India is paying the price for valuing loyalty above competence. The blackouts faced by over 600 million people in northern and eastern India over the last two days are but a consequence of this deep-rooted malaise.
We can use the Japanese technique of asking five “whys” – or even more whys – to arrive at the root cause of a problem.
At each deeper level of “why” that is asked, we get to better answers. So let’s try and attempt to do this with the power blackout.
First why: Why did northern (and later eastern) India have two consecutive days of grid failure?
Answer: Because some states had overdrawn power from the grid, breaking discipline and causing power plants to trip.
Second why: Why did some states get away with this? Punjab and UP have denied they overdrew from the grid, but surely someone did break grid discipline?
Answer: This happened because grid officials – who come under the power ministry — did not police the violations properly. They did not penalise those who abused the system despite there being clear rules on how much power states can draw from the grid.
Third why: Why did grid officials fail to do this? Why did they simply not cut off offenders when they transgressed their limits, or force them to pay penalties?
Answer: Because grid officials do not have the political backing necessary to penalise powerful state politicians or their officials who flout grid discipline. They thus do not enforce the rules they are technically empowered to enforce.
Fourth why: Why are politicians reluctant to empower their officials and discipline those who break the rules? Why do they allow some states to get away with murder?
Answer: There are many reasons. Politicians at the centre need allies in states. If UP broke grid discipline, the Congress can’t act since it needs Mulayam Singh’s support for UPA-2. So UP will not be penalised. If Punjab broke the discipline, it should be easier to discipline that state, since it is not part of UPA. But even this won’t happen as the centre can’t afford to pick and choose its villains. At the very least, it will raise a political storm.
But, more importantly, the main reason why politicians don’t empower their officials to act is simple: they benefit from a system where they exercise untrammeled and discretionary power – including the power to not implement a law on grid discipline. It is not in their interest to empower officials in the power grid to act independently based on written down laws on grid discipline. If they did so, they will have to make their own electricity boards viable, usually by forcing power thieves (normally politicians themselves and their crony businessmen) to pay the right price for power, and by charging reasonable rates (and not giving free power) to favoured vote-banks (like big farmers, for example). So politicians have a vested interest in disempowered officials, whether at the state level or at the level of the national grid.
Fifth why: Why do grid officials, who are technically empowered by the law to penalise offenders, not do so on their own? Won’t the law protect them if they did their duty?
Answer: Technically, this is true. One TN Seshan managed to make the Election Commission a completely fearless body that no politician has been able to tinker with since. A fearless official will do what is right rather than what his political bosses tell him to.
Conversely, this is precisely why politicians ensure that crucial positions are filled by cronies and loyalists, rather than fearless people. This is not only about the power grid, but every crucial position in almost every critical institution run by the state. In other words, politicians favour loyal employees over competent and upright employees.
The system works through the you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours principle. Politicians place favoured officers, and even judges, in key positions in the police force, various regulatory agencies, and important command-and-control positions so that they will do their bidding when required.
An Indian Express report last month showed how IAS and IPS officers never retire. Even when they retire, politicians ensure that they get even more plum posts. The same thing happens with retired judges. This is not to say that every retired judge or bureaucrat is a crook or political lackey, but the system makes such a crony appointments possible – with negative consequences for competence.
Says the Express: “IAS and IPS officers seem to be in high demand for the job of governors. Of the 27 governors and three lieutenant governors in the country, seven are former IPS officers and four former IAS officers.”
Even the RTI Act, intended as an empowering tool for ordinary citizens, has been captured by the bureaucracy. Says the Express: “Seven of the nine members of the Central Information Commission (CIC), including its chief, are former bureaucrats…In fact, of the 29 CICs in the country, including the one at the Centre, 22 are former IAS officers. And of the 54 information commissioners, 29 are former civil servants, including 16 with an IAS background.”
In short, politicians have put the fox in charge of the henhouse. Little wonder that despite the empowering nature of RTI, governance has, in fact, become worse. Politicians, ranging from the PM to ministers, have still been railing against the RTI Act.
Another report shows how this power nexus runs even with the judiciary. The Express found that 18 of the 21 Supreme Court judges who retired since 2008 have found jobs on government panels. Since post-retirement jobs are often sinecures, what is the chance that the judges will not want to return favours to the political bosses who helped them retain power after retirement?
The latest turn of events at the centre of the government – the mini cabinet reshuffle – tells us the same story.
As we noted on Tuesday, Sushil Kumar Shinde, on the day of his greatest failure as power minister, is rewarded with an elevation to the home ministry. Perhaps it was just bad timing – but that raises another question. There was no earthly need to appoint Shinde home minister on the precise day of the grid failure. This is political incompetence as well.
While the practice of privileging political loyalty over competence is embedded in the Indian system, UPA-2 has taken this to new heights by not only appointing incompetents to various ministries, but even rewarding them profusely for it.
The NDA did not cover itself with glory on this front always - for example, when a brilliant Power Minister Suresh Prabhu was replaced with another Sena worthy noted more for his loyalty to Bal Thackeray than administrative competence - but overall the NDA rewarded more competents than incompetents. (Example: Arun Shourie in Disinvestment and Communications, Yashwant Sinha in Finance, and BC Khanduri in Surface Transport, who presided over NDA's crowning highway-building achievement).
Manmohan Singh was made PM despite having proved himself incompetent in running a government. His honesty is supposed to be his strength, but it is limited to not taking a bribe. He does not like blowing the whistle on crooks in his own ministry.
Competents get a raw deal. A politically competent senior politician, Pranab Mukherjee, was not given his political due. He has now been kicked upstairs to the presidency. The reward for competence is not promotion, but a sinecure.
A competent FM, P Chidambaram, was removed from the finance ministry just when the economy was going downhill in 2008 and needed his ministrations. He was shifted from the home ministry on Tuesday and replaced with an untested power minister just when power needs a full-timer. The power ministry has gone to another minister of unproven worth – Veerappa Moily – who has not distinguished himself in any ministry so far.
An unwilling sports minister, Mani Shankar Aiyar, was given charge of the Commonwealth Games in UPA-1. We know what happened after that.
An indifferent petroleum minister, Murli Deora, was kept there for longer than needed even while the entire sector was going downhill.
A dynastic loyalist, HR Bhardwaj, was made law minister in UPA-1, and shifted out to Karnataka as governor when things got too hot for him after various gaffes and goofs (including the defreezing of Ottavio Quattrochi’s bank account).
AK Antony, another loyalist, wears his honesty on his sleeve, but he could not manage his army chief’s grievances or protect the government from its greatest public embarrassment – a mismanaged army succession.
Need we say more?