‘Babus’ riding roughshod over political masters
January 27 2016 12:41 AM

Delhi Diary/By A K B Krishnan/Gulf Times Correspondent


In one of the rare interactions he had with journalists, Narendra Modi, in his third term as chief minister of Gujarat, said he often found himself with little work. He said he had delegated most of the work to various departments and had told his secretaries that he was available to them for anything at any time. Modi had then said something to the effect that his secretaries “don’t bother me with much, so I have all the time to go for inaugurations, speeches, etc.”
During his prime ministerial campaign and thereafter Modi, as also his party leaders, had often highlighted the “Gujarat model” of governance and how that will be transposed to Delhi for pan-India governance. Of course, the main thrust of that argument was the economic resurgence that Gujarat witnessed under Modi. Side by side at least some commentators had warned of the bureaucracy getting ahead of the political leadership, the prime minister perhaps being the sole exception.
Every now and then during the past 18 months reports had emerged - and almost always to be denied by the government - of how Modi was going over the head of many of his ministers and was directly talking to the secretaries of those ministries. As prime minister he has the authority to do such things, but the generally accepted practice has been for the prime minister to refer matters to his ministers who, in turn, would direct them to their secretaries and from there it goes down the line. “Protocol” is the official word for it and Modi’s predecessor, Manmohan Singh, was a strict observer of it.
Modi may be in a hurry to get things going and, therefore, ready to break protocol. But there is a downside to this; the bureaucrats begin to get too big for their boots because they often find themselves being preferred by the prime minister over their respective bosses. In the process ministers, especially those who are not very knowledgeable about their portfolios, often get side-lined.
Last June Modi’s office announced that the practice of forming ‘Group of Ministers’ (GoMs) and ‘Empowered Group of Ministers’ (EGoMs) have been done away with. During the Manmohan Singh regime there were nine EGoMs and as many as 21 GoMs. These groups were to act as some sort of “single-window clearance” points on issues that get mired in inter-ministerial turf war. 
The statement from the PMO had said issues pending before the EGoMs and GoMs would henceforth be processed by the ministries and departments. “This would expedite the process of decision-making and usher in greater accountability in the system,” the statement said adding, “wherever the ministries face any difficulties, the Cabinet Secretariat and the Prime Minister’s Office will facilitate the decision making process.” Modi had virtually taken the powers out of his ministers and put them straight in the hands of the bureaucracy.
All of a sudden the ‘babus’, as bureaucrats are somewhat derisively known in local parlance, have been bestowed with near-infinite power. I say near-infinite because power in the hands of the bureaucracy usually means power without responsibility. The politician at least has to go to the people once in five years. The bureaucrat has no such compulsions and once the minister himself is “neutralised”, so to say, then life is a breeze for the ‘babu’ in the corridors of power.
At least three glaring instances of the ‘babu’ riding roughshod, as it were, over the political masters were in evidence over the past week.
One of Modi’s most ambitious and costly projects is to clean the river Ganges, which over the years and decades had become a cesspool of toxic effluents. In fact, Modi has got Water Resources Minister Uma Bharti to create a separate department entirely devoted to the job. As can be expected, Shashi Shekhar , Secretary, Water Resources, is heading the department. In keeping with his abiding faith in officialdom, Modi had also installed an inter-ministerial committee, also headed by Shekhar, to iron out issues raised by other ministries.
Several committees had been formed over the years entrusted with the task of cleaning the Ganges. Almost all of them were of the view that uninterrupted flow of the river was most basic to clean the Ganges. What this means is construction of dams/hydel projects upstream was a strict ‘no-no’. But the power ministry wanted to build at least six hydel projects in the upper reaches of the river to augment power requirements in the hilly areas. It had approached the environment ministry for permission. The inter-ministerial committee was seized of the matter. But before the committee could come to any decision, the environment ministry has given the go-ahead.
This has now led to a war of words between Uma Bharti and the environment ministry. What should and could have been sorted out at the ministerial level has been complicated by overzealous bureaucrats who wanted to show who actually called the shots. The river deserves better is all one can say for now!
Another instance of bureaucratic overreach was reported when Home Secretary Rajiv Mehrishi left a meeting of top lawmakers midway as he had “other engagements”.
The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Home Affairs is the highest body of lawmakers that looks into the working of the ministry and reports to parliament. The agenda for last week’s meeting was the recent floods in Chennai and the government’s relief efforts. At such meetings members also raise other important issues of the day and this time several had come prepared to ask the home secretary about the Arvind Kejriwal government’s constant criticism of Modi as well as the case pertaining to alleged serving of beef at the official guest house of the Kerala government in Delhi. But after presenting his case on the floods Mehrishi excused himself much to the chagrin of the MPs.
“It is an established practice that when officers are called to a meeting they stay till the end…he should have cancelled his other engagements for the Parliamentary Standing Committee meeting. We can even hold the PM accountable,” one senior MP was quoted as saying. The committee includes such senior leaders like Mallikarjun Kharge, Sitaram Yechuri and D Raja.
The much-hyped “Start-Up India” event was said to be a great success but it also exposed many chinks in organisation thanks to the bureaucracy’s single-point agenda of pleasing the prime minister and nobody else. Delhi’s Vigyan Bhavan was the scene where Modi was to unveil the government’s roadmap for start-ups. The prime minister did look mightily pleased to see the energy of a full house of entrepreneurs. But what he apparently did not get to see was the disappointment of several hundred equally enthusiastic entrepreneurs who could not get into the venue.
Vigyan Bhavan can seat about 1,300 people. But the minions of Commerce Ministry had sent out more than 3,000 invitations. Some had flown from as far as San Francisco. But they were stopped at the gates of Vigyan Bhavan. It’s possible that the ‘babus’ were used to inviting more people than were necessary as many of those invited usually wouldn’t turn up and empty seats would not please someone like the prime minister. They probably didn’t realise that times have changed.
Modi announced a three-year tax holiday for start-ups. But the devil was in the detail that only a bureaucrat could have contrived. “A start-up shall be eligible for tax benefits only after it has obtained certification from the inter-ministerial board set up for the purpose,” says one of the guidelines. Going by what happened to the inter-ministerial committee of the Ganges cleaning plan, you can well imagine what is in store for a young start-up entrepreneur.
The so-called ‘honeymoon’ period for this government has long been over. Modi had travelled the world and brought the spotlight on India in an unprecedented manner. The mood of the nation had changed dramatically in the months that followed May 2014. There was a sense of hope, an optimism emanating from a whiff of opportunity. “Big bang” reforms were the call of the hour. The last two budgets delivered by Finance Minister Arun Jaitley produced nothing more than a whimper. The euphoria of 2014 is fast turning into the despair of 2016. Modi’s bureaucracy does not seem to help matters either.

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