The real power centres

Photo: Jitendra Gupta/Outlook
Photo: Jitendra Gupta/Outlook

The Union ministers have been assured that they will not have to worry too much about work. They should limit themselves to enjoying the perks of office, and if they do not put their foot in their mouth, they may have reasonably long tenures. The work would be mostly performed by the top 100 bureaucrats in consultation and with advice from the PMO. Perhaps for that reason, Narendra Modi kept the Cabinet strength to less than 10 percent of the Lok Sabha as against a constitutional allowance of 15 percent. Bureaucrats have already been assured of an appointment within 24 hours of request, and while it remains to be seen how that pans out, what it does is send the desired smoke signals from atop the Raisina and all the ministries have seen and absorbed it.

Union ministers have had brief spells of unbridled freedom — notably during the Nehruvian era when it was based on individual competence, and during coalition governments when it was labelled a compulsion of coalition. The South Block will now hark back to the era of Indira Gandhi when what she decided was what she decided. A clutch of Haksars and Dhawans ran the show while bowing low. Even AB Vajpayee had his Mishras and Sinhas — unelected but undeniable. Modi has chosen his Mishras — Nripendra and PK — and there is every indication that all joint secretaries and secretaries of all ministries will have a direct line with them. The word is: every file should be in order and reach the PMO without fuss. The word will also reach the joint secretary concerned well in advance on how to prepare the file. If anyone sees a role for the minister in this lean process, then he has seen a miracle.

The brilliantly written Yes Minister had exposed the Westminsterial process of decision-making. It made everyone aware of how subtly and effectively the bureaucracy operates. In our country, leaders have mandated the process. Chandrababu Naidu liked to act and behave as the CEO of Andhra Pradesh when he achieved some of his global fame as a promoter of it. Modi operated with only seven ministers for much of his chief ministerial reign, but everyone knew what a single-window system in Gujarat meant. Others like Mayawati, Jayalalithaa, Nitish and Lalu, to name a few long-serving CMs, have adopted a method of playing favourites. It has not been extremely successful, but has perhaps been dictated by peculiarities of their regional politics. One former CM told me that it is the best and only way to run an administration: through handpicked babus. It is the best because bureaucrats are careerists and thus horses in a race against other colleagues. They rejoice in not only running ahead but are happier if rivals are heaped with handicaps.

Bureaucrats are quick to sense changing scenarios and power equations. To completely extricate themselves from political pressure, they have already moved the PMO for resizing and replanning the process of selection to higher posts and non-interference of ministers in it. With Modi, they may get what they want, which would effectively mean the Cabinet secretary and principal secretary to the prime minister will decide who goes to which ministry. Not so bad in itself but it may deprive the ministers from choosing their own teams and some of them have been CMs and ministers of long standing. They may now be forced to play with teams that are given to them rather than chosen by them. And unlike cricket, here it has a different connotation.

The contours of Modi sarkar are clear. No controversies can suddenly erupt at any of the ministries as there will be fewer leaks. Those entrusted with important files are well aware of the chain of command. All policy decisions will have been discussed and cleared by the PMO much before they are put on paper. The PMO has already made public its distaste for lobbyists, middlemen, cameras, phones, etc. If you want a squeaky clean, efficient, non-controversial administration that delivers, then Modi sarkar is committed to give it. If at some stage you feel nostalgic about a more chaotic but democratic, lethargic but careful and inefficient but responsive administration, then you are being naive. Minimum government does result in maximum governance in few hands.


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