To prod a bureaucratic behemoth towards a new work culture is a punctilious task most chief ministers sidestep. They would rather adhere to the usual rhetoric and hand out warnings which make headlines and evaporate as quickly as the ink on the broadsheet. Karnataka chief minister S.M. Krishna, however, seems to be the odd one out. He has set about taming the 5,50,000-odd babus through a fastidious process - in which he is leading by example - to whip the administration out of its torpidity. Those who did not take his call for a perceptible change in attitude towards work seriously have only now started realising the implications of being callous in an order where punctuality, discipline and accountability reign supreme.
On a Saturday morning (May 20), Krishna arrived at a sprawling block that houses most of the government departments, to check the attendance records in every wing. As he began his rounds, he asked the concerned officials to make a note of those who stayed away without permission or had not sent in a leave letter. Fifty-two officials were suspended. Some of the administrative top guns who faced his wrath were joint director (headquarters), department of social welfare, Jayamma; deputy commissioner of commercial tax M.M. Muni Reddy and assistant commissioner of commercial tax Shivakumar.
And that this was not a one-off effort at disciplining the officials was made clear by Krishna. He began by cautioning them about laxity and followed it up with a new system of registering attendance - swipe cards which register the time an official arrives at Vidhan Soudha, the state secretariat. Krishna wears his card around his neck and registers the time when he arrives at his office. He has diligently arrived on schedule for cabinet meetings, for the legislature session and even private engagements. This is in contrast to his predecessors who would keep ministers and officials waiting for hours.
In recent months, the chief minister has sent a clear message that though he is not a man in a hurry, he would not hesitate to wield the stick to restore order. "I have told the ministers to embark on new initiatives to make the government machinery competent so that it responds to the aspirations of the public. In my own way, I am trying to send signals that performance levels are important. Every day is a deadline for me," he told Outlook. Some of his recent decisions echo such a sentiment for change.
Every year, lecturers would go on a strike on the eve of evaluation of answer scripts of pre-university students. This year was no exception but Krishna held the threat of enforcing the Essential Services Maintenance Act, ordered the arrest of some lecturers, forced them to see reason and to call off the strike after 28 days.
He smashed the nexus between corrupt officials and builders to clear encroachments and regain land worth crores of rupees in Bangalore.
Though the Congress is in majority in the Bangalore City Corporation, he has asked the local representatives to stay clear and given a free hand to corporation commissioner K. Jairaj to beautify the city.
The chief minister has not spared members of his council of ministers, either. They have been forced to emulate his example of meeting party workers in the pcc office twice every week. This has proved a unique experience for the ministers. For, those from the Hyderabad-Karnataka (part of Nizamshahi, pre-1956) were never familiar with their partymen from the southern districts, and vice-versa.
Interestingly, his drive to discipline officials is being appreciated by K. Sippe Gowda, leader of the Karnataka state government employees' association. Says the leader: "We appreciate his initiative to punish lax officials. He is welcome to pay surprise visits so that habitual absentees are brought to book but people out on official work must not be victimised."
The crucial test for Krishna would, however, be during annual transfers when party legislators and ministers in all likelihood exert pressure on him to get favours done for their officials. Most of his predecessors have faltered on this count, leading to confusion in postings of officials, Krishna, however, has his defence ready: "You have to look at the transfers from the point of a change of government. I know it was all politicised and that these officials are well entrenched at the taluk level. But I must say that any set of transfers could provoke some criticism and cynical remarks."