Bureacrats fleeing from Modi's Delhi: A 'control freak' PM is not the only reason

Narendra Modi’s secret weapon in the Gujarat success story was supposed to have been the bureaucrat.

Bureaucrats in Delhi, long accustomed to short shrift from power-puffed mantri-jis, spoke longingly about their colleagues in Delhi. The Chief Minister actually listens to the civil servant. He empowers the babu to make things happen. And he does it fast. The story was he liked to get briefed by ministers and by the time they walked out of his office, he would take action.

Someone who had worked with Modi the Chief Minister had this to say about him.

"I have seen the ability of Modi to pick and choose and empower able technocrats and bureaucrats. He has a keen eye for that. He himself does not have to intellectually and technologically strong. But few have the talent to sniff out good people as he does."

Representative image. AFP

Representative image. AFP

But by “good people” the person meant technocrats and bureaucrats, not ministers. A senior BJP member tells NDTV that Modi as PM has continued the Gujarat model of governance. “This was no secret that the government in Gujarat was run by Modi through his bureaucrats, who often bypassed the ministers and spoke to him directly and Modi often held direct video conferences with them at the district level. He is now doing the same with Chief Secretaries of states. He holds regular meets with top secretaries in the government of India.”

A September 2014 report in Business Standard said that both Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh and Home Secretary Anil Goswami brief the PM directly, bypassing their ministers Sushma Swaraj and Rajnath Singh.

That makes it sound like it should be Ram Rajya for an ambitious bureaucrat under the Modi sarkar.

So, if everything is so great for the top bureaucrats, why are they fleeing Delhi? The Times of India reports that at least 56 IAS officers have prematurely left their central postings for state cadres since May 2014 – a “back-to-the-parent-state movement” which is very rare. In 2013, only three IAS left the Centre prematurely.

There’s no way to say definitively that bureaucrats are fleeing the heat of Modi sarkar (and we do not mean Delhi’s killer summer). Some are returning to their states as Chief Secretary though some secretary-rank officers in the defence ministry have left because of the “hard work” says the same report.

That means no more long leisurely lunches at Delhi Gymkhana club says another report in the Business Standard. It’s easier to get a table for lunch at IIC. The driveways of the Delhi Golf Club are deserted during office hours. Attendance and punctuality is tracked through a biometric system.

Central government officers who still have a five day week schedule are often at work on Saturdays clearing files because “there is no telling when the PMO will call asking for a file.” “Earlier I would hold a cabinet note for a month, now I have to clear it in three days,” says a finance ministry officer to Business Standard.

That might make it appear that only the slothful senior bureaucrat who wanted to ride out his tenure in a cushy posting in the capital is fleeing the city. But the cadre has no shortage of ambitious bureaucrats chafing to make a difference.

What’s more intriguing than those leaving are those not coming. TOI reports, few from the states appear eager to fill the vacancies. Only four IAS officers came forward against 30 vacancies in the joint secretary rank and one of those picked Bengaluru finally.

So what’s the problem?

Some of it is technical. TOI says the pool of available officers has shrunk because of delays in empanelment that allow central service officers to be eligible for the ranks of joint secretary and above. But Mihir Srivastava in Outlook quotes a cabinet secretary as complaining about the Prime Minister being both “a control freak and a travel freak”. That means in mid-March some 6,000 files were pending as opposed to 1,500 during Manmohan Singh’s time.

Meanwhile, the number of vacancies at director and joint secretary level had crossed 80 in April 2015 with many organizations headless or stretched thin with the director of the Indian Institute of Integrative Medicine in Jammu also overseeing the Central Drug Research Institute in Lucknow some 1,000 km away. The Cabinet Appointments Committee, writes Srivastava has been rendered “redundant”. Bureaucrats cannot lobby for posts in departments aligned to their education and aptitude. While that might have been intended to curtail potential for corruption, it also leads to discontent. And there is concern that some of the appointment delays are to accommodate RSS ideologues.

There are other more insidious factors. Like language. Business Standard writes that the new dispensation’s “emphasis on Hindi for all official work has left some bureaucrats, mainly from South India, in a tizzy.” The story goes that a senior official in the agriculture ministry was sent back to his parent cadre for failing to take a note in Hindi. And everyone is nervous about the moles who are reporting back to Big Brother.

“The fear factor is at play,” a joint secretary tells Srivastava in a coffee shop. “We are just carrying out instructions. We get very specific instructions, several times not in writing. You can’t afford to not act on such verbal communications and you can’t act on it unless due process is followed.”

None of this means that there is some bureaucratic mutiny in the offing. But it also shows that the bureaucracy - the much-vaunted weapon in Operation Remake India – could prove to be a double-edged sword for the Prime Minister.

Updated Date: Jul 10, 2015 21:56 PM

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