At a time when many proposed reforms are being floated in the air, both by the government and by those who oppose them, I propose the abolition of big offices for Ministers and Secretaries as the first and most essential administrative reform. All others will follow. Let me explain.
People have noted the difference between meeting a high dignitary in his office, and meeting him/her at any other place on the planet. In the former setting, s/he is the king/queen. Here the visitor/petitioner comes out of the meeting without saying what he had intended to, when s/he had sought an appointment. The dignitary has, let us say, the home-advantage.
But this is not a small advantage, and the implications are not small. People wanting to petition a dignitary, stand a fair and equal chance if the meeting is held outside of their office. (Hence the concept of people’s darbars.) Outside their offices, the dignitaries look (….gasp…) humans.
The air-conditioned environs of a sparsely populated innards of the office of a dignitary is designed to lend an aura to the owner, as well as confidence. The Assistant sitting outside, letting only one person in, at a time, has a role to play – he has to add to the grandness of the occasion. The sullen faced peon, who may be called in to serve tea, is trained to look at the visitor in a manner that men would look at cockroaches in their kitchens. This is designed to sap the confidence of the visitor and to put him off.
It has also been noted that if the visitor is an important guest, or ranks higher than the dignitary, the meeting does not take place at the huge work-table – they meet at a separate sofa-set, on an equal footing, as it were. This is because the visiting party also knows the ‘game’ and is likely to feel offended at the naked display of power. This display is meant only for the hoi-polloi.
In a democracy, these offices are occupied for most of the five years that ministers are in office. They venture out of it for short periods before the elections. That is why democracy is said to be the best form of government. It forces them out at least once in a while. For the bureaucrats, this rule does not apply, for their operating procedures were defined by the colonial rulers, way back in the nineteenth century, when these rules were found to be fundamental to ruling a foreign country. (For the bureaucrat, the countryside apparently remains a foreign country.)
The insulation given to a President, with the aura of a Viceregal Palace, is extended to all the senior dignitaries in government in various proportions – this is called ‘order of precedence’ in officialese.
I wrote this ‘Revolutionary’ poem ‘Let’s try something stupid, for once’ a few months ago-Let our offices have no doors. Let it be a free for all; let people Just walk in for tea or gossip. The sanitized, air-conditioned offices The multi-national air, the aura of a CEO Sits ill on our leaders. Let us reclaim the areas Where our leaders sit, As public places. Let us do away With the guards and the red-lights Along with the doors. Let no one bar our entrance. Let the world laugh at us As we hold offices under the trees (In local dialects, with cheap stationary.) Let us frame stupid policies; Let us hear out the village bumpkins. Let us shock ourselves with sanity. We always remember Gandhi When everything else fails – The poor pick up the guns When even the last door is slammed shut. Let us ban all doors – Let us try democracy, for once.
There is little evidence, however, that the revolution is around the corner. The Congress Party chief keeps on reminding the leaders that they have lost ‘contact’ with the people. The middling Congress leaders say that it is difficult to meet the Ministers. The Chief Ministers, when they come visiting the Union Home Minster, leave the office with their heads drooping and demands unconveyed, except in form of pre-written petitions. Some Chief Ministers even refuse to come to Delhi, when summoned, terrified of the ‘offices’. It is other matter that the same CMs have even more lavish offices in their states, and are the masters of this game themselves.
There is a beautiful scene in Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, where Hitler and Mussolini jack up their chairs to dominate the other in a one-to-one meeting. I wish the visitor’s chairs in the offices today also had the provision of cranking-up and elevating the chair. But that would only be a partial solution. The solution lies in altogether abolishing these offices. There are good ‘open-office’ designs to choose from and adopt, with glass doors and smaller furniture.
Team Anna (the activists calling for administrative-political reforms in India) feels more comfortable on a public platform than in the office of the Finance Minister. Last year they came out of the office of that dignitary sad and subdued – their bravado evaporated at the first sight of the magnificent oak table and chill in the room filled their hearts. Since then they prefer the open air summer heat of Delhi.
Much of the same things happens to the farmers and the common-man in the small towns and villages. They would much rather bear the heat and deprivation of their villages, than go to the city to meet the dignitaries in their AC rooms. They know that the meeting would be futile. They would rather wait for the next elections, when the Ministers would come, in spotless-clean kurtas, sometimes with the bureaucrats in tow, and assure them of reforms if they were voted back to power.