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11 January 2017 Editorial

 

11th January 2017

Appointments as spoils of office

The Supreme Court’s observations on the quality of a round of appointments made to the Tamil Nadu Public Service Commission in 2016 expose the gross disrespect shown by the State government to the institutional integrity of the constitutional body. Standing by the Madras High Court judgment quashing the appointment of 11 members, the court has directed the State government to make a fresh selection of TNPSC members after a “meaningful and deliberative process”. These observations foreground the arbitrary manner in which administrative power is used to pack recruitment institutions with political favourites. In the case of the TNPSC, the high court had noted that absolutely no process had preceded the appointments, including of a former district judge who had not been offered the two-year extension that is given on merit to district judges on their reaching the age of 58. The government has been specifically told that the retired judge would not be eligible in the fresh selection process. TNPSC vacancies were not filled for three years, but close to the Assembly election, chosen persons were asked to submit their bio-data and appointed within a day. The high court could not even go into the relevance of the material on the basis of which the Governor made the appointments, as there was no material bar candidates’ resumes.

The core issue, however, is not eligibility or non-eligibility. Some may be qualified by dint of their track record, educational qualifications or administrative experience. What is disquieting is that the appointment process has become a “spoils system” based on political patronage. The high court had noted that it was not even fair to comment on whether any candidate met the criteria of integrity, calibre and qualification as the process itself was deeply flawed. It had noted at least three instances of absence of process in selections to State public service commissions. The concept of such commissions was incorporated in the Constitution with the idea that recruitment for public service would be truly independent and free from the pressure of the political executive. Going by the recent round of appointments, the Tamil Nadu government does not have a process, leave alone one that is free from arbitrariness. It needs to evolve a process for appointments to the TNPSC that will make integrity and calibre the principal qualifications, while also drawing upon a wider pool of talent than what the ruling party’s limited list of favourites has to offer.

 

The great American election hack

The U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence has released a declassified report purportedly supplying the minutiae of a conspiracy theory that has dogged the victory of Donald Trump in the November presidential election: Russia’s alleged “influence campaign” that sought to tip the scales in favour of the property magnate. The report, which pulls together intelligence gathered by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency, concludes with “high confidence” that Russian President Vladimir Putin personally ordered such a campaign in 2016, which saw hacking of email accounts of Democratic Party officials and other political figures. Further, personal information of the victims was passed on to the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks and broader media, which in turn disseminated large troves of data. These releases and public propaganda by the Russian regime, the report suggests, undercut the campaign of the Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton. The report comes at a time when relations between Washington and Moscow could not be worse. President Barack Obama himself cited the “highest levels of the Russian government” as the provenance of this malicious cyber activity. When he announced sanctions against Russia and expelled 35 diplomats from U.S. soil in December, matters reached boiling point.

The hacking saga raises two sets of questions. First, how consequential are the U.S. intelligence agencies’ claims in terms of the impact on the actual election outcome of the concerted disinformation campaign? It is possible that a section of voters was swayed by this covert action; yet Mr. Trump’s win, as even the liberal-minded U.S. media concede, was the result of factors deeply rooted in domestic politics, including economic woes and the anti-immigrant attitudes of an angry middle class in the Rust Belt States. On the flip side, conservative Americans’ view of Ms. Clinton as an untrustworthy and over-connected Washington insider scarcely required corroboration from an outside actor. There is, of course, some irony in the intelligence report given the unparalleled record of the U.S. in interfering in the elections of other nations, including in almost all of South America and even in Russia, in 1996. The second concern that the hacking episode throws up is that Mr. Trump’s dismissive reaction of the intelligence report could send a dangerous signal to Russia that it could carry out more such shadow campaigns with a sense of impunity. Information is ultimate power in the digital universe of 21st century democracies. The rise of hacking and fake news thus is, justifiably, a source of deep fear for liberal governments across Europe, poised on the brink of elections and facing the prospect of a Brexit-style sweep in some cases.

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