Recent reports that a section of bureaucrats — in the Prime Minister’s Office and in other pivotal ministries — may seek premature retirement or a transfer if Prime Minister Narendra Modi is returned to power in the ongoing elections are quite revealing.

The bureaucrats evidently feel disgruntled on two counts: their inability to influence government policy, and the fact that they face a demanding work schedule. Their lament is that Modi and his ministers do not have an “organic relationship” with what Sardar Patel called the “steel frame” of India’s government machinery, and that a “sense of partnership” was wholly missing.

The tone of media commentaries on this development has focussed, predictably, on the excessive concentration of powers by the PMO, and on Modi’s ‘authoritarian’ style of working. The criticism of Modi’s PMO on this count may not entirely be unwarranted, but this monochromatic narrative overlooks another aspect of the problem that has engendered the current situation: of bureaucratic obstructionism bordering on cussedness that has oftentimes served as an impediment to implementing even well-intended policy initiatives.

A status quo-ist impulse

It’s been said, only half in jest, that while the Opposition parties may be the “opposition in exile”, the civil service has often conducted itself in a way that suggests that it is the “opposition in residence”. In the same way that politicians are shy of risks — for instance, in pushing for economic reforms — there is a status quo-ist impulse that governs babudom. On occasion, even more than a Minister who may come across as unwilling to yield ground on turf battles, a bureaucrat has an empire to defend, which he does most effectively by creating obstacles.

There’s a narrative about civil service obstructionism that Arun Shourie, who served in the AB Vajpayee administration and successfully oversaw the disinvestment of the government’s ownership in ITDC hotels, was fond of retelling. Every one of the hotels being privatised was loss-making, and yet, Shourie said, “we were driven to a position where we had to wait upon a ‘no-objection certificate’ from every creditor of each hotel.” In effect, that meant “every chicken-supplier”. When all else fails, the red tape can be rolled out to truss up any reformist impulse.

When a Prime Minister was perceived to be a political pushover, as happened during the UPA II government, the bureaucracy can run circles around the political establishment. And when policy paralysis strikes the decision-making process, as happened in the wake of the 2G and other scams, the natural impulse of the bureaucracy to practice “masterly inactivity” comes into play.

Defining the jurisdiction

One aspect of the bureaucrats’ sense of disquiet about the PMO under Modi is particularly hard to fathom: their disappointment over their inability to influence government policy. That’s because the traditional allocation of executive responsibilities has always been so determined as to regard policy as a responsibility of Ministers and administration as a responsibility of bureaucrats. And although that work allocation doesn’t suggest that babus are unthinking, file-passing “yes men”, it says something about the blurring of lines and responsibilities that bureaucrats today feel a sense of entitlement over the shaping of policy, rather than just its implementation.

One of the more serious failings in India’s reformist initiatives — such as they are — is that much of the emphasis has been in the realm of economic policy. Not adequate application of mind has gone into reforming the administration and governance standards.

When it was first announced, the provision for lateral entry into the civil service was seen as arguably one of the more ambitious attempts at thinking out of the box in terms of administrative reforms. In fact, this may have been the most proximate reason for the feeling of disenchantment manifest today in the top rungs of the bureaucracy: after all, it must be disquieting for an entrenched force to see its ‘steel fortress’, even a crumbling one, being stormed by plebians.

However, some of the early pointers do not reinforce the hope that the lateral entry will be invoked entirely on meritocratic principles.

Judicial pushback

Likewise, the few tentative efforts by the Modi government at introducing judicial reforms, by way of a commission to oversee judicial appointments, have faced a robust pushback. Given the recent predilection of the higher judiciary to wade into almost areas that impinge on governance, and even to venture into the policy-making domain on occasion, this is a particularly important consideration. As informed as members of the higher judiciary are, there is sufficient scope to sensitise them to aspects of governance that impact India’s standing.

Similarly, while the mechanics of governance reforms may have manifested itself in the digitisation initiatives of successive administrations — for instance, in the computerisation of land records, the dematting of shares, and more recently the contentious Aadhaar process — the more fundamental ‘reforms’ that touch people’s lives, including police reforms, have gone largely untouched.

The diffidence of political parties across the spectrum is even more striking in respect of labour reforms. Another anecdote narrated by Shourie exemplifies the double-speak by political parties on this count — even to the point of disowning their own publicly stated positions.

On one occasion, Shourie recalls, he was challenged to come up with the Vajpayee government’s thinking about reforms required to India’s archaic labour laws. When he began enumerating the changes that should be made, Congress MPs repeatedly heckled him — till he disclosed that he was merely reading out the Industrial Policy Resolution that had been put out by the then Congress government in Maharashtra! But seeing how the wind vane of Shourie’s own political orientation has turned dramatically around since then, the about-turns by career politicians may occasion no surprise.