Thoughts on economics and liberty

Category: My publications

Come on, liberals: Let’s change India!

Publications in Freedom First

I will publish my monthly article for Freedom First (published from Mumbai) on this blog to encourage wider readership. These articles are also available on the Freedom Team website at

Sanjeev Sabhlok

The following article was published in Freedom First, August 2008

Come on, liberals: Let’s change India!

Let me begin by acknowledging my gratitude to Mr S. V. Raju for offering me this valuable real estate each month to make my pitch on any subject of my choice.

My message is going to remain extremely simple, though. I want you! I want you to change the bad policy and corruption rampant in India. I want you to join politics. But I don’t want you to join politics alone. There is no point in doing that. We need a well-orchestrated and well-coordinated strategy.

India is fast becoming ungovernable as a result of six decades of bad policies and corruption. Corrupt Nehruvian socialists who have ruined India for sixty years are now besieged by rabid communal forces from within and without. The BJP, an offspring of Jan Sangh, which was an offshoot of the Hindu Mahasabha, is determined to impose an intolerant Hindutva upon us and take us back 2000 years. We are getting sick and tired of this corruption and hatred. We want peace and prosperity. We want to live as plain vanilla Indians, not as Brahmins, Christians, or Maharashtrians.

The full expression of India's potential needs a strong liberal voice at its helm. But liberals have remained in the political wilderness after the Swatantra Party disbanded in 1973. Today, the concept of freedom has no proponent at the national level even as the policies of the erstwhile Swatantra Party are being stolen by both major political groups. But these political groups aren't liberals; they don't understand freedom. Economic liberalization is not going to work without a suite of liberal policies. We need law and order, infrastructure, and equality of opportunity. Without these we will only get increased corruption and continuing poverty.

India was lucky to get a liberal Constitution. Subsequently, Nehru's advocacy of democracy – even as he dismantled significant parts of the Constitution – built for us the semblance of a liberal democracy. But we are fast becoming an illiberal democracy. Liberal democracies need liberals but Indian liberals are missing from the scene! We must challenge this drift into chaos. We must gain the people's mandate to govern India.

I appreciate that it has been a hard grind for liberalism in the last sixty years, given Nehru's advocacy of socialism. As a result, liberals today are a disheartened lot and can't seem to summon the will-power even to try to lead. But freedom never came to anyone on a silver platter. It has always had to be fought for and won by each generation. Today it is our turn to fight, irrespective of whether we win or lose.

I'd like to introduce myself at this stage. I was an Indian bureaucrat from 1982 to January 2001. Now I am an Australian bureaucrat. I had a science background before joining public administration which means I had no understanding of economics, political science or political philosophy. I therefore faced a steep learning curve when I started working. Corruption and decadence, inefficiency and waste, sloth and incompetence met me everywhere. I found that governments in India are designed to burn public money and destroy entrepreneurship.

It dawned on me that reform had to start from the top; it had to be political. It also dawned on me that I had to stop pointing fingers at my corrupt bosses and start taking responsibility for myself. The shame of living in a totally corrupt India and not doing my best to change things would haunt my ghost for eternity! Therefore, I, a layman of limited ability, had to try to do uncommon things, irrespective of whether I succeeded or not. Leading the nation, it struck me, is actually an ordinary duty of each citizen in a democracy. We must all become leaders if we are not to become dung beetles, fit only to bury our faces in cow-dung at the end of our lives.

But political reform was not a task to be attempted alone. I began looking into medium-term strategies. I moved to Australia in December 2000 and resigned from the IAS a month later. In 2004 I facilitated a week-long workshop of eminent liberals in Delhi. We agreed to support Sharad Joshi's Swatantra Bharat Party. I joined this party but left it in mid-2005 due to strategic differences. And so I started looking at the longer term, not in years but decades. We have to find hundreds of excellent people, else nothing will change. I started writing books. The first of these, Breaking Free of Nehru, will reach bookshops in a few months. The other one, The Discovery of Freedom, is an early draft. Please go to

To help these leaders assemble, I have started the Freedom Team of India at a temporary website: To join this team you must be a team player and possess infinite patience and regard for others. After the leaders assemble, we will work out a common platform, action plan, and leadership team. We won't organize before that. No point in making half-baked attempts.

In the coming months I will discuss a range of issues and respond to questions and comments. I look forward to working with you.

<span ;"="">Contact Sanjeev at sabhlok AT yahoo DOT com

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My Times of India Article of 30 July 2007 on the bureaucracy

Hi, The TOI posted an edited version of my article on the bureaucracy on 30 July under the title, 'Reform the Bureaucracy'. Below is the original article I sent to TOI.

A new bureaucracy for India

We face an inexplicable dichotomy in India between the performance of our public and private sector. While Indian business performance is often second to none, the results of India’s public sector are poor beyond description. Delivering simple things like water, electricity, roads, and education is well beyond our capacity.

This is unacceptable, and an explanation is in order.

I suggest that the blame for our poor public sector performance can be laid on the way our bureaucracy is structured, and on the incentives it faces. I base this conclusion not solely on academic comparisons, but also on the learning acquired by working for 18 years in the IAS and for 7 years in one the very finest bureaucracies in the world, in the state of Victoria in Australia.

When I started off at the middle rung of the Victorian bureaucracy in 2001, one of the most unexpected observations I made was that the performance of senior Australian bureaucrats was significantly better than anything I had experienced in India. No IAS officer knows more in the relevant subject area, can think as well and as strategically, or lead a team of professionals better, than his or her Australian counterpart. Australia also constantly benchmarks against the world’s best. Being just a little better than Bihar is not considered sufficient.

In my book, Breaking Free of Nehru, now available freely on the internet, I have proposed a plan by which India can, without significant disruption to existing service-delivery, acquire a new bureaucracy. The solution hinges on transforming the quality of our Secretaries, and the incentives facing them. The change needs to begin at the top.

The principles driving this plan are:

  • abolition of tenure at senior levels;
  • open market recruitment for each position;
  • contestability of policy advice to political leaders;
  •  market competitiveness of remuneration;
  • extensive delegation of responsibility; and
  • provision of access to the latest technology, information and training.

The validity of these principles can be readily seen by thinking of how a good national cricket team is built.

If our cricket team was not to be selected based strictly on players’ track record, and if non-performers were not to be ruthlessly weeded out, we know that the team would stand no chance on the world stage. An Indian cricket team built on the principles that apply to our bureaucracy would have Pataudi as its captain and Sachin its 19th man, waiting patiently for a turn at the crease. And every Australian school team would soundly thrash this ‘national’ team!

It is true that merit is taken into account at the entry point of the IAS. But merit is not a one-off measure. Shouldn’t a secretary to the government be a person with a track record of world-best performance? Shouldn’t the person be a subject- matter genius, a management guru? A great leader? What has writing a good essay in an examination at age 21 to do with these competencies?

Second, we do not prune our officers for performance and integrity. The legal protections provided to IAS officers are such that even when caught taking bribes, they cannot be punished, let alone demoted for non-performance. With our society thus signalling their invincibility, these officers increasingly become indolent, arrogant and incompetent, and yet, advance without resistance into the position of India’s secretary to government.

While Indian tax payers support this ineffective bureaucracy, thinking perhaps that there is no alternative, advanced countries have used the findings of agency and public choice theory to design systems that reward expertise, leadership, and good performance; and ruthlessly punish bad performance. In doing so, they have transformed their public servants into dynamic agents of change and excellence.

I suggest that we need to begin the desperately needed change by making a fundamental shift in accountability, ensuring that the bureaucracy becomes merely one of the many potential service providers to Ministers. This can be done by Ministers contractually appointing world-renowned subject-matter specialists who are committed to delivering their party’s policy platform, as their advisers. No file would then go to a Minister without these advisers having had a look.

Ministers would then appoint their secretary through an open (preferably global) market competition ? in the first instance, on a two year ‘hire-and-fire’ performance based contract ? paying a salary comparable with what senior MNC executives get in India. Secretaries would similarly appoint their joint secretaries. To ensure continuity, leadership change would need to stop at this point in the first phase. No government employee would lose monetarily for two years while the restructure is embedded.

Each of the newly appointed secretaries would then implement a two-year strategic process to restructure the bureaucracy into ten departments: freedom, defence, justice, external affairs, public finance, physical infrastructure, social infrastructure, commerce, social capital and community, and sustainability. This would involve significant training and redundancy planning.

A Public Administration Act would underpin the restructured, new bureaucracy. Positions requiring significant judgment and leadership skills would be brought under a three-year performance-based contract. Upon the Act coming into force, Constitutional provisions on civil services would be repealed.

By no means am I trying to suggest that this reform will be a panacea for India’s chronic misgovernance. Our political and electoral systems need fundamental reforms, too. But we must begin somewhere, and changing our bureaucratic leadership will, at this stage, make the most difference.

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