Much is being read into Cabinet Secretary Ajit Seth’s request to his colleagues to prepare a presentation for the new prime minister. Reportedly, Seth has asked senior secretaries to the government of India to be frank in listing “how things could have been different” and “what if you are given a free hand”, presumably to put together an introduction to the policy and project implementation landscape as it obtains when Narendra Modi assumes power at Raisina Hill.
It is, of course, too easy to over-read the mind of Modi in the initiation of this exercise, seeing it, for instance, as a signal that the policy paralysis of UPA 2 is at an end, that the new PM will hit the ground running. Such judgements must be suspended till there is firmer and more articulate evidence of a plan of action from the Modi government. But the task taken up by Seth points, intentionally or inadvertently, to the unfortunate consequences of a breakdown in minister-bureaucrat relations in the UPA’s latter years.
At one level, senior bureaucrats enjoyed a rare, though not necessarily healthy, freedom to liberally hold forth on policy, to pass judgement, to openly tangle with other ministers and departments alike. They were filling in a vacuum, evident especially since 2010-11, as the politicians in power took fright after the media’s saturation coverage of street protests and alleged scams. In the “sab chor hain” atmosphere, amid anti-corruption proposals that privileged technocratic solutions, the bureaucrat who distanced herself from her political boss tended to be projected as the voice of managerial reason, even integrity.
To add to this sentiment — that policy needed to be retrieved from thieving politicians (read ministers) — retired bureaucrats gained inordinate attention for filing PILs contesting executive decisions. This public clout, however, hid a yet more troubling fissure in minister-bureaucrat relations. It stemmed from the basic reality that only the elected government, not bureaucrats, can effectively explain and defend policy and action. As reports, even allegations, of scams hit the airwaves, the failure of UPA ministers and Congress bosses to take the initiative and engage the media, and by extension the public, on detail, meant that bureaucrats felt they’d been left out to dry. To them too, doing nothing presented itself as a safe default option.
There is much for the new government to set right on this front. The exercise begun by the cabinet secretary should make clear the contours of the problem.