As Modi begins to deliver on the promise of ‘maximum governance with minimum government’, the bureaucracy is undergoing a transformation
Ajay Singh | June 17, 2015 | New Delhi
Bureaucratic notings on files, if collated, compiled and studied as a subject, would give interesting insights into the culture of India’s administration. One such series of notings is still recounted as an account of unfettered authority wielded by the district collector during the British raj. An outgoing district collector gave a terse instruction to his successor about an influential landlord: “Crush him.” The successor dutifully followed the instruction and left two words in his noting for his successor: “Crushed him.” The new incumbent just added one word and noted on the file: “Found him crushed.”
This legacy of the British era civil servants still continues. In post-independent India, the bureaucracy stuck to its past and continues to assume an adversarial role when dealing with people. Unlike politicians, who are thrown out of power if they perform below par, the bureaucracy remains firmly ensconced in the power structure and cannot be dislodged. They thrive on opaqueness, secrecy and in an atmosphere of conspiracy. This is the precise reason why the bureaucracy often evokes more contempt than the political executive.
Thomas Paine, one of the founding fathers of the United States, described the state as a parasite and said that the government even in its best state is “but a necessary evil”. Though the US nurtured bureaucracy and promoted free market at the same time, there have been successive US presidents who promised to de-bureaucratise the nation by reducing the state’s role in the citizen’s life. For instance, Ronald Regan used to say that the most terrifying words in the English language are “I am from the government and I am here to help.”
Indian prime minister Narendra Modi largely borrowed from these campaigns when he coined the slogan, “maximum governance with minimum government.” The explicit meaning of the slogan is apparently to throw the monkey off your back and reduce the overbearing and intrusive nature of the bureaucracy. What exactly did Modi mean by his new formulation? Will he reduce the size of the government and rely more on the market?
Modi has had a unique experience of brush with bureaucracy as an ordinary citizen, as a chief minister and now as the prime minister. As an ordinary citizen, he would have certainly encountered a slothful, indifferent and even hostile bureaucracy which retains its colonial and feudal traits. As an administrator with formidable experience in Gujarat and now at the national level, Modi knows it too well that the bureaucracy is the essential instrument of delivery of the government’s schemes which cannot be done away with. In his stint as Gujarat chief minister Modi devised several innovative ways of disabusing the civil servants of the ‘master of all they survey’ notion and made them facilitators of the government’s agenda. He organised events all over the state to make civil servants the government’s interface with the people.
Modi seems to have carried this experiment at the national level too. He has been holding a series of review meetings with civil servants to gauge the progress of central schemes and projects. These meetings have 140-odd officers including top bureaucrats across the country linked through video-conferencing and the PM can easily interact with everyone. In one such monthly meeting, the Bihar chief secretary was ticked off by Modi for giving wrong information about a railway bridge project in Patna. There have been several instances in which the PM has intervened to inquire about the delay in certain projects and asked officials from different departments to coordinate and clear hurdles at the earliest.
What is peculiar about this monitoring method is that the agenda for the review is prepared well in advance and civil servants are asked to come to the meeting with detailed preparations. A senior official who participated in the meeting pointed out that since officials entrusted with the task of carrying out the government’s projects are under constant scrutiny, they cannot get away by flimsy excuses. This is the first time that such monitoring of government schemes and projects is being undertaken at the highest level. Though it may not appear to be a major breakthrough at first glance, yet the entire exercise has broken the silos and the comfort zone in which civil servants tend to work.
Apparently Modi’s “minimum government” does not mean either reducing the size of the government or bypassing the established structure. Far from it, there are all indications that the PM has been placing excessive reliance on civil servants and persuading them to deliver the government’s agenda. At the same time, he has been relying on technology to hold civil servants accountable to their jobs and make them responsive to people’s needs. Given Modi’s penchant for declaring welfare schemes one after another, the role of the state in the citizen’s life will only expand significantly. He has not shown any inclination to let market forces play the role of the state. On the contrary, there is a determined attempt to regulate the market and attune it to the concept of fair play.
For a section of pro-market liberals, Modi’s politics seems contrary to his utterances which are construed as his preference for letting the free market replace the bureaucracy. Modi instead has shown a tendency to consolidate his position, reorient the bureaucracy to his own agenda and regulate the market firmly. There is a strong possibility that Modi’s rhetorical slogan of “maximum governance with minimum government” is grossly misunderstood.
In his 2015 book, ‘The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy’, American anthropologist and LSE professor David Graeber summed up this phenomenon as the “iron law of liberalism”. In his view, “the iron law of liberalism states that any market reform, any government initiative intended to reduce red tape and promote market forces will have the ultimate effect of increasing the total number of regulations, the total amount of paperwork, and the total number of bureaucrats the government employs.”
In Modi’s case, there is a strong likelihood that the state would expand and assume the role of the facilitator and regulator of market forces and ever expanding opportunities. The increasing technological intervention is expected to ensure transparency in the functioning of the civil servants. That will be a transformative image makeover for the Indian administration which will ultimately cast off its colonial legacy and the adversarial role.
The culture of the Indian civil services will then distinctly change for the better. The bureaucratic notings on the file will be much less intimidating than they usually are.
(The article appears as the opening comment in the June 16-30, 2015 issue)
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