The PM Will Have to Turn a Network of File-pushers Into Obedient Pygmies
“Bureaucracy is the art of making the possible impossible” goes the adage. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has decided to disprove the apothegm by not ringing out the old and ringing in the new, but by killing the former with inexplicable kindness. He is keeping the arrows in his quiver for use later. He has refrained from carrying out a massive purge of senior civil servants, and instead called them over for tea. He made them feel not only wanted but also useful for executing his mission. If the number of letters and messages emanating from the PMO and Cabinet Secretariat is any indication, it is evident that the new PM is determined to convert impossible into a rare possibility, that is making the bureaucracy work. The Cabinet Secretary is now advising various ministries on how to keep offices clean, and respond to public grievances within a week. According to PMO sources, Modi expects babus to not only spend more time in the office but also follow a rigid deadline regimen in taking decisions and implementing them. He considers babus as the wheels of government and the ministers only as riders. The Cabinet Secretary, who occupies the most modest and smallest room compared to other Secretaries, has become the watchdog of all other babus. Modi subscribes to the belief that the bureaucracy let India down by creating more paperwork and perks for themselves rather than generating a favourable environment for growth and development. The articulate and powerfully connected officers have always mocked the political leadership. For the past decade, they have been gleefully claiming that the “bureaucracy is a giant mechanism operated by pygmies”.
Rarely has any PM pierced India’s steel frame. But Modi isn’t a run-of-the-mill leader. He is the second PM after Rajiv Gandhi to interact directly with the 80 Secretaries sans their ministers. Ignoring the past practice of giving the election manifesto to babus for implementation, he advised them to submit their own plans of action and clarify the problems in taking decisions. While other PMs had decided to jettison politically inconvenient civil servants, Modi opted for stability in administration. Since he needs only 100 out of the 7,000 officers belonging to various All India Services to push his calendar, the PM has taken a calculated risk by retaining most of the existing ones. Defying speculation and rejecting sycophantic lobbying by colleagues and extraneous pressures, Modi has refrained from importing Ahmedabad babudom to New Delhi. He is dismantling the ‘me and my type’ conglomeration who preferred to discuss important policy formulations and Cabinet notes in the drawing rooms of Lutyen’s Delhi. For the past decade, policies were formulated in boardrooms before they were circulated among the Cabinet ministers. Modi is striking at the very culture and practice of cultural and social coalition, and the nexus between the golf club walkers and North and South Block occupants.
Contrary to conventional practice, Modi has chosen to give yet another six-month extension to the current Cab-Sec Ajit Kumar Seth, a 1974-batch officer from Uttar Pradesh, which has given Modi 73 out of 80 Lok Sabha seats. It is Seth’s second extension; when and if he retires in December 2014, he would become the fourth Cabinet Secretary since 1950 to complete four years in office. As the 29th Cab-Sec, Seth is conspicuous by his invisibility. Yet Modi discovered in Seth the virtues which perhaps influenced Manmohan Singh to catapult him as India’s Superbabu. But Modi sprang a surprise by picking Nripendra Mishra as his principal secretary. Mishra, again, is from UP and is known for his integrity and impliability. Modi and Mishra are perhaps made for each other. Mishra was chosen from a panel of four officers after passing a written test. His other qualification is that the UPA government ignored him for the post of Cabinet Secretary because of his opposition to the telecom policy, which led to the 2G scam. Modi’s selection of Ajit Doval as the National Security Advisor reflects the fact that the PM is not looking for civil servants who are jacks of all trades but masters of none. Doval is a daredevil spymaster who has risked his life innumerable times, decimating terrorists on their own turf.
Modi’s emphasis on bureaucracy stems from his experience in Gujarat, where disciplined, efficient and low-profile babus faithfully implemented the government’s agenda. NaMo chose competent, clean ministers, but also made sure that they were given babus who would serve as his eyes and ears. Modi may be an old hand in running a small state government, but he has little experience in handling a complex multi-dimensional and multi-federal governance system in which each minister is a state by himself. The Union Government has so far been run on the principle of collective responsibility, by which the entire Cabinet was responsible for the success or failure of its policies. Now Modi is willing to break the matrix and make himself accountable for both failure and success. It is perhaps keeping in line with his thinking that while allocating various departments to Cabinet ministers, an important insertion was made in the Presidential communiqué—other than holding charge of various departments, the PM would also handle key policy issues. NaMo obviously feels that by giving him the mandate, people expect him to use the tools of governance for delivery. Instead of dismantling the institutional mechanism, he has chosen a way that gives him complete power to achieve his objectives. During the past two weeks, Modi has quietly introduced a Presidential form of governance, which depends heavily on bureaucracy instead of political hierarchy. Modi hasn’t yet revealed the contours of the structure he would like to put in place. But his actions signal the arrival of a committed civil service in which a premium will be placed on loyalty to the ideology of an individual. Modi’s test lies in taking over the role of a giant who can turn a gargantuan network of file-pushers into obedient firstname.lastname@example.org; Follow me on Twitter @PrabhuChawla