Monday, May 07, 2007

Now, who's being unreasonable?

The HRD ministry's directive to the IIMs to put admissions on hold (since lifted) triggered a huge bout of government-bashing in the media. Pratap Bhanu Mehta's article in the Indian Express (April 24), titled "Lessons in unreason", typified the mood among many commentators. Mehta chastised the IIM directors for caving in to the directive; he felt the IIMs should have defied it.

Former colleague Jagdeep Chhokar joined the party with an article in the paper on May 2. To my mind, it reflects the jaundiced view among many academics of the functioning of the HRD ministry.

Chhokar sees the supposed caving in by the IIMs as "the culmination of a process that began several years ago." When the IIMs sought to be make themselves financially independent by generating internal surpluses, he says, the "politician- bureaucratic combine" couldn't stomach it. This combine tried to maintain its hold on the IIMs by managing the process of appointment of the Chairman of the Board of governors and the IIM director.

Let us look at the appointment of IIM chairmen first. Chhokar cites the " non-appointment" of IG Patel for a second-term as proof that the government wants a "pliable person" for the job. But Patel was replaced by Narayana Murthy- by no stretch of imagination a "pliable person" !

Chhokar also faults the government for replacing Murthy after one term. I find this comment strange. Fixed tenures for such positions are highly desirable. One of the great strengths of the American system is that no President can stay on the job for more than two terms. The constitution of India does not mandate a fixed tenure for the Indian President but we have a healthy convention of one term. There has been talk of fixed tenures for MPs as well- again, these would be entirely healthy. At the IIMs themselves, fixed tenures for both the Chairman of the board of governors and the Director have served the system well. I say: criticise a wrong choice for these jobs by all means but do not undermine a sound governance principle.

As for the selection of IIM directors, Chhokar points out how the system for selecting the director was changed. (This happened in MM Joshi's time). Earlier, the IIM Boards used to constitute the search committee. During Joshi's tenure, the ministry chose to constitute the search committee. I do not see anything inherently wrong in this. The search committee for IIMA, for instance, was headed by a well-known academic. IIMA was represented on the panel through its then chairman, Narayana Murthy. I cannot recall anybody objecting to the composition of the panel.

Consider what happened under the auspices of the ministry's search committee. The committee ended up selecting an IIMA faculty member as director- exactly as panels appointed by the IIMA board had done earlier! I hope Chhokar is not suggesting that the IIMA director, thus selected, turned out to be a "pliable person"- I don't believe that the HRD ministry thinks so! In other words, if the HRD ministry's search committee was at all functioning under the direction of some sinister "political-bureaucratic combine", this certainly did not show in the outcomes.

Chhokar says that two of the IIM directors chosen through this process were eased out before they completed their terms. But four other directors at the leading IIMs will be duly completing their terms. The problem could be more of finding competent people for the lesser IIMs- it need not reflect on the process itself.

Those who urge that the search committee be left to IIM boards overlook an infirmity in leaving matters to the individual IIMs- there is a high probability of the search process being captured by insiders. A panel constituted by the ministry stands a better chance of pursuing a more open and competitive search. That is why it is hard to say that the ministry should not constitute the search committee. The ministry must be judged by outcomes. Does the composition of the panel inspire confidence? Do those selected for the director's job measure up? I am not aware that people had reservations on these counts during the last round.

Chhokar's comments, like those of others, reflect a deep prejudice towards government. They stem from the presumption, common in the liberalised era, that anything that emanates from government must be evil. However, when we look at the selection of chairmen and directors since the nineties, we cannot say that the choices were flawed or inconsistent with those before the nineties. Chhokar's thesis that politicians and bureaucrats have tried to tighten their grip on the IIMs since the nineties is just not borne out by facts.

Incidentally, if Chhokar had concerns about governance issues at IIMA, these were certainly not shared with faculty when he was dean and director-in-charge at the Institute.

1 comment:

Rajesh said...

I had read the article by Mr. Chhokar and my mind had been poisoned by half-truths mentioned in that article. This piece by a faculty member from IIMA clarifies the enitre picture and inpires confidence in the Govt. and in the system put in place to choose the Directors of IIMs.

The whole nation looks upto these Directors of IIMs.