Bureaucracy strikes back: Pathankot fiasco indicates that civil servants are sabotaging PM Modi's agenda
On at least three occasions, the Modi government has looked idiotic, and I can only assume that it is the result of deliberate sabotage by civil servants
I have long maintained a hypothesis that public servants simply hate Narendra Modi, even before he became prime minister. I started from the logic that ‘minimum government’ means that bureaucrats wield less power. Then I heard that Modi was winning elections all over Gujarat, with the exception of the capital Gandhinagar. And who lives in Gandhinagar? Of course, bureaucrats! Similarly, who lives in Delhi and votes for AAP? QED.
The old British TV serial Yes, Minister and its successor Yes, Prime Minister had hilarious episodes about how a determined bureaucrat could undermine even the most earnest and well-meaning politician. A wily pen-pusher can use his passive-aggressive weapons of dilatory tactics, insistence on meeting the letter of obscure laws, threats about conflict of interest and so on, to tie a minister in knots and make it impossible for him to achieve anything at all.
In passing, I am reminded of the assertion by a Stanford biologist who studies baboon societies that the best analog he could find for the simians among humans was the British bureaucracy. The alpha males are serenely confident, unstressed and healthy, while the lower-status males are nervous wrecks, suffer from high stress markers, and are run ragged by the whims and fancies of high muckity-mucks. Perhaps this works in reverse too, as ministers are also bullied by officials.
I think this is happening to the Prime Minister. In the early days of his tenure, I was delighted to read stories about how civil servants were checking in to work on time, grudgingly giving up their long lunches and siestas at Delhi golf clubs and the India Habitat Center, and are being monitored on their workflows and efficiency. This happy state of affairs will not last, I told myself.
And sure enough, the bureaucrats have struck back. On at least three recent occasions, the government has looked idiotic, and I can only assume that this is the result of deliberate sabotage by civil servants: the public provident fund debacle, the Pathankot visit by Pakistanis, and the cancellation of trademark applications en masse.
The flip-flop on taxes on provident fund earnings was a public relations disaster, as it irritated one of this government’s stoutest support group: middle-class, middle-income, wage-earners. There was no rhyme or reason for it, and the U-turn made the government look silly. Similarly, retroactive taxation – the beast that refuses to die – is odd, although I admit there are some smart people who think there is justification.
As for the Pakistani fact-finding team visiting Pathankot, all of us knew that no good would come out of it. I wrote years ago in Because it’s their nature, their custom, referring to the Panchatantra tale of the scorpion and the frog, that we cannot realistically expect the Pakistanis to deviate from their usual stratagems. Game theory, and the prisoner’s dilemma game in particular, assure us of this. Yet, the government went ahead and did this, as well as the ill-advised, sudden trip to Lahore. It may have been done under US pressure, but I would not be surprised if it was career civil servants who instigated both these disastrous moves.
The last instance is even more astonishing, even though it is technical in nature. The Controller General of Patents and Trademarks, presumably concerned about a big build up in backlogs on trademark applications, more or less randomly cancelled 200,000 applications around 31 March. In a world that values intellectual property more and more highly, this was a baffling move. Angry applicants and their lawyers, including Prathibha Singh and Sai Krishna, got a stay order from the Delhi High Court.
Why do bureaucrats do these things? Yes, there’s annoyance at their turf being invaded, for sure. But there may be deeper undercurrents: product of decades of plain brainwashing and patronage-distribution. It has been good to be a public servant, especially in Delhi. The loaves and fishes of office have been the perks of officialdom; in addition to straightforward bribes via the License Raj, they have been able to command benefits like overseas education for their children. Half their kids study in the US, and I am sure this fact has not escaped the eagle eyes of the Deep State.
The most entertaining example of this (possibly undeserved) privilege is a Rhodes Scholar offspring of an erstwhile big shot. This person’s saga reminds me of Zorba the Greek, a peasant, who boasts about his father, also a peasant, saying he’s a Rhodes Scholar. When pressed, Zorba confesses that his dad is actually just a scholar from (the Greek island of) Rhodes!
We’re not sure what else has changed hands, and what the quid pro quo has been. But in conversations with retired top civil servants, I have been amazed at how much they have internalised Nehruvian Stalinist memes. These are smart people, but they have drunk the Kool Aid. Nehru-ism all they have known, and they believe in it.
I was at a dinner recently with three senior civil servants, two serving and one retired. I was again amazed at their sniping about the Prime Minister. They talk about him and his cabinet with polite distaste, as though the latter were something the cat dragged in. They are aware of the extent to which the UPA destroyed India’s economics, politics, and geostrategy, and yet they appear to long for the good old Nehruvian days.
The ‘steel frame’, a colonial myth, has now become a positive liability for India. After all, why are district administrators called ‘Collectors’? Their job was to collect, or squeeze, taxes out of colonial subjects. It is high time that administrative positions be opened up to people from industry and academia, rather than maintained as a monopoly by the anointed few.
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