By Vishnu Makhijani | IANS
He has been a keen observer of the Indian scene for over five decades, the first 24 of them as a member of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) and thereafter as a politician — first with the Janata Party, then the Janata Dal and finally with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Along the way he became the first non-Congress Finance minister to present five regular budgets and two interim budgets. Now, as he contemplates the past after quitting the BJP last year, Yashwant Sinha laments the increasing politicisation of the bureaucracy and the steady erosion of Indian institutions.
“Since I have traversed the world of both bureaucracy and politics, people have often asked me about the relationship between the two. There is no doubt that it is one of the most difficult relationships in our democracy,” Sinha writes in his autobiography, “Relentless: An Autobiography by Sinha” (Bloomsbury/pp 530/Rs 799).
This co-existence was once described as two swords within one scabbard and “since their jurisdictions are often not clearly defined, competition, leading to a clash, becomes inevitable”, Sinha writes in the concluding chapter titled “Musings”.
“In this struggle, the bureaucrat is often left to fend for himself, his service colleagues being reluctant to come forward to help him. Compromises become the order of the day and, with the passage of time, exceptions to this are becoming increasingly rare…With the increase in such clashes, some civil servants have even ended up paying the price for it while others have had to make compromises to survive and prosper,” Sinha writes.
In this context, Sinha singles out two “watershed” moments in the history of the decline of the civil service in India.
The first was the 1967 general elections that for this first time introduced the concept of coalition governments consisting of “disparate political elements” in many North Indian states, including Bihar, with the ministers in these dispensations having “obviously been at the receiving end of the bureaucracy during the earlier Congress regimes”.
“So, as my experience has shown, they came determined to settle scores with the bureaucracy. This had a dreadful impact on its morale. Most bureaucrats caved under pressure and put up with the insults and humiliations heaped upon them. Some, like me, resisted and paid the price for it.”
The second was the 1975-77 Emergency declared by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi “when what was demanded was loyalty to a single individual and a single family”.
“The Emergency did incalculable harm to the role, standards, norms, discipline and morale of the civil service. After that, it has been downhill all the way,” Sinha writes.
“One pernicious side-effect of the politicisation of the bureaucracy has been its impact on the fairness of elections,” Sinha maintains, adding that even though the Election Commission has brought about a “sea change” in the manner in which polls are now conducted, “the scope for mischief remains and the attitude of the bureaucracy, especially a law enforcement agency like the police, can significantly influence the outcome”.
Noting that when he left the bureaucracy in 1984 to contest elections, it received very little attention in the media, Sinha writes: “Today, even a junior bureaucrat leaving his job to join politics is considered a big event. The ubiquitous media, and the penchant on the part of many in the bureaucracy to seek personal publicity, has completely changed the rules of the game.”
Through 40 chapters, the book traces Sinha’s journey from his “Carefree Early Days”, his years in the IAS, with three political parties, his stints in the Finance and External Affairs Ministries and his split from the BJP: “I feel that there are a few traits in my character that make me rather unfit for the present day and age.”
Turning to institutions, Sinha writes they have undergone many changes over the years. “Their strengths and weaknesses have depended on the people who have manned them from time to time. But many of them have not been able to resist the onslaughts on their authority over the years and, therefore, stand weakened today.
Thus, parliamentary sessions “have become shorter and shorter and are entirely dependent on the government of the day…(which has) shown scant respect for Parliament, its traditions, conventions, practices and precedents, which have been violated with impunity”.
Holding that the Supreme Court “is in deep crisis”, Sinha writes: “The relationship between the government and the judiciary is not at its most cordial; in fact, it is under great strain.”
He also notes that while the Election Commission has become stronger over the years, some of its actions “have also cast a shadow, of late, on its fairness and impartiality”.
“The huge gap of many weeks between the state Assembly elections of Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat at the end of 2017 and the recommendation to disqualify 20 MLAs of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in Delhi without giving them an opportunity to be heard have cast serious doubts” on the Commission’s functioning.
Investigative agencies like the CBI, the Enforcement Directorate and the Income Tax Department “have unashamedly become tools in the hands of the government to ‘fix’ its political opponents” while independent institutions like the RBI “have also been seriously compromised”.
“The way the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) surrendered to the government on the question of demonetisation is a case in point.
“I am fully convinced that there is an undeclared emergency prevailing in the country. The element of fear among all sections of society is far more than I had witnessed even during the Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi,” Sinha writes.
Not surprisingly, Sinha is extremely harsh on the media.
“Why should the media, like their corporate bosses, behave like bards in the court of the rulers of the day? Media houses appear to be competing in singing the praises of people in authority, without any scrutiny whatsoever…An army of social media trolls makes it even easier. The people of India deserve better than the entertainment that often passes for news these days,” Sinha maintains.
Vishnu Makhijani can be reached at email@example.com