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His master’s whipping boy

Normally, one would ask what the bureaucracy has to do with the electoral fortunes of political parties. The bureaucracy is supposed by defi...

Written by Madhav Godbole |
April 6, 1998

Normally, one would ask what the bureaucracy has to do with the electoral fortunes of political parties. The bureaucracy is supposed by definition to be politically neutral. It is not expected to further or retard the fortunes of a particular political party in an election. But we are living through unusual times. Like everything else in this country, we are coining Indian definitions of well-understood terms and concepts the world over, whether it is "horse-trading", "pre-poll alliance" or "defection".

Now that the elections are over, political parties have started debating the factors which led to their significant successes or resounding drubbing at the hustings. As can be imagined, all success is attributed to the charisma of the "supreme leader", strong grassroots organisation or the alliances with other like-minded or rather equally opportunistic political parties. The debacle of a ruling political party is, however, mostly attributed to the lethargy, non-cooperation, ineptitude and incompetence ofthe bureaucracy. All sorts of invective is showered on it.

The Madhya Pradesh government has transferred scores of All-India Services’ and other officers to teach them a lesson. The Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party (SS-BJP) combine has been in the forefront of such a tirade in Maharashtra and has threatened to transfer officers "sympathetic to the Congress". This attack is led by Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray. He is reported to have cautioned government officials that an inept bureaucracy could invite the wrath of Shiv Sainiks. If government officials do not show enough zeal and competence in their work, it would be natural for Shiv Sainiks to lose their temper, Thackeray argued. He said Shiv Sainiks who turned their ire on erring bureaucrats could not be faulted. Earlier, Maharashtra Chief Minister Manohar Joshi had held officialdom responsible for the slow pace of development works in the state. In yet another outburst, a Minister who lost in the Lok Sabha election blamed the local officials for hisdefeat and warned them of dire consequences. There have been several instances of physical attacks on and manhandling of government servants by the cadres of the ruling political combine.

It is shocking that the debacle of the SS-BJP coalition government in the elections should be placed at the bureaucracy’s door. Anyone with rudimentary political antennae could sense the "future shock" for the ruling combine well before the elections. But obviously the ruling political elite was too drunk with power to realise it. The SS-BJP government started with much goodwill in the background of a long spell of Congress rule in he state. It was clear that the Congress had rigor mortis and become thoroughly unpopular. The SS-BJP government should have cashed in on his advantage. Instead it blew its chance.

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The most significant characteristic of the government was its remote control. Thackeray had a style of speaking and reacting which endeared him to the people when the Shiv Sena was in the opposition. The samelanguage does not befit the chief of a party in power. The cartoonist in him repulsed the people. The single most prominent feature of the combine has been its rampant corruption. People openly talk about money demanded even from the cadres of the two ruling parties for getting work done. As Anna Hazare put it, while the Congress was playing a five-day cricket test, the SS-BJP combine was playing a one-day match, with each batsman keen on making as much money as possible in the shortest time.

Somehow the SS-BJP government has always been in the news for the wrong reasons. The controversy about conferring the Maharashtra Bhushan award on noted Marathi writer P L Deshpande and the speeches of Bal Thackeray in that context alienated large sections of people from the party. The bitter battle between Anna Hazare and the state government on action to put down corruption too did not go down well. The government’s stand on the Srikrishna Commission of inquiry into the Mumbai riots of December 1992 and bomb blastsand riots of 1993 left a lot of people in doubt about the outwardly secular pronouncements of the government.

The state government had the distinction of making one announcement a day. Literally hundreds of new policy initiatives were announced in the last three years. But in terms of performance there was little to write home about. The announcements included the provision of 40 lakh tenements to slum dwellers in Mumbai, jobs to 27 lakh unemployed, supply of five essential commodities to people at fixed prices as in 1994 and eradicating corruption. There is a large credibility gap on government pronouncements.

The state government has delayed implementation of the Fifth Central Pay Commission recommendations and has instead appointed a committee to look into the subject. This has angered a large cross-section of the employees. The state has been experiencing a severe shortage of financial resources. As a result, there has been large reappropriation of funds to the tune of nearly Rs 900 crore within thePlan heads of expenditure. To get over the shortage, the state government has undertaken a massive effort to mobilise small savings. As compared with the collection of about Rs 1,700 crore last year, the target for the current year has been placed at Rs 10,000 crore. This has led government departments to compel people from all sections of society to deposit money in small savings for getting any work done in government offices. This is over and above the speed money usually demanded. Recently, a person had to deposit money in small savings before he could get wood to cremate his dead relative!

The list can go on. It shows the many reasons for the people’s anger with the state’s ruling coalition. The bureaucrats may be responsible for some of these lapses but it will be unfair to call them the culprits. A ruler must know how to control the horse of bureaucracy. He cannot hold it responsible for his downfall.

As Vallabhbhai Patel, the first Home Minister of India, had advised his colleagues, it is wrong toquarrel with the instruments through which one has to usher in change and get results. The political masters have forgotten this valuable and basic lesson. A ruler, whatever his notions about his power and infallibility, cannot subjugate the bureaucracy by roughing it up. This is certainly not the democracy we gave ourselves.

The writer is a former Union home secretary

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