Civil Services Day provides an occasion for serious soul-searching as to what ails this age-old institution of governance and what should be done to restore it to its pristine glory. But at the outset a recap of history beginning with the first prime minister of the country is necessary to garner a holistic view of the indispensable administrative machinery.
Jawaharlal Nehru devoted one full chapter in his Autobiography to describe the abominable role played by civil servants. However, he could not bring about any major reforms in the bureaucracy during his 17 year-long prime ministerial tenure. His obsession with the socialistic pattern of society, drawing inspiration from the Soviet model created a regulatory regime which conferred unfettered powers on the bureaucracy with the inevitable fall-out of a patron state. And when asked in 1964 what he considered his greatest failure as India’s prime minister, Nehru replied, “I could not change the administration, it is still a colonial administration.”
Indira Gandhi’s committed bureaucracy ushered in, in the words of BBC’s Mark Tully, an era of Neta babu Raj which kept ‘India in slow motion.’ The politician-bureaucrat nexus destroyed the neutrality of the civil service when it was sought to be controlled through a carrot and stick policy. No wonder, it bred corruption and fathered all sorts of scams in the political economy, not to speak of creating a distance between the ruler and the ruled.
Rajiv Gandhi was not unaware of the goings-on in the administration when he rued “we have government servants who do not serve but oppress the poor and the helpless, who do not uphold the law but connive with those who cheat the state and whole legions whose only concern is their private welfare at the cost of the society.” His theory of PM to DM was an attempt towards decentralisation. But the agenda remained unaddressed since he died young.
The focus shifted from a tight regulatory regime to untangling bureaucratic control during the five-year-stint of P V Narasimha Rao. The Economic Reforms launched in July 1991 were not only a path-breaking move to open the economy before the world but also to cut the bureaucracy down to size.
Manmohan Singh, himself an astute administrator with a wealth of experience in several areas was aware of the poor performance at all levels of the government and the urgent need to reform the civil services. “We must introspect and recognise that there is great public dissatisfaction with the functioning of the government at all levels. The civil service must endeavour to address this challenge as a collective entity.” Administrative reforms ‘at every level’ he declared to be his priority. Though UPA-I introduced some path-breaking legislation in the social sector like RTI, RTE etc, UPA-II was a disaster with various scams involving ministers and bureaucrats.The colonial legacy with automatic pay increases and promotion to the highest levels based on rank secured at entry level has not been done away with. Cadreism in government, as pernicious as casteism in society, is still the order of the day. Recommendations of the earlier Pay Commission - which include pruning the 5-6 layers in administration to not more than two, a 30 per cent reduction in government, just three national holidays and any 10 or 12 the staff may choose from during the year - still remain unimplemented.
When Narendra Modi assumed power in May 2014, his real challenge was to re-energise the bureaucracy which was resistant to all change. His 19-point code of conduct for bureaucrats was interpreted as the end of achche din of doing no work. A lingering suspicion surfaced that the country has now a prime minister who is determined to end the status-quo mentality of the Nehruvian establishment he had inherited. Advocating the need for transformation in the NITI ‘Transforming India’ Lecture series on 26 August last year he said “transformation of governance cannot happen without a transformation in mindset and a transformation in mindset cannot happen without transformative ideas.”
In bureaucracy, the nagging perception is that the honest one is largely inefficient, the efficient not the most honest but the honest and efficient bureaucrat is at a high premium. Initially, the prime minister decided to give all a chance assuming that the bureaucracy would work with the government of the day. But the assumption appears to have proved costly to Modi.
Excepting a few infrastructure sectors such as power, roads and highways, the push for skill development or manufacturing through ‘Make in India ‘is suffering. Now the prime minister is reluctant to give a long rope to the officers. Instead, he wants to make them accountable. He asked the Union agriculture secretary to redo the presentation before the committee of secretaries and fired two senior IPS officers and one IAS officer on grounds of poor performance. Besides, he wants government schemes implemented on schedule.
True, the prime minister has given the bureaucracy many a pep-talk. But it is still mired in the inertia and sluggishness of the past 70 years and is finding it difficult to cope with him. The massive problems encountered in the roll-out of the demonetisation scheme is a pointer to the fact that the prime minister and the administrative machinery are not running at the same pace.
Experience of the last few months unequivocally suggests strategies to upgrade the management skills of the government. Given India’s complexities and the pace at which the prime minister wants to bring about a change, a judicious mix of the best minds in government and the private sector may be necessary to professionally manage specific schemes. We have to think about India beyond those who have a ‘batch’, a ‘service’ and a ‘year’ to refer to. The chosen one should not be treated as an intruder or an outsider. The American bureaucracy welcomes the new entrant and goes about its business in the most normal way. It is high time that the prime minister should end the obduracy of the Indian bureaucracy which has the reputation of resisting ‘outsiders’ and killing their creativity.
The prime minister must unfold the plan of a new administrative machinery which will be a proper blend of bureaucrats and management specialists from outside government who are not weighed down by bureaucratic baggage. This will shake up the system and trigger a paradigm change in the way the government works. Yes, this will be the next big surgical strike in national interest.
The writer is a former Joint Secretary to the Government of West Bengal.