Calcutta Notebook


Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been trying to raise relationship with neighbouring countries at a higher level for quite some time. He has allowed the oil companies to import oil from Iran ignoring American pressure. He has also given great importance to defense preparedness. These initiatives deserve serious attention. The initiatives on the domestic economy do not appear so favourable, however. Modi has made a U-turn on Aadhaar project. The BJP had earlier opposed this project on grounds of national security and privacy. Indications are that he wants to loosen the requirements of FDI in retail. He is also trying to push anti-people measures like softening the Land Acquisition Act allowing drug multinationals to reap enormous profit at the expense of ordinary Indians. These policies, it seems, are being prompted by the bureaucracy. Modi should appreciate the character of bureaucracy before such reliance on advice tendered by them.

The Manu Smriti says, "Employees appointed by the king are mostly takers of property of others and cheats; from them the King should protect the people" (7.123). Similarly Kautilya suggests that ascetics must be asked to depute their disciples to detect pilferage of government revenue (1.11); Spies should be appointed to watch ministers, collectors, commissioners, revenue officers, etc. The personal lives of these officers should also be scrutinized by the spies (1.12); and officers must be trapped by spies offering bribes as decoy customers (4.6).

It is from such a bureaucracy that Chief Minister Narendra Modi was able to extract good works in Gujarat. Perhaps he followed the suggestions of Kautilya. One friend told this writer of an interesting incident. Some students of IIM Ahmadabad wanted to open a school in a rural area instead of taking up a corporate job. Suddenly they received a phone call from Modi offering them support of the State Government! It appears Modi heard of their interest and took proactive steps to rope them in. Such openness is indeed to be welcomed.

But there is a difference between Modi as Chief Minister and Modi as Prime Minister. Now he is akin to the sovereign "King" that Manu Smriti and Kautilya speak of. The work of the State Government is mostly to implement the policies that are determined by the Centre. Major policy-laying departments lie with the Centre under the Constitution. These include foreign affairs, communication, foreign trade, currency and income and excise taxes. Lately many items which were in the state list and the concurrent list have been usurped by the Centre over time like electricity, environment, mining and labour. In the result the Chief Minister of a State has essentially been reduced to a vassal.

Question is whether the bureaucracy that Modi was able to manage in implementation of policies will be equally robust in helping make those policies? The nature of the collective bureaucracy has been described by Sociologist Max Weber. He found that tendency of the bureaucracy is to work by the rules. The bureaucrats implement the rules without applying their minds as if they were robots. If the Union Government decrees that all schools will open at 8 am that will happen across the country. The fact that sunrise occurs early in Guwahati and late in Ahmadabad does not enter into the decision matrix of the bureaucrat.

The mindless character of the bureaucracy is not suitable for policymaking at the Centre. Making of policy requires application of mind whereas Weber said the bureaucrats; "implement the rules without applying their minds." Technically speaking, they do apply their minds but do so as dictated by their personal consideration. Former Secretary to the Union Government Kamal Taori says unequivocally that bureaucrats are driven by their immediate self-interest of moneymaking and power mongering. It is obvious that the bureaucrat will make money in whatever policy is made- both in planting trees as well as in cutting them down. But between the two, they will prefer cutting the trees down because that provides quick returns in few days to one person who gives out the contract to cut trees; while planting trees will provide returns in 10 years to a large body of bureaucracy spread over many places.

Modi is relying on these IAS officers for formulating the policies. In the first ever meeting of a Prime Minister with Secretaries, Modi laid thrust on efficiency and delivery. That is fine. But who will decide what is to be delivered? There is a Chinese saying that it is better to train a man to catch fish rather than to give him fish. But the bureaucrat would be mighty happy to distribute fish because that would provide immediate opportunities to float tenders for purchase of fish. Teaching the poor man to catch fish may not provide immediate returns to the bureaucrat.

The most common method of influencing policy decisions is to provide benefits to bureaucrats with no strings attached. One large business house routinely provides scholarships to children of IAS officials for foreign studies. They know that the officer will sooner or later hold an office where the returns can be sought. Such an officer will scarcely make a policy that hits at the interests of such a company. Another former Secretary of Power to the Union Government proudly told this writer that he had been engaged by the World Bank for a consultancy assignment for which he was being paid a fees of Rs 50k per hour.

Checks that worked in implementation of programmes in Gujarat will no longer work. There will scarcely be any traceable bribe involved if the bureaucrat makes a policy of distributing fish. The corruption here is moral and difficult to pin down. It is possible to check whether a school teacher attended the school. But how does one check whether FDI has led to unemployment? So much time elapses between policy formulation and the impact being visible that the bureaucrat who is responsible for the bad policy can never be located. In the result, the bureaucrats will make policies that are dictated by business houses and foreign powers and Modi will be implementing the agenda of these paymasters of bureaucrats when he relies on them in policy formulation.

Vol. 47, No. 18, Nov 9 - 15, 2014