Former coal secretary PC Parakh, 68, is in the thick of it. He has a book to promote – a firsthand account of the rot in India’s polity – and he is accused in a CBI FIR of having a role in the Coalgate, possibly the biggest recorded scam in the country. The CBI is to question him any day now and there are journalists to meet.
None of this though matches the urgency of what Parakh actually seeks – overhaul of India’s political system and the civil services so that the nation doesn’t waste away as it has for a while. It’s a tough ask; Parakh’s bureaucrat colleagues can be notoriously immune to improvement and the political parties have no use for a retired IAS officer with a habit of speaking the truth.
I met Parakh in south Delhi for this conversation. This is the first part of the interview.
Read part II
Many congratulations on the release of this book. Let’s begin with your thoughts on a couple of immediate responses. CBI Director Ranjit Sinha said it is a typical babu book of self-glorification. Congress general secretary Digvijaya Singh said the book is sponsored by Narendra Modi. What do you think of what they said?
As far as Mr Sinha is concerned, I don’t think he has really read the book and then made a comment. It looks like a spontaneous response just because his name figures in the book. Perhaps if he had read the book carefully, he wouldn’t have made the comment. Similar seems to be the case with Digvijaya Singh.
There is nothing which should prompt him to say it is sponsored by the BJP. There are members of parliament of the BJP who figure in the book in an adverse situation. MPs of other political parties too figure in this book. So I don’t know why he made such a statement.
The core mechanism of governance in the country is the civil service. The core of the Indian apple seems to be rotten. The thrust of your book appears to be on urgent improvement of India’s civil services. When the core is so rotten, do you think change can happen? If so, what do you expect to happen after your book?
The thrust of my book is on both – the need for improvement in the civil service and improvement in the political culture of the country. They are two sides of the same coin. You can’t improve the civil service without improving the political culture, and vice-versa.
I have given my suggestions in Part III of the book. There is no accountability today for the political executive. Elections every five years are too remote in terms of making the political executive accountable. We need a system where accountability is immediate. Not after five years.
I have given examples from several countries where they have devised systems for accountability of elected representatives. We must look at those experiments in different countries and bring them in this country.
Has anyone, politicians or bureaucrats, got back to you after the release of your book?
No. Not yet.
Do you expect some of them to get in touch on at least the solution part of your book?
I hope they will at least read it. I hope there would be introspection within the people who matter, whether they get back to me or not. Perhaps some change will come.
It emerges from your book that every political party is part of the problem, barring probably the Aam Aadmi Party which is new and not part of the system yet. Who then would you trust?
In terms of integrity, there is no doubt that the Left stands apart from the rest of the parties. With minor failings, which I have mentioned, Mamata Banerjee otherwise comes out as a paragon of virtue in this cesspool of corruption.
I would like to take a slightly different stand. One can deduce several traits of Mamata Banerjee from your chapter on her. It seems there is abuse of position, whimsical nature, dictatorship, violation of rules, and more that comes through.
True. But all that is in the interest of her party and not in her personal interest as an individual. That is the difference between her and the rest of the people.
Your portrayal of Manmohan Singh is fascinating. You have offered a picture of a man with plenty of good and plenty that can be better. Is he the man you would trust most in the current UPA cabinet?
That is difficult to say. His personal integrity is beyond doubt but he has not been able to do justice to his job. As prime minister, he tolerated his ministers reversing his own decisions. It doesn’t speak very well of a person who holds the position of prime minister. I see no reason why he should not have asserted himself as prime minister.
Shibu Soren was not, after all, the leader of a very large party. He was the leader of a small party although I feel that every Member of Parliament matters in a coalition ministry. But then he [Manmohan Singh] tolerated too much from him [Soren].
In any of your conversations with the prime minister, did you at any stage feel like discussing this aspect of him? That we are not progressing beyond talking ideas?
My meetings with Dr Manmohan Singh were not very many. In my entire tenure of a little less than two years, I must have met him three or four times. There was never an occasion where I could frankly discuss that we should do something about the issues.
Except for one meeting where I did point out to him that these are important matters for the ministry [of coal] which need sitting over, and they are not moving. He called his principal secretary, Mr [TKA] Nair.
He requested Mr Nair to speak to the minister. I had expected that the prime minister would lift the RAX phone and himself speak to the minister, Soren, and request him not to hold up cabinet papers. He didn’t do that.
Do we now have better understanding of why Manmohan Singh didn’t do that? Another book has been released in proximity with yours which indicates that he had no option. Did you get a sense of that?
It looks like that.
Would you say perhaps that is why he was the way he was?
Perhaps yes. I would otherwise expect the prime minister to certainly take umbrage to a minister reversing his decisions.
There are horrifying details of bribes and blackmails which seemed to be a matter of routine in the government. You have described a minister of state with fixed bribe rates like EMI, Rs 10 lakh a month and Rs 50 lakh down payment. We would assume that the rates would be higher at a cabinet minister’s level and so on. How deep is the rot?
To my mind, the rot is very deep because it is not only in the coal ministry. Talk is that this kind of thing happens in all public sector undertakings, although we have no evidence. You might recall that a couple of years ago, the chairman of an eminent company in the government of India was caught with a bribe of Rs 10 lakh and gold.
These kinds of things happen when there is patronage from the minister. The patronage comes because of the method of recruitment.
How did things get so bad? In your lifetime you have seen and described a wholly different generation and work culture from where you began in the civil services? Did you see all this changing for the worse?
Yes. The first time I heard of ministers asking for money for appointments in PSUs [Public Sector Undertakings] was as the Managing Director of Godavari Fertilizers. The post of CMD of Rashtriya Chemicals and Fertilizers was vacant.
Devi Lal was then Deputy Prime Minister and minister for fertilizers. This post remained vacant for almost six months before the PSEB began to search for a candidate. Talk was that Rs 10 lakh was demanded of whoever was the number one candidate in the panel.
This is what I had heard. I thought this cannot happen because it was such an important position that people cannot be asking for money. When I came to the coal ministry, I found it was true.
You’re talking of a 15-year period. Devi Lal was Deputy Prime Minister in 1989. You came to the coal ministry in 2004. In all this while, were hundreds of crores of rupees exchanged simply for appointments?
Absolutely. That is why I was not surprised when Railway Board member Mahesh Kumar was caught bribing the nephew of the minister.
The scale of corruption is astonishing, especially as we are a role model nation. What happens now?
I don’t think we are role models for anyone today except that we somehow managed to have a parliamentary system. But otherwise, in terms of governance, we are certainly not a role model.
As an Indian, I’d like to have pride in my country, the bureaucracy, the government, the prime minister. Do you see things improving?
As of today I cannot say that things are improving. We have to wait and see whether that happens. The performance of the Aam Aadmi Party in the Delhi election did indicate that people are tired of the current system and they want change.
This desire for change was reflected in the performance of the Aam Aadmi Party. But they failed to run their government. They should have done better than what they did. Instead of resigning, they should have really performed and shown that there are alternatives possible.
We are humans and we live on hope. We must hope that better days will come.
There is a difference in the way the polity has responded to your book and the way they did to Sanjaya Baru’s book. There seems to be nothing to throw at you. They seem to be still absorbing what you wrote. Would you say the rot has reached all the way to 7 Race Course Road [the prime minister’s official residence in Delhi]? If I was, say, a billionaire in New York, can I buy the Prime Minister of India off?
I don’t think we can buy prime ministers off. The Prime Minister is not available for sale but he has not been able to assert himself the way he should have. There are others who are available for sale in the government.
That is bad enough. This is a coalition government and your book suggests that the prime minister’s authority is no longer as absolute as it was.
It is not as good as it was in the past and not as good as it should be.
It follows therefore that senior ministers have a great deal of autonomy. This in turn opens up a great of India for sale.
How safe and secure are we then?
This is why I say India is craving for a change in the polity and in the administration.
How effective would a change of government be in reducing corruption?
It is difficult to say. Money has played a very important role in the current election. It will be extremely difficult to get good governance unless we find a system, in which the need for a large amount in elections is not there. People who spend money will expect something in return.
Today, technology is extremely advanced and has made many options available. It is possible to make elections much less expensive than in the past. We must use technology extensively to reduce election costs. We must ensure that dependence on money for an election is down to a minimum.
Maybe we ought to find alternative methods to finance elections, like state funding. We must start looking at various options. If election depends on money, and money comes in an illegal manner, the political system will always be indebted.
I have been writing on the need for online voting in India but there is virtually no movement on that in the government and in the Election Commission. But, is election the only reason for greed?
No, election is not the only reason. But it is the reason by which all that is happening is justified. Money has to be collected for an election and, therefore, people are what they are. In a sense, people have to get into a system willy-nilly because alternatives are not available.
For instance, black money is an essential component of real estate transactions in India. People who wish to get into the business of real estate have to deal in black money, whether they like it or not. It is the same with politics.
If you have to remain and survive in politics, you have to do that which is not desirable. If there are clean alternatives, maybe the need for graft won’t exist and better people can get into politics.
That is an important aspect although only one factor. You spoke of state funding of elections. I pay my taxes. Why should my money go into funding the activities of political parties whose honesty we cannot guarantee?
We are trying to do this to ensure honesty. As a tax payer, if you do not pay it in the right way, you are paying it indirectly anyway. The corruption money is also your money going into the system. When you pay directly, you know your money is going to the right place.
When you have not paid it, you are indirectly being asked to pay anyway. After all, corrupt money is also public money. It wouldn’t make a difference if you pay directly or allow it to go in this manner.
Would you like to elaborate? Many readers would like to know what exactly you mean by state funding.
I have not studied this in great detail so I cannot explain how it is done. But there are countries which have this kind of a system. We must study and see how they do it.
[Next: Part II of the interview]