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 continued…