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Next PM must ensure Dr Singh's mistakes aren't repeated

Last updated on: April 07, 2014 16:21 IST

The next prime minister must ensure that the mistakes made by Manmohan Singh during his tenure are not repeated, notes A K Bhattacharya.

A change of government at the Centre is on the cards. Whether the new government is led by the Bharatiya Janata Party's prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi or someone else from any other political party, a key to the success of the new leadership would be how it chooses to use the available administrative apparatus and various wings of the government.

Not surprisingly, therefore, civil servants in different departments of the central government are busy these days debating and discussing what went wrong in the last 10 years with the administration and what the new government ought to focus on to make amends.

One of the main failures of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in his 10-year long tenure was that he did precious little in terms of making the administration more effective and efficient. This was a disappointment since he was a product of the government system, having worked in various capacities in different departments for several decades before taking charge as finance minister in the early 1990s and then as prime minister in 2004. The new prime minister must draw the right lessons from Singh's mistakes.

Lesson number one for the new prime minister would be that he must assert his right to choose key members of the Union council of ministers. Singh suffered from a handicap in this area. Congress president Sonia Gandhi was seen to be exercising her right to nominate people of her choice in key ministerial portfolios and Singh had no option but to accept them. The new prime minister, expected to take oath sometime in the latter half of next month, should try hard to retain that right for himself. If Modi happens to be the next prime minister with substantial seat strength for the BJP in the Lok Sabha, as many people believe, there should be no such problem. He is known to be a man of clear choices and will brook no interference in selecting his own team of ministers.

But if the outcome of the election is a coalition government and the prime minister has to necessarily take the views of his coalition partners on board before choosing his ministerial team, the problem is likely to recur and even get complicated. Even if the prime minister fails to get all the ministers of his choice, he would do well not to repeat Singh's second mistake. This would be lesson number two. Singh allowed his ministers to choose the top bureaucrats heading the ministries. Even in the Prime Minister's Office or PMO, Singh had to make a few compromises, after being unable to choose some of the officers he wanted in his team. This was in stark contrast to his stint as finance minister, where he had full freedom from his prime minister, P V Narasimha Rao, to have a team of secretaries that was entirely his choice.

Several civil servants, some of them retired, believe that by allowing the ministers to appoint secretaries in their departments of their choice, Singh lost control of the government. The secretaries owed their allegiance and survival to the ministers and not necessarily to the prime minister. Thus, a telecommunications minister could have a secretary of his choice and influence his decisions or a finance minister could insist on a certain civil servant to be the secretary in his ministry, even though the prime minister would have preferred somebody else, who was seen as more competent. The new prime minister must reassert his right to choose the top bureaucrats not only in the PMO, but also in the key ministries at the Centre.

The third lesson to which the he new prime minister must pay attention is to revive the institution of the cabinet secretariat. A strong cabinet secretariat can help the prime minister and his team to get decisions implemented efficiently and quickly. It should be treated as an important and necessary link between the large number of civil servants who have to implement policy decisions, and the political leadership. Unfortunately, that link is no longer as strong as it should be. This distortion should be corrected.

There are two more radical changes that the new prime minister should consider to improve governance. One, it is time the new government severed the connection between public sector undertakings (there are about 260 of them, excluding the state-controlled banks and insurance companies) and the ministries. The idea of attaching public sector undertakings to their administrative ministries has outlived its utility. The time has come to end the cosy relationship that these state-controlled units have with their administrative ministries. There should be a debate over this and one idea could be to shift these undertakings to either a new organisation or to the PMO.

Finally, the Planning Commission as a body needs a close relook. Its utility and relevance need to be reassessed. The Commission has a huge pool of manpower resources, including experts and learned advisors on various sectors of the economy. These experts should either be utilised effectively or reallocated to the various Union ministries so that they can play a more effective role in decision-making. The current administrative set-up is not geared to optimally utilising such a large body like the Planning Commission for improving governance. In many ways, the widening gap between thinkers and doers in the government is symbolised by the Planning Commission. The thinkers in the Commission should be mainstreamed by making them a part of the ministries that are expected to be the doers in the system.

A K Bhattacharya
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