made a scapegoat by Krishnamachari. One way or another, however, the fact of the matter is that the decision to illegally buy shares was taken by an investment committee in which Patel had been a key functionary.
Since that time, systematic corruption in the Indian bureaucracy has not been curbed. While little is being done to curb the endemic malaise of Indian babudom, the Sixth Pay Commission in late March recommended a generous hike in salaries of over four million central government employees, a move that would cost the exchequer a total of over INR 260 billion in the coming financial year. The extent to which better-paid civil servants would be less tempted to undertake under-the-table transactions remains to be seen. In 2006, the global watchdog Transparency International computed a Bribe Payers Index linked to exports, and found India to be the “worst across most regions and sub-groupings.” In what could well prove a significant detriment to future economic dealings, the report also noted that “the respondents from Europe and Africa … termed Indian companies most corrupt.” It is clear that cultures of corruption have direct detrimental impacts on a country’s people. “Bribing companies are actively undermining the best efforts of governments in developing nations to improve governance,” says Huguette Labelle, Transparency International’s chair, “and thereby driving the vicious cycle of poverty.”
Southasia’s impoverished masses would do well to listen closely to such words. A well-run bureaucracy, whether in the public- or private-sector can increase efficiency all around. On the other hand, a poorly run bureaucracy, certainly one that has been vested with an inordinate amount of power, will invariably drag the rest of the system down.
~ Sankar Ray is a Calcutta-based freelance writer.