In 1988, at the peak of the Rajiv Gandhi-VP Singh face-off fuelled by media exposes, the most respected editor of those times, Girilal Jain, wrote a comment in The Times of India with the headline, “A Galahad of the Press”. It was a rare front-page editorial, and it continued over into an inside page. It clearly targeted The Indian Express editor Arun Shourie for pursuing more activism than journalism.
It might not be inapt to recall, and indeed reapply, that term while examining the prevailing skirmishes in the finance ministry, which are symptomatic of a deeply troubling trend in Indian bureaucracy.
But before we do that, a short diversion to understand the meaning of the The Times of India headline is in order. As a rookie reporter of the paper back then, I wondered what on earth it meant. I consulted a dictionary and found that ‘Galahad’ is one “who is pure, noble and unselfish”. The usage comes from Sir Galahad, who in Arthurian legend pursues the Holy Grail, an ideal impossible to attain.
Time is nothing but a collection of memories. The ‘Galahad Syndrome’ that afflicted the Indian press in the '80s has also taken in its grip the entire Indian bureaucracy. The spectacle of bitterest-ever bureaucratic gang war being fought in the corridors of power and behind the portals of the country’s highest court on Wednesday is only symbolic of the rot that has set in. And all this has been happening in the name of honesty and integrity.
Since individuals are not important, I intend to avoid taking names. But look at the manner in which an officer of state civil services got integrated into the Enforcement Department (ED) and secured judicial intervention to get immunity from any action against his alleged misdemeanours. A bench of the Supreme Court removed that immunity and directed the official to submit himself to scrutiny like any other officer. The court also referred to a sealed envelope and pointed out that the contents shown to the court were enough to warrant a scrutiny by the government on the conduct of the officer.
Was there anything wrong in this order? Prima facie, it appears to be a fair order which subjects the official to a regular inquiry without giving him blanket immunity. But if you see the fallout, it would appear as if a monumental sin has been committed. The ED issued a press statement vouching for the integrity of the official and even speculated on the content of the sealed envelope. The statement insinuated that the government was leading the SC bench down the garden path by giving it a sealed envelope which contains nothing but fictitious charges.
Whether true or false, there is hardly any doubt that a section of civil servants in the country have assumed they are the sole purveyors of truth, exterminators of corruption and defenders of democracy. And they have been consistently subverting the system to pursue their own Holy Grails irrespective of the government’s agenda. The manner in which the ED has been targeting the revenue secretary Hasmukh Adhia, an IAS official with unimpeachable integrity, is only illustrative of drift in various organs of the government.
Ironically, this is not an isolated instance. The CBI is also suffering from internal factional feuds that look like a veritable gang war. The modus operandi of these Galahads who are self-proclaimed “pure, noble and unselfish souls” runs quite similar to underworld gangs. They collude with activist-lawyers, pass on half-truths and convenient information to make cases for public interest litigation (PILs) and hold the system at ransom through judicial intervention. In Delhi, such a clique not only thrives in the name of honesty and integrity but has also developed a tendency to issue character certificates to fellow officials who have not yet acquired the adequate characteristics of a Galahad.
In Uttar Pradesh, a group of IAS officers had taken upon themselves the task of identifying the most corrupt among them. In Haryana, an IAS officer assumed the role of sole arbiter of public good and called everyone else who did not fall in his line corrupt. They sought immunity and protection in the name of their self-proclaimed missions, cloaking inefficiency and truancy.
Most such officers expend their entire career in creating a parallel system in a bid to subvert the system. It appears quite attractive at first but ultimately turns out to be a bigger threat than corruption in derailing the entire edifice of governance. The problem with these Galahads is that they tend to ignore the glorious history of sacrifice, dedication and honesty of thousands of Indian civil servants since independence.
It would be completely out of place in this context to remember those rare officers who, when cornered, did not have to remind the world of their honesty because everyone else spoke up on their behalf. I promised not to take names, but let me make an exception for an exceptional officer: Harish Chandra Gupta. He is an exception who proves the rule.
This comment is reproduced from the latest edition of Governance Now.
Updated Date: Jun 28, 2018 19:38 PM