Is the Prime Minister in danger of having his political agenda crushed beneath the feet of the mighty mandarins of Lutyens Delhi? Has he noticed this and is this the reason why he is reported to have given senior bureaucrats a pep-talk last week? In search of answers I wandered about the corridors of power listening to whispers and rumours, and what I gleaned from this exercise was that the Prime Minister has relied more on bureaucrats than on his political team and that this is one reason why almost nothing has changed in terms of governance.
It will not change in the near future either, because there is nothing that our civil servants hate more than change. If Indian governance has remained in colonial mode nearly seventy years after the British Raj ended, it is because of the extraordinary ability of the Indian bureaucrat to resist change. Even so powerful a prime minister as Jawaharlal Nehru acknowledged towards the end of his long tenure that he had been wrong not to have made a serious effort to change the bureaucracy. Narendra Modi must not wait too long before recognising that bureaucrats are incapable of implementing political change, and that when they are given too much power, they become an obstacle in the path of ‘parivartan’ and ‘vikas’.
My discreet inquiries have revealed that bureaucrats have become so powerful in the Modi government that they often defy ministers, and if a new idea like, for instance, the NITI Aayog is implemented, then they try their best to ensure that it fails. The NITI Aayog is so far the most important reform brought by Modi. Abolishing the Planning Commission indicated a move away from the planning model we copied from the Soviet Union. It indicated also that he meant what he said when he talked of ‘minimum government’. It should by now have developed into a powerful advisory body to the Prime Minister’s office on policy and reforms. If this has not happened, it is mostly because it has been stymied at every turn by bureaucrats who have not taken easily to ‘outsiders’ trespassing on their hallowed ground.
Before becoming Prime Minister, Mr Modi liked to boast of how he had used ‘the same bureaucrats’ to bring about change in Gujarat. His critics believe that he has tried to impose this Gujarat model of governance on India. We must hope that he has now realised that India is not Gujarat, and that the mandarins who inhabit the splendid bungalows of Lutyens Delhi are experts in playing politicians as if they were pawns on a chessboard. They have been able to do this easily with ministers in the Modi government because very few of them had administrative experience before they got their jobs. Many cut their political teeth not in the tough battlefields of electoral politics, but in the TV studios of this ancient capital city. They needed the Prime Minister’s help to make them players in his team but he chose instead to fill his team with bureaucrats.
So it did not take long before these bureaucrats ensured that he continued programmes and policies made by the Sonia-Manmohan government that Modi himself had publicly reviled. Remember how he mocked MNREGA in the Lok Sabha in those early days? Remember how he said he would continue the programme only as a reminder of the Congress party’s economic incompetence? So why has this expensive, elaborate, very leaky form of centralised dole continued to this day? And then ask yourself another question. Why do we still have the retroactive tax when we know now that it drove foreign investors away? Do we not see behind this continuity the machinations of change-resistant bureaucrats?
Here let me add that whenever on my travels I have met foreigners who would like to invest in India, they have nearly always said that they hesitate to ‘Make in India’ because of the power of our bureaucracy. Having just returned from Davos I have to sadly report that this has not changed since Modi became Prime Minister.
To end on an optimistic note, may I say that there is still time. Modi has three years to go before the next election and this is more than enough time to build a political team capable of putting Delhi’s mighty mandarins in their place. May they remember that their place must be several rungs lower than that occupied by the people that India’s voters elected to govern this country. In 2014 they did this with the hope that Narendra Modi would be able to change the colonial form of governance, that they have been forced to endure long after our colonial masters departed. If the Prime Minister asks himself why colonial governance continues, he could find that full credit for this goes to the Indian bureaucrat.