Home >Opinion >Are investigators to be blamed for policy paralysis?

In his speech at the International Conference on Evolving Common Strategies to Combat Corruption and Crime (organised by the Central Bureau of Investigation on 11th November 2013), Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said something that sounded a lot like an excuse for corruption.

“In the public debate on corruption in our country, it is sometimes forgotten that economic growth also implies greater opportunity for corruption. It is important, therefore, that we look at the issue of corruption in the correct perspective. While we must maintain utmost vigilance in preventing corruption and do our utmost in ensuring transparency, accountability and probity in public life, it is also important to ensure that the work of nation building goes on at a reasonably fast pace."

Singh was not speaking at an academic conference where he may have had the opportunity to reflect on the correlation between corruption and economic growth and by extension, policies designed to promote growth. He was addressing an audience filled with investigating officers at a conference organised by the CBI itself. And he seemed to be saying that investigators need to slow down so that nation-building and economic growth can continue apace. It is surprising that the Prime Minister thought it fit to deliver this message at all and particularly to this audience. Or, it may not be so surprising, depending on how you view the United Progressive Alliance government’s top leadership’s complicity in the myriad on-going corruption cases.

What we know is that corruption is low amongst high-income countries. However, it turns out that the relationship between corruption and growth is not as clear. Thus, no doubt there is room for a debate on how one perceives corruption in growing economies. However, it is important to recognise an important fact: corruption of the kinds that have been uncovered in India – particularly related to the allocation of state resources – have primarily exposed the deep rot of crony capitalism in the country. By no stretch of logic can a government claim that this is a positive force for our long-term economic growth, if it erodes a sense of rule of law, which builds public confidence and invites private investment. In rich countries, this may pass off as lobbying and there may be a case to consider whether lobbying should be made legal in India – but this was hardly the point that the Prime Minister seemed to be making.

Instead, Singh referred to the policy paralysis prevalent in the country and insinuated that reckless investigative agencies are responsible, in part, for this phenomenon.

“In order that public servants may not be paralyzed in taking effective decisions based on their own sound judgment and on the apprehension of an ill-informed inquiry or investigation, it is necessary that lines of confidence be clearly drawn between investigating and police agencies on the one hand and honest executive functionaries on the other."

Policy paralysis, as understood in common parlance in India these days, can refer to slow decision-making both by politicians (in deliberating on and passing legislation) or bureaucrats (in moving files along). One diagnosis usually is that no one does anything because they are so worried about making decisions and being blamed or second-guessed by vindictive investigators at a later date.

Whether or not politicians and bureaucrats are harbouring such fears of decision-making, the burden of lending confidence to public servants in policymaking should not lie on the investigating agencies. Also, investigating agencies are not responsible for the web of control and rent-seeking opportunities created in the existing policies of, say, procurement and allocation.

It is the responsibility of the political executive to ensure that the work of governing does not slow down, with the chain of command in the respective departments and ministries taking the responsibility for significant policy decisions that are made. Of course, in our current scenario, in which the prime minister has repeatedly refused to take responsibility for (or even acknowledge awareness of) key controversial decisions, it is understandable that civil servants do not feel any bit confident in making critical decisions that may come under scrutiny in future.

It may be that politicians and bureaucrats try to undermine investigative agencies because they want to get on with their work. But to the viewing public, it only appears that they have something to hide, eroding the authority and legitimacy of the political class in the eyes of citizens. What one sees is their elected representatives trying to thwart Parliament, Central Bureau of Investigation, Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), Central Vigilance Commission (CVC), etc., as well as some misguided attempts to take on verdicts of the Supreme Court by rushing through legislation. Clearly, no political party can claim innocence in this matter.

The policy paralysis today is affecting not just the government, but also private investments into the economy, which should send a clear message to the government that it is not the over-zealousness of our investigating agencies, but a perception of the absence of rule of law that is hurting us most badly. Counselling the CBI to go slow is not going to fix it.

Suvojit Chattopadhyay is a consultant with over seven years’ experience in the implementation and evaluation of development interventions.

Subscribe to Mint Newsletters
* Enter a valid email
* Thank you for subscribing to our newsletter.

Click here to read the Mint ePaperMint is now on Telegram. Join Mint channel in your Telegram and stay updated with the latest business news.

Edit Profile
My ReadsRedeem a Gift CardLogout