Towards the middle of the first stint of the Narendra Modi government, a group of senior civil servants appeared quite flustered. The department of personnel had silently introduced a new concept of running a 360-degree scrutiny of a bureaucrat's career before promoting him or her to the highest position in the administration for an official " secretary to the Government of India.
Many top bureaucrats were denied the upgrade as they could not beat the sweeping inquisition. The prime minister's additional principal secretary, PK Mishra, a Gujarat-cadre officer, turned into the favourite whipping boy for the disgruntled lot as he was considered responsible for instituting this new practice. But the message had gone down loud and clear " in promotion, performance would count more than pedigree.
However, the problem was somewhere else. Over three decades of its experience in dealing with weak governments at the Centre, often unsettled by regional satraps, the bureaucracy had practically turned tone-deaf and failed to pick up the change in tune since the beginning of Modi's first stint as prime minister. In essence, his message was quite unambiguous " come what may, merit will not be given a short shrift because of other considerations.
As Modi kicked off his second innings in 2019, he reaffirmed the message for the bureaucracy. In a meeting of secretaries, he egged them on to take decisions for people's welfare in a manner as if every individual is prime minister. The implicit communication is that the bureaucracy will be given full protection for its bona fide mistakes. After the policy paralysis that gripped the government during the UPA regime, and its shadow lingered even in the first five years of the Modi government, the prime minister's assurance is clearly intended to break the jinx. It appears to be a determined push for the bureaucracy to come out of the inertia that defined the government's functioning.
Interestingly, this persuasive talk by Modi at the secretaries' meeting also coincided with the government's decision to forcibly retire 27-odd senior officials of the Indian Revenue Service (IRS) following serious allegations of corruption and misconduct against them. They were compulsorily retired by using Fundamental Rule 56(j) (1) of the general financial rules of the central government services that empowers the government to weed out non-performing bureaucrats. This was not the first time that the government used this clause to remove "deadwood". In his first stint also, Modi sacked about a dozen bureaucrats under this rule which was rarely used in the past.
But what appears to have got the bureaucracy's goat is a recent missive from the department of personnel to identify and weed out senior civil servants by conducting regular evaluation of their performance. It is a clear indication of the government's determined attempt to reset the equilibrium between the political executive and the civil servants, and disrupt the notion of "permanent bureaucracy" being used as a shield for protection by corrupt and errant officials. In effect, it means that the institution of permanent bureaucracy, as defined by civil servants, does not mean guaranteed jobs for the dishonest and deviant.
This along with a slew of other recent measures that the government has undertaken are expected to transform the bureaucracy beyond recognition. Take for the instance the manner in which the Union government is all set to reorient young bureaucrats to the functioning of the Centre and the state government. For the past four years, all new recruits in the civil services have been interacting with top functionaries in the government to understand how the gargantuan apparatus of State functions. In their Mussoorie academy, probationers are mentored by officials of the secretary level to familiarise them with the task ahead. In a sequel to these measures, four batches of IAS and IPS officials were mandatorily posted to the government as assistant secretary and given rotational assignments in all departments, including the Prime Minister's Office, to understand the complexities of governance.
A senior government officer revealed that these probationers are often divided into various groups and asked to prepare detailed reports on how they would approach a problem. All such reports are scrutinised by officers of the level of secretaries to the government of India before being finally presented to the prime minister. "As of now we have four batches of young IAS officers, posted in their cadre states, who are familiar with the functioning of the Centre and PMO, and also have personal interaction with the prime minister, the top political executive," the officer pointed out.
At the same time, the department of personnel has paved the way for lateral entry into the top echelon of bureaucracy by recruiting nearly 40 officials at the level of joint secretary from the private sector. These officials are being brought in to plug the talent deficit in the government and encourage transformation in the work culture, which is usually hamstrung by red tape. Of course, there is bound to be scepticism about the efficacy of such a move as hidebound civil servants frown upon lateral entry. But Modi seems fully determined to take this experiment to its logical end.
After a long gap, the bureaucracy has been unambiguously told to align itself with the government's agenda and do what is expected. But it may take a little longer for officials to shake off their tone-deafness accumulated over decades and recognise the real message.
Babu, samjho ishaare: