Need for a Modern Indian Theory of Governance

Discussing and debating governance and corruption is a widespread activity in our country these days. The topic is of hot interest. However, there is an absence of an agreed conceptual framework to diagnose and tackle corruption in its myriad forms, which is a symptom of a governance system in decay. The government’s Lokpal Bill is meant to cover only the seniormost officials and not the junior officers and functionaries that the vast majority of people have to deal with every day. This shows that the government is concerned only about one form of corruption, which affects the competition among capitalist investors, while the people are angry about other forms that affect all of them.

Discussing and debating governance and corruption is a widespread activity in our country these days. The topic is of hot interest. However, there is an absence of an agreed conceptual framework to diagnose and tackle corruption in its myriad forms, which is a symptom of a governance system in decay. The government’s Lokpal Bill is meant to cover only the seniormost officials and not the junior officers and functionaries that the vast majority of people have to deal with every day. This shows that the government is concerned only about one form of corruption, which affects the competition among capitalist investors, while the people are angry about other forms that affect all of them.

In the absence of a home-grown theory of governance and conceptual framework to tackle corruption, Indian brains tend to come under the pressure of adopting the imported European outlook and concepts of governance, based on liberal or social-democratic ideology. Some who are thus influenced assume that wherever Indian society does not function like in Europe and North America, it is corrupt. Good governance becomes equated with the European definition and institutional framework, focused on the defence and enforcement of private property rights.

One kind of transaction that is fairly common in our country is that you pay a tout, also called a dalal, some fixed amount at the driving license authority, or some other arm of the government machinery. In such cases it could be argued that the middleman is only charging you for services rendered. But there is a vital element which is not an exchange but extortion. A portion of the amount he collects is shared with officials and clerks, to oil the machinery.

Those who are privileged to be part of the machinery of officialdom have the power to delay and deprive you of your entitlement, for an indefinite period. So here there is corruption, however petty it may be, resulting in deprivation of basic rights. A public employee, who is supposed to be paid to deliver a service to the public, is making money by obstructing the delivery of the said service in time. The citizen is being deprived of what he or she is entitled to as a matter of right.

This character of government machinery, as an institution that is designed to obstruct, to delay, to deprive and to facilitate plunder by greedy private interests, has its origin in the character of the political power established for the colonial plunder of India.

The discussion and theorizing on governance in this subcontinent prior to the colonial conquest was grounded in the concept of a State whose duty was to provide prosperity (sukh) and protection (suraksha) to all members of society. Every member of society could expect this as a matter of right and was duty bound to contribute to such a system and defend such a state that provides prosperity and protection. Rights were conceived of as the rights of an individual within society, in inseparable connection with duty.

Along with the kingdoms and state institutions, the colonialists also destroyed the theories and concepts of governance that prevailed. An alien concept and reality was imposed – namely, a State that will be an instrument for maximum plunder of India by English capital.

The Constitution of 1950 adopted the political theory and institutional foundations of state implicit in the Government of India Act of 1935. The communally organised Army was retained, as also the colonial Indian Civil Service (ICS), whose name was only changed, to Indian Administrative Service (IAS).

Those who are part of the government machinery, whether in a high or low position, consider it more as a privilege than as an employment contract. This is a factor that generates a lot of corruption through obstruction, delays and harassment. The functionaries of state are not trained to treat all citizens equally, but rather to maintain social hierarchy on the basis of caste, class and membership of political elite.

The system of justice – whether it is a matter of land dispute or crime and punishment – follows the norms and procedures of 19th century English concept of “rule of law” as adapted to serve colonial rule. It legitimises plunder and criminalises dissent, with a narrow elite enjoying unlimited rights and the majority saddled only with duties.

The continuation of the colonial legacy in post-colonial India has created the terrain for myriad forms of corruption to thrive. At the same time, the increasing scale and concentration of production, and of the resources needed to finance mega investments, along with increasing international investor interest in the Indian market, have all combined to raise the stakes involved. Hence the size of potential bribes in big-ticket contracts in our country has reached astronomical proportions.

Eurocentrism versus Indian approach

The concept of governance emanating from Europe does not shed any light on the specific forms of corruption that prevail in a complex country like ours, a country that is both modern and backward at the same time, a global emerging big power that is still to rid itself of the colonial legacy.

Ignoring the specificity of historical circumstances governing social relations in a particular country, international think tanks promote various standard prescriptions, which they call “global best practice”.
The pre-colonial experience and practices in Asia and other continents do not find due recognition in this cosmopolitan concept.

The international literature distinguishes between large-scale or big time corruption and retail or petty corruption. When you pass on a few hundred rupee notes to a cop on the road, it is called petty; when corporate agents pass on tens of crores to ministers, it is big time corruption, and when hundreds or thousands of crores are involved it is a mega scandal. This is a one-dimensional classification, focusing purely on the quantity of rupees or dollars involved. The quality of the transaction involved also needs attention, and when you look at quality you get a myriad set of categories

Indian political theorist and royal adviser Kautilya, also known as Chanakya, enumerated the numerous forms of depriving the state of its legitimate revenue, and discussed the principles of determining the punishment for each type and level of misconduct in public affairs. He wrote in his famous treatise called the Arthashastra:

“A government officer … may occasion loss of revenue to the government owing to his ignorance, or owing to his idleness when he is too weak to endure the trouble of activity, or due to inadvertence in perceiving sound and other objects of sense, or by being timid when he is afraid of clamour, unrighteousness, and untoward results, or owing to selfish desire when he is favourably disposed towards those who are desirous to achieve their own selfish ends, or by cruelty due to anger, or by lack of dignity when he is surrounded by a host of learned and needy sycophants, or by making use of false balance, false measures, and false calculation owing to greediness.”

The conditions of society in those times were obviously very different from the conditions that prevail today.

It seems strange to us living in early 21st century that he should list “selfish desire when he is favourably disposed towards those who are desirous to achieve their own selfish ends” as only one among numerous factors, and not at all near the top of the list. It is even more striking that “making use of false balance, false measures, and false calculation owing to greediness” is the last mentioned form in the list.

Having enumerated the various forms of misuse of public authority leading to loss of public funds, Kautilya wrote, “The school of Manu hold that a fine equal to the loss of revenue and multiplied by the serial number of the circumstances of the guilt just narrated in order shall be imposed upon him.The school of Parásara hold that the fine in all the cases shall be eight times the amount lost. The school of Brihaspathisay that it shall be ten times the amount. The school of Usanas say that it shall be twenty times the amount.But Kautilya says that it shall be proportional to the guilt.”

He further elaborates this principle of punishment being proportional to the guilt through detailed prescriptions:

“Failure to start an undertaking or to realise its results, or to credit its profits (to the treasury) is known as obstruction. Herein a fine of ten times the amount in question shall be imposed. … Whoever lessens a fixed amount of income or enhances the expenditure is guilty of causing the loss of revenue. Herein a fine of four times the loss shall be imposed. Whoever enjoys himself or causes others to enjoy whatever belongs to the king is guilty of self-enjoyment. Herein death-sentence shall be passed for enjoying gems, middlemost amercement (punishment or penalty applied at the discretion of a court or other authority, as contrasted with a penalty predetermined by statute.—Ed) for enjoying valuable articles, and restoration of the articles together with a fine equal to their value shall be the punishment for enjoying articles of inferior value.”

If one were to apply this principle today with respect to the 2G spectrum allocation scam, one wonders how many death sentences it would lead to!

Are Giver and Taker equally to blame?

Many of us have heard various moralising voices mouthing the mantra that both the giver and taker of a bribe are equally to blame. If corruption is abstracted from its specific form, then such absurd statements sound as if they are true.

Let us consider a small individual vendor on the street, who sells his wares on a push-cart. He or she pays a monthly bribe to the policeman on duty in order to conduct the tiny business that feeds his or her family. There is a huge variety of such cases and a massive number of them all over the cities and towns in our country.

In this particular form of corruption, a relatively weak and poor individual faces the might of an official police force. One is a victim. The other is the extortionist, the armed rent collector. Is it not absurd to suggest that the two sides in this unequal relationship are equally to blame?

Let us consider a case at the other extreme of the spectrum of Indian corruption. One or more large corporate houses reward, in cash or kind, high level politicians so as to influence what policy action he will take in a particularly lucrative sector, such as energy or telecom or mining.

The Minister or official gets to pocket massive private gain in cash and kind. The corporate house gets
to shape public policy in its private interest, to reap thousands of crores as super-profits. Both sides are guilty of serious crimes against society, of private appropriation of public wealth. It could be argued in such cases that the giver of the bribe is even more to blame and deserves a higher order of punishment for subverting the public interest.

There are numerous official departments where people know that their work will not get done, or will become longwinded and costly, until and unless some cash is passed on under the table. If the cash remains in the pockets of the “public servant” who is supposed to be delivering a public service, then it is one kind or level of crime. If a certain percentage of all bribes collected finds its way regularly into the hands of a Minister or treasurer of a political party, then it is of a higher level.

There was a time in the nineties when the Power Minister in Uttar Pradesh, heading a small breakaway party which saved the government of the day from a no-confidence motion, was rumoured to be collecting Rupees One Crore every day through the corruption network in the State Electricity Board. It was said that he had struck a good bargain with the ruling party and this one portfolio was adequate to finance his newly formed party plus personal greed.

Limitations of World Bank’s approach

The World Bank promotes a “framework for service provision” – which is made up of four actors: (1) citizens, (2) politicians, (3) senior bureaucrats in specific ministries and departments, and (4) frontline providers, meaning doctors and nurses, teachers and others engaged in delivering public services.1 The framework posits four relationships of accountability:

• Of politicians to citizens;
• Of bureaucrats to the politicians;
• Of frontline providers to the senior bureaucrats; and
• Of the frontline provider to the citizens.

The public is supposed to hold service providers accountable through a long-term and a shortterm route, the first and the fourth relationship.

The long-term route of accountability, called “voice”, refers to the influence the people are presumed to exercise on the political leaders, through the political process.

The short-term route, called “client power" refers to the people directly influencing frontline providers like government teachers, doctors and nurses.

What happens when there is no voice excepting for a tiny elite faction? This is called “elite capture” of the political process. It is recognized as a serious problem by World Bank specialists, but only at the level of state or local governments. They are taught to have implicit faith that the central government is representative of the people. There is no recognition, not even discussion, of elite capture of the central state.

The World Bank is an official multilateral institution, sponsored by governments of many countries, to lend money and spread ideas to the official authorities in its client countries. Its thinking is bound by acceptance of the legitimacy of the central authority in every member country. Thus it becomes necessary to train its specialists to assume that the long-term route of accountability is not broken, so that they can devote their energies to fix the problems in all the other relationships – through civil service reform, citizens’ charters, right to information, anti-corruption agencies and so on. However, while such an approach may pass the scrutiny of the Board of Directors in Washington, D.C, it does not deliver results on the ground.

The World Bank’s own evaluations have revealed that its standard prescriptions for civil service reform, performance contracts, outcome budgeting, financial management, public procurement and other aspects of public management reforms have not worked in the conditions of Asian, African and Latin American countries. Such reforms have not even succeeded in curbing big-time corruption in the United States, Britain and other European countries.

Systemic Decay

Wikipedia says that corruption generally refers to decadence – or systemic decay.It also says that the word corrupt, when used as an adjective, literally means “utterly broken”.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote a book called On Generation and Corruption, also known as On
Coming to Be and Passing Away. He referred to corruption as the process of the Old passing away.

There is increasing recognition in the mass consciousness of Indians that the system of governance in our country is suffering from systemic decay. The question is: What kind of new system of governance do we need at this time?

What is the political theory underlying a modern system of governance that is fit for 21st century India?

For Indians to adopt and attempt to implement global prescriptions of “governance reforms” that have been tested and failed the test – would be the height of foolishness.

We need to restore the reciprocal relationship between rights and duties, and of citizens and the State. We need a theory and a vision that builds on and enriches the political philosophy and experience of statecraft we have inherited from our ancestors, and is fit for the present conditions.

That the State is duty bound to provide prosperity and protection for all citizens is part of the heritage of
Indian political thought. People who are expressing their anger against corruption today are asserting their rights as citizens to receive certain basic services from the State. The inherited concept of governance, based on reciprocal rights and duties of the rulers and the ruled, spurs the modern day demand to end corruption in the delivery of public services.

The concept that ultimate decision-making power lies in the hands of the people also has roots in the political history of this subcontinent. It is a concept that was invoked by the revolutionary anti-colonial uprising of 1857. It has even deeper roots. The concept that it is the people who select their leader can be found in the early Vedic texts. For instance, the Yajurveda says, “O people, ye are the givers of kingship, that brings knowledge and showers happiness, … Ye are the givers of kingship and masters of strong army, bestow the kingship on the deserving.” This concept went out of vogue in later periods, when kingship was transferred through blood lines. But its residue within the Indian conscience did not disappear. It is in fact demanding attention today more than ever before.

The path to develop the modern Indian theory of governance begins with the enumeration of the phenomena of modern day Indian society, the different forms of systemic decay, analysis of their nature and their roots. Indian brains need to break free from the pressure to adopt an alien and outdated conceptual framework in the name of “global best practice”.

We need to bring forward from our past what is precious and modernize it to serve the present. This essay would have served its purpose if it inspires a few to devote their brain power to develop and elaborate the modern Indian theory of governance.

By S. Udayan

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