One of the chief criteria of texts coming to the table for government approval has to be ‘understandability’. Even in the dusty, syntax-chomping jargon of our mandarins, there has to be some sense made by our bureaucrats before ministers act on them. The prime minister, noted for his somewhat dull but lucid language skills, doesn’t think the babus are drafting cabinet notes properly. Manmohan Singh has reportedly asked cabinet secretary KM Chandrasekhar to “address the issue”. Mr Chandrasekhar has, on his part, sent out a clear, ‘defect-free’ circular to secretaries in government ministries and departments, containing some suggestions on how to tackle the issue. Attending regular workshops to brush up on writing skills and procedures is one of the suggestions.
We have a feeling that the problem does not lie so much in grammar as it does in attitude. However wary of split infinitives a babu may be, to stop the passing of notes to a minister minutes before a cabinet meeting requires a different strategy altogether. Deadlines are something that are too flexible in the ever-elastic world of bureaucracy. To expect the quality of a note dashed off last minute to have the same standard of legibility as one prepared with a modicum of time in hand would be silly.
Archivists point to the high quality of cabinet notes passed around during the prime ministership of Jawaharlal Nehru. Sure, Nehru and his colleagues as well as their secretaries had a way with language that bordered on the publishable. But perhaps the general downturn in the quality of ministerial notes can be traced back to centralised governmental decision-making. If one pen stroke determined a policy, where was the incentive to hone and prepare notes? So the prime minister’s concern can be seen as a positive: a return to how a government should function through a sophisticated system, rather than through one man crossing the ‘t’s and dotting the ‘i’s.