M.D Nalapat is the Editorial Director of The Sunday Guardian.
PM Modi needs to fling away secrecy from the portals of government, so much so that secrecy becomes the rarest of rare exceptions to the norm of transparency.
The welcome exposure of moles within key ministries is leading to calls for a clampdown on information flow, when in fact the opposite is called for. When in difficulties about finding out a plausible excuse for concealing information, the official establishment usually reaches for the "national security in danger" argument. This is usually effective, especially when accompanied by a battery of overwhelmingly sedentary "hawks" warning on television of a correlation between release of information and terror attacks, when in fact the reverse is the truth. Where the public is given access to information, the citizenry become more conscious of the dangers facing them, and therefore better able to recognise early signs of trouble. The first defence against a terror attack is an alert citizenry on the lookout for telltale signs of troublemaking, and such a state of readiness cannot be maintained if there remains a blackout of information. Indeed, it is the opaque nature of decision-making in India, with its corollary of colonial-era discretion, that has led to both a continuation of the fetish of "official secrecy" as well as to efforts at getting access to information. Given the pervasive nature of graft in this country, it is by far the lesser evil to go in for transparency than to continue with a secrecy which only assists the dishonest to continue skewing decisions for personal gain.
The argument that such a release of data is what enables terrorists and other security threats to access the same is false, for the reason that these latter usually have their own channels of information, incidentally, sources which thrive on the absence of transparency. Over the decades, and despite the stifling grip of a colonial-era governance system on the populace, education and awareness have grown, making nonsense of the conviction within the bureaucracy that "ordinary" (i.e. non-official) citizens cannot be trusted with information. Such logic runs counter to the fact that many officials have themselves fallen prey to the blandishments proffered by external and internal threats to public order and national security.
Other major powers have devised a governance system where the permanent officialdom is leavened by entrants from fields outside government, such as academics or business. Given that decisions of import daily get taken about such fields, to exclude their practitioners from an inside say in the processing of decisions is to ensure that sub-optimal decisions continue to get taken, out of ignorance of the ground situation in cases where corruption is absent. Even ministries such as Home, HRD and Defence expect generalist administrators to master intricacies within days of joining, when what is needed is a mix of such personnel as well as recruits from outside the civil service.
In times past, British colonial masters saw only themselves as being fit to run the higher civil service. What is needed is to introduce "natives" (i.e. outside specialists) into its ranks rather than simply relying on modern-day "Britishers" (i.e. career civil servants).
Prime Minister Narendra Modi was able to attract tens of millions of youthful voters in May 2014 because of his stance that civil society would — finally — be given pre-eminence over India's colonial-era administrative apparatus.
This was best exemplified in his "Minimum Government" pledge. However, it would appear that Modi's message has yet to seep through to those appointed by him, most of whom are from the same "Delhi establishment" crowd that the vote for him was a protest against.
As yet, civil society hardly figures in Team Modi, barring a few. What is needed is for the Prime Minister to reconfigure the civil service into a 21st century machine by bringing into its portals specialists in place of generalists, which has already happened in departments such as Space and Atomic Energy.
The consequence of conventionality in staffing is a system which is still only 20% Modi, 40% Vajpayee and 40% Manmohan Singh, whereas voters seek a 100% Modi sarkar.
Whether it be the defence of Section 66A of the IT Act or the intensification of regulations and controls by ministries such as Home, HRD and Finance, what we are still seeing is a continuation of "maximum government", that seeks to dominate and micro-manage rather than step aside and give the people of India the space needed for excellence, the way they get in countries such as the US.
Prime Minister Modi, now that he is nearing the close of a year in his present office, needs to create 21st century institutions in place of the 18th and 19th century constructs preserved from the British period and expanded upon by Jawaharlal Nehru and his successors, barring Narasimha Rao and to an extent Atal Behari Vajpayee. The national security team put in place by Modi needs to move away from a colonial police mindset and accept that blocking an activity both constrains overall growth, as well as results in such activity manifesting itself in clandestine — and far more toxic — ways. The Prime Minister needs to fling away the curtain of secrecy from the portals of government, so much so that secrecy becomes the rarest of rare exceptions to the norm of transparency.
Those who insist on secrecy damage rather than promote national security, by perpetuating a culture in which corruption thrives.
M.D Nalapat is the Editorial Director of The Sunday Guardian.
Creative expression cannot survive a CBFC presided over by an individual of views immured in a culture of control, nor can it take blows such as FIRs against AIB.
In its wisdom or absence of it, the Government of India has appointed Pahlaj Nihalani as the chairperson of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC). Judging by his utterances since assuming an office which itself belongs in the dustbin of a democracy, this authority on film certification apparently draws inspiration from the Muttawa, the moral police of Saudi Arabia, that exemplar of 21st century values. This columnist is among those who still refer to Mumbai as Bombay. Apparently, this is because he has been seeing too many films in which "Bombay" is used rather than "Mumbai". The CBFC is readying to ban future "errors" of this kind, together with a host of other changes designed to please Nihalani's grandmother, who would have wanted swear words of even a mild variety to be excluded from human discourse. Not knowing the new CBFC boss, it is not clear whether he himself speaks only in the sanitised manner he insists on enforcing within the film industry. Those who have watched some of the films produced by the CBFC chairperson say that practically every other sentence spoken by his characters contains phrases which his grandmother would react to in disgust. Or perhaps Mr Nihalani is wise enough not to watch his own films. Or perhaps he would like to repent such a past (and it must be said that admiring stories about him teem in their effervescence in the Bombay film world), and what better way than to enforce a level of censorship on the film industry as would make the products of Bollywood akin to the films churned out in such havens of free expression as Tehran or Pyongyang?
Since the 1980s, successive governments in India have worked hard to destroy domestic competition to major international brands, in the process reducing this country to a trading pygmy. The exceptions were industries such as information technology, and this because they were ignored by the government. However, once Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee appointed an IT Minister, problems began for the industry, with the result that for the past two decades, there has not been another Wipro or Infosys springing up. Instead, almost all social media and internet platforms and most of telecom is controlled by foreign companies, in contrast to China, where producers such as ZTE and Huawei have reached international size, and which has its own versions of Facebook, Twitter. This country expects Prime Minister Narendra Modi to respect the wishes of Babasaheb Ambedkar by retrieving the freedom of speech guaranteed to citizens in the Constitution from the numerous exceptions that have been made by successive governments. Including, it must be said, by that current champion of free speech, Kapil Sibal. Had the dead hand of bureaucracy not rested so heavily on the knowledge industry in India, by now there would have been an Indian competitor to Yahoo! or Google, rather than a situation where these entities dominate the Indian market. Apart from the IT industry, and now that the telecom industry has been sent to the ICU courtesy Manmohan Singh, a bright spot which remains, is the film industry, notably Bollywood. However, the launching of persecutions — sorry, prosecutions — against an event company for simply holding a comedy show in Bombay indicates that the freedom of expression essential for the health of a creative industry seems to have almost completely disappeared in Bombay. Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis was chosen for his youth. It is therefore inexplicable that in the AIB case, in the Shireen Dalvi episode and in other ways, his government is reacting in a manner more suited to the 18th century than even 20th. Unless Fadnavis can defend the freedoms created by Ambedkar, he will witness the demise of the film industry in his capital city. Creative expression cannot survive a CBFC presided over by an individual of views immured in a culture of control, nor can it take blows such as FIRs against AIB and some actors or the fact that Shireen Dalvi is on the run rather than allowed to lead a life of dignity.
Interestingly, a glimmer of hope has emerged from Aaditya Thackeray, the son of Uddhav Thackeray. Understanding that a world class city operates 24 hours, the young Thackeray is seeking to prod Fadnavis into abandoning the Muttawa-style approach favoured by the late R.R. Patil, who was one with Kiran Bedi in her avatar as police chief in Chandigarh, that night life should be shut down rather than protected. As Aaditya Thackeray correctly warns us, this country has far too many "Stone Age" laws. Rather than add to that dismal list, those claiming to fulfil the promise of PM Modi to bring India to the 21st century need to know that freedom of expression is core to the process of bringing the country into such a dawn. Seeking to follow Saudi Arabia in using the bludgeon of law to curb and constrain behaviour that does not harm anyone else, government in India is going against the promise of the 21st century establishment which won for the BJP its majority in the Lok Sabha. It is not North Korea, but to an extent South Korea (with its vibrant cultural offerings) that ought to be the model. By its choice of the Nihalanis who look to the Victorians for inspiration, such a modern mindset seems far away from actualisation. Hopefully, PM Modi will place the need for this on his priority list.
Uniformed officers involved in operations and monitoring say on condition of strict anonymity that Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar was "misled" in January into assuming that the Pakistan-based terror boat blew itself up on 31 December 2014, rather than get destroyed by a Coast Guard vessel on patrol. While the boat was carrying four individuals clearly identified as terrorists, these sources say that the conflagration, which caused the boat to destruct, was caused by combustible substances on board getting ignited by Coast Guard fire, rather than because of any suicidal impulse on the part of the crew.
They say that an official may have mis-briefed the minister, because he was apprehensive that the sinking of the boat by the Coast Guard, although justified by the circumstances, "may lead to negative comments by foreign countries on such military activism by India". Certainly, several major powers want India to adopt an entirely different standard from themselves while dealing with external threats. Such concerns about revealing the facts about the 31 December 2014 incident (which took place 197 nautical miles from Indian shores) apparently resulted in an official "misleading" Defence Minister Parrikar about the circumstances of the sinking, thereby leading to the minister's statements that the boat blew itself up and later that cyanide was probably consumed by the crew in order to end their lives.
"Manohar Parrikar is an experienced administrator, but like many other ministers past and present, has a habit of relying on the versions of key officials in his ministry," an officer pointed out, adding that in this case at least, the minister did not seem to have made any effort to independently ascertain the veracity of the explanation that the terror boat blew itself up, rather than as a result of firing on it. Unlike in the US and in most other major countries, India does not have a tradition of placing non-official experts on contract in the reporting systems of even specialist ministries such as Home, HRD or Defence, where staffing is still done from within the pool of those who qualify for one or other of the administrative services (IAS, IFS, IPS, IRS etc) after their education.
They say that the Defence Minister should, before making any more public statements, ask for: (1) the entire video recording of the destruction of the Pakistani boat, which these sources claim is available with the Coast Guard, rather than simply that segment which shows the vessel in flames; (2) an analysis of the debris, which should, according to procedure, have been brought back from the high seas; (3) the NTRO inputs on the basis of which offensive action was initiated; (4) GPS locater data showing the location during the period of the incident of the Coast Guard vessel and the time it took at various locations; (5) the number of shell casings brought back by the Coast Guard vessel, to find out how many rounds were fired; and (6) the posting order of Coast Guard DIG B.K. Loshali on the day in question. Officials concerned about the credibility of the government say that such information is needed to spare the minister the embarrassment of making a claim, which may subsequently be shown to be incorrect. They say that apart from the "visual clips of the Pakistani boat while it was engulfed in flames, all other images from the concerned camera that these persons have in their possession must be shown to the Defence Minister".
These officials say that Defence Minister Parrikar acted in good faith when he said that the boat blew itself up, but that once the Defence Minister said publicly that the terror boat self-destructed rather than caught fire because of combustible substances getting ignited because of firing, it was difficult for the uniformed officials to present contrary facts. "Instead, the version initially given by the high official to the Defence Minister (that the crew committed suicide, by cyanide or by setting fire) was allowed to remain."
These sources say that on 30 December 2014, the NTRO communicated to the Coast Guard intercepts received by it, which identified the vessel in question as "suspicious" and which indicated that the four on board were not ordinary smugglers, but were a terror task force on the 26/11 model. Interestingly, the apparel worn by the four was similar to that worn by the terrorists who came ashore off the Mumbai coast on 26 November 2008, and were of the sort useful for commando operations, with side pouches in the western-style trousers and extra shirt pockets. Such a dress is never worn by smugglers, it was pointed out.
"It was clear from the intercepts that this was a terror boat," the officers claimed, adding that the crew were within the hour planning to rendezvous with a Sri Lankan vessel coming from the opposite direction. This leaves open the possibility that Pakistan's ISI and affiliate terror organisations have begun recruiting Tamil Tiger fighters for use in operations directed at India, which is presumably where Parrikar's reference to the use of cyanide capsules comes in, as these were part of the kit of every LTTE suicide bomber. Images of the four crew members of the Pakistani boat were inconclusive in determining whether they were from Pakistan or Sri Lanka, but officials confirm that intercepts revealed that the two boats planned to dock close to each other, and according to the evidence collated, exchange explosives, weapons and personnel for a planned operation against India, most likely in Gujarat. What happened to the Sri Lankan boat, whether it escaped or was sunk as well, was not revealed by these sources.
These sources claim that the Coast Guard was "fully justified" in firing on the Pakistani vessel and causing its doom, as the evidence was overwhelming that it was on a terror mission. They say that "DIG Loshali is being blamed for revealing classified details of the consensus within the Gandhinagar operations room of the Coast Guard that the terror boat be destroyed before it escaped with its crew." "The suspect boat refused to obey repeated commands of the Coast Guard vessel to stop and allow itself to be boarded for inspection. Instead, it speeded up and tried to escape back to Pakistan. The interception took place in the nick of time," these sources say.
The officers say that "had a different leader been the Prime Minister, the Coast Guard may have hesitated to sink the terror boat, but now that Narendra Modi is in that chair, the uniformed services felt confident in carrying out whatever steps are needed to ensure security for the country". They are unhappy that "an officer who responded in an appropriate manner has been pilloried and may be proceeded against, for simply doing his duty". They further warn that action against DIG Loshali (against whom a smear campaign has already begun by those in the Ministry of Defence anxious to protect the initial version of events) would impact morale adversely and thereby discourage strong action of the kind which could avert 26/11 and has almost surely prevented another mass terror attack. They point out that had the Coast Guard been "emboldened and empowered in 2008 the way it is now, it could have destroyed the vessel carrying the 26/11 terrorists, as the vessel carrying the terrorists was sighted by units of the Coast Guard, but was allowed to get away".
These sources say that Defence Minister Parrikar needs to ensure that the full facts of the encounter be made known to him, so that he, in turn, can brief the nation. They warn that otherwise, by once again making a uniformed officer the scapegoat for what appears to have been an error of perception and communication, morale within the services may be affected. Defence Minister Parrikar is known for his efficiency and integrity, and the uniformed services expect that he will find out the truth of the events of 31 December 2014 and make them public, "before making a scapegoat of an officer who supported the consensus for swift action, in what would otherwise have been a national security disaster".
M.D Nalapat is the Editorial Director of The Sunday Guardian.
AAP supporters celebrate the party’s victory on Tuesday. pti
At the risk of once again being labelled an "AAP stooge" by miscellaneous BJP toffs, let it be said that the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has secured for itself two powerful tailwinds. The first has been snatched from the Congress and some regional outfits, and the second from the BJP. Till the BJP leadership began to act and react as though the 7 February elections were not about the 70-member Delhi Assembly, but were in fact a re-run of the Lok Sabha polls, and used up its entire supply of heavy gunnery and ammunition on a party which gained from each volley fired at it by the Prime Minister, the Finance Minister, the Home Minister, the Commerce Minister, the Energy Minister, the Telecom Minister ... well, you get the drift of the story. The high level of BJP participation in the anti-AAP campaign ensured that the Delhi elections got national coverage. To now blame the media for paying excessive attention on Team Kejriwal is a bit ironic, in a context where Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself was made by the BJP party leadership to take time off from his real work — running the Government of India — to deputize on too many occasions as the Campaign Committee chairperson for the Delhi polls. If the BJP saw the February 7 polls as important enough to warrant such an elaborate use of the Prime Minister's time, it is inexplicable why they believe the media ought to have disagreed with its view and ignored the campaign. By its incessant focus on Arvind Kejriwal, the BJP ensured that those voters across India, who for good reasons or bad were negative towards the BJP and to Modi personally, would see Kejriwal as the challenger rather than (as was the case till now) Rahul Gandhi. The BJP's campaign ensured that the AAP replaced the Congress as the perceived primary political threat to the BJP, and further replaced an ineffectual and largely absent Rahul Gandhi with a far more potent rival, Mr Muffler Man.
Thus, the anti-Modi, anti-BJP vote moved in hordes to the AAP from the Congress, which after the May 2014 polls had anyway begun to lose credibility as a party that could face up to the saffron brigade. And now the clincher which ensured a vote share of 54% to the AAP: the switch of the anti-Sonia Gandhi, anti-Congress vote from the BJP to the smaller party. During the Lok Sabha polls, by his rhetoric against the Gandhi family and his promise to ensure accountability for bigwigs in the UPA known to have enriched themselves in a miscellany of ways known to the investigative agencies, it had been Modi who had attracted the substantial voting bloc that saw the Congress and its supremo as toxic. Indeed, more than its fascination for holographic images, it was the belief that a BJP government would take expeditious steps to ensure that other UPA bigwigs went the A. Raja way (the latter took place during the much-derided regime of Manmohan Singh), which ensured a swelling of the BJP vote to a level sufficient to enable its majority in the Lok Sabha. However, since then, nine months have passed and those (clearly identified) super-rich UPA beneficiaries seem as unbothered by either the Income-Tax Department or the commercial banks or by the CBI or the DRI as they were when Manmohan Singh was PM. Although this is not exactly true, it is equally a fact that by now, many see the new government as being a continuation of the old, the only difference being a dynamic rather than a listless Prime Minister. The consequence of such perceived stasis has been disaffection within the anti-Congress vote bank with the Modi government, expressed on 7 February, when the bulk of them switched to the AAP.
When Narendra Modi talked of "Minimum Government, Maximum Governance", he was believed. However, since then, both the powers as well as the attitude of both officials as well as their political masters have become almost as imperious as a Sonia sneer. This columnist knows several of the BJP spokespersons personally, and can vouch for their being courteous and polite, which is why it has been a shock to witness their daily rants against any individual who challenged their verdict that the people of Delhi would give in February 2015 the majority denied to the party in December 2013. The more powerful a person or a group is, the humbler should be its or his behaviour. Instead, the contrary seems to have been learnt, with the result that few of the independent voters now remain with the BJP, as shown in Delhi, but likely to get replicated elsewhere, should the leadership of India's ruling party not enter into a ruthlessly honest stock-taking of its results, from Maharashtra to Delhi. Let it not be forgotten that even in Kashmir, where it had a party other than the Congress as its foe, the BJP did badly. And now Kejriwal (who has shrewdly declined to invite any Congress bigwig to his swearing-in) has emerged as a more reliable anti-Congress mascot than a BJP seen as being unexpectedly soft on the erstwhile government and its bag of scams.
Kejriwal is correct when he warns against arrogance. In large part, his victory was due less to an affinity with him than a growing distaste for the ways of the BJP, just as last year's Lok Sabha verdict was less pro-BJP than it was anti-Congress. The BJP failed to heed that lesson in the belief that it was personality which won and not the policies proffered. If the AAP avoids such smugness and the BJP continues the way it has functioned since 26 May, Team Kejriwal could emerge with 200 seats and counting in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.