The Prime Minister in his Parliament speech pointed out that the IAS can’t be doing everything in this country. This was a particularly poignant moment given that the last seven years of the NDA rule have marked the highpoint of the bureaucracy’s powers ever since the era of coalitions ended in the 2014 general elections. Clearly, the PM has had a change of heart about the centrality and indispensability of the bureaucracy. The big question remains what stands in the way of Narendra Modi translating his speech into action.
To note, this isn’t the first time Modi has made a strong pitch for the private sector and reducing bureaucracy’s role in governance. As his 2014 election slogan went, “Minimum Government Maximum Governance”. Yet, after his victory, the IAS (Indian Administrative Service) was empowered to such an extent that an anonymous BJP leader sardonically commented, “This is an IAS government with outside support from the BJP”. Moreover, a close examination of Modi’s record in Gujarat showed that there was seldom if any privatisation and much of the governance improvements had been state-led and focused on the agency of the state.
Understaffed and Undertrained
Understanding this phenomenon is important. On one hand at the district level, even a generalist bureaucracy (as the IAS is) can be very useful in identifying and solving micro problems that would be evident to anyone with even a rudimentary introduction to economics, governance and the Constitution. However, the problem set becomes more complicated when you extrapolate these to the state level. In a small state like Gujarat, with just 26 Lok Sabha seats, this is still a manageable problem. But, in an extraordinarily diverse state like Uttar Pradesh, for example, the solutions are completely out of the syllabus of the obsolete IAS Academy in Mussoorie. Macro these onto the whole of India, the sheer diversity of the country, and the complexity of issues multiply the problem manifold.
The problem isn’t simply an obsolete bureaucrat training system, but also the fact that we have far too few bureaucrats. Much of this is the bureaucrats’ own doing because everyone wants to end up as an ambassador or reach the joint secretary level. For example, India’s foreign service is roughly the same size as Singapore’s and in important arenas like the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the United Nations, Indian diplomats end up skipping over 90 per cent of all scheduled discussions and meetings.
Moreover, the critical function of gathering primary information remains unfulfilled. The lack of a pyramidal structure—where every intake gets to become a joint secretary at some point in their career—also means accountability is non-existent. This is where the generalist (IAS) versus specialist (IFS) argument falls flat—where the “specialist” MEA is just as understaffed, undertrained, unaccountable, and generally not up to the job.
Getting half the problem right
There are other problems too—notably how interdisciplinary problems have become, requiring enormous micro-specialisation and yet requiring the ability to abstract and macro at the same time. A simple example of this is the continuing lack of factoring humans into emerging military technology. Here, not being up to date on education, child-rearing and nutrition policy can destroy the best laid plans.
A simple example—while touch screens on latest generation of weapons systems have led to simplification of the display, the fact is these modern displays project a huge amount of information for the user to absorb. In this case, a trainee undergoing normal western training is at a disadvantage. Firstly, because unlike western high disposable income households where even blue-collar families (which provide the bulk of military recruitment) can afford PlayStation and Xboxes that allow children to play and learn absorb vast amounts of information, the similar demographic in India cannot afford these expensive systems. Add to this, chronic malnourishment in India (at a mind boggling 45 per cent) has long-term multigenerational consequences for cognitive abilities. An education system that disincentivises problem-solving and forces rote learning further impairs the ability to adopt these systems easily. Compounding all of this is low human budgets where life-long learning is deemed taboo, more so in the case of mid-career neuro-linguistic retraining.
Optimally sorting this out requires an accurate micro diagnosis of the problem with specialists, and the education, child welfare, and health departments to sit down with the defence secretary and thrash these problems out. Clearly, however, this does not happen, leave alone an accurate diagnosis.
What then of the lateral entry of specialists? The point of lateral entry is to bring in fresh thought and new ways of working, none of which we have seen. Given the selection process was run by bureaucrats and not politicians, what we have seen is more of the same groupthink that validates existing IAS biases rather than dispelling them.
Modi, therefore, has got half the problem right—the IAS absolutely cannot deal with all the problems and business is best left to the private sector. But you still need to significantly expand the service, break silos and make them function in a more integrated and interdisciplinary way, introduce a strict pyramidal structure that ensures accountability and denies seniority-based promotions to underperformers. Build better interface with pools of expertise that lie outside government, and learn to just macro-manage.
What the Prime Minister said, therefore, must be taken as the first step in a complex multi-year process that will involve significant upheaval. It remains to be seen if the speech will indeed translate into action.
(This article is the first in a series on 'Minimum Govt, Maximum Governance')