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Getting the govt back on feet: maybe Chavan spoke too soon

It would have been nice if someone had cautioned Prithviraj Chavan, Maharashtra’s Chief Minister from saying, after the fire that devoured three storeys of Mantralaya, that it – and the government — would start functioning from the following Monday. That assurance, or promise, was a pie-in-the-sky type, hard to ensure.

For one, for him and the deputy, Ajit Pawar, to occupy the first and second floors as their sixth floor offices were gutted, needed time. Those who occupied the lower floors had to be vacated. They and their records could not be just picked up and moved as brief cases.

To do that, alternative spaces had to be scouted for and who would go where had to be determined. Then, without their records – files or as confidently said by Chavan hard discs – nothing could be done. Governments do not function without the files, the notes therein and the red tape around them.

AFP

And those records lost have to be rebuilt piece by piece and the priority would be to determine which set of files needed to be reconstructed. Laborious and time consuming task, that. Other offices have to be asked to send copies of copies. Then there are vested interests to contend with — those who would rather not have some files recreated. If you know how hard it is to move a file from one table to another, then the time required for this becomes elastic. Time and expenditure are two things that can stretch illogically in government.

Probably Chavan was trying to convey some reassurance to the public that despite huge slices of its headquarters being lost to a fire, the government was still in command. That is understandable. Tokenism has a place in government and politics and it is what they reach for at the first opportunity.

Like, Morarji Desai did when the new Mantralaya was inaugurated. Not a believer in superstitious humbug, even he had some misgivings when told that the official time fixed for its inauguration was inauspicious. He suddenly came in at a moment which was more propitious and called for a file, wrote ‘OK’ and signed it. The formal inauguration followed later, as the lore goes.

So government back in action from Monday in Mantralaya was just one of the spins the government, especially the politicians in saddle. To believe that a politician would risk his seat by a wrongly located seat would just soon shift to another room is preposterous. Even the rational sometimes give in when the stakes, especially persona, are high. Running a government, from middle to higher echelons is certainly stratospheric, not just high.

Titbits about restarting the governmental machinery are trickling out, point to how arduous the task is, apart from the task of generating new files. Ministers themselves have been scattered, asked to function from their official bungalows which are either opposite Mantralaya, or in Malabar Hills. If Chavan or Pawar were to summon a minister for discussion, it could take as long as the traffic would allow for a commute.

Mantralaya is a place as any government’s seat is, where officials hold meetings with their subordinates, or attend the several meetings with the political boss, day in and day out. They pore over files, make notes and keep it on their side table for ever so long that one would forget where the file was. Then they scuttle about the corridors if summoned by a minister. Some are scheduled, some are not and the latter is where the snag emerges.

The tall Administrative Office, across Mantralaya, is one place where offices are being relocated, even asking the chief election commissioner to ship out; this must have been done with some glee given that the official there is the only one who can put a leash on all politicians and all bureaucrats come election time. Some, like the Home is being asked to sit at the World Trade Centre – glitzy enough to shame any government premises – by paying a rent of Rs 90 lakh a month. That rental is at a cut-rate because the government is in distress.

This means, the government is not yet settled in its offices, and everything is helter-skelter. The government would at best be ‘functioning’ nominally given all the handicaps after it scored a self-goal: did everything it could to make Mantralaya vulnerable and now harvesting its results. It ignored reports recommending improvements, it built illegal structures within – that was because Sushilkumar Shinde had to accommodate the largest ministry – and never thought a fire was a possibility. It was something that can occur elsewhere.

Cut back to March 1993.

The then Chief Minister, Sharad Pawar had said that the serial bombs were set off in Mumbai because the city was the country’s economic powerhouse. That was indicated by the bombing of the Bombay Stock Exchange. He said so to the media and then forgot the implications of what he had said but was clearly a worried man.

The next day, a second Saturday, the day when government too rests, he was alone and brooding in his 6th floor office. Two well-meaning individuals who walked the corridor and found the place eerily quiet saw his personal staff around, indicating the man at the helm was around. They could just walk in and meet him.

It was pointed out to him that having said what he did – attack on the financial powerhouse being a direct hit on the country – he would have to prove that the bid was futile. He should get it working again. It was suggested that he restart the BSE. He perked, met the traders and BE officials, got his trusted officials to work, get the structural audit of the premises done overnight, flew a plane load of portable telephone exchange from Delhi on an IAF aircraft and got it going for the Monday morning trading.

For this, Pawar received a congratulatory message from the then British Prime Minister, John Major, which is proudly displayed to some. He had, he said, stymied the terrorists in succeeding in their design. That was a nice tokenism but that worked because the government made it happen. Here, now, the government itself has to pull itself, restart everything for which time would be consumed. For it to effectively function – effectively as in its usual slothful ways – there is a while yet.

Perhaps, Prithviraj Chavan spoke too soon.

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