In his new year message, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh asked citizens to shed the “air of despondency” and said that he and his government would work with renewed resolve to “cleanse the government” among other things.
It’s a laudable goal and he is sure to make an effort to reach that goal. As always, the problem is the difficulty of the task and the gap between the resources Singh commands and the enormity of the task. Many proposals, mostly originating from the Congress party, have been made in recent days. Congress president Sonia Gandhi had outlined a five-point plan to fight corruption during the party’s recently held plenary in New Delhi. This plan included, among other things, fast-tracking of all cases that involve public servants, both politicians and civil servants.
Then, in the new year, the Congress core group is said to have deliberated on amending laws and instituting a mechanism to check corruption in high places. This was supposedly based on a note prepared by the Prime Minister’s Office.
While these measures, whenever they are taken, may suggest that the government is “doing something”, they may not go far. For a large part of the problem is so entangled with ministers’ discretionary powers that short of stripping them of these powers corruption will remain ever present. And if ministerial discretion were to be done away, say by handing over these powers to regulators, it would amount to nothing less than a revolution in governance.
That is unlikely to happen. Take the 2G spectrum allocation issue, to give one example. Former telecom minister A. Raja supposedly had an entire gamut of instruments coupled with good advice from many upright civil servants to guide him. Yet, in the end, he pretty much ended up doing what he pleased despite all rules that were expected to constrain and make him behave in a particular manner.
That is pretty much the case in almost all ministries. To ask a minister to give up all this and just stick to the law and rules alone is almost impossible to enforce. And any minister would be loath to give up any important decision-making power. To give another example: would the railway minister be willing to give up her tariff-setting powers to an independent regulator? Amending laws and fast-tracking court cases may go some way in helping matters, but that won’t solve the problem.
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