Monday, December 1, 2008

MAKING INDIA SAFE: COSMETIC CHANGES WILL NOT STEM ROT

Thanks to the terrorists who came in from the sea and attacked this country in a manner that has horrified and shocked the whole nation, heads have begun to roll at long last. Shivraj Patil, India's Home Minister has quit. After five long years which saw professional incompetence of the worst kind and zero response to the ever increasing threat that the country faces from terrorists sponsored and promoted by powerful elements in Pakistan, if not its ineffective or lying government.

After putting up stiff resistance, Maharshtra Home Minister RR Patil has also been made to hear his 'inner voice' and quit. Next in line is the CM of the state, Vilas Rao Deshmukh, who has dug in and refuses to give up the goodies of office. The waffling and horribly incompetent National Security Advisor, MK Narayanan was also expected to be booted out, but the enormous power of India's bureaucracy and his political loyalty have saved him yet again.

Will these essentially cosmetic changes really stem the rot that has made India vulnerable, unsafe and unsure? Or will it take even bigger disasters to shake things up as they should have been long back?

After every single terror attack, everyone talks of an ‘intelligence failure’, with politicians blaming the central and state intelligence agencies based solely on their political affiliations. After a few days of blaming each other and scoring cheap political points in TV studios, everything remains the same. Why? Because the failure is not just of the politicians and the intelligence gathering agencies.

The real failure is of the individual and collective intelligence of India’s bureaucrats, the ones who are responsible for putting in place institutional mechanisms and also for running all the important organs of the government on a full time basis.

Look at the irony. The NSA is a former cop who once headed India's Secret Service, the Intelligence Bureau (IB), which is responsible for intelligence gathering within India. With him at the apex of India’s National Security set up, one would have imagined that the very least that he would have been able to do is get the IB, which is hopelessly understaffed, to put in place organizational and systemic changes required to be in step with the reality of terrorism that India has been facing for almost two decades. What did he actually do? Effectively nix, as the unending sequence of 'intelligence failures' shows.

The firing of the Home Minister and the NSA notwithstanding, nothing is going to change. Because no heads ever roll in India’s ‘elite’ civil services who, after the British left, have deviously taken over the whole government apparatus. These career bureaucrats have systematically destroyed all systemic checks and balances in the structure of the government and become the real 'rulers' of India.

Those who are essentially meant to provide secretarial support to political and professional leaders have effected a bloodless civilian coup without taking on any responsibility and accountability whatsoever. It is because of this systemic disaster that the country finds itself in the mess that it is in and it is because of this that no Indian has any faith any longer in any organ of the government except the military.

Let us take the case of the much talked about National Security Council (NSC) which was belatedly set up by the NDA government in 1999 after Kargil as an apex body to fill a widely felt vacuum in the country’s higher defence management. But, a look at its structure is a dead give-away that India’s bureaucrats, in their single-minded pursuit of ensuring cadre supremacy, no matter what the cost to the nation or how hopelessly dysfunction the result, have successfully killed the concept in the cradle itself.

At the apex of the virtually unnecessary three tier structure is the NSC which includes ministers of important ministries and the National Security Advisor. Right from here, old bureaucratic wine in old bottles with misleading labels starts making the organisation a complete non-starter. The NSA has till now been a civil servant, an insider from the same old system that has hijacked the government and failed repeatedly to deliver.

Next comes the Strategic Policy Group. This pompous sounding group is nothing but an empowered committee of secretaries, the same set of bureaucrats who have empowered themselves even more collectively in this body than they are individually, to give to India's political leadership the same stereotyped inputs that they have always been giving departmentally. The three service chiefs and a few other outsiders are also part of this group, but only to give it a misleading broad based look to conceal the fact that the cast iron control over even this ‘new’ group remains with generalist career bureaucrats who continue to decide what is to be fed to the political leadership.

The lowest tier is the National Security Advisory Board, which is meant to have experts from outside the government to give genuinely fresh and hopefully path-breaking inputs to the government. What do we actually have here? Another set of civil servants, this time those who retired from the IFS, in total effective control! With the 'expertise' that retired Indian career diplomats have about matters related to national security and strategy, all that has happened is that this board has been converted into just one more bureaucratic maze providing re-employment to retired civil servants.

See the joke that is being played on a nation of a billion people by a few bureaucrats who have virtually killed the NSC just to keep their supremacy unchallenged? More damaging than the fact that India’s bureaucrats have successfully pushed all stakeholders other than politicians into secondary and inferior positions is the fact that they have deprived India of the benefit of the incredible pool of intelligence, experience and ability that it has and needs to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

Though defence and security are supposed to be the primary focus areas of the NSC of a nuclear powered India, generalist bureaucrats have skillfully pushed those critical aspects into virtual insignificance, simply to ensure that the real professionals, retired and serving military leaders, remain at arm’s length from political leaders and do not ever get controlling stake in any link of the apparatus, even though are infinitely better equipped to provide the badly needed professional and apolitical impetus required to deliver real results in a professionally analysed time frame.

The internal and external security challenge facing the country is far too serious to be left in the hands on generalist bureaucrats and politically pliable police officers. What India faces is a near war situation that neither its political leaders nor its civil servants are equipped to handle at all. This basic fact needs to be recognised and the distortions that India's bureaucrats have institutionalized to destroy the equation between the country's political and military leadership over the years to emerge as all-powerful middlemen with zero accountability, need to be undone in a hurry.

Just look at the way Barack Obama is getting even Nobel Laureates into his government to pull his country out the unprecedented economic crises it faces. He is not relying on even a single generalist career bureaucrat in a leadership position. We, however, continue to let this country be run aground by an unresponsive 19th century colonial bureaucracy whose last rites need to be performed without delay if this country wants to stop performing last rites of its gallant soldiers and innocent citizens.

Professionals have to be given a real stake in governance and direct, unfettered access to the topmost political leadership. This is not an era where posts like the cabinet, defence, commerce secretaries etc, and the principal secretary to the PM (a post like the Chief of Staff of the US President) should be held by generalist career bureaucrats who are not trained or attitudinally tuned to give quantifiable, timely results, or take responsibility and be accountable for what they do.

The nation is entitled to, and should get, the services of the best available professional Indian material globally.

That is the only way to get the government machinery out of the morass and unresponsiveness that has cost the nation heavily and will continue to do so till such and more drastic changes are made. Unless this is understood, nothing will change even now.

Bureaucrats who have literally commandeered India's ship are not going to let go their vice-like grip easily. It is their unseen grip that is killing the nation. Slowly but surely. So, if India wants to save itself and make itself secure and powerful enough to known and respected like the super power it wants to be in this century, it has to break that grip.

Symbolic slaughtering of a few visible scape goats will not make India safe.
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Readers may also read:
1. Mumbai 11/26: wake up to Islamic terror, this is just the beginning
2. India under attack: time to act, not talk
3. Forgotten 'non-Hindu' terror hits Mumbai again
4. India's Osama and Al Qaida found; banish them!