IF YOU LOOK at the decisions of the Modi government, like demonetisation, modified GST or the three agricultural laws, there was no consultation with bureaucrats. The officers were forced to implement unilateral decisions. This is the best example of autocracy.
In the UPA government, independent decisions were taken by bureaucrats and, invariably, those decisions were accepted by the government. Only in the rarest of rare cases, where public interest was involved, did I intervene as a minister in the department of personnel. I will give two examples.
Once, a revenue secretary in the Union government who was due to retire in 45 days requested the government's permission to join a top private company as director soon after retiring (there is a one-year cooling-off period for secretary-level officers wishing to take up private jobs). The salary was Rs5 lakh per month and he would get Rs50,000 and executive class airfare to attend board meetings. As revenue secretary, he dealt with files relating to such companies. I suspected that he had favoured this company at the cost of government.
I do not want to name the company or the officer, but I noted in the file that the officer seems to have a vested interest in the company. I mentioned to prime minister Manmohan Singh to reject the request to discourage officers from favouring private companies in return for well-paid jobs after retirement. He accepted my proposal and rejected the secretary's request.
In another case, an IPS officer from Madhya Pradesh, who was fighting the granite mafia, was run over by a tractor and died on the spot. His wife―an IAS officer―requested a change of cadre from Madhya Pradesh to Delhi as she was alone in the state and was pregnant. Her father was an inspector in Delhi and therefore she wanted a transfer to Delhi. The bureaucrats, as usual, quoted the rules―that she must complete nine years in one state cadre―and turned down her request.
I felt I should intervene. Her husband lost his life serving the country, trying to save the wealth of Madhya Pradesh, and she wanted a transfer on compassionate grounds. I wrote a long note to prime minister Singh saying that it is time for us to intervene. He agreed and her request was granted. One day, the lady officer and her father came to thank me personally; it was a memorable moment for me. So, sometimes we have to overlook the bureaucrats, too.
But, today, bureaucrats serving in the Central government are not willing to pen down their views on files dispassionately. They have become their masters' voice and do not act independently. In fact, if they take independent decisions, they are either removed from their posts or some action is taken against them. So, the powers that were given to the bureaucracy―the steel frame of the country―have been usurped by the prime minister's office. There are a handful of bureaucrats running the show, implementing the decisions of their political masters.
An ineffective bureaucracy means zero governance. This is the actual state of affairs in the country, where bureaucrats are finding themselves in a situation that is neither conducive nor compatible to them. This has resulted in huge levels of vacancy in the Central government, especially in the IAS, because officers do not want to come on Central deputation.
The situation was diametrically opposite during the UPA regime. Bureaucracy liked Central deputations because of the room for independent thinking and a widespread consultation process. An example is when we wanted to increase the annual intake of IAS officers from 100 to 180, but the bureaucrats were against it. Even though there was a report of the Administrative Reforms Commission and I tried convincing them of the merits of direct recruitment, they stood firm. It is only after two years that we were able to convince them to increase the number to 180. Nowadays, the bureaucrats do not have the guts to speak against the decisions of the government. If bureaucrats become powerless and afraid, they will not able to function. The steel frame does not have a backbone today.
The ministers also go along with the view taken by the PMO, which gives directions to all ministries on key issues. The ministers are just rubber stamps that okay decisions of the PMO. This combined with the voiceless bureaucracy means that it is a system of maximum government and minimum governance, and not the other way round! The bureaucracy in the country has been totally demoralised.
The writer is a former Union minister of state and former chief minister of Puducherry.