Author : Manoj Joshi

Originally Published 2015-10-09 10:23:15 Published on Oct 09, 2015
Experience has shown us that governmental systems run by bureaucrats cannot be reformed by them. Reform and restructuring is something only the political class can bring. But the Modi government has sought to rely on the bureaucracy. The result is a seriously underperforming government.
Modi's Babu-led model won't work

There was a time in the past, when governments changed, they did so without much dislocation. A new set of ministers came, ran their ministries, till their government fell or was voted out.

Things were different when the NDA government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrived on Raisina Hill. Not only did it carry the burden of enormous expectations of a frustrated populace, it also faced the challenge of reforming a governmental system that had gone bust.

The accumulated detritus of two decades of tentative reform and tinkering had finally reached a dead end. Liberalisation, accompanied by hidden bureaucratic trapdoors, had created a maze of regulatory systems run by retired babus which brought decision-making to a halt. Corruption drained the life-blood of the system, while the inefficient clogged its arteries.

So, Modi and his ministers not only had to run the government, but in order to do so they also needed to deeply restructure and reform it. Experience has shown us that governmental systems run by bureaucrats cannot be reformed by them; reform and restructuring is something only the political class can bring.

But the Modi government has, for reasons best known to itself, sought to rely on the bureaucracy to push its agenda. The result is a seriously underperforming government. Truth to tell, not a single minister stands out in terms of performance. In fact much touted stars like Suresh Prabhu and Manohar Parrikar have also turned in an indifferent performance.

The importance of political leadership is best brought out in a recent book by Jairam Ramesh detailing how P V Narasimha Rao, Manmohan Singh, and P Chidambaram rammed through reforms to liberalise the Indian economy in the space of a couple of months in 1991. As Ramesh recounts, there had been earlier attempts at reform such as the Economic Administration Reforms Commission under L K Jha or the committee to restructure the public sector under Arjun Sengupta and the Planning Commission driven New Industrial Policy. But these were, says Ramesh, aimed "at making the system more flexible and responsive".

But the June-July 1991 reforms led by the topmost leaders of the government were a paradigm shift. They expanded the role of private and foreign investment, reduced import tariffs and deregulated markets. Many of these measures had been proposed earlier, but it was only when the political leadership took charge that they were implemented.

Another example is the Group of Ministers which was set up in April 2000, and in 10 months recommended the most drastic reform of India's national security system. By May 2001the same group, wearing their hat as members of the Cabinet Committee on Security, met with Prime Minister Vajpayee and gave formal approval to their recommendations. The GoM comprised of the ministers of defence, home affairs, external affairs and finance and was chaired by L K Advani who was both deputy prime minister and home minister. The GoM had 27 meetings and used four powerful task forces, headed by experts, to examine issues relating to intelligence, internal security, border management and defence.

Even though a decision on its key recommendation — to have a Chief of Defence Staff — was postponed, it made many other important recommendations and created new institutions like the Multi Agency Centre, the National Technical Research Office and the Defence Intelligence Agency.

Contrast this with the fate of the Naresh Chandra Committee which was set up in June 2011 and submitted its report in May 2012. The committee's goal was to update the GoM report, plug its loopholes and anticipate security challenges in the ensuing decade. All its members were "experts" (full disclosure: this writer was a member) and their report was presented to the National Security Council, which is the PM and the four members of the Cabinet Committee on Security. But since then, nothing has been heard of it.

China has long used the instrumentality of empowered groups of ministers and party bosses termed 'leading small groups' to supervise and reform their system. These groups, some permanent, supersede all other instrumentalities of government and function like task forces.

President Xi Jinping is, for example, the chairman of several leading small groups — to push overall reform, to reform national defence, supervise China's cybersecurity. Not many people know that the key player in making foreign policy in China is not its ministry of foreign affairs, but the Foreign Affairs Leading Small Group, headed by Xi and whose secretary-general is Yang Jichei who was earlier foreign minister. It comprises key ministers of public security, state security, commerce, defence.

The Modi government has given up on GoMs and functions on a system, perfected in Gujarat, which keeps ministers in check and relies on a centralised team of bureaucrats in the PMO to deliver. But eventually, the work must be done by the ministries.

Without serious and systematic reform of those ministries, no delivery is possible. And this reform, which is actually a continuous process — call it good governance if you will — can only be led by the political class, either through executive action or legislation.

(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

Courtesy: The Times of India, October 9, 2015

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Manoj Joshi

Manoj Joshi

Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow at the ORF. He has been a journalist specialising on national and international politics and is a commentator and ...

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