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Are bureaucrats turning politicians?

Establishing direct communication between the Centre and districts will entrench centralisation

columns Updated: Jul 26, 2018 12:05 IST
There’s now a discernible change in the IAS’ communication strategy. Twitter and op-eds are increasingly being used to keep the public informed of achievements (Priyanka Parashar/MINT)

Are we witnessing a new and potentially dangerous form of centralisation and politicisation of the bureaucracy? Recent, ostensibly routine, strategies adopted by New Delhi point ominously in this direction and must be debated.

In April 2018, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the Gram Swaraj Abhiyan, a campaign to “spread awareness about pro-poor initiatives of the government, reach out to poor households to enrol them and obtain feedback”. The campaign focus was on achieving “100% saturation” across seven flagship schemes, including Ujjwala, Suabhagya and insurance schemes.

As part of the campaign, nearly 1,200 central government officials were appointed as nodal officers tasked with co-ordinating implementation and monitoring achievements. Armed with mobile apps, nodal officers regularly uploaded pictures and reports on to a specially designed portal managed by the rural development and panchayati raj ministries in Delhi. Secretaries too were directly monitoring daily progress.

In June 2018, speaking at the Niti Ayog’s governing council meeting, the PM announced that the Gram Swaraj Abhiyan was the new model for implementation and extended the abhiyaan to the 117 aspirational districts (a New Delhi flagship). An 800-strong battalion of central government officials are making their way to these districts to report back in time for the PM’s Independence Day speech.

The PM too has established a direct line of communication with district collectors. In August 2017, a manthan on “New India 2022” was organised between collectors and the PM. The abhiyaan goes a step further by seeking to create a direct line of accountability between the Centre and districts. Nodal officers report back to New Delhi, not state governments. State may be kept in the loop but the abhiyan, and its monitors, are driven by the Centre. This, the argument goes, improves efficiency. After all, direct interactions with the PM can be motivating and increased central monitoring can only improve delivery.

But behind this veneer of efficiency is a larger issue of accountability and potential subversion of the federal bargain. The IAS is designed as a system with dual control in which officers are accountable to both the central and state governments. In this sense, the district collector is accountable to both levels of government. But by convention, as my conversations with retired civil servants reveal, the relationship between the Centre and districts was mediated through state government officers and the chief secretary was the final authority. Direct lines of communication with the Centre, at this scale and frequency, are a new strategy.

The implications of this are significant. All governments in Delhi have been masters at using their power over purse strings and formulated central schemes for political gain. In fact, the proliferation of central schemes was key to Indira Gandhi’s electoral strategy. But direct lines of communication with districts undermine the basic federal bargain and were actively resisted. Back in the 1980s, Rajiv Gandhi was pilloried for meeting DMs. The accusation was made through a powerful slogan: “PM to DM without CM”.

Now, as Modi adopts the same approach, but for a few stray comments, state governments have been silent. This is both surprising and worrying, especially given that the abhiyan is dedicated to promoting central flagships with publicity material clearly linking programmes to the PM himself. Has Modi, the arch centraliser, succeeded in shifting the federal dynamic? Are we entering an era of deeper, more entrenched centralisation?

There is an even greater risk. This centralised approach has the potential to blur the lines between necessary activity in the line of duty and political propaganda. Direct, unmediated contact with voters is key to Modi’s personalised political style and likely to be at the forefront of the 2019 electoral strategy. This is visible in his recent efforts to speak directly to central scheme beneficiaries through video conferences and rallies. In this context, the Gram Swaraj Abhiyan is dangerously close to being part of a larger political strategy. Importantly, MPs, on whom responsibility for monitoring and publicising schemes legitimately falls, are conspicuously invisible in the ongoing campaign. Are babus becoming netas?

There is a larger issue at stake, one that goes beyond the politics of the day. There is now a discernible change in the IAS’ communication strategy. Twitter and op-eds are increasingly being used to keep the public informed of achievements. Increased direct communication in the 21st century is inevitable but an important question needs to be asked: is showcasing government achievements in the public domain really the job of the babu or the neta? And are the right rules in place to guard against risks?

As they stand, the conduct rules prohibit criticism of government. Consequently, any public communication by the IAS is necessarily about showcasing achievement. How then are the lines drawn between spreading good news and blatant propaganda? By the same token, how should critical reflection be balanced against the need for impartial discharge of duty to the elected government? How can this balance be achieved?

Rather than demonstrate real political leadership and navigate through these critical questions, our current politics has left us vulnerable to the real risk of the babu becoming neta.

Yamini Aiyar is president and chief executive, Centre for Policy Research

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Jul 26, 2018 12:04 IST