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Babus denied access to Cabinet meetings

December 21, 2005 17:19 IST

Without much ado, Prime Minister Manmohan Singhhas barred senior officers from the Union Cabinet. From the days of Jawaharlal Nehru, senior officers belonging to various ministries whose matters figured on the agenda sat behind their political masters at Cabinet meetings. They would assist the minister in charge whenever asked to do so, explaining at length the intricacies of the issues on hand, and often answer queries from various ministers present. The practice was so routine that secretaries and senior babus had taken for granted that they would always be present.

Not any more, though. Worried about the leakage of deliberations in the Cabinet to the media, Dr Singh took the unusual step of clamping down on the presence of all officers. As before, officers whose items figure on the agenda gather at the Prime Minister's Office, but, instead of sitting behind their ministers, they wait in an adjoining room, chit-chatting among themselves.

More often than not, the Cabinet endorses their proposals without bothering to hear from the top-most officials of the concerned ministries. Which by itself is a surprise given the number of untutored ministers in the art of governance in the present Cabinet. However, on the rare occasion when a babu is summoned by the minister concerned to clarify a point or two, he is at a disadvantage as he is not privy to the preceding discussion.

The upshot of the ban on babus is that they are unaware of decisions taken by the Cabinet, even about proposals directly concerning their ministries. Invariably, they have to wait for several days for the circulation of the minutes of the meeting to find out if a proposal has been approved, disapproved or deferred. As some ministers in charge of important portfolios are not conversant fully with official matters concerning their ministries, the absence of secretaries creates further confusion in the higher echelons of bureaucracy.

What is most ironical is that senior bureaucrats are to be kept out at a time when the Right to Information Act has come into force. It is hard to square Dr Singh's decision to deny senior babus a peep into the minds of their political masters while the Act has empowered ordinary citizens to demand information on the inner workings of government.

Frugal fare from this Prime Minister

Speaking of Cabinet meetings, another change noticed by old hands is the frugal refreshment offered at cabinet meetings after Manmohan Singh became prime minister When Atal Bihari Vajpayeewas in the saddle, there was a vast variety of quality eats and drinks on the menu, often provided by a five-star hotel. Liveried waiters would ply Indian and Western refreshments to ministers and officials present.

Now, one is fortunate to get a biscuit or two, with a cup of lukewarm tea or coffee. But then, Vajpayee was known to relish his jalebis and samosas, while his successor shuns munching between meals and is a man of very frugal habits, indeed.

Extra-legal hands in government

When it comes to dealing with all matters legal, the central government's situation continues to be quite anomalous. Attorney General of India Milon Bannerjee, hardly argues the official brief, preferring to step aside while senior counsel or his well-regarded juniors do duty for him in various courts.

As for Law Minister Hansraj Bhardwaj, it is no secret that the prime minister has increasingly come to rely on Minister for Science and Technology Kapil Sibal and Finance Minister P Chidambaramfor advice on matters that directly fall in the domain of the ministry of law and justice.

When the Paul Volcker report hit the headlines, Dr Singh asked Sibal and Chidambaram to go through the report and brief him about the complicity or otherwise of the two non-contractual Indian beneficiaries named. Bhardwaj was kept out of the loop even though the prime minister wanted the report evaluated from a legal standpoint.

We are like that only

Why blame politicians alone when every facet of society is immersed in corruption?

A couple of days before the recent Sri Lanka-India Test at the Ferozshah Kotla in Delhi, the fire department sent notice that the under-construction stadium did not have its clearance and that, therefore, the match could not be held. Naturally, the hosting committee panicked. It had taken all care to follow the standard fire department procedures and regulations and did not quite understand the last-minute objection.

To satisfy them fully, the hosts invited the fire department for an inspection, which didn't reveal anything amiss. The inspectors went back satisfied but wouldn't still provide the go-ahead. A few hours later, they sent word that the clearance would be forthcoming provided the department was given 400 complimentary passes. The trade-off was readily accepted. Likewise, the hosts gave 2,000 complimentary passes to the Delhi police, an equal number to the Delhi Municipal Corporation, besides a host of other agencies that were in a position, directly or indirectly, to create obstacles.

Incidentally, no other Test centre in the country is obliged to hand out as many free tickets as the Delhi and District Cricket Association is known to have done for several decades now. Indeed, over half the sitting capacity at the Kotla ground is for freebooters.

In breach of protocol

Regardless of the prescribed protocol drill, Sonia Gandhiis given top billing by ministers belonging to the Congress Party. On December 13, at a small function in the Parliament house complex organised to pay homage to those who died fighting terrorists who had attacked Parliament, Minister for Parliamentary Affairs Priyaranjan Dashmunsi reverently received Sonia while being pointedly perfunctory in welcoming two bonafide State dignitaries.

The prime minister was away in Malaysia for the extended ASEAN summit meeting, but Vice-President Bhairon Singh Shekhawat and Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterjee attended the ceremony. For the minister, Sonia came ahead of them in protocol, according to a slew of MPs present.

A stillborn biography

Weeks before he was turfed out of ministerial office following the Volcker Committee revelations, K Natwar Singh was toying with the idea of having someone write his biography. He had shortlisted a publisher and also zeroed in on a well-spoken Indian Foreign Service officer to handle his dictation while he himself gathered material, including testimonials from world leaders.

But the Volcker bomb duly put paid to his ambition. The publisher must feel mighty relieved, given that after the oily taint on his prospective subject, there would have been few takers for what was necessarily meant to be a laudatory biography.

Illustrations: Uttam Ghosh

Virendra Kapoor