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?

Comments

 

Other News

Improving livelihood with financial access is the task ahead

“Demonetisation has created an entire system of digitisation and financial inclusion,” said PK Gupta, managing director (Retail and Digital Banking), State Bank of India, at the launch of the Governance Now India Financial Inclusion Case Book in Mumbai on Friday. He further stated though there

How Bhutan is enuring food security

When Bhupen Gurung from the Royal University of Bhutan told the audience at the TERI School of Advanced Studies, New Delhi, about dropping levels of poverty in Bhutan, many public policy academicians were left intrigued. Coming from the ‘Land of Happiness’ (Bhutan ranked 97 among 155 countr

Uncivil servants

An IPS officer of Tamil Nadu cadre holding the post of assistant superintendent of police was caught cheating, using high-tech gadgets, while appearing in the IAS examination in October, as was widely reported in the media. The case has shaken the conscience of the enlightened citizenry and shows the rot t

Manufacturing will remain dark horse for economy: Niti Aayog expert

Manufacturing will remain the dark horse for the Indian economy, especially as labour-intensive industries shift from China, writes Sukhgeet Kaur, director, project appraisal and management division, Niti Aayog in an official

The un-importance of being Pravin Togadia

Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) working president Pravin Togadia is in the news after a long time. This week, Togadia went `missing` for an entire day as the Gujarat and Rajasthan police were on the lookout for him, arrest warrant in hand. Togadia was later brought to a hospital in an unconscious state. At a p

Confused signals

Of late, there have been some anxious moments for broadcasters and no one knows where it’s been coming from, and why it’s happening. For starters, the ministry of information and broadcasting is the licensor for TV channels, in two categories: (i) news and current affairs (&lsquo

Current Issue

Current Issue

Video

CM Nitish’s convoy attacked in Buxar

Opinion

Facebook    Twitter    Google Plus    Linkedin    Subscribe Newsletter

Twitter