'In the process of re-setting the equation between the bureaucracy and the political executive, the features that traditionally defined the bureaucracy will undergo a gradual metamorphosis in the next five years and may acquire a distinctly different character.'
Ajay Singh reports.
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed a group of 130-odd new recruits to the Indian Administrative Service on July 2, he told them there would be a fundamental shift in the culture of governance.
These recruits are to be appointed assistant secretaries to the Government of India (their first posting) before being finally dispatched to their allotted cadre.
These officers will be rotated to various departments, including the Prime Minister’s Office, to familiarise themselves with the functioning of the central government.
At the same time, they were asked to make presentations on changes that they intend to bring about in the culture of governance.
These presentations, prepared under the guidance of officials of the level of secretary to the Government of India, are intended to educate them about planning things meticulously.
In the process, they are expected to learn how the government functions at the top-most level.
In the past five years, this is the fifth batch in a row since 2015 when each officer has personally met Modi and can claim to have a basic understanding of governance at the Centre.
These officers, when repatriated to their cadres in states, will be better trained to deal with issues that concern the Centre and states.
The idea of the National Democratic Alliance government exposing trainee IAS and IPS officials to the central government’s functioning before their final induction initially met with reservation.
Mamata Banerjee, chief minister of West Bengal and a bitter critic of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led NDA government, resisted the idea but was unable to do much in the face of the Centre’s determined push to go ahead with the plan.
These initiatives were taken after a great deal of planning.
In 2017, Modi spent nearly two days interacting with a diverse group of nearly 400 civil servants in the foundation course during workshops at the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration in Mussoorie.
They were asked to prepare presentations to be submitted to the prime minister to help improve governance.
“The idea was to catch them young and train them to align with the government’s agenda,” said an official involved in drawing up the training strategy.
In his address, Modi pointed out that the combination of experience and freshers’ perspective would help improve governance.
But this is not the only initiative that could radically alter the complexion of the Indian bureaucracy.
Take, for instance. the decision of the lateral entry of 10-odd officers at the level of joint secretary and 40-odd officials at the level of deputy secretary in the central government.
Almost all these officers, drawn from the private sector, would be given a crash course in governance before finally being deputed to take charge.
The Indian Institute of Public Administration in Delhi is being readied as the first training ground for these officials.
For dyed-in-the-wool bureaucrats, lateral entry of private sector executives into the hallowed precincts of power is nothing short of unacceptable.
Yet this innovative experience of mixing private sector experience in governance is intended to change the work culture and create a better synergy between the private sector and the government.
It is too early to assess the real impact of these initiatives.
But what’s evident is a re-setting of equations between the political executive and permanent bureaucracy in the past five years.
There is no doubt that the bureaucracy is re-orienting itself to work under a strong government whose sustenance is not dependent on coalition partners.
A generation of bureaucrats who climbed up the seniority ladder since 1989 has found this experience quite unique.
For instance, the department of personnel silently introduced a 360-degree verification of the career of a bureaucrat before promoting him or her to the position of additional secretary or secretary to the Government of India.
In the past five years, many bureaucrats were denied promotion on the basis of this critical scrutiny, which caused a flutter in the ranks.
Those denied promotion would often criticise the PMO for introducing a methodology by which every aspect of a bureaucrat’s career is analysed, even his/her relations with subordinate staff.
The government is aware of this criticism but attributes it to the loss of a sense of entitlement among bureaucrats for promotion by virtue of their seniority in service.
That there is pressure on the bureaucracy to adapt itself to working with a stable and strong government is clear.
The message was conveyed unambiguously when the government forced the retirement of 27 officials from the Indian Revenue Service on charges of misdemeanour and corruption immediately after Modi took over as prime minister for the second time.
The message was loud and clear: The bureaucracy might be a permanent “steel frame”. But it does not guarantee jobs for deviants.
In the process of re-setting this equation between the bureaucracy and the political executive, the features that traditionally defined the bureaucracy will undergo a gradual metamorphosis in the next five years and may acquire a distinctly different character.
The change has already begun: Silently, and at the top.