by Harsh Pant Wednesday, 4 February 2015 dna
The Modi government has done the right thing by jolting an ossified bureaucracy
India’s ossified bureaucracy is being shuffled like never before. The most recent development in this realm has been the rather dramatic sacking of Sujatha Singh from the post of the Foreign Secretary and the appointment of S Jaishankar to that position. The rumours about this development were floating around for quite some time. Still, when the decision actually came to replace Singh about seven months before the end of her tenure, it ended up sending shock waves through the complacent Indian foreign policy establishment.
No one seems to be contesting that Jaishankar is a great choice. Yet the critics of the decision have largely focused on bureaucratic niceties by suggesting Jaishankar’s appointment not only curtailed Singh’s career but also ended up blocking the career prospects of some senior Indian Foreign Service (IFS) officers. The reaction of the Congress Party has been rather strange with former information and broadcasting minister Manish Tewari trying to link the action to the Khobragade episode involving an IFS officer who was jailed in the US two years ago for allegedly mistreating her maid. He tweeted: “Is sacking of Foreign Secretary late retribution for her stand on Devyani Khobragade affair? Removal after a Presidential visit ‘coincidental’?”
Such criticisms of the government’s decision are missing the key point. This decision should be viewed as part of a larger, and much needed, bureaucratic shake-up that the Prime Minister is engendering. Just two weeks ago, the government had also terminated the appointment of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) chief Avinash Chander, 15 months before his contract was to end.
Prime Ministers till now have devoted, at best, occasional interest in nuclear and strategic policy issues, mainly preferring to delegate substantial levels of policy making discretion to organisations like the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) and the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). The conduct of the DRDO has been largely driven by an effort to protect its direct communicative link to the Prime Minister, secure recurrent generous funding, and maintain a high level of autonomy. Given its significant budgetary resources in the context of a developing nation, DRDO has repeatedly failed in delivering quality output. Major projects of the DRDO including the Light Combat Aircraft Tejas, Nag missile, Long-range Surface-to-Air missile project and the Airborne Early Warning and Control System have either not been completed on time or have resulted in huge cost overruns. It took the agency almost a decade and a half to operationalise the Agni-I.
The inattention or inability of the Prime Minister’s office so far to take concrete steps to improve the DRDO’s performance and compel it to cooperate with other defence bureaucratic stakeholders has permitted it a remarkable degree of self-governance in budgetary prioritisation, project design and delivery time-scale planning, and setting operational policy through regular statements outlining the doctrinal meaning of DRDO products. Prime Minister Modi had criticised the DRDO for its chalta hai attitude during an address in Kargil in August last year when he had said, “If a project was conceived in 1992, it should not be the case in 2014 we are still saying it will take some more time.” And in December last year, India’s Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence had censured the DRDO, accusing it of shoddy research, chronic inefficiency, inordinate delays, corruption and its penchant for reverse engineering. The government seems to have taken the bull by the horns and removed Chander to ensure some semblance of accountability in the organisation.
The appointment of Jaishankar as foreign secretary is also along the same lines that merit would be rewarded. The Indian Foreign Service (IFS) needs to recognise that business as usual is no longer enough. At a time when India’s global imprint is expanding rapidly, a risk-averse foreign policy bureaucracy will not be able to meet the aspirations of the nation. The idea that seniority should determine who should be the nation’s top diplomat is an idea whose time has long gone. But bureaucratic resistance has prevented any substantive reforms in the service. There are hardly any incentives to perform and hardly any penalties for underperformance.
As a result, nearly everyone in the diplomatic service manages to rise to the upper echelons. Despite the fact that the best and the brightest are no longer attracted to the IFS, there have been few attempts to cultivate outside expertise, with hardly any opportunities for lateral entry or temporary rotations. In fact, it was Manmohan Singh who had wanted to introduce lateral entry in the Indian bureaucracy in his first term but the idea was quietly killed by the bureaucracy (who else?). Personnel are scarce and demands are growing on the IFS but Indian diplomats have not managed to transform the service and change its character to suit the needs of the time. Is it any wonder then that ad hocism pervades Indian foreign policy thinking?
Bureaucracies, if not competently led and directed, tend to morph into interest groups with a focus on preserving their own institutional privileges. In democracies, effective political control and guidance is absolutely critical if the role of bureaucracies is not to become corrosive on policymaking. It is in the nature of bureaucracies to be risk-averse. Leave them alone and they will muddle along the path of least resistance, trying to increase their power by resisting change. The Modi government is right in shaking things up and making Indian bureaucracies more accountable and effective. But much more remains to be done!
The author teaches at King’s College, London