Monday, June 29, 2009

India's Babus, why officials rule India: Nilekani and Azhagiri

When Nandan Nilekani was appointed to oversee India's mammoth project of assigning ID's to a billion+ population, akin to US' Social Security numbers, there was all round applause. While I too applaud the larger idea and the appropriateness of Nilekani I find it distasteful that he is appointed with the rank of a Cabinet Minister, he is in charge if millions of dollars and is not "directly" answerable to the parliament. This is clear subversion of the spirit of the Constitution. In the least he should have been brought in via the Rajya Sabha which has legitimate rationale for a person like him. The Rajya Sabha was created exactly for people like him and Manmohan Singh. Those whose services and expertise is needed but could not survive in the rumble tumble world of populist politics are to be elected via Rajya Sabha. Why has no one objected to the nature of the appointment? Why is India, at least the white collar section, rejoicing at this appointments? A relevant question to ask is why do unelected officials wield the "real" power in India? Why do we still need IAS? Why is the officialdom, the Babu's, so powerful in India?

I was recently watching Chris Dodd, Connecticut Senator, ranking member of Senate Finance committee grill Timothy Geithner, the Secretary of treasury, live on TV. Let us put aside the finer aspects of Chris Dodd's role in the banking crisis, put aside quibbles on Geithner's mis-steps on the stimulus etc. Step away and consider the whole scenario a senator was grilling the Treasury Secretary in such detail showing deep knowledge of the subject matter. Geithner himself, very young 40-ish, has an accomplished resume. The intellectual standing of the questioner prods the secretary to be respectful. The secretary's stellar resume prods the senator to be mindful. How many ministers in the Indian cabinet, out of 74, can field such questions? How many MP's can question with knowledge of the subject matter? Can Azhagiri any day hold forth on the drug policy of India, does he have an iota of idea on what pressing International policy issues face India's drug policies, can he on his own develop any framework to address threats from world bodies on Intellectual property rights?

That a 24+ girl gets nominated to a cabinet post is a gross injustice to the taxpayer. It is easy to make fun of America today thanks to the financial crises but let us not lose sight that even today the dollar is seen as a refuge, even today America IS the engine of growth. This has not happened by accident, this did not happen outside of the portals of public policy. Barack Obama is the third consecutive Ivy League alumnus to rule US. Bill Clinton, his peccadilloes aside, can stun world leaders with his grasp of policy. Listening to Bill Clinton talk of health care crises is a treat by itself, no notes on hand he can cite figures, drill down to the real issues, frame the discussion intelligible to the lay audience. At the height of the Cuban missile crises JFK reaches to the lesson he gleaned from Barbara Tuchman's "Gun's of August". The intellectual gravitas of American policymakers is really a pretty high bar compared to Indian policymakers, save Nehru.

Nehru, while suffering from the ideological bent of his era, when it came to Science and Technology rose to the occasion. The IIT's and IIM's are a testimony to his vision. A vision that would be impossible to match in any successor because none had the intellectual ability to see the need for such institutions and none could even remotely appreciate the need for such graduates. Again I cannot see Homi Bhaba answering to Deve Gowda or presenting any idea. Karunanidhi famously wrote a poem decrying the value of education practically suggesting that the educated achieve nothing. Its an intellectual travesty of the worst order.

With policy makers who have no idea of subject matter and no intellectual abilities the IAS officer steps in. Enter the babu. There are 5 IAS officers in Tamil Nadu Health ministry, . Only three medical professionals at the director level. The bureaucrat outnumbers subject expert by 2:1, not including the minister. Going back to Azhagiri who lacks any quality education, reads nothing beyond the party newspaper, has almost zero intellectual ability one wonders what would be his input on any policy, one wonders how he would decide when two opposing ideas are presented.

That Shatrughan Sinha was India's minister of health is a crime. A country of billion people, highest number malnourished, high infant mortality, ranked at the bottom in Human development Index by UN, has health care challenges that can bewilder the keenest of minds, that such a department was given to an actor who treated politics as a sideshow and had no inkling on policy making is nothing short of a crime.

India has had as education ministers those who had not progressed beyond school education. Kamaraj, is often cited as an example of an illiterate but commendable achiever. Kamaraj's policies on education took Tamil Nadu way ahead but let us understand that Kamaraj lacked opportunities not the desire to study also the heady days of freedom struggle took him in. Aware of his own limitations when he was within striking distance of Prime Ministership Kamaraj stepped aside. When somebody like R.M.Veerappan becomes an education minister it is a sad day for education.

Not appointing ministers with intellectual gravitas is bad and appointing as ministers those who "devalue" intellectual substance, is the worst one can do.

Appointing vermins like S.S.Chandran and Sarath Kumar to Rajya Sabha was a practical sabotage of the spirit behind the creation of Rajya Sabha. When Phoolan Devi, as MP, decides how every Indian must pay taxes, educate his/her child, live his life, that is when the parliament becomes a puppet in the hands of the ever thriving official.

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