Friday, 27 May, 2022

Former CVC chief N Vittal's open list of civil servants facing corruption allegations shows it's silly to address question of corruption in bureaucracy in isolation of the system.

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I have always been struck by the fact that while the criminal is free to commit the crime, the police have to follow the due course of law to bring him to book because under our law everybody is presumed innocent unless proved guilty.”

If you are wondering where I picked up that frightful bit of tripe and why I have reproduced it here, the answer might startle you a bit. This is Vittal speak. The almighty Central Vigilance Commissioner himself on page 176 of Fighting Corruption and Restructuring Government, which actually is his own tribute to his eminent self. Nothing wrong with a bit of self-delusion and self-praise. Except that he sees himself as larger than Seshan (I’d rather call him Diet Seshan or Seshan Lite), and has decided to do something about such “unfair” application of law.

So, he seems to believe, it is not necessary for an officer to be charged, prosecuted and proven guilty. A charge is as good as a conviction, the principle of a citizen being innocent until proven guilty has been dismissed out of hand — and N. Vittal underlines this by putting on a website the names of all bureaucrats facing inquiries on charges of corruption.

With at least two of the officers mentioned on the website dead, one honourably acquitted and one prominent case of mistaken identity, Vittal has already ended up with egg on his face. But it would be dangerous to let these amateurisms deflect the major issue involved there. It is nobody’s point that many in the bureaucracy are not corrupt, inefficient and lacking in integrity. It is precisely for the purposes of catching them that the institution of the CVC was set up and is now being strengthened. But it must do the hard work to find evidence and prove them guilty rather than indulge in trial by the media. Even if he has chosen the Internet, the so-called new media.

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For once, it is even difficult not to sympathise with the babu. It is easy to get an inquiry instituted even against an honest, but inconvenient, officer. Then while he waits for years for evidence to be heard and assessed and for the inquiry to be complete, his name will be on or whatever that website is called.  It won’t punish the bad guys, it will give many good ones a bad name for too long, it will terrorise the officers and, if not controlled right away, bring our system to a standstill. In effect then, what was meant to be a good, strong, autonomous institution will now self-destruct because of one more headline hunter’s overzeal. But it is easy to understand if the same man is so honestly scandalised by a legal system where a man is considered innocent until proven guilty.

Vittal could, perhaps, argue that extreme measures are necessary since delays in our system become the greatest defence of the corrupt. He could also argue that it is the most corrupt among the bureaucracy around whom the system builds a protective wall. So he has to use the media as an ally. But, with apologies to Vittal, he has to be told that that is the media’s job, not the CVC’s. Except, when we do that in the media we have to keep in mind the laws of libel and principles of fair play. He does simplify our lives a bit by putting it all on his website and saving us the risk of libel and trouble or repertorial rigour. But that is not what he was appointed for.

For heaven’s sake, don’t question his intentions, just the method. You have to take him seriously on his promise of zero tolerance of corruption in numerous speeches and newspaper articles. His impatience rivals that of a Seshan but is backed neither by his sometimes cockeyed intellect nor by his overwhelming charisma. The fact is, even Seshan came unstuck because he pushed his unconventional methods too far, and finally began confusing publicity and public adulation with success. This is the danger Vittal, and those now finalising the new set of powers for the CVC, have to watch out for.

Whatever Vittal’s motivations and tactics, it is also silly to address the question of corruption in the bureaucracy in isolation of the system where it has not merely come to be accepted but even expected. In state after state, the political system has reduced the bureaucracy to no more than putty in the hands of the politicians. In states like Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, now even Haryana and Punjab, officers are transferred at the whims of the MLA. Life can be hopelessly frustrating for the classical young, idealistic, honest officer as he moves from place to place as governments and ministers change. Ultimately, he has the choice of falling in line, making a comfortable mutually beneficial arrangement with the politician, or keeping constantly on the move. The cabinet secretary, the home secretary, the principal secretary, the chief secretary, all the great institutions around whom the bureaucratic structure was built have been reduced to mere note-takers, kicked around and shuffled as ministers and governments change.

The babu now no longer has any maibaap other than the politician. This is why anything Vittal does to cleanse the system won’t work unless we also find a way of backing the odd man who dares to take on the corrupt politician or, worse, the politician-business mafia.

Also read: Supreme Court upholds appointment of CVC Chowdary, vigilance commissioner Bhasin

Pause for a moment and think who are the brightest, most honest and the most hard working among your circle of friends, or old classmates, and chances are you may still find a majority of them in the all-India services. How come, then, that they collectively give us such an inefficient and rotten system of governance?

What goes wrong between the idealistic years of the academy and the first couple of postings and the coveted joint secretaryship at the Centre? Corruption is a problem, but it is a symptom of a deeper disease. The states and even ministries at the Centre that treat their bureaucrats well benefit a great deal and it shows in their performance. Surely, there is corruption in Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat, and in theUnion Finance Ministry. But these have by now established institutional structures and traditions where officers can function with a reasonable degree of respect, autonomy and accountability. On the other hand, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh stink, and are not going to be redeemed, no matter what the number of hits and confirmed page views on Vittal’s website.

The basic reason why we have failed for long to fight corruption is that we have been trapped in a thanedar approach. Sometimes we think the CBI can cleanse the system for us and sometimes it is the Supreme Court. We overlook the basic issues: corruption grows from a system of political and bureaucratic discretion where the state controls too much of our lives, our businesses, our work-places and almost anything that determines our quality of life. The answer to corruption in the government, therefore, is less government, less bureaucracy in our lives. What Mr Vittal has offered us instead is yet another Internet start-up.

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