June 08, 2014

Achhe din aane walen hai: Saga of a High Profile Appointment

Nilotpal Basu

AT long last, more than a month long grueling elections for forming the sixteenth Lok Sabha are over. With eighty two crore registered voters – this was easily the biggest show of the citizens’ democratic exercise of their franchise not only to choose their representatives – but they in turn would choose the new government. After three decades, the people have chosen a government where a single party has got an absolute majority. In that sense this was a decisive verdict. But going beneath the veneer, the popular opinion does not appear to be so overwhelming. With the lowest ever vote share of 31%, the BJP as a single party has romped home with absolute majority. Obviously, with the asymmetry between vote share and seats won -this has raised questions about the appropriateness of the electoral system. In a way, this election has highlighted another unique feature. For the first time in Indian electoral history, an opposition party has run a full fledged US presidential style campaign for a parliament election. Not the party, but the projected PM nominee was the centerpiece of the campaign. This paradigm shift was necessitated by the requirement of his principal backers – corporate India. So total was their identification with Narendra Modi that it did not require much to make this election easily the most expensive in history. From committing financial resources and more importantly, the complete support of the corporate controlled mainstream media in the end virtually looked like a one-horse race. But so far with the dynamics of the major process which has catapulted Narendra Modi as the new PM of the country; it is more relevant to concentrate on the content and thrust of the Modi campaign. Ultimately it is the promise by Modi campaign which undoubtedly was the single most important factor for this stunning electoral performance for Modi’s candidature for PM; of course not to overlook the principle of accountability in translating those promises as the cornerstone of parliamentary democracy. Reminiscent of the catchy Kingfisher ad ‘King of good times’, the Modi campaign’s signature tune was achhe din aane walen hai. Run as a part of an overall campaign piloted by the global public relations group APCO worldwide and scripted by some of the most professionally successful copywriters in the Indian ad industry, this campaign addressed ‘aspirational India’. The sleek campaign spoke in innuendos and nuanced subtleties. It built itself on the glaring failures of the UPA government on unemployment, inflation, corruption and above all – lack of governance. The campaign managed to evoke a positive rapport with people reeling under precisely these malaises under the Manmohan Singh dispensation. However, the packaging was smart and sophisticated enough to scrupulously avoid mentioning the road map which would facilitate addressing these concerns, not to speak of eliminating them. Obviously such an elaboration would surely lead to scrutiny which in its turn might lead to some focus on the policy prescriptions that brought about these adverse developments resulting in the burdens people had to suffer under the UPA. The campaign naturally underlined the need for ‘change’. But policy linkages would have instead of distancing Narendra Modi – surely linked it to similar policy inspirations, given the overall record of the ‘Gujarat Model’. But now that Narendra Modi has indeed become the prime minister, even the implicit suggestions of those propaganda highlights would definitely come in as reference points for judging the actual actions of his government. A HIGH PROFILE APPOINTMENT One of the first acts of the Modi government which has come in for some amount of public scrutiny is the appointment of Nripendra Mishra as the principal secretary to the PM. Obviously this is a key bureaucratic position with the increased role of the PMO in coordinating between different ministries, departments and various institutions and entities, apart from being mindful of securing the political interest of the PM and his party. Apparently, Mishra’s administrative experience and political background is just right for this plum post in the Modi administration. Mishra, a 1967 batch IAS officer of the UP cadre was union secretary, fertilisers and chemicals before he was handpicked to lead as secretary of the ministry of telecom in February-March of 2004. He duly retired in March 2005 on attaining the age of superannuation. He facilitated the creation of a R&D development centre, a joint venture between C-Dot and Alcatel and managed to become its chairman even though he was not a telecom professional. Subsequently, he was appointed TRAI (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India) chairman by taking over in March-May 2006 after serving for one year as head of that C-Dot Alcatel JV. Subsequent to his retirement as TRAI chairman, he is acting as a member of the executive council of the Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF), a New Delhi based think-tank founded in 2009 "under the aegis of the Vivekananda Kendra". The Vivekananda Kendra was founded in 1972 by former Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh general-secretary (Sarkaryavah) Eknath Ranade. VIF has several former intelligence officials, diplomats and retired army generals among its trustees and executive council members. According to the think-tank's website, the newly-appointed national security advisor, Ajit Doval, is its director. LEGISLATIVE PROPRIETY? Notwithstanding the fact that from Modi’s standpoint Mishra is the ideal appointee, the government has hit an air pocket. It has now dawned upon the government that existing statutory provisions militate against this appointment. Mishra being a former chairman of TRAI, the limitations enshrined in the TRAI Act over post retirement conduct and engagement stops him from straightway taking up a position in the government. Given the immense power enjoyed by the TRAI chairman in the telecom sector, ironically it is the NDA government in 2000, which had amended the TRAI Act to bar the chairman from taking up future government assignments. The amendment also provided for a cooling period for the retired TRAI chairman prior to taking up posts in the corporate sector. It was aimed to prevent quid pro quo, rampant in the political set-up. The amendment to TRAI Act had other important objectives – to weed out nepotism and bring transparency in the appointment of the chairperson. Former finance secretary EAS Sarma – one of the most incorruptible former officers serving the government has pointed out "The TRAI Amendment Act was enacted in 2000. Shri Arun Jaitley and I were members of a committee that drafted the amendment, if I remember correctly". He has further added: "The independence of regulatory authorities is pivotal to any economic reform strategy. That is the reason why regulators are given a fairly high status but precluded from accepting any post-retirement appointment from the government. This applies to all regulatory authorities and TRAI as well". Stung by this legal faux pas, the Modi government has done the impossible – at least in terms of rhetoric on governance of his election campaign which implicitly spoke of transparency, probity and propriety. They have gone for an amendment to the TRAI Act – the very same provision which was incorporated by the NDA government in 2000. And that too through the ordinance route even before the government has formally proved its majority in the Lok Sabha and the new Lok Sabha has been constituted. By promulgating the ordinance Section 5(8) of the TRAI Act, the debarring of the chairman or any whole time member of the TRAI has been removed subject to the clearance by the union government. The question, however, is should an ordinance be resorted to appoint an individual to a post? Should an ordinance be issued to overturn the intent of a legislation enacted in public interest by the BJP-led NDA government 14 years ago?  On the question of the ordinance route, the Supreme Court judgment in Wadhwa vs State of Bihar case had said, "The executive cannot by taking resort to an emergency power exercisable by it only when the legislature is not in session, take over the law making function of the legislature. That would be clearly subverting the democratic process which lies at the core of our constitutional scheme, for then the people would be governed not by laws made by the legislature as provided in the Constitution but by laws made by the executive."  The government with a comfortable majority in the Lok Sabha has created a bizarre situation in its first legislative action. The government despite its majority in the Lok Sabha, continues to be in minority and the ratification of the ordinance will fail unless Rajya Sabha concurs. WHAT IS MISHRA’S RECORD? Apart from Mishra’s administrative record, where does he stand in discharging his responsibility as both the telecom secretary and TRAI chairman? Who does not know that telecom remains the most scam ridden sector in post-reform India? And the charge of encouragement to corruption and scams which was singularly highlighted by the 2G spectrum allocation against which Narendra Modi ran a tirade during evoking such a responsive chord from the people has special implication for Mishra’s track record. Referring to the historic SC order on 2G: “To say the least, the entire approach adopted by TRAI was lopsided and contrary to the decision taken by the Council of Ministers and its recommendations became a handle for the then Minister of C&IT and the officers of the DoT who virtually gifted away the important national asset at throw away prices by willfully ignoring the concerns raised from various quarters including the Prime Minister, Ministry of Finance and also some of its own officers. This becomes clear from the fact that soon after obtaining the 83 licences, some of the beneficiaries off-loaded their stakes to others, in the name of transfer of equity or infusion of fresh capital by foreign companies, and thereby made huge profits. We have no doubt that if the method of auction had been adopted for grant of license which could be the only rational transparent method for distribution of national wealth; the nation would have been enriched by many thousand crores”. The SC order further adds: “we have no hesitation to record a finding that the recommendations made by TRAI were flawed in many respects”. Of course, there was no direct charge of malafide. But regulators are there to stop corporate wrongdoers and their accomplices in engineering scams to the detriment of the nation. Narendra Modi, the new PM, the champion crusader against corruption in his campaign does not think so. Otherwise why would he choose the then incumbent TRAI chief as his principal secretary; and would go to the extent of having an ordinance promulgated to side-step the existing statutory requirement? The government has just about started its work. But accountability has to be the watchword in parliamentary democracy. As the adage goes – ‘eternal vigilance is the price of liberty’. No impropriety can be allowed to go unflagging, even in so early days of the government.