Transform, Not Reform

[Paper read by Shri T.S.Krishna Murthy, Former Chief Election Commissioner of India
in the CII Annual Conference on 26th March, 2009]

1. Governance and Reforms are subjects which are of late frequently talked about in India and elsewhere. Considering the present global economic meltdown, social conflicts and political turbulence prevailing in many democracies, the importance of reforms in various sectors to improve governance is obvious. The expectations of the people for good governance are also increasing disproportionately in such an environment. India is no exception. The present crisis should indeed be seen as an opportunity to completely reassess our past record and provide a vision for the future.

2. The preamble, the Directive Principles of State Policy and the Fundamental Rights and Duties adumbrated in our unique Constitution clearly demonstrate the democratic spirit and goal of our Nation.

3. In the last 60 years, we have been trying to achieve peaceful transformation of our old social and economic order through planned socio-economic development so as to bring social justice along with economic growth. In this amazing journey, there cannot be any doubt that good governance being the key to good democracy ought to have been our keystone. Even though Parliamentary democracy has taken deep and firm roots ever since our independence, we have to admit that there are many deficiencies and shortcomings between our constitutional objective and actual implementation of the various policies as a result of which that the significant deficiency in the publicness of our public service.

4. In many Asian democracies there is a constant war between democracy and development resulting in turbulence as a result of almost unending trials, tribulations and tensions leading to doubts about the efficacy of democracy as a tool in achieving rapid economic development and political stability. India being a pluralistic society has faced an extra dose of this conflict between democracy and development. Yet, we have been able to establish relatively stable political progress and reasonable economic growth. To quote Milton Freeman in his book “The World is Flat” :

“I am keenly aware of the imperfections of Indian Democracy, starting with the oppressive caste system. Nevertheless, to have sustained a functioning democracy with all its flaws for more than 50 years in a country of over 1 billion people, who speak scores of different languages, is something of a miracle and a great source of stability in the world.”

5. Let it be clearly understood that the fault in the functioning of democracy is not necessarily always in the system but is often the fault of the persons operating the system. Bertrand Russel observed:

“The merits of democracy are negative: it does not ensure good government but it prevents certain evils ………….”

(Power: A new social analysis pp.187-188}

Abraham Lincoln described democracy as a government of the people, for the people and by the people. Oscar Wilde on the other hand described democracy as bludgeoning of the people, by the people for the people. Democracy can neither be idealistic as Abraham Lincoln expressed nor can it be as defective as Oscar Wilde thought. Democracy is like an orchestra or a symphony. Its music and melody can be accessed only if all the players act in harmony and within the crucial ingredients of democracy viz., Rule of Law and equality before law.

6. Good governance, it was hoped after independence, would transform the social, political and economic life of the people of India within the framework of democracy in line with the aspirations expressed by Pandit Nehru in his famous Tryst with Destiny Speech on the eve of our independence. In the beginning, the Constitutional arrangement relating to governance worked satisfactorily. However, as time passed, the inadequacies became evident for various reasons. The present situation is characterised by a widespread disenchantment with the way that things have worked out. The failure to achieve the socio-economic goals during the last sixty years is no longer attributable to scarcity of resources. It is undoubtedly due to failure of governance. The angry citizens seem to echo the words of Oliver Cromwell who told his last Parliament “You have sat for too long for any good ……… Depart I say” Our tryst with destiny has been and is indeed fragile.

7. What are our immediate requirements in governance? In my opinion, the time for talking about Reforms is over. Whatever reforms that have taken place have been only incremental and therefore have been tantalisingly and agonisingly slow in implementation and impact. Our mantra from now on should be “No more incremental reform; We need to transform totally” if we have to survive the global competition and meet the expectations of the people. The sooner we transform our practices, procedures and policies in all sectors of governance the better it is for the survival of our democracy or else we may have to face people’s wrath in the form of violent agitations or total revolution.

8. Our immediate focus ought to be in respect of the following:

(a) Civil Service Reforms;

(b) Police Reforms;

(c) Judicial Reforms; and

(d) Electoral Reforms.

Though I have repeated the word ‘Reforms” for easy understanding, my considered

view is that all these areas require surgical treatment as a result of which the urgency

in bringing about total changes needs to be focussed. Transform and not reform is

my message today.

9. Our Civil Service is outdated, archaic and highly feudal. The government is in many areas which it should urgently vacate and concentrate only on improving the delivery of public services in core sectors which will improve the quality of life of ordinary citizen. The core sectors should be Food, Public Health, Sanitation, Education, Water Supply and infrastructure which would include Power, Roads and transport, Housing etc. The highly bureaucratic and rigidly rule-oriented system of governance has to be replaced by transparent, accountable and people-friendly governance. The present picture has been very aptly described in his famous book “Inspite of the Gods”:

“Whatever your social standing, and from whichever corner of India you come, your experience of the Indian state is too often governed by your dealings with ‘key individuals’ rather than with key institutions. In India men are still often stronger than laws. It would be hard to deny that most of the poor in today’s India can only rarely expect to be treated with respect by the state, let alone in the same way as their social or economic superiors. India has been described as a ‘rich-poor nation’ with a ‘weak-strong state’ (Rudolph and Rudolph, In Pursuit of Lakshmi, p.1.) The writ of the state is visible almost everywhere you look. But it is a state whose powers are easily hijacked by groups or individuals for their own private gains. Sometimes they claim to be acting on behalf of the poor, but the poor do not always take this literally. Often they sign away their allegiance to independent strongmen who operate private fiefdoms like parallel mini-states.”

(EDWARD LUCE in ‘IN SPITE OF THE GODS’– p.100-101)

The obnoxious nexus between politicians and bureaucracy need to be demolished by cutting the vital umbilical chord established right from the recruitment. The line of demarcation between the two needs to be made clear and the civil servant ought to assert their allegiance to the Constitution and the rule of law and not to slavishly obey to the whims and fancies of politicians.

10.Police administration cries for urgent attention. The manipulations of police especially in the State administration of Law and Order have resulted in total loss of credibility of the people especially the youth and the women in the rule of law and equality. The recommendations of the Police Commission submitted decades ago and the recent ruling of the Supreme Court in Prakash Singh and others vs. Union of India and others (2006) seems to be lying in limbo exhibits total insensitivity of the governments to this area of Reform. It is unfortunate that even the Supreme Court is unable to expedite the required changes.

11.The next important area where urgent changes are required relates to judicial administration. There are enough recommendations for streamlining both the Civil and Criminal Procedure Code. The sad and regrettable feature is that we spend more time in discussing the required changes than in implementing the changes without any delay. Whether it is corporate or criminal matters, the offenders seem to be enjoying uninterrupted immunity during the long and tortuous delay in disposal of the cases in the court especially at the lower levels. In Singapore for example, the corporate insolvency proceedings have to be completed within a period of 1 year by law. In India, we have insolvency proceedings pending in the court for more than 40 years in some cases, if not more. The investors/creditors who have stakes in these insolvency proceedings of Companies having unrealised assets do not have any clue about their dues and in some cases the investors and even their legal heirs are dead! What sort of message we give to the investors in such cases especially when we are so keen to attract foreign investments. The only saving grace is many investors are not alive to understand the implications of delay! Similarly, Civil suits are pending resolution for years and decades. There seems to be utter indifference in bringing about the required changes in judicial administration. In my opinion, we should not brook any delay if we are serious about playing important role in the globalised economic scenario.

12. Finally I come to the Electoral Reforms. We are in the midst of the electoral battle 2009. The political situation is disturbing, if not scaring. The First-Past-The-Post system has resulted in disastrous consequences thereby minimising the importance of National parties and the upsurge in the number of Regional parties and parties based on caste, community and language. The growth of the regional parties may be good and desirable in a pluralistic society provided they function in a healthy competition. We are witness to innumerable and unhealthy border disputes, water disputes and linguistic disputes motivated by narrow-minded leaders as if each State is a sovereign nation frequently challenging rule of law. There is total absence of national leaders with national outlook. Therefore, the first important change in the electoral reform which requires to be implemented relates to the electoral system based on the First-Past-The-Post system. Other changes relate to statutory regulation of functioning of political parties providing for rotation of posts, transparency in the accountability in the accounting transactions, making anti-defection law more effective, criminalisation of politics etc. Many civil society organizations such as the Association for Democratic Reforms, Jago Re, Election Watch Organisations have no doubt come into existence to promote voter awareness among the citizens especially the youth. We need to constantly improve the civic consciousness through such organizations.

13. Though I have not mentioned about the reforms relating to misuse of media, of late, one is very much concerned about biased reporting in both electronic and print media. Normally in a democracy media has to be totally free but not licentious. Perhaps, more effective self regulation is called for.

14.In conclusion, what is important is the timing of implementing these reforms. I only hope our political parties and administrators realise the urgency in improving our governance.

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