After being called everything from Underachiever to Poodle, maybe it’s time to give Manmohan Singh the one appellation that truly belongs to him: Super Bureaucrat.
Despite more than 13 years as a politician – five years as FM and over eight as PM – it is clear that the political turban doesn’t quite fit Singh. He has strong survival instincts, but his political clout is lower than his designation implies.
Manmohan Singh has been a bureaucrat for much, much longer than he has been a politician, and it’s apparent that this is the role he is cut out for. When he was Narasimha Rao’s chosen reformer in 1991, Manmohan Singh was FM, but in reality he played the role of a bureaucrat coming up with technocratic solution. Rao managed the politics and Manmohan played Babu dressed up as Neta.
In the current political interregnum between Pranab Mukherjee’s exit and Sonia Gandhi’s next political move before the next general elections, Manmohan Singh has a small window of opportunity to be truly boss of the bureaucracy – and that is what he is doing.
While his own babu-based kitchen cabinet includes C Rangarajan in the PM’s Economic Advisory Council and Montek Singh Ahluwalia at the Planning Commission, he has also changed the earlier decision-making structure in which pre-eminence was given to politically-driven Empowered Groups of Ministers (eGoMs).
P Chidambaram’s spectrum eGoM, for example, is more GoM that eGoM, as key decisions like spectrum pricing will be taken by cabinet.
Now, The Economic Times reports that Manmohan Singh is using more bureaucratic committees to find technocratic solutions to policy issues instead of flogging the eGoMs.
The process began last October, when Pulok Chatterjee took over as Principal Secretary in the PMO, and by January he was heading several inter-ministerial committees, including those on coal and power. That nothing much came of it owed much to the fact that eGoMs headed by Pranab Mukherjee still ruled the roost.
When politicians are at play, bureaucrats are held at bay.
Now, of course, it’s back to babu-raj, or rule by committee, where it is not ministers, but experts who take policy calls. The ET report mentions at least five committees headed by bureaucrats or outside technocrats. Among them: the GAAR (General Anti Avoidance Rules) review committee headed by Parthasarathi Shome of ICRIER, a panel headed by the cabinet secretary to review defence pay and pensions, a panel under the telecom secretary to oversee a national fibre optic network, an inter-ministerial panel headed by BK Chaturvedi of the Planning Commission to review hydel projects on the Ganga, and another committee of the Planning Commission to monitor public-private participation projects.
While bureaucrats have always been part of key decision-making committees, what is significant this time is the near absence of political ballast in the UPA government. With Pranab Mukherjee gone, lightweight politician AK Antony is No 2, and Chidambaram is on a leash. Key allies like Trinamool and DMK are a state of limbo. While DMK has been in the doghouse after the charge-sheeting of A Raja and the exit of Dayanidhi Maran from the cabinet, Trinamool has been cut to size more recently with the entry of Mulayam Singh Yadav as a temporary prop to the UPA.
In UPA-1, and even in UPA-2 till the time of Raja’s departure from the ministry, politicians put bureaucrats in the shade as key allies concentrated power in their hands and Congress heavyweights like Mukherjee and Chidambaram playing their own political roles. In his heyday, Mukherjee headed more than 25 eGoMs.
Now, suddenly there is a vacuum – and this is the vacuum Super Bureaucrat Manmohan Singh is trying to fill with committees and technocracy.
The situation may not last, as politicians will want their share of power in due course and Sonia Gandhi will want to tighten her grip on key ministries like finance, but for the time being she has given Super Bureaucrat Manmohan Singh a free hand to get the economy moving again.
Manmohan Singh is doing what he is best at: being a Babu rather than a Neta. As a Neta he was an Underachiever. As a Babu he is Topdog - and not a Poodle.