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Taming The Bureaucracy
What will lead to greater accountability and efficiency:
It was at the Think India dialogue of Network18 last year that Narendra Modi said something about the bureaucracy that went viral. “A Congress leader,” he said, “suggested a very simple solution to problems of governance: Politicians should learn to say no and bureaucrats to say yes.” A year on, as PM, he is set to discover that governance is a little more complicated.
Since making that statement, he has run a presidential-style campaign, sought and received a mandate for himself rather than his BJP and become PM. In a departure from normal practice, Modi was briefed by the secretaries even before he was sworn in. And when home secretary Anil Goswami called on him, Modi reportedly took the bureaucrat by surprise by rattling off his personal and career details. If the bureaucracy was spooked by such meticulous homework, it managed to hide its surprise—perhaps actually braced for more surprises.
“In Singapore the bureaucracy is politicised, and the politics bureaucratised. For the last 30 years, there’s one-party rule.”
They weren’t long in the coming. In his first few days in office, Modi appeared to be veering towards a presidential form of governance, if not government, cutting ministers down to size and telling bureaucrats to interact directly with him and the PMO. That’s how he governed in Gujarat: ministers and mlas did not count for much, the assembly met sparingly, bureaucrats close to the CM even handled his political campaigns. But will that model work for him as a PM?
No answers yet, but experts warn that departure from the cabinet form of government isn’t an unmixed blessing. In Good Governance: Never on India’s Radar, former Union home secretary Madhav Godbole cites examples from Indira Gandhi onwards to chronicle the decline of the cabinet system, the abdication of joint responsibility and the emergence of the PMO as a modern-day palace. The UPA, Godbole writes, could have prevented many scams if the cabinet had discussed certain issues.
The spectre of the PMO as a palace and of palace guards running the country through chosen bureaucrats has raised eyebrows. But many bureaucrats say they’d prefer to wait and watch. Some say strong-arm tactics are needed to get the administration on track. Others voice concern over such centralisation and how it might encourage crony capitalism. This isn’t a new fear. Didn’t H.D. Deve Gowda, as prime minister designate, fly into Delhi in a Reliance plane when there were seven commercial flights daily from Bangalore? That flight, in which Vijay Mallya accompanied Deve Gowda, raised eyebrows. But times have changed. Nobody batted an eyelid when Modi, as prime minister-designate, took an Adani plane to Delhi.
“What’s being done is not novel. Strong CMS have always worked like this. Delegation of power to bureaucrats is welcome.”
In his very second cabinet meeting, Modi set a 10-point framework for good governance. He followed it up by saying that bureaucrats need to be empowered. In fact, he overwhelmed them, saying they could approach him with both problems and solutions: if they e-mailed him, they’d receive a reply and if they sought an appointment they’d get it. Critics say that if Modi were really serious about teamwork, he could have met the secretaries and ministers together. Fact is, ministers still have to defend policies and their implementation in Parliament; they’d also be required to work closely with bureaucrats. Asking bureaucrats to bypass ministers, they feel, might at best have been an inadvertent slip and at worst a deliberate but unnecessary swipe at ministers.
Grapevine has it that several bureaucrats are already ratting on colleagues while trying to ingratiate themselves with the new dispensation. Ministers are already feeling sidelined as secretaries make a beeline to the PMO. Union home minister Rajnath Singh, the bureaucratic grapevine has it, had no clue that his ministry had withdrawn clearance for the extension of two senior ips officers to a central organisation at the behest of the PMO. The home secretary had not thought it necessary to brief him. The new equation, in which secretaries will be tempted to engage with the PMO, may not improve trust, efficiency or teamwork, say some bureaucrats.
One serving bureaucrat called it a recipe for disaster. It would lead to a trust deficit between ministers and secretaries. A former Union minister echoed the sentiment, saying he didn’t expect ministers to give up their authority. “They’ve waited in the wings for ten years to grab at power,” he smirked. “Why would they let go even part of it?”
“The emphasis is on ensuring activity on the ground. Rules haven’t changed. Bureaucracy hasn’t got additional power.”
In its first ten days, the Modi sarkar promulgated an ordinance to facilitate the appointment of Nripendra Mishra, a retired bureaucrat, as the PM’s principal secretary. It also announced the scrapping of groups of ministers (GoMs) and empowered groups of ministers (EGoMs) meant for resolving tricky issues. It hinted at a six-day week at the Centre and indicated that a report was being compiled on the time spent by bureaucrats on golf. It gave a six-month extension to the cabinet secretary, ostensibly to enable a smooth transition, but effectively ruling out the next two in seniority, who would retire in the period. And the PMO appears poised to regain the power to post secretaries, taking away that freedom given by the UPA to ministers. It seems none of this had been discussed in the cabinet.
Before empowering the bureaucracy, says a cynical bureaucrat, it needs to become more efficient and responsive. All governments paid lip service to administrative reforms, but nothing has changed either at the Centre or in the states. One of the oldest in the world, the Indian bureaucracy is also rated as one of the worst. In a rating by 1,300 business executives, the Hong Kong-based Political & Economic Risk Consultancy (PERC) found it one of the “most stifling”, corrupt, inefficient and slow-moving. The overwhelming perception is that corrupt bureaucrats are despised but thrive; the honest are respected but do not rise; and idealists end up in the boondocks.
Some civil servants say that before the bureaucracy is empowered, it needs to be made efficient and responsive.
An example of how the bureaucracy functions was provided when cabinet secretary Ajit Seth reportedly sought a report on food inflation from the consumer affairs department days after the NDA stormed back to power. With inflation a highly volatile issue, one would have expected the department to have been monitoring it weekly, if not daily. But it seemed to require a change in government to trigger the routine action. Even more ironically, the department pulled out a three-year-old report by a committee chaired by Modi. Set up by Manmohan Singh, who had made Modi the chairman, the committee was tasked to suggest ways of improving the implementation of the Essential Commodities Act. It found that the states were indifferent to implementing existing laws to check hoarding and black marketing. There the matter rested.
The prime minister has his job cut out. He can either tame the bureaucracy or get tamed by it. Only time will tell if he has made a good beginning.