“I’m on my way out”: Siddhartha Shankar Ray (1920-2010)

I  am grieved to hear of the death of Siddhartha Shankar Ray last night.

I was introduced to him by an uncle who had been his college-buddy, and he took up a grave personal matter of mine in the Supreme Court of India in 1990 with great kindness, charging me not a penny, being impressed by a little explicit “civil disobedience” I had had to show at the time towards Judge Evelyn Lance.

He also told me he and his wife had been in London on May 29 1984 and had seen *The Times*’s leader that day about my critique of Indian economic policy. He invited me to his Delhi home where I told him about the perestroika-for-India project I had led at the University of Hawaii since 1986, at which he, of his own accord, declared

“You must meet Rajiv Gandhi.  I will arrange a meeting”.

That led to my meeting with Rajiv Gandhi, then Congress President & Leader of the Opposition, on September 18 1990, which contributed to the origins of India’s 1991 economic reform as has been told elsewhere. https://independentindian.com/thoughts-words-deeds-my-work-1973-2010/rajiv-gandhi-and-the-origins-of-indias-1991-economic-reform/

Rajiv’s assistant George told me Rajiv had said he had not heard more fulsome praise.

In Bengal, he took me as a guest to visit the Legislative Assembly in session when he was Leader of the Opposition; it was the legislature of which my great grandfather, Surendranath Roy, had been a founder, being the first Deputy President and acting President too; Surendranath had been friends with his maternal grandfather, CR Das, leader of the Congress Party before MK Gandhi, and he said to me in the car heading to the legislature about that relationship in Bengal’s politics some seven decades earlier “They were friends”.

He introduced me to all the main leaders of the Bengal Congress at the time (except Mamata Banerjee who could not come) and I was tasked by him to write the manifesto for the State elections that year, which I did (in English, translated into Bangla by Professor Manjula Bose); the Communists won handily again but one of their leaders (Sailen Dasgupta) declared there had never been a State Congress manifesto of the sort before, being as it was an Orwell-like critique of Bengal’s Stalinism.

In a later conversation, I said to him I wished he be appointed envoy to Britain, he instead came to be appointed envoy to the USA.

In Washington in September 1993, he said “You must meet Manmohan Singh”, and invited me to a luncheon at the Ambassador’s Residence where, to Manmohan Singh and all his aides, he declared pointing at me

“The Congress manifesto (of 1991) was written on his (laptop) computer”.

In later years I kept him informed of developments and gave him my publications.   We last met in July last year where I gave him a copy, much to his delight, of *Margaret Thatcher’s Revolution: How it Happened and What it Meant*.

I said to him Bengal’s public finances were in abysmal condition, calling for emergency measures financially, and that Mamata Banerjee seemed to me to be someone who knew how to and would dislodge the Communists from their entrenched misgovernance of decades but not quite aware that dislodging a bad government politically was not the same thing as knowing how to govern properly oneself.

He,  again of his own accord, said immediately,

“I will call her and her main people to a meeting here so you can meet them and tell them that directly”.

It never transpired.

He and I were supposed to meet a few months ago but could not due to his poor health; on the phone in our last conversation I mentioned to him my plans of creating a Public Policy Institute — an idea he immediately and fully endorsed as being essential though adding

“I can’t be part of it,  I’m on my way out”.

“I’m on my way out”.   🙂

That was Siddhartha Shankar Ray — always intelligent, always good-humoured, always public-spirited, always a great Indian.

I shall miss a good friend, indeed my only friend among politicians other than the late Rajiv Gandhi himself.

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Revisiting “On Hindus and Muslims”

Finally, a dozen years late, the Sonia-Manmohan Congress takes a small Rajivist step: Yes Prime Minister, our Judiciary is indeed a premier public good (or example of “infrastructure” to use that dreadful bureaucratic term)

I was very harsh and did not beat about the bush in my Sep 23-24 2007 article  in The Statesman “Against Quackery” when I said in its subtitle

“Manmohan and Sonia have violated Rajiv Gandhi’s intended reforms”.

I said inter alia

“WASTE, fraud and abuse are inevitable in the use and allocation of public property and resources in India as elsewhere, but Government is supposed to fight and resist such tendencies. The Sonia-Manmohan Government have done the opposite, aiding and abetting a wasteful anti-economics ~ i.e., an economic quackery. Vajpayee-Advani and other Governments, including Narasimha-Manmohan in 1991-1996, were just as complicit in the perverse policy-making. So have been State Governments of all regional parties like the CPI-M in West Bengal, DMK/ AIADMK in Tamil Nadu, Congress/NCP/ BJP/Sena in Maharashtra, TDP /Congress in Andhra Pradesh, SP/BJP/BSP in Uttar Pradesh etc. Our dismal politics merely has the pot calling the kettle black while national self-delusion and superstition reign in the absence of reason. The general pattern is one of well-informed, moneyed, mostly city-based special interest groups (especially including organised capital and organised labour) dominating government agendas at the cost of ill-informed, diffused anonymous individual citizens ~ peasants, small businessmen, non-unionized workers, old people, housewives, medical students etc….Rajiv Gandhi had a sense of noblesse oblige out of remembrance of his father and maternal grandfather. After his assassination, the comprador business press credited Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh with having originated the 1991 economic reform. In May 2002, however, the Congress Party itself passed a resolution proposed by Digvijay Singh explicitly stating Rajiv and not either of them was to be so credited. The resolution was intended to flatter Sonia Gandhi but there was truth in it too. Rajiv, a pilot who knew no political economy, was a quick learner with intelligence to know a good idea when he saw one and enough grace to acknowledge it. …Rajiv was entirely convinced when the suggestion was made to him in September 1990 that an enormous infusion of public resources was needed into the judicial system for promotion and improvement of the Rule of Law in the country, a pre-requisite almost for a new market orientation. Capitalism without the Rule of Law can quickly degenerate into an illiberal hell of cronyism and anarchy which is what has tended to happen since 1991. The resources put since Independence to the proper working of our judiciary from the Supreme Court and High Courts downwards have been abysmal, while the state of prisons, borstals, mental asylums and other institutions of involuntary detention is nothing short of pathetic. Only police forces, like the military, paramilitary and bureaucracies, have bloated in size….Neither Sonia-Manmohan nor the BJP or Communists have thought promotion of the Rule of Law in India to be worth much serious thought ~ certainly less important than attending bogus international conclaves and summits to sign expensive deals for arms, aircraft, reactors etc. Yet Rajiv Gandhi, at a 10 Janpath meeting on 23 March 1991 when he received the liberalisation proposals he had authorized, explicitly avowed the importance of greater resources towards the Judiciary. Dr Singh and his acolytes were not in that loop, indeed they precisely represented the bureaucratic ancien regime intended to be changed, and hence have seemed quite uncomprehending of the roots of the intended reforms ever since 1991.”

Days after the article appeared there were press reports Dr Singh was murmuring about quitting, and then came a fierce speech in Hindi from the Congress President saying “enemies” would receive their dues or whatever – only to be retracted a few days later saying that no more had been meant than a local critique of the BJP in Haryana politics!  (Phew! I said to myself in relief…)

Today I am very happy to learn that Dr Manmohan Singh spoke on Sunday of the importance of the Rule of Law and an effective and efficient judiciary. The new Law Minister in the second Sonia-Manmohan Government has been eagerly saying the same.

All this is constructive and positive, late as it is since Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh both became heavy-duty Congress Party politicians for the first time a dozen years ago.

I was privileged to advise a previous Congress President in his last months from September 1990 as has been told elsewhere. And six years before that I had  said:

“….….The most serious examples of the malfunctioning of civil government in India are probably the failure to take feasible public precautions against the monsoons and the disarray of the judicial system. …The Statesman lamented in July 1980:`The simplest matter takes an inordinate amount of time, remedies seldom being available to those without means or influence. Of the more than 16,000 cases pending in the Supreme Court, about 5,000 were introduced more than five years ago; while nearly 16,000 of the backlog of more than 600,000 cases in our high courts have been hanging fire for over a decade. Allahabad is the worst offender but there are about 75,000 uncleared cases in the Calcutta High Court in addition to well over a million in West Bengal’s lower courts.” Such a state of affairs has been caused not only by lazy and corrupt policemen, court clerks and lawyers, but also by the paucity of judges and magistrates. . . . a vast volume of laws provokes endless litigation as much because of poor drafting which leads to disputes over interpretation as because they appear to violate particular rights and privileges…. When governments determinedly do what they need not or should not do, it may be expected that they will fail to do what civil government positively should be doing.” A few months ago was the 25th anniversary of this statement… ! 🙂

Yes Prime Minister, having an effective and efficient judiciary is indeed a premier public good and one that has failed to be provided to India’s people from Nehru’s time and through Indira’s. I managed to persuade Rajiv about it completely. Might I next be so bold as to draw attention as well to the paragraphs of the 2007 article that followed?

“Similarly, Rajiv comprehended when it was said to him that the primary fiscal problem faced by India is the vast and uncontrolled public debt, interest payments on which suck dry all public budgets leaving no room for provision of public goods.  Government accounts: Government has been routinely “rolling over” its domestic debt in the asset-portfolios of the nationalised banks while displaying and highlighting only its new additional borrowing in a year as the “Fiscal Deficit”. More than two dozen States have been doing the same and their liabilities ultimately accrue to the Union too. The stock of public debt in India is Rs 30 trillion (Rs 30 lakh crore) at least, and portends a hyperinflation in the future. There has been no serious recognition of this since it is political and bureaucratic actions that have been causing the problem. Proper recognition would entail systematically cleaning up the budgets and accounts of every single governmental entity in the country: the Union, every State, every district and municipality, every publicly funded entity or organisation, and at the same time improving public decision-making capacity so that once budgets and accounts recover from grave sickness over decades, functioning institutions exist for their proper future management. All this would also stop corruption in its tracks, and release resources for valuable public goods and services like the Judiciary, School Education and Basic Health. Institutions for improved political and administrative decision-making are needed throughout the country if public preferences with respect to raising and allocating common resources are to be elicited and then translated into actual delivery of public goods and services. Our dysfunctional legislatures will have to do at least a little of what they are supposed to. When public budgets and accounts are healthy and we have functioning public goods and services, macroeconomic conditions would have been created for the paper-rupee to once more become a money as good as gold ~ a convertible world currency for all of India’s people, not merely the metropolitan special interest groups that have been controlling our governments and their agendas.”

Subroto Roy

Kolkata


Note to Posterity: 79 Ministers in office but no 15th Lok Sabha until June 1 2009!

The Government of India’s 79 Ministers have taken to their offices like bees to honey yet the 15th Lok Sabha that the people of India elected a fortnight ago is still three days from being convened.

In other words, people have been taking oaths and entering offices as Ministers even before they have taken their oaths or their seats in the 15th Lok Sabha which accords the Government its political legitimacy by its confidence!

Let posterity recall that the 15th Lok Sabha was made to needlessly wait from May 16 2009 until June 1 2009 and despite this the Government formed itself and entered office during that time.  It cannot be something that helps the psychology or morale of  our elected representatives nor be something conducive to the smooth working of the House.

It is all a terrible constitutional muddle  which I doubt the PM or his party or Government, or even the Opposition, will admit to or want to clear up on their own but shall probably have to await a Constitutional Bench of the Supreme Court of India telling them  what  parliamentary law is in due course.

Subroto Roy, Kolkata

Why does India not have a Parliament ten days after the 15th Lok Sabha was elected? Nehru and Rajiv would both have been appalled

There are at least three Supreme Court lawyers, all highly voluble, among the higher echelons of Congress Party politicians; it is surprising that not one of them has been able to get the top Party leadership of Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh to see the apparent breach of normal constitutional law in Parliament not having met more than 10 days after it was elected.

A Government has been formed, Ministers have entered their offices and have been holding press-conferences and taking executive decisions,  wannabe-Ministers continue to be wrangling night-and-day for the plums of office — BUT THERE IS NO PARLIAMENT!

Today is the death-anniversary of Jawaharlal Nehru and last week was the death anniversary of  Rajiv Gandhi.

Nehru, whatever his faults and infirmities, was an outstanding parliamentarian and a believer in the Westminster model in particular.  He was intimately familiar with its  unpoken customs and unwritten laws.   He would have been completely appalled by the situation today where luminaries of the party that goes by the  same name as the one he had led are paying obeisance to his memory 45 years after his death but have failed to see the absurdity in having a Government in office with no new Parliament ten days after a month-long General Election was over!  (Incidentally, had he not left explicit instructions against any hero-worship  taking place of himself too?)

Rajiv knew his grandfather and had acquired a sense of noblesse oblige from him.  He too would have been appalled that the procedural business of government  had been simply  procrastinated over like this.

It surprises me that Dr Manmohan Singh, having been a post-graduate of Cambridge, having earned a doctorate from Oxford, and more recently having been awarded honorary doctorates from both Ancient Universities, should seem so unaware of the elements of the Westminster model of  constitutional jurisprudence which guides our polity too.

It is too late now and the mistakes have been made.   I hope his  new Government will  come to realise at some point and then keep in mind that our Executive receives political legitimacy from Parliament, not vice versa.   An Executive can hardly be legitimately in office until the  Parliament that is supposed to elect it has been sworn in.

As for our putative Opposition in the Parliament-yet-to-meet, it seems to have drawn a blank too, and eo ipso revealed its own constitutional backwardness and lethargy.

Subroto Roy

A Dozen Grown-Up Questions for Indian Politicians Dreaming of Becoming/Deciding India’s PM After the 2009 General Elections

The 2009 General Election campaign is supposed to elect a Parliament and a Head of Government for the Republic of India, not a Head Boy/Head Girl at an urban middle-class high school or the karta of a joint family. Unfortunately, our comprador national-level media seem to be docile  and juvenile enough in face of power and privilege to want to ask only touchy-feely koochi-woochi pretty baby questions of the “candidates” for PM (several of whom are not even running as candidates for the Lok Sabha but still seem to want to be PM).   Rival candidates themselves seem to want to hurl invective and innuendo at one another, as if all this was merely some public squabble between Delhi middle-class families.

So here are a set of grown-up adult questions instead:

1. Pakistan is politically and strategically our most important neighbour. Can you assure the country that a government headed by you will have a coherent policy on both war and peace with Pakistan? How would you achieve it?

2. Do you agree with the Reagan-Gorbachev opinion that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought”? If so, what would your Government do about it?

3. If there are Indian citizens in Jammu & Kashmir presently governed by Article 370 who wish to renounce Indian nationality and remain stateless or become Pakistani/Afghan/Iranian citizens instead, would you consider letting them do so and giving them Indian “green cards” for peaceful permanent residence in J&K and India as a whole?

4. Do you know where Chumbi Valley is? If so, would your Government consider reviving the decades-old idea with China to mutually exchange permanent leases to Aksai Chin and Chumbi Valley respectively?

5. Nuclear power presently accounts as a source of about 4% of total Indian electricity; do you agree that even if nuclear power capacity alone increased by 100% over the next ten years and all other sources of electricity remained constant, nuclear power would still account for less than 8% of the total?

6. The public debt of the country  may now amount to something like Rs 30 lakh crore (Rs 30 trillion); do you find that worrisome? If so, why so? If not, why not?

7. The Government of India may be paying something like Rs 3 lakh crore (Rs 3 trillion) annually on interest payments on its debt;  do you agree that tends to suck dry every public budget even before it can try to do something worthwhile?

8.  If our money supply growth is near 22% per annum, and the rate of growth of real income is near 7% per annum, would you agree the decline in the value of money (i.e., the rate of inflation) could be as high as 15% per annum?

9. Do you agree that giving poor people direct income subsidies is a far better way to help them than by distorting market prices for everybody? If not, why not?

10. How would you seek to improve the working of  (and reduce the corruption in) the following public institutions: (1) the Army and paramilitary; (2) the Judiciary and Police; (3) Universities and technical institutes?

11. There has never been a Prime Minister in any parliamentary democracy in the world throughout the 20th Century who was also not an elected member of the Lower House; do you agree BR Ambedkar and Jawaharlal Nehru intended that for the Republic of India as well and thought it  something so obvious as  not necessary to specify in the 1950 Constitution?  What will your Government do to improve the working of the Presidency, the Lok Sabha, Rajya Sabha and State Assemblies?

12. What, personally, is your vision for India after a five-year period of a Government led by you?

Subroto Roy,

Citizen & Voter

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Political Stonewalling

Political Stonewalling
Only Transparency Can Improve Institutions

By Subroto Roy

First published in The Statesman, July 20 2007, Editorial Page Special Article http://www.thestatesman.net


“Stonewalling” has come to mean being continually evasive and misleading in politics by, for example, parroting a party line against fair public inquiry or criticism. “I want you to stonewall it”, was Richard Nixon’s infamous instruction during Watergate. (The original meaning was not ignoble: General T. J. “Stonewall” Jackson, during the US Civil War stayed on his horse under constant fire, taking all the bullets “like a stonewall” until he was killed.)

Stonewalling is what we are likely ever to receive from Pratibha Patil and the present day Congress Party. It is not as if India and the world will not survive if she becomes our President. Rashtrapati Bhavan has had undistinguished occupants before, even ones with clouds of disreputable or nefarious public deeds hanging over their heads. All that will happen is that our political institutions shall retrogress for five years; a pity but not something catastrophic in view of our long history ~ Nadir Shah’s brief stay set the standard for catastrophic behaviour in Delhi.

“Individuals may form communities, but it is institutions alone that can create a nation”, said Disraeli. Nation-building would become that much harder, our pessimism and disillusionment about whether we will ever succeed would become that much greater.

Corrosion
The corrosion of our political, financial, academic and other public institutions over decades has been something in which all our official political parties and religious formations are hand-in-glove complicit. In the case of Pratibha Patil, it is the PM and UPA Chair who are directly responsible for the institutional corrosion taking place in full view of all with respect to the highest office of the land.

But then Dr Manmohan Singh, despite his sojourns as a young social scientist in Britain, has not cared a hoot that the Prime Minister in a parliamentary democracy must seek to be an elected member of the House of the People. Also, ever since 1991, he has permitted the flattering fiction to develop that he or any of his acolytes had something to do with the origins of the economic reform.  As for Sonia Gandhi, her list of naïve misjudgements only grows longer ~ cardinal among them being her having apparently retained as trusted advisers around her persons who had been warned about the vulnerability of her husband to assassination. Had Rajiv not been assassinated, Sonia would have been today merely a happy grandmother and not India’s purported ruler.

Stonewalling has become standard government practice in 21st century India across party-lines. The BJP stonewalled after the post-Godhra pogrom in 2002 and held none of its own responsible; the CPI-M has done precisely the same after the Nandigram pogrom a few months ago.

In October 2005, the Supreme Court ~ proving yet again that there are or can be institutions which do work in India ~ found the Union Government had behaved unconstitutionally. Lesson 101 of Constitutional Politics says: If you are uncertain whether a head of government commands confidence, ask him/her to prove his majority on the floor of the house. Instead the Sonia-Manmohan Government had launched a pre-emptive putsch against an aspirant for a democratic majority in a State assembly. What Sonia-Manmohan should have done in response to the Supreme Court’s finding was to recall or transfer the apparent culprit, and express regret to Parliament and the Court. That would have ended the matter and also engendered some moral growth in the polity. What they did instead was stonewall. Worse stonewalling was to follow from the whole of Parliament itself in the “office-for-profit” scandal.

Aristotle said politics was the supreme good because the ends of all other activities are subsumed in politics. This means that if the politics of a national society gets corroded, so does everything else. It is because India’s politics have become rotten, that our financial, academic and other institutions have followed.

The private American “equity group” Blackstone recently purchased Hilton Hotels for 26 thousand million American dollars cash. Why is that significant to Indians? Because India’s Finance Minister, P. Chidambaram, took the unprecedented step of naming Blackstone along with one private Indian citizen, Deepak Parekh in his February 2007 Budget Speech. He referred to a Government of India financial scheme by which favoured private businesses can “borrow” India’s foreign exchange reserves to pay for purchases of foreign assets. The same Reserve Bank of India which cracked down on Pratibha Patil’s dubious bank-dealings has now been bullied into allowing India’s foreign exchange reserves to be “borrowed” ~ and quite possibly never to be returned. Furthermore, foreign exchange reserves are not like tax-revenues but largely constitute already borrowed funds!
In academia, Mr Arjun Singh tyrannises defenceless medical students but presides (like his predecessor Dr Murli Manohar Joshi) over appointments at national institutes of full professors without postgraduate degrees or any experience of teaching or research. The Union Finance and Education Ministers report in the Government and their party to the PM and the UPA Chair. But neither Dr Singh nor Mrs Gandhi can have any effective control over the rot in India’s macroeconomic, financial, academic or other institutions when they are presiding over political rot themselves.

Shameless behaviour

Stonewalling is the political behavour of the shameless. Shame used to be a cultural means of political self-control in traditional societies. Modern politics makes a distinction between private and public domains, and says that transmuting valuable public property of any kind into private wealth or advantage constitutes nefarious corruption. It is possible our subcontinent has not wished to or has not yet entered the world of modern politics. Instead we remain feudal in our political behaviour ~ where large rival clans perpetually battle over what is the ill-defined common property of the realm. In Pakistan and Bangladesh, the militaries predominate and participate in this feuding. In India the feuds take place within a framework which outwardly seems democratic with institutions of a free society like a free press and official civilian control of the military. Our feuds are between three large rival clans: the Indira-Sonia Patriarchal Matriarchs, the Hindu Patriarchs, and the Communist Matriarchal Patriarchs. The Congress, BJP and Communists are yet to become modern parties, and unless and until they do, our politics shall remain in retrogression.