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Home / Columns / The ascent of a bureaucratic State, writes Rajdeep Sardesai

The ascent of a bureaucratic State, writes Rajdeep Sardesai

Covid-19 has seen the rise of an inhuman, arbitrary, babu raj. It is time for another avatar of the State

columns Updated: May 07, 2020 20:04 IST
Enforcing a lockdown to save lives is one thing, but creating the conditions to protect livelihoods is another
Enforcing a lockdown to save lives is one thing, but creating the conditions to protect livelihoods is another(REUTERS)

The classic BBC sitcom, Yes Minister, superbly captures the intriguing relationship between politician and bureaucrat. In one memorable sequence, the bureaucrat, Sir Humphrey Appleby, tells his minister James Hacker, “You are not here to run this department.” An offended minister responds angrily, “What do you mean by that? I think I am the man in charge, the people think I am too!” The bureaucrat is unfazed: “With respect Mr Minister, you and the people are wrong!”. “And so who runs the department?’ asks an exasperated minister. Sir Humphrey smiles, “I do!”

We have our fair share of real-life Sir Humphreys in this country, all-powerful bureaucrats who have controlled government functioning, often behind the anonymous “steel frame” of various bhavans and secretariats. The post-liberalisation narrative has mistakenly suggested that bureaucrats matter less to policymaking. The dismantling of industrial licensing withdrew several discretionary powers of an earlier licence-permit raj, but bureaucrats still possess an enormous reservoir of powers. Another myth is that with the rise of a charismatic political strongman like Narendra Modi, bureaucrats would lose their authority: Truth is, the Modi model, both in Gandhinagar when he was chief minister and now in Delhi as prime minister, excessively relies on faceless bureaucrats to deliver, especially in a crisis.

Since the middle of March, when the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) red alert was first sounded, the country has been effectively run by a small group of bureaucrats, deriving their power and legitimacy from the Epidemics Disease Act, 1897, a colonial-era legislation, and the Disaster Management Act, 2005. It could be argued that extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures, that when faced with a once-in-a-century pandemic, the country has no choice but to invoke stringent laws to ensure the effective implementation of a national lockdown.

But enforcing a lockdown to save lives through bureaucratic firman and a policeman’s danda is one thing, creating the conditions to protect livelihoods is another. Where inflexible rule-making was needed six weeks ago to get the citizenry to fall in line, today there is a risk of a bureaucratic maze being created in a colour-coded India that will only make any calibrated exit from the lockdown that much more complicated. Take, for instance, the confusion over e-commerce delivery systems. By initially denying e-commerce companies home delivery options, then creating distinctions between essential and non-essential services, then further distinguishing between red, green and orange zones, while constantly issuing clarifications on its own orders, the government machinery has only acted as a barrier to relatively safe access of goods.

While the fear of law is a crucial element in enforcing a lockdown, it cannot also become an excuse to create a surveillance State. Witness the panic among entrepreneurs, small and big, when the home ministry’s guidelines seemed to suggest that anybody, from a chief executive to a worker, can be sent to jail and a factory closed down if there is any violation of measures to contain the spread of Covid-19.

That a coercive State often lacks a human face is amply proven by the manner in which the deepening crisis of migrant labour movement has been handled. A singular lack of empathy for the plight of migrants has marked almost every government step, the latest being the controversy over providing free rail journeys to those who wish to return to their villages. The initial rail ministry note betrays a complete absence of compassion for those living on the margins. Take Clause 11 c: “The local state government shall hand over the tickets to the passengers cleared by them and collect the ticket fare and hand over the total amount to the railways.” It’s almost as if the mighty Indian State is a cash collection centre, and migrant workers are despairing poor multitudes who must pay up or stay back in their urban sprawls. Did it really require Sonia Gandhi’s intervention for governments — be it at Centre or state — to recognise that providing a free and safe ride home is the least they can do for those who have been the worst victims of an extended lockdown?

Maybe the Congress’ interim president’s remarks were politically expedient — Congress-ruled states have also been accused of not doing enough for migrant labourers — but they also signal the urgent need for greater political involvement in the fight against the coronavirus, cutting across party lines. There has been almost a moratorium on political activity, as if any form of netagiri is against the spirit of the times that call for national solidarity.

And yet, the absence of dissent and dialogue is dangerous for democracy and only allows for a creeping authoritarianism to take over governance. A truly diverse and democratic society cannot hand over all powers to unelected bureaucrats, or indeed, to a highly centralised State apparatus. The government officials are much- valued players in the fight against the virus. But bureaucrats often lack the mass connect that netas have with citizenry, and are, at times, prisoners of their own red-tape-driven systems. Which is why we need more, not less political involvement in the months ahead. The Sir Humphreys have run the nation for the last six weeks; it is time for the James Hackers to now stand up and be counted.

Post-script: Earlier this week, a bookseller friend of mine rang up excitedly to say that he was opening up his shop in an upscale Delhi market. A few hours later, he informed me dejectedly that he had been asked to close down once again by a local municipal official. Reason? “Only shops that sell school and college books can open, not general book stores!” he lamented.

Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and author. His latest book is 2019: How Modi Won India
The views expressed are personal

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