Former NITI Aayog vice-chairman Arvind Panagariya claimed that the Indian bureaucracy has, on many occasions, thwarted the reform-oriented political executive; Panagariya pins this to a ‘socialist overhang’ that clouds the supply pipeline for the Indian bureaucracy.
But there is a flip side to this, and that is the bureaucracy is just as thwarted by the political executive.
Road and transport minister Nitin Gadkari’s stinging rebuke of officials of the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) for taking nine years to complete the construction of the NHAI headquarters—the tender for the `250 crore project had been awarded in 2011—shines the spotlight on bureaucratic inefficiency in the country. The minister called NHAI officials ‘incompetent’, saying that they stalled the project with their indecision. It is rare for the political executive to haul up the bureaucracy in the manner that Gadkari did, though the present dispensation at the Centre has moved far more decisively against bureaucratic corruption and inefficiency than its predecessors; indeed, between July 2014 and May 2019, the government forcibly retired 312 Group A and B officials for corruption and inefficiency. When it came back to power last year, it started with compulsory retirement of 27 IRS officers and followed this up with instructions to various departments to identify deadwood that the government needed to get rid of. Indeed, bureaucratic lethargy/inaction has become canonical; multiple surveys of business leaders identify India’s inefficient, corrupt bureaucracy as a primary dampener of business confidence in the country. Former NITI Aayog vice-chairman Arvind Panagariya claimed that the Indian bureaucracy has, on many occasions, thwarted the reform-oriented political executive; Panagariya pins this to a ‘socialist overhang’ that clouds the supply pipeline for the Indian bureaucracy.
But there is a flip side to this, and that is the bureaucracy is just as thwarted by the political executive. If a government is intent on carrying on with free/subsidised power for different cohorts within the electorate, what good does it do to have a ‘reformist’ or action-oriented bureaucrat in the power sector? From subsidised grains to a ‘national carrier’ airline, from loan waivers to drug pricing, if the government is happy signalling an anti-reform stand, how does an efficient bureaucracy really help; apart from the fact that few bureaucrats would want to stick their necks out? Similarly, it doesn’t matter how often the bureaucracy tinkers with the Prevention of Corruption Act, the pace of decision-making will not change till the political executive takes some bold decisions and amends the law drastically; so, for instance, the Constitution needs to be amended to say PSUs are not an arm of the state and equally strong changes will need to be made to fix L-1-itis that prevents decision-making for fear of a CAG/CBI/PCA sword hanging over your head. As former coal secretary HC Gupta’s example shows, sometimes, it is for the best not to act rather than implement the verbal decisions of the minister one reports to.
So, even as Gadkari scolds NHAI officials, and the Centre announces a Mission Karmayogi to reskill bureaucrats and weeds out inefficient ones, it must be kept in mind that what is really holding India back is the lack of political will and imagination; after all, when the government finally decided to move on farm and labour laws, the bureaucracy was no hindrance.