Stale Advice From The Old Faithful

Posted on August 30, 2011 in Politics

It took another lawyer to recognize that ‘the maximum damage done to this government has been by lawyers’, something I first said some two months ago (see here). But Arun Jaitley’s forceful intervention in the Rajya Sabha on 17 August was widely recognized as a wake-up call for the UPA government.  Moreover, the crux of Jaitley’s diagnosis was not so much that lawyers were to be blamed but that ‘lawyers tend to look at political problems through the prism of technicality’. Thus, a government under Sibal and Chidambaram’s influence was likely to give a “legal” or “bureaucratic” response to a political problem.

Jaitley was right. The government understood this as well. By day three of Anna’s Anshan, Chidambaram went into hibernation along with Manish Tewari (another lawyer) while Sibal avoided public glare. Instead, Congress’ chanakya Pranab Mukherjee, Maratha strongman Vilasrao Deshmukh and Delhi MP Sandip Dixit managed the crisis through astute political manoeuvring.

But Jaitley’s analysis needs further elaboration, for the problem is not with individuals (Sibal or Chidambaram) but with practices. The Congress under Sonia Gandhi has for too long clung to the advice of “old-faithfuls”– a handful of retired bureaucrats part of the Rajiv administration, a few all-weather political aides, and a battery of tried-and-tested (also trusted) senior civil servants who never reach retirement. This troupe has been playing musical chairs with critical appointments since 2004 and the sad part is that there are more chairs in the game than those playing it.

So we have a situation where a Rajiv Gandhi aide was exhumed in the 21st century and made National Security Adviser, now Governor. We have a Rae Bareilly District Magistrate in the PMO, then off for a foreign jaunt and back as Principal Secretary. And a line of Foreign Secretaries who have become “advisers”, “envoys” and with the just-established precedence of Nirupama Rao, “ambassadors” to important countries. You also have relics like the outgoing Principal Secretary who dates back to the Rajiv era, survived the entire course of the last government and by way of accommodating others, is now retained in another capacity.

So what’s the problem with this?

Let the starting assumption be, and with full seriousness, that these are earnest, intelligent and experienced individuals.  If that is a given, three types of problems can emerge:

First, with each passing year, the number of people not appointed in place of the old faithful would increase. As this group expands there would be a higher probability of finding individuals of equal if not greater competence. That being the case, for every service rendered by the old-faithful, over time, the number of alternative services ofequal (if not greater) quality that would be forgone would increase.Thus on a relative scale, through its tenure this government would receive advice of a deteriorating quality while forgoing an increasing number of alternatives.

Second, we must make a reasonable assumption that every adviser or policymaker has finite abilities and innovations to offer. That being the case, with every passing year, the number of new ideas generated by the old-faithful is likely to decline just as the re-employability of theirexisting ideas will diminish. It then means that these individuals would be of declining productivity to the government over a period of time. (The second condition can only exacerbate the first).

Third, the collective potential of this group would decline over time. Let’s say each member of this group has an individual potential that expands with greater experience and through interaction with others. Since experience would accrue to both those in and outside the group, that would not be a differentiating factor. However, if the inner coterieremained largely stagnant, the collective experience and potential of the group would be limited by its static composition.  It is true that this power elite would not operate in a vacuum, but it is entirely conceivable that one open window in a closed room can only let in so much fresh air (and that this would severely limit the collective potential of this closed group in comparison to a more dynamic body of advisers).

The argument is theoretical. But its effects are tangible. Increasingly what are being called the inadequacies of this government are in fact, and at source, the problems emanating from stagnancy in leadership, ideas and thought.  This is responsible for the ‘sense of drift’ and it accounts for an unimaginative and ill-elaborated governance agenda called ‘Aam Admi’ (the slogan of the old faithful).