Revdis Are Fine, But What About The Jalebis ?

Irony just died a thousand deaths, and Double-Speak became our third official language, with the launch of the Freebie jumla last month. It was, of course, no surprise that Mr. Modi would resort to this red herring in a game where the AAP was running away with the ball. Ball tampering is, after all, part of the BJP’s SOP; the irony, however, lies elsewhere.

It lies in the fact that the Supreme Court decided to examine the “Freebie culture” precisely at a time when it was being showered with a new lot of freebies itself ! Even as it issued notices to all and sundry to explain how it could be stopped, the govt. amended the Supreme Court Judges Rules rules to make life a wee bit more comfortable for retired judges of the Court. Instead of the current fixed allowance of Rs. 39000/ and Rs. 70000 per month for retired Judges and Chief Justices of the SC, they would now be given a chauffeur and domestic help from the SC staff pool; in addition, the CJIs would also get one secretarial assistant and a six month extension of the official residence- free, of course.

Humble revdis  for some

The ostensible reason is that old chestnut, expounded upon eloquently by the late Arun Jaitley in Parliament many years ago and since repeated ad nauseam to a nodding public- that judges (of the apex court particularly) should be put beyond the pale of temptation by ensuring their financial independence after retirement: if their material wants are taken care of, the argument goes, their integrity would be assured and they would be less inclined to favour the government ( or any other litigant) while on the bench. I don’t buy this for a moment, no disrespect intended.

Integrity is like virginity- you either have it or you don’t. You can’t buy it with sops or freebies. Judges too are public servants at the end of the day and get a generous pension of 50% of last pay drawn, plus periodic Dearness allowance, which add up to roughly Rs. 1.50 lakhs per month. Unlike other public servants, they also have plenty of Constitutional protection from the executive. So why should there be special favours for them ? If a government has to pay extra to any govt. employee for him or her to honestly do a job he/she is recruited for then it may just as well pack up and hand over charge to ASSOCHAM or FICCI or to the double A’s. Trying to buy honesty or integrity is a zero-sum game in which the price keeps going up and the quality of the product keeps going down.

Secondly, this is all window dressing and I am sure the government too doesn’t believe for a moment that these additional freebies for judges will do the job. Not that it wants an independent or impartial judiciary, either- that would be disastrous! But symbolism is good optics, and concern for judges’ welfare will go down well with the gullible, of whom there’s one born every minute. It also helps that this might make our judiciary a little better disposed towards the executive. Meanwhile, of course, the real inducements remain with the executive: appointments to Tribunals, Commissions, Governorships and the Rajya Sabha. Nobody is looking at these freebies ( they come at tax payers’ expense), not even the Supreme Court. For these offerings are the real challenges to integrity of judges (and other public servants), not the lack of a chauffeur or domestic help.

Mouth watering jalebis for others

Financial doles to the public are not the only freebies handed out by the govt. The bureaucracy is also favoured with freebies, what I would call Jalebis ( a term used by the noted economist Swaminathan Aiyer)- the revdis may or may not get you the votes, but it’s the jalebis that keep you in power. The jalebi, a more convoluted and twisted item than the revdi, serves the same objective as the revdis- sugar coated inducements to ensure the retention of power by suborning the bureaucracy. In this category fall extensions of service, diplomatic appointments, out of turn promotions, appointments to Regulatory and other bodies post retirement. The competition for them among bureaucrats on the verge of superannuation ensures the ever- lasting loyalty of the chosen few subsequently.

There is only one nostrum to remove temptation and inculcate integrity and probity among serving civil servants and the judiciary, and it is a simple one: discontinue the appointment of retirees to any position. There is no reason why serving judges and bureaucrats cannot be appointed to all government bodies, be they Tribunals, Commissions, Regulatory agencies. Selection can be done by the UPSC through open competition. There should be no extension of the retirement age. No one is indispensable or irreplaceable: if the country could survive the assassination of two Prime Ministers it can cope with the retirement of a Cabinet Secretary or an ED or CBI Director. Strictly enforce the two year cooling off period for bureaucrats and judges before they can take up private jobs, join political parties, be appointed as Governors or MPs or take up arbitration cases. Take away this power of patronage from the Executive/ leveraging of one’s past position in government, and much of the rot will have been stopped.

I hope the Supreme Court will take the freebie issue out of the “welfare versus sops” straitjacket in which the government wants to put it, and look at the larger issue, including its own indulgences. It is not only the humble revdi which should be examined (if at all), but the more important jalebi, which is becoming the staple diet of our judiciary and bureaucracy. The court might even like to look at the other sweetmeats like pensions and subsidies to MPs and MLAs, grandiose but worthless statues, Rs. 7000 crore planes and Rs. 8 crore cars for their eminences, corporate tax cuts and loan waivers, thousands of crore spent to bolster one man’s image, and other assorted dishes on the jalebi platter. Moral bankruptcy is perhaps even more dangerous than financial bankruptcy and selective sanctimoniousness is abominable to any rational mind. As Confucius said: watch your jalebis and the revdis will take care of themselves

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