Time for Modi 2.01 governance reform

Time for Modi 2.01 governance reform

By M.D. Nalapat | 23 May, 2015
PM Narendra Modi
As Prime Minister, Narendra Modi will need to harness Civil Society alongside the Civil Services to administer the whole of India.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi powered the BJP to its Lok Sabha majority by convincing voters that he would be an entirely different Prime Minister from what Manmohan Singh was. The promise was believed because of his performance in Gujarat, where he delivered government services to the population in a relatively efficient manner. That was "Modi 1.01", but now that he has been given responsibility for the entire country, what is needed is "Modi 2.0", an operating system geared towards effective all-India governance, with 21st century characteristics such as freedom of information and involvement of civil society in decision-making, in particular by drawing upon a much greater pool of talent than is found within the IAS, members of which transit from Archaeology to Fisheries before moving on to Agriculture and thence to Defence. That caste is still flourishing in India becomes clear from the hierarchical gradation into IAS, IFS, IPS, Other Central Services, State Services and still lower echelons of the bureaucracy. This is a system marked by very little permeability from a "lower" service to the "higher", in a country of the young where upward mobility ought to be the norm.

It is a system based on official mistrust of the citizen and of each other, and which therefore creates multiple layers which succeed in preventing an officer from taking the timely decisions needed if the country is to achieve results close to its potential. The CAGs and the CVCs have staff which know that finding out even minor or imaginary errors of procedure is key to their career prospects. Each government agency has a Vigilance Officer, usually drawn from that most incorruptible of services, the IPS, which frequently gets used to punish tiresome but straightforward officials by launching enquiries against them, while protecting the dishonest. It is a system where decision-making powers get concentrated at the top. In the MEA, for example, rather than the Joint Secretaries (who ought to have the final responsibility for most decisions), several matters reach the Foreign Secretary and even the External Affairs Minister, when not referred to the Prime Minister, with the National Security Advisor close at hand for a second opinion. Throughout the administration, a rule of thumb needs to get enforced that at least 50% of the files will stop at the Deputy or Under-Secretary level, while 75% of the remainder will not go beyond the Joint Secretary. This would leave the Secretary and Additional Secretary-rank officials the leisure they need to look at issues in a broader context, rather than constantly be asked to put out fires which could have been extinguished at much lower levels, had discretion been given, and which indeed are inherent in the processes followed by the system.

Battling corruption is essential, but a distinction needs to get made between major acts of misfeasance and minor ones, just as the common cold is different in its side effects from typhoid. By lumping each such action together, the focus which ought to be there on major misdemeanours, gets shifted to myriad smaller examples, with a consequent weakening of oversight and therefore accountability. The central vigilance agencies — including the CBI — ought to get involved only in cases where the level of illicit reward in a year is at least Rs 10 crore, and these should be pursued ruthlessly rather than the way Ranjit Sinha operated. State-level agencies ought to get involved only in cases where in a year, above Rs 1 crore of bribe has been suspected of being collected, rather than chase after smaller depredators, who can be left to the police to handle rather than to specialised agencies.

Despite the evident success of having experts at the top of ministries such as Space and Atomic Energy, such an experiment has yet to be carried out in other departments, where generalists reign, for whom process is all-important and product insignificant. Within even specialised services such as the IFS, officers move from East Asia to the Passport Office, or to South America from the Gulf countries, while as yet there is no systematic effort to ensure that a cadre of business development officials gets created. Neither is there any cross-pollination between the world outside government and that inside, whereas movement into and out of the two ought to be encouraged, with those leaving for stints outside having their prospects on return brightened rather than dimmed or (as is now the case) eliminated. CM Narendra Modi ran Gujarat through the Civil Service, but as PM, will need to harness Civil Society alongside the Services to administer the whole of India with the efficiency he showed in his former job. Now that a year is almost over since his taking over as Pradhan Sevak, it is time for Modi 2.01, so that his years as PM witness the transformation of our 19th century legal and administrative system into a recognisably 21st century construct.

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