The author is former secretary, ministry of information and broadcasting
Amidst all the stories of petrol pump scandals, the IGP hiding from his own police, and the visit of the Election Commission to Gujarat, there was one story tucked away inside some newspapers which was quite astonishing. The Delhi traffic police, the story said, was training a group of Afghan police on traffic management. One journal had a picture of some of the bearded Afghan policemen self-consciously holding up their hands — whether they were practising a traffic signal or saying goodbye was difficult to tell.
It took some time for one to accept that it was the Delhi traffic police, of all people, who were giving the poor Afghan policemen lessons in traffic management. The Delhi traffic police. Those who preside over endless traffic snarls, doing little other than blowing on their silly whistles and frenziedly waving cars on when they clearly cannot move, who look on with transcendent serenity when cars wildly careen from lane to lane, halt six abreast at a right turn and then try to turn all together; those who suddenly come to life when they spot some wretched scooters or auto-rickshaws and force them to stop on one side ostensibly to check their papers.
These are the traffic police who pick their teeth idly as cars with windows tinted black — something they have sternly warned is illegal — sail past them, when cars and other vehicles with their licence plates done up in baroque style, with curlicues and flourishes, the zeros made to look like dots — again, strictly forbidden under their own orders — actually stop in front of them, and they do nothing at all. And these are the police who will pounce on a car with a small part of one numeral defaced and threaten the driver with an enormous fine unless, of course, he comes, in their terminology, to “an understanding” with them.
The thought that they, of all people, are teaching traffic regulation to the poor, bemused Afghan cops is mind-boggling. They could have sent the Afghans to Calcutta, or to Mumbai, where they would get at least an idea of how a metropolis manages its traffic; but Delhi! The capital has far better roads than most cities in the country, and the worst drivers by far. Not because the drivers in other cities are innately better, but because in Delhi a bad driver can get away with virtually anything. A U-turn on a busy road where U-turns are strictly forbidden' No problem; just do it. And going the wrong way down a one-way street is as easy as pie — just keep your headlights on and go.
One’s heart goes out to the Afghan policemen. First they had the taliban on their hands, then al Qaida — or was it both together' — then the liberating allied forces, and now, training in traffic management with the Delhi police. Talk of an ill-starred people — if there was ever such a people it’s got to be the Afghans. Luckily for them, as one of them said in Delhi, they have virtually no roads yet; most of them have been destroyed. And they presumably have very few vehicles moving on whatever roads there are; the odd four-wheel drive landrover or jeep, or a tank. But eventually they will have roads, and they will also have cars, and buses and trucks — what then' They told the press what surprised them was the chaos in Delhi; if the Delhi traffic police have taught them anything at all, it must be how to create chaos out of potential order. Rather like the opposite of what the Bible says god did.
But one begins to wonder, after the astonishment and amusement abate, what exactly the government of India — or, more exactly, the bureaucrats in the home ministry — thought of when the Delhi police were chosen to train the Afghans. Was it a sort of international joke' Do these bureaucrats not have eyes, ears and some awareness, however basic, of their surroundings' Or do they move through Delhi in soundproof airconditioned cars which have opaque black windows; read no papers or journals except their files'
The answer is clearly more venal, much more sleazy; it’s to do with cronyism, the chronic disease that afflicts those in powerful positions. Nothing, which can provide anything like the prospect of a foreign jaunt or something not too different in terms of goodies, is decided by those afflicted by this disease without casting about for someone who is either a relation or, as aforesaid, a crony, to whom the goody is then bestowed. There will be a return, to be sure; what that is need not detain us here.
But you may well ask what training poor Afghan policemen has to do with this. Everything. Training is almost always followed up with a visit to see how those who have been trained have been able to utilize their new skills; and the way to Kabul is truly like a journey to Ithaca, as the poet Cavafy saw it:
Then pray that the journey is long,
That the summer mornings are many,
That you will enter ports for the first
With such pleasure, with such joy!
Stop at Phoenician markets,
And purchase fine merchandise,
Mother-of-pearl and corals, amber and
And pleasurable perfumes of all
To arrive there is your ultimate goal.
But do not hurry the voyage at all…….
Thanks to the Pakistanis, the way to Kabul on these “follow-up” missions will lie through the pleasures of Paris, the treasures of London and goodness knows where else; Samarkand, Bukhara…anywhere that one can plausibly include in one’s journey.
Will we never, ever learn ' Must all our decisions be smeared with, and smell of, the ordure of our filthy personal interests ' If we did need to train the Afghan police, could we not have chosen a more professional force which handles traffic well and is kn-own to be able to do so' And this is only an example. Decisions such as these are often excused as minor— someone in the Delhi Police had done someone in the home ministry a service and this was a little reward, so what, it’s a small thing — but when they all add up, the sum total of cronyism and patronage is quite frightening.
Lobbying for posts, pushing one’s relatives or cronies forward, giving positions to people not because they’re qualified but because they’re related to somebody or belong to someone’s caste, these are now the symptoms of a disease that has eaten into the administrative system. But there have been those within it who have been upright and straightforward, who have maintained steadfastly the highest standards of public service. One has had the privilege of having worked with a few such officers, and one has also smelt, from a distance, the others, seen their false heartiness, and loud banter, while their cold eyes flick over everyone, assessing, looking for possible advantages. All power systems have a certain number of such toadies; but there ought to be a way of limiting them and the damage they do. It isn’t impossible; someone just has to get serious about combating it.
Meanwhile, in the years to come, Afghanistan will, god willing, become a peaceful prosperous country, and Kabul a beautiful city. Except that it will have a dreadful traffic system, one that, to a visiting Indian, will look horribly familiar.