Rahul Gandhi’s very public grabbing of the political lead on Friday, on a day when the Delhi glitterati were busy electing a new management committee for the Gymkhana, perturbed the generally convivial mood. Babus however are used to such periodic outbursts from their political masters, so the Prime Minister, sitting in Washington, must have smiled his secret smile at the wanton ways of the young and gone about his daily business of shaking hands and uttering vacuous pleasantries and platitudes.
Today Rahul’s intentions are suspect. Was it conviction or tactics that led him to rubbish the criminal bachao ordinance? If it was the former it needs to be followed up and a pattern of actions based on convictions established. He must rubbish the second tired and “populist”, vote centric measure, announced last week; hiking Babu pay by setting up the Seventh Pay Commission.
Ask any aam admi or aurat (AAAs) and their instant response will be babus are a mollycoddled, good for nothing lot, who earn more than the value they add…..the only exception being the army. Not surprising, since the value of spilling ones blood for the country or risking one’s life in civil relief operations is difficult to quibble about. Ask any babu (or army jawan) at the end of the food chain and they will painstakingly list why they can’t make two ends meet in what they earn. Ask a babu (or a general) at the very top and they will shrug their shoulders, clad in a stitch-less Arrow shirt and sigh that the government doesn’t appreciate their worth. Quite a perception gap there.
There are at least 1 billion AAAs against only around 200 million family members of the 19 million “babus” (including the army), the government employs and pays in the federal, state, local government level. Paying more to babus therefore should not make good politics.
Rahul should play to his intuition and stick with the AAAs by nixing this proposal as being untimely and wasteful but assure that the government, if re-elected, would link babu compensation to merit and performance so that they deliver more than they receive. Here is a minimalist babu reform program:
- Till now babu pay is indexed to inflation. Unlike the poor, babus earn more if they waste more. This can change is babu pay is indexed instead to economic growth. Freeze the aggregate wage bill of government at the existing level creating a fiscal envelop within which babus of different groups (civilians, army, technical etc.) can bargain with each other for their share of the aggregate wage bill. If babus want a higher share of GNI as pay, they will have to first grow the economy and only thereafter take a part of that that growth as their share.
- Ensure that the highest paid babu earns at least 15 times the lowest paid babu. This will ensure skill related compensation parity within babudom. Currently this ratio is around 11, which is very low and illustrates the well-known problem of over compensating the more numerous but less productive “bottom feeders” at the expense of the more productive but underpaid and fewer, “top feeder” babus.
- All perks (house, furniture, house help, official car, telephone etc.) to be monetized at market rates and taxed. Babus to be offered the option of opting for the perk or the cash. This will make transparent the Cost To Country (CTC) of a babu; avoid the existing senseless waste of perks; encourage the physical diffusion of the power elite into the respective housing, consumer durable and services markets of the cities they live in and also save them from the cold bath of retirement, when all perks are withdrawn and only a meager pension is left.
- Wholesale across-the-board public service reform is not politically feasible in India due to competing political interests. An option is to select a few corruption “hotspots” and critical departments for extensive restructuring and reform to meet the hitherto unmet objective of enhancing efficiency and effectiveness.
- There are low hanging fruits available in ports, airports, railways, roads, telecom, coal and energy. (a) They should be manned by specialized “officer” oriented cadres operating in an electronic medium, with minimal support staff. (b) All positions to be filled through a fast track Union Public Service Commission led process, by competitive selection, including from outside the cadre, on time specified contracts doing away with life time service appointments. (c) Public sector enterprises, in these critical areas, to become Board managed with a clear arms-length relationship from government ownership at the very minimum and progressively and selectively privatized.
This reform agenda will not please the left (they traditionally protect the bottom feeder babus and state owned enterprises) and the “old guard” of the congress, who have a stake in preserving the status quo. It will however endear Rahul to the young professional community and there are at least 100 million of them. Rahul should take heart from the ground swell of positive opinion he has enjoyed since yesterday by doing the “right thing” wrt his condemnation of the criminal bachao ordinance. If he truly believes that he has a legacy to live up to and a destiny to fulfill, this is another opportunity to astound us with a second outburst against more-of-the-same management of babudom. Time is running out. Modi is watching.