Chennai: Decision-making in a democracy and federal system, comprised by a variety of multi-lingual multi-cultural states, is “often tortuous”.
But “wrong decisions do not become criminal acts unless there is proof of money exchanging hands, or quid pro quo and thus gaining benefit or mala fide action,” writes B K Chaturvedi, the former Cabinet Secretary in the crucial years (2004-2007)of the UPA-I government led by Dr Manmohan Singh, in this stellar memoir, 'Challenges of Governance- An Insider's View'.
The Supreme Court of India had also apparently taken this view earlier in 2007 when the question of irregularities in petrol-pump allocations during the earlier NDA regime (2000-02) was involved. The Apex court cancelled many of the 400 allotments that were found to be against the rules or done under political patronage.
But the Apex court “did not hold the view that these persons of the selection board must be investigated by the CBI or that criminal proceedings should be launched against them. It was an administrative decision and the court left it at that. This interpretation of the legal framework was not followed in the coal blocks allocation case that was hyped in sections of the media as 'Coalgate'.
Just as a higher court overturns a lower court verdict or order when found to be not confirming with the Law, in administrative matters too, Chaturvedi, one of our outstanding civil servants who has worked in different capacities at various levels right from the district unit and who was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 2010 for his contributions to the Indian civil service, draws attention to the fact that 'in the normal course of business' decisions are taken in good faith.
But if they were found to be “in violation of existing administrative instructions” or not in tune with the best of policies - for at a particular juncture government's policy priority could be different - then the best course is “change such orders”.
Instead if only charge-sheets are going to be filed, imputing criminal motive for every such act, then not only will the bureaucracy become demoralised and the larger executive hit by 'policy paralysis', but overall governance will suffer.
“If we do not accept this approach and continue with the current strange interpretation of our laws, it will be disastrous for our polity,” warns Chaturvedi, emphasising, “the governance structure will suffer if we do not correct this aberration that has crept in, where we are charging people for criminal misconduct for infringement of administrative circulars.” And all administrative decisions, “when reviewed may not necessarily conform to the interpretation of the reviewing authority,” points out the ex-top bureaucrat who also served as Member of the Union Planning Commission and in the Finance Commission.
It is in this backdrop the author places his critique of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), particularly during that 'turbulent period' of 2007-2014, when the CAG's two reports on 2G spectrum allocation and the coal blocks allocation, redefined the discourse on corruption, aided by several external factors too.
Chaturvedi examines both these CAG reports in good detail and points to where the national auditor had gone wrong. More so, with the chain of events they triggered as the CAG's report had been followed up by PILs in the Apex court, where “allegations of corruption of huge magnitude based on the (notional) loss of revenue mentioned in the CAG report were made.”
Chaturvedi very cogently argues that on the one hand, “the economic logic of the original decision taken on these issues was lost” as in the case of the National Telecom Policy which wanted to universalise the telecommunication reach taking advantage of the new technology to benefit the common man as a matter of social policy.
But, on the other hand, the CAG, losing sight of its Constitutional mandate when it goes beyond its boundaries for whatever reason, to lay down what ought to be the Government's policy itself were clearly instances of 'overreach'.
“In its two reports on coal and telecom, the CAG assumed the role of the government's economic policymaker and computed losses. This was a disastrous approach and against all norms of governance,” writes Chaturvedi.
There may be some merit in the arguments that government should have revised the spectrum charges in 2007 and that the private captive block owners (in the case of coal mines) “should have been deprived of their comparative advantage as against other players”, says Chaturvedi.
“The auditors or the courts could point out, criticise and suggest policies, but it is an unhealthy democratic convention to start laying down government policies”, since the Constitution provides for clearly demarcated powers for each organ.
“This not only had a massive adverse impact on the system of governance but also huge adverse repercussions on the morale of the civil services, especially when the CAG reports were followed up with criminal cases,” says Chaturvedi.
Chaturvedi argues for the need for a model code for civil servants and politicians, but in the same breath does not go with the proposition that institutions like CAG, in their overzealous approach to eliminate corruption or be a moral watchdog, becoming the government itself; or the courts for that matter giving a “spate of orders” on how things should be run, a happy augury. At another place, the author shows with facts and figures how the CAG had “blundered” in arriving at those 'exaggerated' losses, in both its reports on Telecom and coal blocks.
“Imagine the courts running the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) and having a team to seal buildings in Delhi for violation of the master plan,” the author poses in a sardonic vein, adding, “unless institutions work within their boundaries, we will see friction, a weakening of democracy and eventual chaos in the system.”
Chaturvedi in his 'Reflections on the Planning Era' is equally forthright in saying that the Union Planning Commission should not have been abolished by the new BJP-led NDA government in 2014, given the plan body's vision, expertise built over decades, depth and range of its interventions vis-à-vis the peculiarities of each State.
The Niti Ayyaog as its successor, may be a smart think-tank, but States would show little interest in a mere think-tank unless finance flows to areas where states face a real deficiency, he says. Nonetheless, reforms in the Planning Commission, were needed as was done when he was a member, when the number of Centrally-sponsored schemes were pruned to about 60 from over 170 earlier, the author underscores.
However, raising funds for long-term infrastructure development and reviving core areas like power generation is a bigger challenge. A lot of natural gas produced by ONGC for instance, is being given to fertiliser plants while gas-based power utilities are lying idle and producing only NPAs' for banks, he points out, adding, this scenario has to change.
Chaturvedi's memoir has a broader visionary dimension too; especially on the issue of corruption, as many low-income societies across the world face this dilemma.
The author hints that at a raw economic level, it ensues as people want to escape the violent cycle of poverty and yearn for human dignity. But when some economic stability is attained, the moral issue of means versus ends pops up. So it is back to square one, at what point the Yogi and Commissar can be fair.
Filled with interesting anecdotes of various political leaders including Narendra Modi, insights into the intra-bureaucracy's rough edges and inter-ministerial tussles, like say the office of the NSA versus the Cabinet Secretary, nuggets from his own life and IAS carrier moving alongside contemporary political currents, Chaturvedi's memoir comes out as a deep humanistic contribution to the understanding of the evolution of modern India....