Last week MEA attempted a leap into the unknown, a potential blow to the caste system of the Indian bureaucracy. An advertisement for research assistants in the policy planning and research division of the foreign ministry is expected to open the door to ‘outside’ talent to add some zing to the musty corridors of South Block. The more optimistic have entertained thoughts that this could be the thin end of the wedge for lateral entry of normal Indians into government.
For a country of over a billion people, we have a remarkably talent-starved government. This is after all a nation that produces some of the best brains which are hoovered up by multinationals or foreign countries. Our private sector does not do too badly either, particularly in knowledge-based industries, finance and banking — in fact, Russians regularly grumble that Indians would naturally take over the running of the Brics Bank because ‘you guys are all over the international financial system’.
So why is there a Lakshman Rekha between the nation and the system that runs it?
When Prime Minister Narendra Modi was elected last year, his mandate was for transformational not incremental governance. He was expected to get the system cracking and move India into a different orbit. What we see a year later is the PM personally working impossible hours and trying to push uphill a very large rock called ‘The Establishment’.
Whether the rock crests the hill or whether he is squashed trying will determine, to a large extent, how India moves forward and how distant will be our goal of becoming a global power. One thing is certain — he’s not going to get there with the crop he has on hand.
The battle is between generalists and specialists, between those who have toiled through the ranks after clearing a general aptitude test called UPSC decades ago and those who have spent those years specialising in specific domains and are generally on top of their game.
Some cracks have already emerged:
Which may be why in one year we have celebrated under double-digit cracks in the glass wall, including Adil Zainulbhai as head of Quality Council of India, K V Kamath as chairman of Brics Bank and Arvind Panagariya in Niti Aayog. This isn’t to say that bureaucrats don’t step up to the plate when called to — one only has to see their phenomenal achievements during, say, Libya and Yemen evacuations or relief to Nepal. But those are special times when regular rules don’t apply.
Let’s start with the PM’s office — by all accounts this is a large one under Modi, and most decisions in the government, big or small, get thrown up there. The system there has not changed probably since the infant years of the Indian republic. So there is the regular alphabet soup of secretaries — joint, additional or deputy — balancing agriculture and culture, with minimal interest or knowledge of either. Meanwhile, the Union Cabinet is clearing MoUs on healthcare cooperation with Burkina Faso or cultural exchanges with Timor-Leste.
Why? It’s not because Modi is the great centraliser, but much more because the system has evolved so that even such minor matters go right up to the top. Can he think differently, perhaps? The Australian PM is armed with something called ‘PM in Cabinet’, a kind of PM’s thinktank — whose job it is to make policy recommendations for different sectors. Instead of his current setup could Modi conceive of an office with mini-verticals for major areas like energy, education, economy, etc where a more specialised army of secretaries would be tasked with pushing the government agenda through the system, to speed up decision making?
Well, there was Montek in Plan Com as well. We have had business heads/experts heading quality council type committees/councils earlier as well.
I doubt whether this is a wholly new thing. Just that it has not been sustained for a long enough time. Moreover, the real problem has been all such appointments of so called outsiders just happens at a senior level. Most of such senior officials are already shadow bureaucrats in the sense that they already know the givt and are close to it. Most appointments are actually driven on those knowing/cosying basis. Most of the time no big changes really happen and all such people also end up pushing their known people. So one club replace the another and we have more talk and less action.
What needs to be done instead is to allow appointments at a junior level as well. It is this space where things are just closed and shut for outsiders. And it is here there is serious deficit of implementing public policy as it is junior officers who do the basic nuts and bolts kind of work.
High time we open up all these temples to common man, Discrimination has been there for a very long time now..