Narendra Modi’s style of functioning as prime minister has evoked mixed responses. There is praise for and euphoria over several announcements — downsizing the council of ministers, setting targets for infrastructure development, rationalising departmental responsibilities and demanding that ministers find bilateral solutions to departmental entanglements, for instance. But there is also unease over some developments. The first is the fear of excessive centralism, which stems from the belief that centralisation kills democratic decision-making.
What is seldom understood is that all governments operate through the bureaucracy, which is an amalgam of individuals who constantly require policy-level direction, leadership and evaluation of outcomes. At one time, ministers and secretaries provided that direction. But as disproportionate influence began to be exercised by powerful political associates, accountability became increasingly diffused. Many departments faced major obstacles due to an absence of leadership. With the growing complexity of government, a clear message from the top was needed to remove logjams but, over the last few years, the top political executive simply did not intervene. The bureaucracy was often led by secretaries who always had one eye on post-retirement sinecures or a better posting. Either way, ministers were never held answerable for taking a one-sided view, even when this was publicised through leaks and interviews. Secretaries were generally loath to spoil their copy-books, and discouraged enthusiasm and originality lest it rock the boat. The result was inertia.
Perhaps for the very first time in decades, Prime Minister Modi’s interaction with the bureaucracy and the instructions he has given have signalled the need for transformation. No longer would proximity to the minister and other power centres provide insurance for the future. Status-quoist secretaries can no longer sit on the fence looking busy. They will have to display and encourage initiative because their own future will henceforth be decided by entirely new yardsticks. By pinning down the secretaries, Modi has extracted a commitment on the main concerns they have highlighted themselves. Of even greater significance is the fact that reaching political consensus is once again the minister’s responsibility — the alibis of groups of ministers and empowered committees having been ripped apart.
While the over-centralism concern can be met thus, not all reforms are easy to explain. For instance, what prompted the government to disallow any officer who had worked with a Central minister at any point over the last 10 years to join the personal staff of a new NDA minister? Since the 10-year period coincides with the UPA’s tenure, the purport of the order has left no doubt in most minds. Although it only dittoed an old department of personnel and training order about the duration of postings with ministers, its reiteration, covering the precise period of UPA rule, has unwittingly made the loyalties of officers who worked directly for the previous regime suspect. The erstwhile personal staff have come to be seen as “Congressis” or “UPA-wallahs”. Concomitantly, the order has automatically converted the new incumbents in the ministerial offices into “BJP” or “NDA-wallahs”. This strikes at the root of the civil service rules, which draw their strength from the Constitution and eschew any politicisation of the service, espousing the need for a politically neutral bureaucracy. So instead of restoring and fortifying that much-needed objective, the 10-year embargo has created an artificial division within the civil service by branding some officers with a particular political dispensation. If officers deliberately choose to become politically aligned as a result of this, it would be an unhappy development.
Related to this is the question of equity: can a bureaucrat who has had a relatively short stint in the personal office of a minister, often after having been hand-picked from within the ministry to assist the minister, be equated with a bureaucrat who has tracked a minister from one ministry to another, advancing in influence with each new reshuffle? Everyone inside the bureaucracy knows who was up to what and the modus operandi employed. Painting both kinds of officers with one brush has been unfair to some. In the ultimate analysis, personal staff officers hardly contribute to making big policy or change the way government works. Upright former members of a minister’s personal office should not be discriminated against now when their names come up for Central deputation or key postings.
Just as the PM has constrained the ministers’ choice of personal staff, he must also disallow them from handpicking secretaries or even joint secretaries and additional secretaries — something that had become a regular phenomenon ever since coalition dharma ruined the bureaucracy. The centralisation of establishment systems would achieve what umpteen commissions and committees have been urging for decades but never succeeded in achieving. Simply put, political interference in the management of the senior bureaucracy still needs to be eliminated. How far the cabinet secretary is able to withstand individual pressure from ministers remains to be seen. Equally, how the PM exercises a check on civil servants who manipulate postings remains a question.
A word of caution is also needed, lest miracles are expected from the Modi dispensation. Only a fifth of the IAS and other services actually function in the ministries of the Central government. In our federal system, the PM’s writ will have limited impact on the functioning of state government bureaucracies through whom the bulk of government work is carried out. State government programmes and services are aligned to policies announced by chief ministers and draw nourishment from state budgets. When CMs demand honesty and hard work, the civil service responds. But when CMs are surrounded by influence-peddlers, officers look to benefit from proximity to such elements. The PM can do little to change this unfortunate trend because officers are governed by the state cadre authority, which comes directly under the CM.
The PM’s style has drawn much enthusiasm from the Central government’s bureaucracy. But now the real test lies in being able to distinguish the achievers from the drones, and giving the former the freedom to deliver.
The writer is a former secretary to the government of India and former chief secretary, Delhi