Taste of Modi’s own medicine
During a discussion on the motion of thanks on the President’s address in Parliament, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that a democratic country like India cannot be left at the mercy of the bureaucracy. He also said that the bureaucracy these days does not bother for the issues or questions raised in the Parliament. Gone are the days when a question raised by an elected representative was enough to keep the whole bureaucracy on its toes, he added. Modi looked pained when he mentioned how bureaucrats manipulate political squabbles to their advantage under any regime and urged all political parties to help his government tackle this problem.
These facts must concern the entire political setup in a democracy like ours. Political institutions have certainly lost their grip over the bureaucracy and a majority of political representatives are no more taken seriously by a vast section of the bureaucracy.
Who is responsible for a such a situation? Is it not pathetic that a person no less than the Prime Minister himself shed tears and tells us about his helplessness in making the bureaucracy accountable? But, I have no hitch in saying that Modi is also part of the problem. In the last three decades, chief ministers in most States have adopted a new political behaviour. Totally ignoring elected representatives and using senior bureaucrats, district collectors, and Superintendents of Police in the matters of day-to-day governance has become fashionable for these chief ministers.
Modi was no exception during his tenure as Gujarat chief minister. Many of us recall how some of his favorite officers wielded a lot of power and enjoyed greater proximity than any of his political colleagues. His most trusted bureaucrats had a free hand in implementing his agenda and they never cared for senior ministers. Modi had a perfect coterie of chillingly loyal officers who were ready to do anything for him. Most of the ministers in his government practically had no voice before them. Modi had no trusted political colleagues in Gujarat and he even distanced himself from many old time friends in the BJP state unit.
Prime Minister Modi is no different from Chief Minister Modi. He works with a similar strategy sitting in South Block. Prime Minister Modi also believes in keeping his senior ministers at a distance and runs all the major ministries through a ring of loyal officers sitting in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). Modi did not even allow Home Minister Rajnath Singh to appoint officers of his choice. He does not allow even the Foreign Minister to travel with him when he visits other nations. He openly encourages the bureaucracy of different ministries to ignore their political chiefs and approach him directly whenever they feel so. What is the point in appealing to political parties, when a message of distrust the Prime Minister has for his own party men is so strong that in most ministries officers freely maneuvere things behind the backs of their political masters?
It is also a fact that Chief Ministers in Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP)-ruled states govern their states in a similar manner. Shivraj Singh Chouhan in Madhya Pradesh, Raman Singh in Chhatisgarh, Manohar Lal Khattar in Haryana, and Devendra Fadnvis in Maharashtra are noteworthy examples. Ask anyone in these states and they will tell you the name of half a dozen bureaucrats who are running the show. Most of the senior ministers have to “report” to these officers and MLAs have to run around them. I don’t find any BJP ruled state where any MLA approaches any Minister for any work related to his Ministry as they practically have no powers and decisions are made either by a select few of officers or by the Chief Minsters himself.
Demeaning the position of the political representative has been a systemic design for several years, of which Modi was also a part. Suffice to say, he is still following the same path. Why will the the bureaucrats not take advantage of a situation where the political chief executive in a state, or for that matter at the Center, deliberately marginalise their own political representatives in the process of governance and offer that space to a set of officers? It was Modi who started taking briefings from the Foreign Secretary and Home Secretary directly bypassing Sushma Swaraj and Rajnath Singh immediately after becoming the Prime Minister. So if today we are living in a most bureaucratised atmosphere, the credit goes to you, Narendra Modi.
Bureaucrats have not usurped this power from the elected office-bearers - they have been given it. How can we reconcile decision-making in powerful government bureaucracies with our ideas of democracy?
I am of the view that Modi’s recent cry must initiate a political debate as it is in the interest of the Indian democratic set-up. It is true that there is a strong mechanism of accountability in our democracy for public representatives as they have to return to the people after every five years, but for making the Executive accountable, the Parliament and the Assemblies are the only fora. If these institutions are finding themselves ignored by the bureaucracy, it should be a matter of serious concern. With an ulterior motive of killing their own second line public leadership, political masters have buckled up the bureaucracy for all these years. They are now having the taste of their own medicine. But feeling the pinch of their deeds so strongly is a good sign and Modi must begin charity at home.
(The author is Editor and CEO of News Views India. The views expressed are strictly personal.)