Addressing civil servants on the Civil Services Day last week, Narendra Modi highlighted the motto of their training institute in Mussoorie—Sheelam Param Bhushanam (Character is the highest virtue)—and stressed that he wanted an energetic bureaucracy for governing India. Citing a Goldman Sachs report, he said the governance levels of India is lower than the average of even other Asian nations and that it would take India another 10 years to match the average governance standards of Asian countries.
Underlining the unique relationship between the political class and the bureaucracy, Modi was categorical in making a distinction between political intervention and political interference. “In a democracy, bureaucracy and political intervention go hand in hand. This is the speciality of democracy. If we have to run this country, we do not require political interference. But political intervention is necessary and inevitable, otherwise democracy will not work. Political intervention is required in a democracy as legislators are elected by the people. Political interference destroys,” he said.
The prime minister’s remarks were significant in the light of the government’s bold moves in recent months in shuffling the ossified bureaucracy like never before. The dramatic sacking of Sujatha Singh from the foreign secretary’s post and appointment of S Jaishankar in January to the position, followed by the axing of Union home secretary Anil Goswami in February for allegedly trying to stall the arrest of Saradha scam accused and former minister Matang Sinh led to much debate. Though widely anticipated when the decision actually came to replace Singh about seven months before the end of her tenure, it sent shock waves in the complacent foreign policy establishment.
No one seemed to be contesting that Jaishankar has been a great choice. Yet the critics of the decision have largely focused on bureaucratic niceties by suggesting Jaishankar’s appointment not only curtailed Singh’s career but also ended up blocking the career prospects of some senior Indian Foreign Service (IFS) officers. The Congress party’s reaction was rather strange with former information and broadcasting minister Manish Tewari trying to link the action to the Khobragade episode involving an IFS officer jailed in the US two years ago for allegedly mistreating her maid. He tweeted: “Is sacking of Foreign Secretary late retribution for her stand on Devyani Khobragade affair? Removal after a Presidential visit ‘coincidental’?”
Such criticisms of the government decision have missed the key point. This decision has been a part of a larger, and much needed, bureaucratic shakeup that Modi is engendering. Just weeks before Singh was sacked, the government had also terminated the appointment of Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) chief Avinash Chander, 15 months before his contract was to end.
Prime ministers so far have devoted, at best, occasional interest in nuclear and strategic policy issues, mainly preferring to delegate substantial levels of policymaking discretion to organisations like the Department of Atomic Energy and the DRDO. The DRDO’s conduct has been largely driven by an effort to protect its direct communicative link to the PM, secure recurrent generous funding, and maintain a high level of autonomy. Given its significant budgetary resources in the context of a developing nation, the DRDO has repeatedly failed in delivering quality output. Major projects including the Light Combat Aircraft Tejas, Nag missile, Long-range Surface-to-Air missile project and the Airborne Early Warning and Control System have either not been completed on time or have resulted in huge cost overruns. It took the agency almost a decade and a half to operationalise Agni-I.
The inattention or inability of the Prime Minister’s Office so far to take concrete steps to raise the DRDO’s performance and compel it to cooperate with other defence bureaucratic stakeholders has permitted it a remarkable degree of self-governance in budgetary prioritisation, project design and delivery timescale planning, and setting operational policy through regular statements outlining the doctrinal meaning of DRDO products. PM Modi had criticised the DRDO for its chalta hai attitude during an address in Kargil in August last when he said, “If a project was conceived in 1992, it should not be the case in 2014 we are still saying it will take some more time.” And in December last, India’s Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence had censured the DRDO, alleging shoddy research, chronic inefficiency, inordinate delays, corruption and a penchant for reverse engineering. The government seems to have taken the bull by the horns and removed Chander to ensure a semblance of accountability in the organisation.
The appointment of Jaishankar is also along the same lines that merit would be rewarded. At a time India’s global imprint is expanding rapidly, a risk-averse foreign policy bureaucracy won’t be able to meet the nation’s aspirations. The notion that seniority should determine who should be the nation’s top diplomat is long gone. But bureaucratic resistance has prevented substantive reforms. There’s hardly any incentive to perform or any penalties for underperformance. As a result, nearly everyone in diplomatic services rise to the upper echelons. Despite the fact that the best and the brightest are no longer attracted to the IFS, there have been few attempts to cultivate outside expertise, with hardly any opportunities for lateral entry or temporary rotation. It was Manmohan Singh who’d wanted to introduce lateral entry in Indian bureaucracy in his first term but the idea was quietly killed by the bureaucracy (who else?). Personnel are scarce and demands are growing on the IFS but our diplomats have not managed to transform the service and change its character to suit the needs of the time. Is it any wonder then that ad hocism pervades Indian foreign policy thinking?
Bureaucracies, if not competently led and directed, tend to morph into interest groups focused on preserving their own institutional privileges. In democracies, effective political control and guidance is absolutely critical if bureaucracies are not to become corrosive on policy-making. It is in the nature of bureaucracies to be risk-averse. The Modi government is right in shaking things up and making Indian bureaucracy more accountable and effective. But a lot more remains to be done!
Pant is a professor in international relations, department of defence studies,King’s College, London