Petty officials take charge

Petty officials take charge

There are many reasons why the Sonia-Manmohan government has taken India downhill but possibly the most important is weak political leadership at the top.

There are many reasons why the Sonia-Manmohan government has taken India downhill but possibly the most important is weak political leadership at the top. This has caused petty officials to assume huge powers they should never have. I offer you two illustrations. The first involves an NRI friend who made a lot of money in a foreign land and decided that he would give some back to our dear Bharat Mata by investing in a fine college. To buy land for it he brought into India more than Rs 50 crore. Unforeseen events made him realise he had chosen the wrong spot in the wrong state. So he sold the land and tried to take his money out of the country again. Years have gone by and he has not been able to.

Petty officials down the line have tied him in knots for reasons only Indian officials can conjure up. One was that they were suspicious about why anyone would want to do something good for India. Finally,they conceded that the investment was legitimate and agreed to release his money but at the last minute they discovered a ‘glitch’ in Rs 80 lakh. The money remains stuck.

The second example is of a reputable,eminent Indian businessman who tried to invest in the defence sector in a perfectly lawful manner. He bought land,hired workers,invested in offices and equipment,only to suddenly find himself the subject of an endless series of CBI investigations. Not even the intercession of senior ministers could stop the harassment. Finally,the CBI concluded that he was not a spy,an arms smuggler or any other kind of enemy of the nation. But,just as he was about to get on with his work,the CBI began harassing him again on the grounds that he might be a money launderer. So the investigations continue.

I could go on telling you stories of this kind but I would need to write another book to do this. Everywhere I go these days,I meet people,rich and poor,who have complaints against officialdom. From the simplest of matters to the most complex,petty officials of the Government of India have started to behave like little despots. They are unstoppable because they know that the Prime Minister is so weak that his own ministers openly defy him,so why should they not do what they like?


What they like doing most is to use the Government of India’s tortuous,convoluted,labyrinthine rules and regulations to block anything from happening. And,they do this best when there is a weak prime minister heading a government that appears to be on its last legs. The current state of affairs reminds me of something that P V Narasimha Rao told a group of German businessmen in Bonn many years ago. This was in the early nineties shortly after the economic reforms began and as prime minister he was trying to persuade them to invest in India. He gave them a long spiel about how India had changed and was now open for business,at the end of which one of them pointed out that the real problem was the Indian bureaucracy. To this he said that Indian officials were like ‘circus animals’ who could be whipped into action by a strong ringmaster.

Our misfortune is that the ringmaster is too frail to even hold a whip in his hands. So not only are senior bureaucrats behaving like masters of the universe but the pettiest officials are doing the same. The result is that no matter how many fine pronouncements the Prime Minister makes about reviving the “animal spirit” in the economy,nothing is going to happen. He has been defied too often and too publicly by his ministers for officials,even the pettiest kind,to be afraid of him.

To show you how badly this bodes for India’s future,may I remind you that projects worth more than Rs 5 lakh crore are stuck in the Ministry of Environment. This is mostly because the army of niggling officials which mans this ministry has become a genius at obfuscation. Since every case is decided individually,it could take a few thousand years before India gets the roads,railways,power stations and airports it so badly needs. Keep in mind that this is not the only ministry in which officials rule the roost and you begin to see how bleak India’s future looks.

Since I am a generally cheerful sort of columnist,I try to end my columns on a happy note. This week,alas,I cannot because no matter which way I have looked at the problem I have been able to conclude only that nothing will change before the general election. So the only happy note I can offer is the hope that it happens sooner than 2014.

Follow Tavleen Singh on Twitter @ tavleen_singh