Karan Kharb, chairman of Turning Point India and a retired colonel, writes an open letter to India’s high offices, on the situation that democratic India is in, and requests to take some early measures
Karan Kharb wrote the following open letter to the Supreme Court of India, the Chief Election Commissioner of India, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India and the chiefs of all the three wings of India’s defence services. Earlier in August this year, he wrote an open email to the prime minister and Ms Sonia Gandhi, highlighting problems faced by retired defence personnel.
The latest letter draws attention towards the severity of internal and external pressures that democratic India is currently under, and urges the offices of high rank and order, to take some immediate steps towards improving the situation.
1. At the outset, I appeal to your magnanimity to kindly pardon me for impropriety, if any, in addressing you collectively like this. Collectively, you are the vision providers, navigators and powers who can save our democracy from collapsing. At a time when public confidence in the government institutions is waning fast, you are the institutions and authorities that still command people’s confidence and hope.
2. I am bringing before you the issues and proposals that have been debated and deliberated for months by mature, experienced and highly responsible men and women of our society. Therefore, very humbly and most hopefully, I would request you to please mull over these submissions seriously and, more importantly, initiate pragmatic actions to purge and provide a fair, transparent, honest, efficient, and people friendly democratic system that has been devoured by corruption and divisive forces of self-serving politics. Sovereignty and integrity of India have never been in a more perilous state.
3. Fully conscious of the pressure on your precious time, I shall be as concise as possible in conveying to you what we consider “aspirations of a distraught nation”.
The external threat scenario
4. India is the only country in the world that has two of her major neighbours, both nuclear powers, with a history of wars and continuing animosities and suspicions—frequent peace and friendship initiatives notwithstanding. China, aspiring for global leadership, is befriending India’s closer neighbours like Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar and even Nepal while their faith in India is dwindling. In her quest to encircle India, China is steadily expanding her influence in the Indian Ocean and Asia Pacific. In the west, the scene is even more worrisome. Attacks by the al Qaeda-Taliban terrorists on Pakistan’s high security installations have become more audacious and frequent, the latest being on Kamra air base, believed to be storing nuclear warheads. These attacks have laid bare the vulnerability of a beleaguered Pakistan which is fighting a losing war on many fronts besides its ongoing asymmetric war against terror. Tussle between the judiciary and the executive, resurging Islamist movements, rampant corruption and a failing economy with an Standard & Poor’s (S&P) debt rating lowered to “CCC plus” which is among the world’s lowest—all add up to make Pakistan more shaky and unstable. For India, a weak, strife-torn, unstable Pakistan is more dangerous than a strong, prosperous and stable Pakistan for obvious reasons. The vital question, however, is how prepared we are to play a proactive role in either eventuality.
The domestic scenario
5. Rise of sectarian/divisive politics: Divisive politics is flourishing with utter disregard to the constitutional safeguards as gangs like Shiv Sena and MNS brazenly go on the rampage every now and then driving away non-Marathas from Mumbai. Raj Thackeray has the audacity to issue Fatwas to ban Hindi TV and banish all Biharis from Mumbai. In Mumbai again, a group of demonstrators raise Pakistani flag, destroy the “Amar Jawan Jyoti” and set vehicles and public property afire even as the police watched mutely. What is even more shocking is that the government lumps it all so meekly and helplessly! At the national level, the politics of caste-community based quota, subsidy, and reservation has destroyed harmony and created rival groups within the society, while the poor—the so-called ‘beneficiaries’—still languish in perpetual poverty that spreads beyond caste boundaries. Rather than empowering the impoverished, the quota regime has only promoted ‘dependence’ of the needy. Hordes of foreign nationals continue to infiltrate illegally into India from Bangladesh and neither the state government of Assam nor the Centre seems to know how to tackle the problem which recently erupted in violence taking toll of several lives and rendering thousands of people homeless. As if that was not enough, Indian citizens from the north eastern states were hounded and targeted in metro cities as if they were aliens in their own country. The very idea of India as a nation is under threat!
6. Probity in public life abandoned: Falling standard of probity among politicians is the bane of Indian democracy today. Assets of MPs and MLAs quickly multiply into hefty fortunes, in many cases recording a staggering 100% to 1,000% growth even when there is no visible source of honest income. The CAG (Comptroller and Auditor General of India) revelations in 2G, CWG and coal block allocations have exposed how forthcoming our politicians and bureaucrats are in compromising their integrity and character for quick personal gains. Some have surpassed limits and fallen to the bottom of moral depravity and, shockingly, even the law has been slower and softer on the likes of ND Tiwari, Gopal Kanda, Mahipal Maderna, Abhishek Singhvi and so on. MPs’ affidavits perused by the National Election Watch (NEW) revealed that more than 162 Lok Sabha MPs including some ministers are facing criminal cases in courts of law. Of these, 76 are involved in serious crimes like murder, rape, dacoity, cheating, kidnapping and so on. Sadly, the number of tainted MPs has been steadily rising—there were 128 in the 14th Lok Sabha while now they are 162 in the 15th Lok Sabha—despite public outcry for Lokpal and repeated recommendations from India’s constitutional authorities at the highest level. Here is the evidence of stubborn inaction:
(a) The Election Commission of India recommended as far back as 1998 that “candidates with pending criminal cases should be debarred from contesting elections.” The Commission had to reiterate it in 2004 but without any effect.
(b) The Law Commission of India similarly proposed in 1999 an amendment/insertion of Section 8B of Representation of People Act, 1951 that would make candidates facing charges by a court of law ineligible to contest elections. Yet, no effect!
(c) The National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution (NCRWC) also emphasised in their Report submitted in 2001 that “Any person convicted for any heinous crime like murder, rape, smuggling, dacoity, etc should be permanently debarred from contesting for any political office”. Going a step further, the Commission also proposed that political parties giving ticket to such candidates should be “derecognised forthwith”. No effect, yet again!
(d) The Second Administrative Reforms Commission in its final report submitted in 2008 lent support to the Law Commission’s proposal for appropriate legislation to debar candidates with criminal background from entering legislatures. To no avail whatsoever!
7. Corrupt, callous governance: In its Corruption Perception Index of nations for the year 2011, Transparency International pegs India at level 95 recording a drop 11 notches below her previous year’s position among 178 countries of the world, a score that is far worse than countries like Morocco, Grenada, Zambia, Sri Lanka and many others in the category. Enviably viewed as one of the world’s fastest growing economies (BRIC), India’s growth story is annoyingly diminishing having already slid from 10.6 in 2010 to 7.2 in 2011 and may “collapse to 5%” this year as cautiously admitted by prime minister Manmohan Singh himself at the Planning Commission meeting on 15 September 2012. The logjam in which the government is struck is so strange that the UPA partners, who should be supporting the government, are criticising its policies and moves more bitterly than the opposition to extract more than their pound of flesh. At the core of all these negatives lies the official corruption which is tearing through the skies. Widely criticised domestically as well as globally for manipulating poverty statistics, our Planning Commission put 32% of India’s population below poverty line (BPL) whereas the World Bank puts it at 42%. Evidently, subsidies, reservations and populist projects like MNREGA and other poverty-alleviation schemes have ended up enriching only the corrupt officials, local politicians and touts at the cost of targeted beneficiaries. Misappropriating public money and perpetuating poverty in such a regime has become a lucrative business of the politico-bureaucratic nexus. Unconcerned about the rising public ire against official corruption, Sushil Kumar Shinde, the home minister of world’s largest democracy disgraced it when in reply to a query from the press on 15 September 2012 in Pune he said, “earlier the Bofors was a talking point. People forgot about it. Now it is coal. This too will be forgotten”. A live example of how corruption destroys moral fibre of the nation!
8. Systemic paralysis: Bureaucrats are on a “pens down” mode reportedly because they hesitate to take decisions for fear of getting caught as if honest working were so risky and no longer possible in government departments! Accountability has disappeared from the system. The state of crucial public utility services like government hospitals is horrific. Government schools are no better than cattle sheds. People fear police more than they fear criminals. Self respecting citizens no longer risk going to police stations to seek help because they find it easier to settle scores directly with the criminals than be exploited and insulted by police with no positive result in sight. No complaints against their rogue behaviour scares any government employee for, thanks to the shared booty of their ‘collections’, the boss would do no more than placate the complainant and hush up the matter to the delight of his delinquent subordinate. What has happened to the system that demanded efficiency, punctuality and fairness in official performance? The idea of Lokpal dates back to 1969 when the bill was first passed in the Lok Sabha. Since then no other bill has been debated as much in and out of the Parliament. Teeming multitudes of humanity at Delhi’s Ramlila grounds for once forced the Parliament to adopt a “Sense of the House” resolution favouring adoption of the Lokpal. The agitation was called off, and so was the Lokpal bill.
9. The coalition sophistry: Coalition governments have made a mockery of democracy. Political parties that contest elections by rousing public passions against each other as avowed enemies trading abuses and allegations, suddenly have no compunction in forming unholy alliances with those very rivals soon after elections. This is grossly unethical, against the will of the electorate and, therefore, against the spirit of the constitution too. This is like gangs coming together to form a “Mafia group” rather than a ‘government’ which they would manoeuvre to serve their narrow interests rather than peoples’. It must, therefore, be incumbent upon parties to first form an alliance and decide on a common manifesto on which they intend to contest elections as partners so that the voter knows what kind of a government he is electing. Also, it is no secret that MPs were sold and purchased to save fledgling coalition governments twice on the floor of the Lok Sabha—the Narsimha Rao government in 1993 and the Manmohan Singh government in 2004. In the existing constitutional dispensation, it is possible for an otherwise insignificant group of legislators or even an individual to conspire with one of the rival groups in an evenly divided House and topple or alter a coalition government to arrogate unusual power and authority to themselves—a scenario that would be grossly against the mandate of the electorate, yet constitutionally permissible. We know how an independent MLA, Madhu Koda, now in jail for amassing an illegal wealth of Rs4,000 crore, became chief minister of Jharkhand in 2006. In the present coalition, the prime minister has himself confessed that he is working under “coalition compulsions”, implying that the government does yield to blackmail and coercion from partners for its survival. This compulsive stranglehold of coalition partners has been the primary factor in paralysing the government. By implication, such governments last as long as they serve vested interests of partners; public service is incidental. Having messed up almost an entire monsoon session of the Parliament without transacting useful business, the government is now frantically huddling to take “bold decisions” on FDI, disinvestment and other controversial issues on the sly even many UPA partners are left fuming.
10. Official neglect hits military morale: It is now indisputably known that the military personnel and ex-servicemen were given a raw deal by the 6th Central Pay Commission, not to mention of the woes given by earlier pay panels. A large number of petitions and appeals filed by aggrieved ex-servicemen against the government decisions stand disposed by the Armed Forces Tribunal, high courts and the honourable Supreme Court in favour of the petitioners asking the government to grant remedies in each case. Yet, the bureaucratic red tape has not permitted justice to reach the aggrieved parties including serving soldiers. The result is that the mounting resentment has taken a toll on the military morale which has recently manifested in some very disturbing happenings in some military units deployed in sensitive operational areas. Spilling beyond breach of discipline, these incidents became mutinous confrontations defying chain of command. It is a different matter though that the top military brass shall go to any extent to allay doubts about military’s morale and battle worthiness because in military ethos it is disgraceful and un-soldierly to be demoralised. Even a dying soldier would boast of his “high morale”. India’s military might is the last resort to deal with the most complex and dangerous threats—internal or external—when all else might have failed. There is no alternative to maintaining the Armed Forces fully motivated, satisfied, well equipped and well cared for so that they deliver desired results. Unfortunately, petty considerations like inter-service parity, inferiority or superiority and one-upmanship are over-riding national interests and, in their effort to negate the uniqueness of military’s role and structure, the bureaucrats have traditionally viewed military as their rival in service status. This hostile mindset has always pulled down the soldiery in India by making the government give them less than they deserve. Throughout the world, military enjoys distinct privileges, status and prestige which are officially bestowed upon the soldiers in the form of badges of rank, insignia, uniform, ‘standards’ and banners—all that distinguishes them from the rest. It is in everybody’s interest to make soldiers proud of their profession and beloved of the people they die for. There is an urgent need to arrest the fall of military morale and restore their dignity and motivation before it is too late.
11. There are a host of reforms awaiting enactment of appropriate laws like Lokpal Bill, Whistle Blowers Bill, Electoral and Political Reforms, Ban on entry of charge-sheeted individuals into the legislature or public offices, confiscation of illegally acquired assets of politicians and government officials, Judicial Reforms and Judges Accountability Bill, et al are unlikely to see the light of the day under the existing system.
12. Peaceful agitations, recommendations of commissions and statutory bodies, and even directions/strictures and observations frequently passed by the judiciary have failed to improve the situation. The law minister derisively scoffed at the peaceful mass agitation saying, “Ramlila happens every year; what’s the worry?” Equally scornfully, the home minister also echoed the government attitude when he said, "earlier the Bofors was a talking point. People forgot about it. Now it is coal. This too will be forgotten."
13. The message is now clear: Non-violent Satyagraha is no more than a carnival that can go on for eternity or dissipate. The danger of such apathy and arrogance is that people will become restive and take to violence. Simmering resentment is mounting throughout the length and breadth of the country and forebodings of anarchy are very much perceptible.
14. It is in this backdrop of harsh realities that we consider it highly expedient that bold action is now needed to save the country from anarchic times ahead. It might be unconventional, some might view it even ‘unconstitutional’ too, but would it really be so if the honourable Chief Justice of India, the CEC, the CAG and the chiefs of the Armed Forces sat together and discussed the vital national issues that are not getting resolved by any other democratic mechanism? Indian democracy is yearning for your guidance today.
15. While we suggest no specific plan to India’s most enlightened brains and custodians of public faith, we would certainly beg you to act collectively, resolutely and effectively before it is too late to introduce a course correction in our governance and facilitate the country’s advance to peace, prosperity, power and glory. Your intervention can save India from going the Libyan, Egyptian or Syrian way.
With best regards and lots of hope,
(Col Karan Kharb is a military veteran who commanded an infantry battalion with many successes in counter-terrorist operations. He was also actively involved in numerous high-risk operations as second in command of the elite 51 Special Action Group of the National Security Guard (NSG) widely known as ‘Black Cat Commandos’. He conducts leadership training and is the author of two bestsellers “Made to Lead” and “Lead to Success” on leadership development that have also been translated into foreign languages).