How even the top bureaucrat's office was eclipsed under UPA

With political legitimacy resting with 10 Janpath, the prime minister and the bureaucrats serving his government have been reduced to note takers

rohit

Rohit Bansal | February 21, 2014



At a town-hall convened by anchorman Rahul Kanwal of TV Today, it was instructive to hear a question addressed by former finance secretary CM Vasudeva to finance minister P Chidambaram.

Seated to my immediate right, Vasudeva ever-so-politely asked the finance minister about ‘over reach’ and the consequent fear plaguing India’s top bureaucrats. (I apologize if I paraphrase Vasudeva instead of quoting him verbatim.) The 1966-batch IAS and former executive director to the World Bank, now non-executive chairman of HDFC bank, asked how government can function if career bureaucrats have become risk averse: “They aren’t just frozen about taking honest decisions in the present, or even the future, but what they’ve decided in the past too!”

The finance minister was frank. Chidambaram confirmed the increasing notion of uncertainty infused by regulators as also the courts: “There is no other country where the judiciary intervenes ever so regularly – including directing government that this should be the policy not that!”

In my humble opinion, a clear case of abdication and risk averseness lies in the manner the last 10 years have played in UPA-I and UPA-II. Thank to a curious diarchy, the political legitimacy has rested in 10 Janpath, the abode of Sonia Gandhi, and the Prime Minister and the bureaucrats serving his government have been reduced to note takers.

The most alarming downgrade of professional civil servants can be traced at the top.

“The office of the cabinet secretary to Government of India has been eclipsed,” a former cabinet secretary, who I am not naming, confirmed.
He’s right. Ajit Seth, the cabinet secretary of the day, is being involved not as a CEO of the administrative machinery that he’s meant to be, but on an ‘as and when’ basis.

The passing of the pillow in the selection of petroleum secretary Saurabh Chandra is a case in point. It seems oil minister M Veerappa Moily sent a panel of three names that Seth didn’t seem to agree. He, in turn, suggested the name of RC Katoch, the present enforcement director. Here, Moily hit back with the name of Chandra, the present secretary of the department of industrial policy and promotion.

Two inter-related factors show why this augurs more policy freeze:
1)   Ministers of the Union are now sitting in absolute judgement over who will be made secretary in their ministry. Gone are the days where, say, Nehru, Indira Gandhi or even Atal Bihari Vajpayee tactfully played the arbitrator, and, in fact, fostered a healthy dissent inside a ministry between a minister and the secretary in his charge. A secretary beholden to the minister is a bad idea – he/she acts on the instructions of the political master, which isn’t always a good thing as Siddhartha Behura, the former telecom secretary under disgraced A Raja, discovered.

2)  Read with the eclipse of the cabinet secretary, the concerned secretary is left rudderless within the system – the earlier dispensation allowed him/her to initiate a note of dissent to the cabinet secretary and effectively kill what the minister might be wanting illegally. I am reminded of such a case where Anand Sharma, then minister for information and broadcasting, wanting to salvage some news channels for what they did during 26/11, was torpedoed by his secretary through the ‘cabinet secretary system.’ The principle still exists but only in theory!

Caught in a pincer of over-zealous regulators, the comptroller and auditor general, the maze of parliamentary committees, and, of course, their lordships presiding over the courts, policy freeze is the obvious outcome.

Does the solution lie in emboldening the cabinet secretary (which perhaps can happen only if the prime minister of the day isn’t a political non entity)? Or in throwing away the notion of ‘neutral’ bureaucracy?

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