The Sahib and his Officer


PM Modi has gone to great lengths to get the Principal Secretary of his choice. Institutional “purists” may cavil at his amending the TRAI (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India) law to enable the individual to work in government post retirement from the position of Chairman TRAI. But viewed from the perspective of optics this is pure theater.

This is PM Modi, underscoring, yet again, his absolute control over things that matter to him. Pragmatists would shrug their shoulders and assert that far more important than “rules” (the last refuge of the lazy bureaucrat) are outcomes in public interest. If having Nripendra Mishra manage his office, leaves the PM free to manage the affairs of the Nation-more power to his elbow.

It is noteworthy that Mishra has impeccable credentials; has no known links to Modi prior to this appointment; is not his “jaat bhai”, nor is he a Gujarati. His appointment is based on his abilities not his identity or his personal “proximity” to the PM.

PM Modi has displayed a similar strain in his interaction with Secretaries (top babus) of the Union Government. He cut through the formal intermediation of individual ministers (so dominant in the recent past) to encourage top babus to use him as a support resource, assuring them free access to him to resolve constraints to furthering public interest.

Delhi glitterati will draw instant comparisons with Indira Gandhi’s call for a “committed” bureaucracy. They are not far from the truth. Like Indira, Modi is defining a new political reality. He is building a party around himself. This requires perturbing the existing political equilibrium. Consequently, he needs to choose his political friends very, very carefully.  If one is short of friends, the default option is to rely on babus-carefully selected for their merit and ability to deliver. In the process traditional hierarchical concepts of “seniority” and rule based promotions will surely get short shrift.

Those outside the government will instantly recognize that this is how any chief executive chooses her core team. The one place you should not have to guard your back is in your own office.

Many would want PM Modi to go further and bust the system of constrained choice the present system offers to the PM. Why should a PM not be able to choose “professionals” to manage his Departments?

The three All India Services (the Indian Administrative Service-IAS, Indian Police Service-IPS and the Indian Forest Service –IFoS) are primus inter pares in the central bureaucracy. Of these it is the IAS which has the lion’s share of the senior babu positions reserved for it. A government survey (2010) found that the IAS with just a 30% share in officers working in the central government occupied 76% of the top babu positions. It is not clear that this “destined to rule” timeline encourages operational effectiveness. It demotivates the more specialized services by the “glass ceilings” imposed on them. It perversely places a premium on subsuming specialist skills and knowledge in general management skills.

The need of the hour is highly specialized public professionals whose passion is their specialization. Whilst the world is getting increasingly specialized and even MBA students at Harvard are forced to learn code, to vibe with the technology firms they seek to lead, our Babu princelings glory in playing with time warped regulations, systems and processes all aimed at “managing their political masters” like a shop-worn, re-run of Yes Minister.

The new world is flat, because status is not linked to position but to achievement. The IAS gets the brightest minds available for public service at the time of recruitment. But thereafter the frozen-in-time seniority places a premium on longevity not innovation and the taking of risk. Of course many, within the IAS, are self-starters, highly motivated despite the comforts of the ritual status available; committed do-gooders in social development; industrial and infrastructure developers and gifted policy makers, marrying theory with context driven “doability”.  

One hopes that the new government will dig deeper to discover “talent” within the services whilst also contracting in the best minds internationally for specific tasks including for spicing up our moribund Universities and “think tanks”.  

The initial “initiatives ”of the government (including the budget) seem to indicate that the Ministers are under-served by just-in-time advice from specialists and domain experts. An “open economy” cannot keep its “windows” tightly shut.

Top babus who are best as “gate keepers” should be shunned. The top bureaucracy must be judged on the basis of its ability to collaborate with domain experts and build them into a team, not on their ability to work overtime to become an expert herself, unless she already is an acknowledged “thought leader” in her field-of which type, there are some babus but not enough.

For starters, the government would do well to start putting up on the Department of Personnel website the positions which are likely to become vacant over the next one year. Once an officer is offered for deputation by a State Government they should be asked to apply to not more than three available positions simultaneously. Selection should be made from amongst those who apply. This would be welcomed by all aspirants to these positions. Today just getting the information is no mean feat, let alone getting into these positions, given the opaque system for placement.

Second the government could try broad banding IAS cohorts for promotion to Secretary-the senior most babu position. Since we are a soft state and prefer easy transitions, for the present, the mode l used in many state governments could be adopted. Free choice for the PM, from amongst the eligible officers in three successive IAS cohorts for appointment as Secretary and equivalent positions. All those passed over would have the choice of (1) either remaining in their existing jobs to “compete” another day (2) get immediately transferred to the Planning Commission with Secretary rank to do what people do in the PC or (3) revert to their State cadres.

There is nothing like a bit of competition to make employees perform. Some will complain that competition to get positions based on “performance” can result in neglect of public interest to further private interest or the abandonment of “unpopular but inclusive tasks” like a commitment to poverty reduction; managing the environment or safeguarding human rights from encroachment by the State.  

There is amble evidence from State governments that this is a real and ever present danger if babus are made to compete for positions. But even with the existing babu safeguards in the central government, there is plenty of abdication of principles. Tighter oversight and accountability; enhanced access to information for citizens; transparency and breaking up the “omerta” culture, which service “cartels” encourage, by inducting external actors into government, are the only real options to prevent a perversion of public interest.   

For sustainable “ache din” babu reform is overdue.  A fish rots from the top. Time to get the best into top positions.  


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