When Prime Minister Narendra Modi took over the reins of power in May, 2014, many of his close associates had expressed the opinion that his real challenge would be to re-energise the Indian civil service which was inherently resistant to all change, transformation and implementation. After six decades of independence, the Indian bureaucracy had acquired a momentum and work ethics of its own regardless of the party in power. It was all about a Lutyen’s Delhi flat or bungalow, an official car, a watering hole in the evening and a golf course over the weekend. To quote Sir Humphrey Appleby, the civil service was the Opposition in residence. Much as the key advisors tried to impress on PM Modi, the latter vehemently contested against the theory and believed that like the Gujarat bureaucracy, the Delhi babu would also soon see the light of the day.
The PM was caught between the devil and the deep sea as the perception was that the efficient bureaucrat was not the most honest, the honest one was largely inefficient but the honest and efficient bureaucrat was at a high premium. Rather than choose the UPA-I option of firing all those perceived to be close to the Vajpayee NDA regime, PM Modi decided to give all a chance as he wrongly felt that the Delhi bureaucracy was not political and would work with the government of the day. This assumption proved costly to the Modi government as two-and-a-half years into power, it is evident that bureaucracy is more of a hurdle than facilitator to NDA-II schemes and programmes.
Barring a few infrastructure sectors such as power, roads and highways, the Modi government push for skill development or manufacturing through “Make in India” is suffering as the Indian civil service chooses to be on a different page from the political leadership. The actions of Modi in 2017 reveal that he is no longer willing to give a long rope to babus, instead he wants to make them accountable. By telling the agriculture secretary to redo the presentation before the committee of secretaries, firing two senior IPS officers and one IAS officer this month on grounds of poor performance, the prime minister has set the merit agenda.
That merit was the sole criterion for promotion was underlined when General Bipin Rawat superseded two of his colleagues to become the Indian Army Chief last month. Rather than play favourites as in the past regimes, PM Modi needs to eject the sloth within the Indian civil service and ensure that government schemes are implemented in a time-bound manner. In fact, at a Pragati meeting late last year, the prime minister took on the roads and highways department over delays on the Delhi-Meerut six-lane highway project, which was inaugurated by him. The PM made it clear that he would not inaugurate any highway project in future until he is sure about its completion within time. The PM said that he was accountable to the people and did not want the media to show incomplete projects inaugurated by him in the next election campaign. The message worked and the Delhi-Meerut highway is now in full swing.
Given that the Delhi bureaucracy lacks initiative citing terror of CBI and vigilance agencies, the time has come for Modi’s idea of minimum government and maximum governance, where layers of unnecessary bureaucracy should be done away with using technology. The files need to be tracked to ensure speedy decision-making and accountability with top mandarins encouraged to inject new ideas rather than get bogged in flagging X and Y on never-ending files.
The public should have a minimum interface with the bureaucracy. The mandarins should have targets for completion of projects within the allocated period like the private sector.
In the previous regime, the bureaucrats were penalised for acts of commission than omission. The prime minister should reverse this trend.