When Uttar Pradesh's young chief minister Akhilesh Yadav engages in what is being called the biggest shuffle of bureaucrats in more than a decade, it is clearly not a routine administrative manoeuvre.
Some have dubbed the transfer of 279 officers (and rumour has it, 200 more transfers are on the anvil) as a political ploy, a strategic move aimed to outfox Yadav's rival BSP in the parliamentary elections next year.
But for others, this is the clearest evidence yet of a paradigm shift in India's democratic structure that seems to have been long in the making and is being noted more clearly only now.
This is not simply a matter of bowing to the compulsions of decentralisation. With the Centre growing weaker and the states coming into their own, it runs deeper than that. There is a profound change in the very structure of state governance.
No less than six states, possibly even more in a broader sense, have gradually morphed from formal representative governments into bureaucratic oligarchies, headed by popularly elected leaders.
By all accounts, almost all the other elected representatives of the people, i.e. MLAs and ministers, are not being either trusted or empowered with relevant elements of governance. This is now handled entirely by senior bureaucrats instructed directly by chief ministers.
Both anecdotes and underground chatter appear to confirm this. It's well known that in Orissa, bureaucrats are now all powerful, while even the most worthy ministers are faceless.
Naveen Patnaik rules with his senior babus though not bypassing the legal requirements of representative governance. A senior retired bureaucrat from Orissa recently told me of a senior minister who was asked to merely sign a covering note accompanying "sealed" formal orders to transfer 500 officers without even being 'allowed' to check what is going out in his name. The signature is the minister's but the decision is the CM's (or his secretariat's).
The two Mayawati regimes in Uttar Pradesh were also well-documented examples of this new kind of governance. Almost every minister was subservient to not only the Capo di tutti capi but also to a small coterie of super bureaucrats. (So, Akhilesh Yadav actually has a 'noble' precedent to cite for his intense involvement in deciding which babu should hold what post.)
The role of this power centre exceeded that of any normally powerful CM's office. A UP bureaucrat - recently retired but still living in that state - told me that the hand-picked bureaucrats down the line were virtual masters of their territories.
This extraordinary state of affairs now appears to be increasingly the norm in a large number of states across the nation, not because state cadre bureaucrats are necessarily honest (they are running riot in some states, suggest reports), but because they can be convinced to commit to a party's "development agenda" and to implement it.
Bihar, Orissa, Chhattisgarh, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Uttarakhand are all using this new 'model'. Their rationale being that it allows the CM to be on top of things in order to ensure good governance. But is that the reason? Or is it that chief ministers are deeply suspicious of their lesser political brethren?
In Bihar, Nitish Kumar has used this formula successfully for some years, and has shown that it helps in ensuring government programmes get quickly and efficiently implemented, thereby overcoming the anti-incumbency factor. This has been true in Gujarat as well, where Narendra Modi depends upon his bureaucrats to deliver the goods to the people, while his ministers are rarely heard from.
This new type of government formulation should be conventionally unacceptable in a democracy - but what if the people are happy with the outcomes? As long as the CM and his political flock are seen to be clean, they can expect to be voted back to power; particularly, if there is delivery of basic goods and services, some development work and fulfilment of key election promises.
If all this takes place on the ground, along with occasional, visible steps by the CM to rein in his babus, primarily through transfers, it appears to suffice, as far as the voters are concerned.
So if this executive dominance and growth of absolutist power is to be the norm (in a kind of 'quasi-presidential' system) is it time to revisit our Constitution to put some checks and balances into place for this too? For instance, limiting chief ministers to two terms only? Or should we leave it well alone as long as the people are getting, if not good, then at least better governance than in the past?
I think the answer is to wait and watch. Why seek to fix something that is not broken… yet.
Dilip Cherian is a syndicated columnist and consulting partner, Perfect Relations. The views expressed by the author are personal.