The advent of Narendra Modi’s leadership at the national level was in a large measure the outcome of the ringing call he gave for a clean government, an effective delivery and a strong defence. The first was the easiest to ensure as he was personally beyond reproach in terms of what all had come to be associated with the word “corruption” in public life and also since a clear majority gave him freedom to choose a ministerial team that would not be flawed on that count. The practice of a periodical evaluation by him personally of how his ministers were doing would guarantee that further. India continues to be in need of the assurance that the members of the Council of Ministers were people of financial integrity. They may not be amongst the most competent elements in public life, but so long as they worked with devotion and an awareness of what was good for the country, they would justify the faith reposed in them.
It is the second and the third parts of the clarion call given by Modi about improving delivery in general and removing roadblocks to the build up of India’s defence and security in particular, that are presently in the focus of public attention. The process of improving governance begins at the top and Prime Minister Modi’s visible success in this must also be credited to the quality and efficacy of the PMO team—a body that has worked with remarkable unobtrusiveness while monitoring the performance of all wings of government. It has ensured corrective intervention at the highest level whenever this was needed. Media reports indicate how special attention is being given to the restoration of the steel frame that India’s bureaucracy was expected to provide for the governance of this vast democracy. There had been a constant rusting and decline of that instrument with the politician-bureaucracy-criminal nexus acquiring a firm grip in recent times and the citizens facing it all with despair or cynicism. The move therefore to get officials of “integrity” and “objectivity” to man senior positions in the government is coming not a day too soon. Both are traits that travel top down.
This idea of reform needs a further elaboration. The senior posts in bureaucracy are leadership positions and anyone there has to have three defining attributes of leadership: power of authenticity, effectiveness of differentiation, and ability to take knowledge-based decisions. None of these can come into play unless there was integrity and objectivity.
Power of authenticity comes to a man who did not show a gap between word and action, who was not swayed by gossip and who was considered trustworthy by those working for him. Further, a person in position of leadership must have the competence to distinguish what was significant from what was not, in any situation. This in turn derives from an ability to see the “bigger picture” behind what was there in front. And finally, today’s leader in the matrix of governance has to take a decision on the basis of information that is presented and not out of any personal whims, fancies or notions of arbitrary power. The recruitment to All India Services did ensure that persons of reasonably high degree of academic and intellectual brilliance got in. The government provided a resourceful career to the IAS and IPS right from the start, which was quiet a lot, considering the general economic situation of India. Resorting to corruption, with or without the nod from the political superiors, is, therefore, a betrayal of the trust of the nation. The government would be justified in applying in-service filters to select only those officers for higher responsibilities, who showed promise of carrying the country forward in conjunction with the political executive, on the shared foundations of integrity and objectivity.
It is not too difficult to apply these yardsticks of selection to bureaucrats and executives of government enterprises. Image and reputation are not built artificially and in any ministry or government organisation there is enough internal transparency for any discreet inquiry to reveal who stood where in the eyes of the peers and subordinates. For more crucial appointments, Intelligence Bureau’s view of the concerned individual can be taken. IB’s methods remain fact-based and apolitical. Finally, if there is an interview before selection that would help.
Corruption, political-bureaucratic collusion and unhindered rise through promotions that blindly rested on seniority created a setting in which many bureaucrats merrily connived in the scams that have surfaced in recent years. Many of these have embraced strategic domains like defence, security, and telecom. This happened because corruption in its baser form—making money for personal enrichment at the cost of what was good for the country—had gone on unchecked. As a consequence, there was no accountability for lack of delivery.
That Modi’s PMO is determined to put a stop to this ongoing decay of governance is to be applauded. The black sheep of the past in scams like Agusta Westland and Coal block distribution would be brought to justice only when the steel frame is reset to work with integrity and objectivity. Once this becomes a reality, bureaucrats will have no fear that their decisions would haunt them in the future. A concept that was the hallmark of the intelligence organisation would then prevail in all wings of governance: no failure would be considered absolute so long as it could be described as a sincere effort that did not succeed. In the restored steel frame, an honest decision taken with recorded reasoning would be accepted even if it yielded suboptimal results.
D.C. Pathak is a former Director, Intelligence Bureau