Unjustly flaying the “small g” – the bureaucracy


Congress workers were blasted last week by their leaders for the poor showing of the party in the national elections. P. Chidambaram, possibly the most distinguished Congress leader today, who has held key portfolios like Commerce, Home and Finance, followed in the wake of his party bosses and fingered bureaucrats, as the main stumbling blocks to better implementation of generally excellent policies, framed by the political executive and approved by Parliament.

Bureaucracy the key stumbling block to development?


In a newspaper column, he laments that the root cause of poor implementation is that the political executive i.e. ministers, whom he terms – “Big G”- have no control over dodgy bureaucrats, whom he designates as – “small g”. Despite being voted into power by the people of India, “Big G” cannot select, appoint, train, evaluate, or promote the bureaucracy. Some, but not all, of this is true. It was P Chidambaram who as minister of Personnel and Public Grievances in the Rajiv Gandhi government (1985-89) devised the sequential training programme which is followed even today.

Are ministers powerless versus the bureaucracy?

Politicians are explicitly kept away from directly influencing the Union Public Service Commission or lower level mirror commissions, which recruits the bureaucracy on merit. But the power to appoint and dismiss is, even today, exercised by the “Big G”. Similarly, the evaluation of senior officers -above the joint secretary level – is again endorsed by “Big G”.

Promotion to key positions can be politically managed via devices like starting “endlessly pending vigilance enquiries” which can delay the promotion of an officer thereby benefiting the next below “cleared by vigilance” candidate. Promoting an officer over the head of her senior requires a more explicit endorsement by the political executive on file. Generally, the bureaucracy dislikes busting the seniority rule because it encourages hustling and enhances uncertainty in one’s future prospects.

However, the political executive is far from helpless. Consider that an arbitrary transfer is a time-worn option to side-line an uncooperative officer, thereby creating a vacancy, which could be filled by someone more acceptable.

Should ministers have the right to hire and fire bureaucrats?

P. Chidambaram is no stranger to the implicit levers of ministerial control over bureaucrats. Apparently, those he had were not enough. He yearns for the kind of transparent hire and fire powers which a Presidential system enables – hence his advocacy of a need to re-invent “small g” – the bureaucracy in the Union, the state governments and in local government – so that ministers could appoint, reward and punish the bureaucracy directly.

Is PC merely being populist in catering to the initial yearnings of all first-time ministers – an inordinately large number in Modi 2.0 – who feel caged-in by the wily ways of the Union bureaucracy? Could he be stirring the pot of such junior ministerial resentment, in the hope that it will sour the relationship between Modi 2.0 and the bureaucracy – the lubricant on which Modi 1.0 performed?

Is a Presidential form of government the best-fit for India?

Indian Presidency

Alternatively, is this a disguised vote for bringing in a Presidential form of government, so that the top bureaucracy comes in on contracts with every new administration and leaves with it?

All officers above Joint Secretary then would be appointed on contract by the concerned minister or the Prime Minister. The “permanent” bureaucracy would be restricted to routine, lower-level support functions – somewhat like the officers of the Central Secretariat Services today.  These worthies are specialists in making the secretariat of the Union government hum. But they are denied the top jobs – joint secretary and above- which are “reserved” – a bizarre kind of positive affirmation for the powerful – for officers of the All-India and Central Services.

Shashi Tharoor – a votary of switching over to a Presidential form of government


Shashi Tharoor another prominent Congress leader and a previous minister of state for Human Resource Development and External Affairs – three times Lok Sabha MP from Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala with awesome leadership level experience in the United Nations, also advocates that a presidential system would fit India better (The Print, August 12, 2018).

Modi 1.0 fed his conviction that making a quasi-presidential system like ours, transparently presidential – with an independent legislature to exercise a check on the executive’s excesses – would serve the public interest better. Two senior Congress leaders both rooting for a Presidential system, must be music to the ears of the BJP – or are we missing something?

The Chidambaram- Tharoor asymmetric jugalbandi

Chidambaram and Tharoor reach the same conclusion, but on different grounds. Chidambaram postulates – somewhat improbably – that giving the political executive formal powers to appoint and fire senior officials would improve tardy policy implementation.

President Donald Trump would agree. He delights in firing employees on the spot – a reputation he burnished in a reality TV show he once starred in. How well this has worked in practise is debatable. But playing the betrayed, strong man has done wonders for his popular support. So is P. Chidambaram advocating a Trump-style Presidential administration for India?

For Tharoor, the attraction of a Presidential system is not about having more control over “small g” employees. Indeed, a former senior UN official like him would hardly be daunted by tardy officials or allow such minor barriers to come in the way of policy implementation. For him, the advantage arises from a more transparent allocation of responsibility between the executive and the legislature which is blurred in a parliamentary system like ours – especially when the ruling party has an overwhelming presence in the Lok Sabha and the opposition is reduced to being less than a tail to wag a dog with.

Shouldn’t bureaucratic reform be accompanied by political reform?

Either way, it is open season to finger bureaucrats for the ills of India. Most bureaucrats would agree that results orientation should improve. But will “Big G” also consider that similar results orientation and inefficient MP recall rules should apply to Parliament and ministers alike along with stricter eligibility conditions adherence to the rule of law?

Fingering the bureaucracy alone, impedes their effectiveness

HC Gupta 2

Dismissing bureaucrats makes for breaking news. But if judicious processes are not followed to sift out the corrupt or the inefficient from those who are mere collateral damage in a political battle, the bureaucracy will hunker down and take no risks at all. This will have perverse consequences via enhanced time and cost for government business.

Re-invent the political architecture for direct supervision by the public of both the political & the career public executives

What needs to be re-invented is not “small g” in isolation. Instead, a revamp of the entire political architecture – slimming down the functions performed by the Union and state governments with a significant transfer of functions, funds and the local staffing of local government, can enable the people of India to more immediately and directly supervise public capital allocation and expenditure.

Do in India as China does

Copying China could help. Like India, the bulk of revenue collected accrues to the Central Government. But the bulk of expenditure is by provinces and empowered local governments. Ninety per cent of all government employees are recruited locally. They remain in the same job for years developing roots and bonds with those they serve. It works in China. Why not in India?

Also available in TOI Blogs June 25, 2019 https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/blogs/opinion-india/unjustly-flaying-the-small-g-the-bureaucracy/

5 thoughts on “Unjustly flaying the “small g” – the bureaucracy

  1. Bureaucracy is further degenerating in India because of populist pressures.Most State Public Service Commisssions have had huge scams in recruitment to State and Distict level cadres.There is massive corruption in recruitment of Teachers and other Public Servants.Most of them are casual employees with no training and motivation.Punlic Services like Municipal Waste Management,ICDS(Supplementary nutrition program for children and Schools and Health Centres are in very bad shape.Both politicians and Higher Civil Service are responsible for this unholy mess.Let the pot not call the kettle black.

  2. It is unclear to me how Chidamaram’s argument that “Ujjwala is good policy, but the replacement cylinder rate of three per year is the failure of small-g government.” even makes sense. If the market price of a domestic cylinder is more affordable, more people will use it. It seems to me that bureaucrats are being asked to be responsible for the uncertainties of the same market-based policies that he pioneered.

    That said, your argument that:

    “Alternatively, is this a disguised vote for bringing in a Presidential form of government, so that the top bureaucracy comes in on contracts with every new administration and leaves with it?”

    is also over the top. Many countries with West minister systems now have performance contracts. They have implicitly moved towards a more Presidential form of government, but still have parliamentary political systems e.g. Britain, Japan. This change has nothing to do with bureaucracy. Is there any reason to think the IAS is essential for the parliamentary political system when they routinely act like, and indeed foolishly celebrate being “technocrats” by ignoring rule of law?

    Regarding your rhetorical question:

    “Shouldn’t bureaucratic reform be accompanied by political reform?”

    The answer is a hard no. The question itself, coming from an IAS officer, is revealing of a certain perception of the indispensability of the steel frame, and disdain for political masters.

    “Dismissing bureaucrats makes for breaking news. But if judicious processes are not followed to sift out the corrupt or the inefficient from those who are mere collateral damage in a political battle, the bureaucracy will hunker down and take no risks at all. This will have perverse consequences via enhanced time and cost for government business.?

    It is ironic that it took the dismissal of bureaucrats to rediscover the judicial processes after spending their career shortcircuiting them. It is because the politicians realized that the IAS is running down the clock on their political masters, that all these reform ideas are popping up. If the IAS thinks, taking no risks in this environment will have no costs, they are underestimating their lack of social capital.

    “Re-invent the political architecture for direct supervision by the public of both the political & the career public executives”

    I am not a politician. But even I laughed at the naivete of trying to bring elected politicians and the IAS on equal footing. This won’t happen even in the most distant planet of the star wars universe.

    “Do in India as China does”

    Even the United States recruitment is local (contract based) for municipal and state governments. The Chinese government has invested a lot of money over the years in creating schools of public administration and policy with America’s guidance. Those graduates fill the positions of local governments and create a knowledge base that serves practice. Chinese students are encouraged to engage with global public administration practices.

    In India, the IIPA and other administrative training organizations are either wholly irrelevant or a parking lot for retired bureaucrats. We fall back on our familiar suspicion of foreign education, foreign journals and so on. Whatever the IAS may be accused of, thinking beyond their own fraternity is something no one can ever accuse them of.

    It is because the politicians recognize a threat to their power when they see it, that the IAS is being dismantled. The IAS may try to wrap itself in tricolor, but neither the public nor the politicians see them as a particularly useful tool. Instead, it has become a dumb robot that loudly dreams of being directly accountable to the people instead of politicians.

    1. The issue I was grappling with is not just the IAS but the bureaucracy as a whole which is inextricably meshed with politicians that reforming just one does not bear results till the other is also reformed. It’s like buying new tyres for an old car but not replacing the battery…bound to stall somewhere.
      On the US versus China model, the US us a very highly decentralised architecture. We are very centralised like China so the decentralisation they have done has greater relevance. But neither model replicates the Indian context.

  3. It is not small g which is at fault. It is Chidambram and the bigger G, NCAC.
    Chidambram drafted and steered through parliament, the anti corruption law, holding bureaucrats guilty for losses caused to the state even where they had made no money. This a decision which was bad in hindsight became corruption. With that law every sensible official became a file pusher.
    The only ones taking decisions were those who got up in the morning saying Sarfaroshi ki tamanna ab hamare Dil mein hai. Dekhne hai zorh kitna bazue CBI Mein hai.
    Most officials are more interested in a career and will not risk jail time. So it is Chidambrams law which paralyzed the small G.
    The NAC the bigger G tied down governance in the UPA. Jairam Ramesh and Jayanti Natarajan, with full support of the biggest G, the Gandhi family brought many a project to a halt, damaging the track record of the UPA. The Modi government, just by not having a Jayanti or Jairam and completing the projects started by the MMS government have delivered on infrastructure.
    The UPA was killed not by Modi but by the NAC and assorted chamchas of the Gandhi family.

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