Minister-bureaucrat cosiness is discomfiting

The challenges of governance that the new government faces require changes in the administrative structure, writes Hardeep S Puri.

analysis Updated: Jul 27, 2014 23:14 IST

‘Continuity’ and ‘change’ — terms easily bandied around during a transition — need to be understood. A newly elected government is never in short supply of gratuitous advice and that too of a self-seeking variety. Such advice is forthcoming not only from apologists of the ‘ancien regime’ but also from a host of others, including television anchors. Surely, if policies are good and reflect election promises, they need to be continued. Equally, if they are problematic, they need to be changed.

A determination of what requires change: Policies, implementing structures and individuals can only be made by a conscious application of mind and due diligence. So far so good but this is where the problem begins. A newly elected dispensation will face major obstacles if it wishes to usher in change. Evidence that incoming dispensations do in fact want to introduce change of a substantive nature can be the subject of discussion. The ‘status quo’ and ‘continuity’ provide a reassuring feel. The status quoist will argue that extant policies are time-tested, least problem-causing and there is no guarantee that new or changed policies will either be preferable or produce better results. There is, however, an additional impediment not often mentioned. Pre-election rhetoric and passion can fall at the altar of good governance because the entrenched bureaucracy, status quoist by definition, heavily outnumbers, out-talks and outmanoeuvres the new incoming political masters. This holds true both in respect of domestic as well as foreign policy.

The all-pervasive culture of impunity on the issue of corruption has to be confronted head on. The ordeal that a small manufacturer in Delhi, ie, one who employs less than 10 persons, by way of an example, has to undergo to stay in business needs to be understood. The ‘Inspector Raj’ leaves small manufacturers with one of two choices, either a ‘settlement’ involving periodic ‘collections’ or an upright insistence on compliance and the harassment which follows. The list of inspectors is impressive: A labour inspector — to check the number of employees and to ensure payment of minimum wages; a factory inspector — under the Indian Factories Act, 1948, to ensure compliance with provisions deemed necessary in 1948 but which today make no sense, a pollution control inspector, a fire inspector who invariably recommends that fire-fighting equipment be sourced from a particular supplier; a power (electricity) inspector, a health inspector, a DDA inspector on utilisation of premises, particularly the basement, a sales tax inspector, income tax inspector, an excise inspector, employees state insurance and finally a boiler inspector. Gujarat mercifully is the only state in India that has abolished the post of boiler inspector. All 13 inspectorates can be scrapped in favour of a voluntary system, surprise inspections and a system of punitive and escalating fines leading to closure.

An entrenched multi-tiered bureaucracy is unlikely to recommend its own dissolution. It also helps the bureaucracy that many of their incoming political masters are first-timers with no experience in administration, let alone governance. In many cases, their educational qualifications and training place them at a disadvantage in being able to effectively challenge conventional wisdom, which the bureaucracy is obliged to offer as a basis for its own survival.

The conceiving, designing and financing of public goods and their subsequent targeting require a delivery system that is efficient, effective and able to minimise leakages and outright pilferage. The 4,700-or-so strong Indian Administrative Service has by and large served the system well since 1947 and could even be said to have made an important contribution to India’s success story and its transformation from a post-colonial economy to a modern, secular and vibrant democracy, the largest in the world with a $2 trillion economy. Do the new challenges of governance and development require changes in the administrative structure and the instruments at the disposal of the State? Moving from the existing to a contractual system of higher management, as prevalent in the United States, appears for the present government to be unthinkable. This should not, however, prevent the government from choosing well from within the available talent and laterally induct from the private sector and elsewhere to boost the overall talent quotient available to it.

Perhaps the greatest disservice to administrative functioning was the reversal, around 2005, of the earlier policy of not allowing Cabinet ministers to choose their own permanent secretaries. The governments of Indira Gandhi, Narasimha Rao and AB Vajpayee took some care to select secretaries to the government. In particular, where there was some doubt about the integrity of a minister, particularly in coalitions, extra care was taken to post a secretary who would try to counterbalance and correct aberrations. The change of policy, never formally declared, but effected sometime in 2005, had disastrous consequences. It is this policy reversal which may help explain why some of the scams were not discovered earlier and effective safeguards put in place. In senior management, the only thing more dangerous than a corrupt secretary or a corrupt minister is to have them in the same ministry working in tandem.

In a perverse sort of a way, the relationship between an incoming new political dispensation and the entrenched permanent bureaucracy is akin to and a variant of the Stockholm Syndrome in which the victim, in this case the new political master, begins to feel a certain sympathy for his abductor in whose captivity the victim finds himself. The victim soon begins to find value in his/her captor. It is when this relationship acquires cosiness that the die is cast and good governance becomes a casualty.

Hardeep S Puri, a retired diplomat, is non-resident, senior advisor to the International Peace Institute, New York
The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Jul 27, 2014 23:06 IST